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The colourful work of former Proctor cartoonist Shakespeare

John Shakespeare

When Proctor was starting out in the early ’80s, a young Brisbane artist had also stepped onto the scene and through the doors of Queensland Law Society.

Gracing the pages of early editions of Proctor, John Shakespeare brought cartoons with a legal flavour to lawyers across the state, an experience he was very grateful for as he began to hone his craft, interpret his subjects and work to deadlines. 

More than 40 years on, the cartoonist and illustrator, currently based in Sydney and working with Fairfax Media, has well and truly made his mark in the newspaper world, picking up a Walkley Award along the way.

QLS Proctor caught up with John to hear more about his work since QLS; he also shares an insight into his creative process, where he draws his inspiration from, his favourite political figures to portray and more.

QLS Proctor: Could you share a bit about your process for thinking of and creating your cartoons?

John: Once I know the subject matter, the first thing I do is decide what my point of view on the topic will be. 

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Then I sit down with a notebook and jot down any imagery that will link it to the subject. If it’s on law, I would have things like a gavel, scales of justice, or a legal eagle, etc. Then it’s a matter of combining the imagery with a concept that could tell the story I want.

This process could take 10 minutes or two hours, usually somewhere in between that. It can be very frustrating and stressful if I get stuck thinking up a cartoon; you have to ride a fine line between patience and panic, especially with the deadline clock ticking away!

QLS Proctor: How do you find your subject inspiration for cartoons (e.g. are you asked to feature particular events or issues from the outset, or do you have free rein to choose your subjects)?

John: My work always goes with an article that’s written by someone, which can be anything from an opinion column by a political journalist to a letter from one of our readers. So basically most of the time I’m illustrating somebody else’s opinion. Sometimes it can be tricky if I don’t agree with them, but I always seem to manage to weave in my own humour.

QLS Proctor: How much editing and/or revision is involved in your work?

John: Sometimes I find I can enter a weird headspace if I’ve been concentrating for too long on a cartoon, and lose my judgement about what is funny and what’s not. I usually have two or three cartoons that I’m trying to choose from, so at this stage I’ll show my wife or a colleague, to pick the best one with a fresh mind. Often the one I’m least confident about is their favourite. Weird.

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QLS Proctor: What makes a good cartoon, ‘great’?

John: The best cartoons for me are the simplest. No words if possible, and a nice clear bold image that tells the story in a second is my goal. 

QLS Proctor: Are there characters or specific subjects you particularly enjoy drawing? If so, why them?

John: I’ve found it takes time to develop a political cartoon character. When Scott Morrison first gained prominence, I struggled with his likeness; he just didn’t strike me as good cartoon material. Now he’s one of my favourites. I ended up drawing him so often that I eventually got it right.

It was the same with Barnaby Joyce and Albo, and many others. If I had to pick my top five it would be Morrison, Dan Andrews, Gladys Berejiklian, Tony Abbott, and a PM/glasses-era John Howard. Gladys is my personal favourite (I also love drawing your Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk)! 

QLS Proctor: Do you ever have cartoons knocked back because they are considered too controversial?

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John: That happens rarely; after all this time I have a pretty good idea of what’s acceptable or not. We can pretty much run what we like, so long as it’s not defamatory or discriminatory. 

QLS Proctor: Could you share some of your career highlights since working with QLS, and what you are doing now?

John: The big highlight was moving to Sydney. I was originally hoping to be purely a political cartoonist, drawing a daily editorial cartoon. I got just that job when I was 24 at the Fairfax’s Sydney Sun newspaper in 1985. Unfortunately it folded 18 months later, so the art director moved me to The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), but they already had a cartoonist, Alan Moir, so he suggested I swap over to drawing caricatures.

My style was super simple at that stage, so he let me come in every day and just practice – I basically had to learn how to draw properly! After three months of that, I started drawing caricatures and illustrations at SMH, and have ever since. I still get to do pocket cartoons, so it’s the best of both worlds now. Winning a Walkley was also a big highlight.

QLS Proctor: What do you enjoy most about your work?

John: I always say that cartooning is fun when it’s done! The process of creating a funny cartoon can be quite excruciating – I actually don’t enjoy that part. If I succeed, it’s my best day… if I don’t, it’s my worst!

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Once I have the idea I can relax a bit and draw it, which I enjoy. I love playing around with people’s expressions to get the message across.

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