Martin Plimmer on a special festival devoted to the art world's mavericks

IN AT LEAST one respect, the cartoonist is God. He can make people's noses as big as he fancies. In every other way he is not so elevated.

There can be few people with lower status than him - it is nearly always a him. Unless the cartoonist is fortunate enough to be one of a tiny elite contracted to work for a national newspaper, he exists on the bottom rung of the media earnings ladder.

Newspapers don't devote so much space to cartoons any more and are less interested in the quality of the draughtsmanship than the gag. The cartoonist sits at home all day staring at the wall, alternately barking with laughter and howling with despair, working up topical jokes, which he faxes in batches to newspapers in the hope that, should a hole happen to arise in an editorial layout, one of his cartoons will be picked from a huge pile of similar, unsolicited submissions.

Then his masterpiece will be shrunk to fit a tiny space, and he will receive from pounds 40 to slightly over pounds 100. The highest rates are paid by Private Eye and Punch, for whom the cartoon is much more than a filler. Punch uses 20 to 30 cartoons a week which threaten to sink cartoon editor Steve Way's desk. He gets 700 a week, but the number keeps on growing. "It's one of those things a lot of people think they can do and while it's relatively easy to make some money, it's very difficult to make a career of it. You've got to sell four or five to make a reasonable weekly wage and to achieve that you've got to do 30 or 40 drawings. You've got to be a very good cartoonist to earn more than pounds 6,000 a year. It's that hard."

We don't value our cartoonists - we don't even have a cartoon museum. But it also has a lot to do with the cartoonist's habit of looking sideways at people and laughing quietly to himself. He is the dysfunctional brother of the stand-up comedian (whose ability to repeat his jokes he envies).

This cloak of anonymity will be cast aside tomorrow at Cartoon '98, a celebration of cartoonists' art at Chelsea Town Hall, London. Those being outed include Michael Heath, Caroline Holden, Chris Riddell, Geoff Thompson, Giles Pilbrow and Colin Wheeler.

"It's an attempt to raise the status of cartoons," says Duncan McCoshan whose home-made magazine, The Journal of Silly, is organising the day together with the Cartoon Arts Trust. There will be stalls selling original drawings, displays by caricaturists and children's workshops. The illustration on the poster for the event is of a man shooting his shadow with a gun. That won't put anyone off. As every cartoonist knows, angst is funny.

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