Spotlight on: David Rowe

“The best time to be a cartoonist is when there’s something that everyone is engaged in and talking about.”

Winner of Best Cartoon at the 2020 Walkley Awards

David Rowe, The Australian Financial Review, “Thoughts and Prayers”

In his entry statement about this cartoon, David Rowe said: “The best cartoons, for me, are when you’re hesitant to actually submit because they’re on the edge and they’re a gut response. The ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ cartoon was pretty damning early on but, following the Hawaii escapade and what transpired later, it only grew in power.”

The judges agreed, “In a dramatic and cleverly realised cartoon, David Rowe encapsulated the Prime Minister’s futile attempts to redress his earlier absence from the bushfire crisis, while ridiculing his platitudes as he faced the inferno with buckets of unhelpful ‘Thoughts and Prayers’.”

We spoke with David after his Walkley win about how the cartoon came about, the social media response, and why he became a cartoonist.

How did you come to draw this cartoon?

I was visiting family up north and I was driving back down through Coffs Harbour, and the fires were kind of chasing us down there. We were planning on staying at Coffs Harbour, but we had to leave because my wife and I both suffer from a bit of asthma.

And then the drive back down to Port Stephens, we were just seeing fires and the smoke from fires everywhere. Listening to the radio news, we started to get a little bit concerned. It was a Sunday, so I had to get my cartoon done that day. I’m a bit of a deadline freak as well, so I was starting to freak out.

Everywhere that we were pulling in, everyone was concerned and it just seemed to build. By the time we got to Port Stephens it was pretty worrying because it was still smoky there and we ended up… I just had to stop and draw. And I did that cartoon just on the back of a lot of news reports on the day.

David Rowe at the 2020 Walkley winners dinner. Photo: Adam Hollingworth.

How much is a cartoon the product of something that’s happened, say, that week, and how much of it is just your entire body of experience and your knowledge coming to bear?

I’m a daily cartoonist, I do it six days a week, so they’re on the day, generally. But when you get events such as the fires, they sort of build over quite a period of time.

Sometimes there’s a story that’s just all encompassing news coverage that you feel compelled to draw about. That’s the best time to be a cartoonist, is when there’s something that everyone is engaged in and talking about.

But generally cartoons for me are day-by-day. I just wake up in the morning and it’s a new day, new story, and I try to cover that day.

What did you feel the response was to the cartoon?

The response to the “Thoughts and Prayers” cartoon was pretty immediate. I don’t draw for a social media response, as such. I sort of draw emotionally most of the time, if I can, because I think that seems to work best for me. I’ve been doing it for quite a while.

I post my cartoons straight away and just get them out there. And it was pretty apparent early on that lots of people were finding some resonance in the drawing. A lot of people really enjoyed it, and people that don’t usually follow me as well.

Do you monitor your social media or do you just wait for someone to tell you about it?

I try not to look at social media. As a cartoonist you can’t be worrying about whether you’ve pleased someone disturbed someone. So I generally just post my drawing and leave it. And that’s probably why I don’t respond to a lot of people. I find it’s probably the safest way to be involved in this industry. Social media can be quite full-on if you’re following it all the time, which you have to sometimes.

What was it in that cartoon that you think that really resonated with people?

I think it was a build up, not necessarily about Scott Morrison, but just the lack of engagement with the climate troubles that we’re going through. And this was prior to Hawaii and the shenanigans that went on.

When you go back through a body of work, you do look for drawings that resonate, and that one resonated because I think there was a frustration with the wider public about the lack of care about climate change, fires, all the stuff that was going on.

I just drew that on the back of feeling frustrated about having to drive through Australia watching these plumes of smoke. I’d have to go back and look at the news and see what Scott Morrison actually said, but I guarantee he was being fairly flippant about it.

What made you want to become a cartoonist in the first place?

I’ve always drawn, I was just a naturally good drawer. I mean, it sounds egotistical, but I’ve just loved drawing for my whole life. And I grew up in Canberra, where there’s a bit of political awareness. I remember sitting in the back of my dad’s car, flipping through political cartoon books when I was five or six, looking through old Pickering and Geoff Pryor. Pickering’s not such a great example now, but he was a good cartoonist back in the day. Growing up in Canberra, Geoff Pryor was a hero to me.

What’s the best thing about winning a Walkley Award?

Winning a Walkley Award is a confirmation of some good work. You hope that the people that are judging are looking at what you’ve done over the year as well as just that particular cartoon, because there’s so many good cartoons.

I mean, there’s a whole new raft of cartoonists out there. We’ve got so many good ones, David Pope, Cathy Wilcox, Alan Moir’s still going, um, Glen Le Lievre, I can’t name them all. And there’s heaps of new cartoonists starting now.

What would you say is the importance of quality journalism?

Well, I think it’s essential and I wish more people appreciated how much work goes into producing a newspaper each day, and all that is done by highly credible people. I’ve been working here for 27 years, and I can’t name the number of fantastic journalists that I’ve worked with that are still out there in different organisations.

Anytime you see a news story under a [masthead’s] banner they’ve got to be good stories, and they’ve been put through the process. I wish more people would take a bit more time to appreciate what was going on in the newspaper industry.

David Rowe had an early interest in drawing and a thirst for comics, with his inspiration coming from Ronald Searle, Ralph Steadman, Geoff Pryor and Bruce Petty. He spent a year studying Political Science at ANU, and another in Graphic Investigation at Canberra Art School. He worked at The Canberra Times before freelancing briefly in London for The Independent and The Times Literary Supplement. Rowe has been The Australian Financial Review’s political cartoonist for the past 27 years. He has won three Walkleys.

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