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Good for a laugh; Wit, brevity and surrealism - the ingredients of a good spot cartoon.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A new ingredient is being added to newspaper and magazine cartoons - laughter. While the editorial-page political lampoon, the stout party of cartooning, has collapsed under the weight of its own self-importance, "spot gags", those unpretentious single-frame page-fillers, have become spicier and funnier.

The election saw a turgid landslide of newspaper editorial cartoons showing John Major in extremis - shipwrecked, or on the edge of a precipice, or like a stag at bay. The tired images seemed to be vying for corniness.

By contrast, the spot gags were a refreshing giggle - lighter, wittier, even when politically tinged. Adam Singleton in this week's Spectator drew a gag of a couple waking up in bed the morning after the election, captioned, "Did the landslide for you?" It said more with less ink.

Spot gags come into their own on Sunday 18 May at Chelsea Town Hall with Cartoon 97, a cartoon fair "for adults and children only", the first of its kind. Organised by the founders of the quarterly ribtickler The Journal of Silly - cartoonists Ham Khan ("Ham"), and Duncan McCoshan ("Kerber") - its aim is to make you laugh.

About 50 leading cartoonists and dealers will be displaying their gags for sale (from pounds 25), doing portrait caricatures (from pounds 5) and selling old cartoons (a Heath Robinson could cost you pounds 2,000), as well as showing how it's done in cartoon workshops, lecturing and submitting themselves for interview. There will also be a screened interview with the celebrated Ralph Steadman.

If the new wave of funnies has not yet tickled you, cast your mind back, for comparison, to the cringe-making spot gags that were daily fodder in popular tabloid newspapers right into the Eighties. Gags such as: Wife to hen-pecked husband in a pub bar, "You've had enough - you're beginning to answer me back". Were they ever funny?

According to Ham, whose work is published by the Independent, Punch and Private Eye, among others, gags about family stereotypes or women - women drivers, even New Women - are now beyond the pale.

They have been ousted by lifestyle jokes, often with a surreal flavour. Take, for example, Ham's captionless drawing of a father suckling his baby through feeding bottles strapped to his chest - a striking, eloquent image that is still very silly. (New Men, it seems, are still fair game for cartoonists.)

Two surrealist time-bombs are responsible for the trend. One is Edward McLachlan's nightmarish car-squashing hedgehogs, which first lumbered into print in Private Eye as long ago as 1971. It was McLachlan, 57, who, after yet another dismal Test defeat, drew an England cricketer, begging on a street corner, being thrown a coin - and dropping it. You'll find nothing as comic as that on editorial pages.

The other surrealist is the American Gary Larson, whose The Far Side spot gag series made its UK debut in the Evening Standard in 1986. His forte is juxtaposing silly humans with know-all animals. Example: two old women observe a man-sized spider at their window, "Calm down Edna... yes, it's some giant hideous insect... but it could be some giant hideous insect in need of help".

Of course, there's nothing really new where jokes are concerned. Steve Way, cartoonist and cartoon editor of Punch, who looks forward to meeting embittered amateur cartoonists at his question-and-answer session at the fair, points out that the surreal hippopotamus gag - one hippo to the other, "I keep thinking it's Tuesday" - first appeared in Punch in the Thirties.

For the record, he looks for cartoons that are "edgy and topical". Such as, presumably, Jackson's in this week's issue, showing Pooh, holding a Virgin balloon, looking at a slit circled by bees high up a tree trunk. The slit is unmistakeably anatomical, and piglet is saying: "Face it, Pooh - you're never going to get that honey". It's very, very rude.

The new wave has thrown up some fresh topics that look to become as evergreen as the cartoonists' desert island. One is the advice centre or the in-store information desk - natural flashpoints for the latent rage in consumer society.

Kerber, who draws "Damien Hurts" in the Independent, has a "Samuraitans" advice-giver, in appropriate Oriental costume, urging, "Go and kill yourself". I prefer a version in Hustler, to which my attention has been drawn, in which the crew-cropped consultant on the Sodomy Information Hot-Line advises: "Stick it up your ass!". It's simpler and the twist is more unexpected.

The Samuraitans gag illustrates a foible of the new wave: the contrived pun. Simon Ellinas in The Journal of Silly has a man in a stetson with the speech bubble, "Hic! Pardon me!" The caption? "Wild Bill Hiccup". At least it's silly.

Michael Heath, the Spectator's cartoon editor, is the most prolific of cartoonists: he can't be bothered to sell his published artwork, and once put an armful of his original cartoons in a rummage box at the ultra-witty, late-lamented Mel Calman's London cartoon gallery, with a notice saying "Please take one". He will open the fair, which is supported by the Cartoon Art Trust, founded by Calman, and the Cartoonists' Club of Great Britain.

He will have no truck with bleatings about new waves or surrealism. "You mean 'whimsy', don't you?" he says: "All I see is cartoonists flapping about trying to make a living".

Political cartoons? "The whole thing's a mess, it's cobblers. They say it's going madly satirical. Rubbish. It's just ugly. Worms coming out of John Major's nose, that sort of thing. There's no thought behind it". But he has spotted some new young spot-gaggers: Adam Singleton (the landslide morning-after gag) and Robert Thompson, who contributed "King's Road rage" to the current issue of Silly - two fashionable women in a tug- of-war over a pair of slacks.

As for his own work, Heath says: "I have to dream up things all over again". Such as his Labour Ladies series in the Daily Telegraph. One of them has been griping that the minimum-wage policy will force her to sack her nanny. A servant joke! It's what we've all been waiting for.

Cartoon 97: Chelsea Town Hall, King's Road, London SW3, Sunday 18 May (10am-5pm) entry pounds 1 (0181-900 2614 or 0181-341 9874).

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