Frontlines

A tiger stalking sacred cows

Hubert de Santana August 27 1979
Frontlines

A tiger stalking sacred cows

Hubert de Santana August 27 1979

A tiger stalking sacred cows

Frontlines

PORTRAIT

Hubert de Santana

Aislin’s art is not renowned for its delicacy: Princess Anne’s wedding. A horse stands between the royal couple. All three are smiling toothily, displaying enough ivory to furnish a piano with a complete set of keys. And it is the horse that says, “I do!”

A despairing Pierre Trudeau, having announced budget cuts as a pre-election sop for the business community, turns the knife on himself and kneels to commit hari-kari.

In the darkened grounds of Parliament Hill, Ottawa, a night security guard holds a fornicating MP in the beam of his flashlight. Says the guard: “Listen, buddy, some honorable members still manage to confine public screwing to the House!”

“Cartooning is a populist art form. You’re expressing the frustrations of ordinary people,” says Terry Mosher, alias Aislin, a stalking tiger of Canadian political cartooning. “Obviously there are a lot of people who think the same way I do, because somebody’s paying me good money to do it: ‘Go on, poke us in the ass again! Here’s your cheque!’ ” Mosher is convulsed with laughter at the happy thought of being paid handsomely to do what he enjoys doing—drawing and quartering politicians and sacred cows.

In his Montreal studio the stocky cartoonist sits in an old-fashioned barber’s chair beneath a poster commemorating the 15th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. Behind him a neon sign advertising Schlitz beer blinks on and off. The walls are hung with original cartoons drawn by himself and by colleagues in Canada and the U.S. With his shaggy, grey-flecked hair and beard, his dark, brooding eyes under eyebrows that run unbroken across the bridge of his nose, his air of smouldering pugnacity,

Mosher could be mistaken for an aging guerrilla.

But Mosher’s battles are fought with different weapons. His instruments of destruction are a razor-sharp intelligence, a corrosive wit, and a pen dipped in a mixture of acid and blood. The list of people who have become casualties of his lethal skills is a long and distinguished one, and includes members of the Royal Family as well as politicians. In 11 years of political cartooning, Mosher has emerged as one of the country’s top practitioners of the art, and his work constitutes a unique eyewitness record of a particular segment of history. He has received three prizes from the International Salon of Caricature, two Graphica Awards, and for two

years in a row (1977 and 1978) he has won the Canadian National Newspaper Award for drawing the best political cartoon.

He conceived and helped to produce a documentary film for the National Film Board on the history of political cartooning in Canada. The Hecklers was completed in 1975, and has been telecast three times by the CBC. Mosher has spent seven years compiling (with coauthor Peter Desbarats) a history of political cartooning in Canada, a sumptuous book scheduled for publication by McClelland & Stewart in the fall. “Terry did an excellent job,” says Duncan Macpherson, political cartoonist of the Toronto Star. “The book is important, very valuable and necessary. It seems to me that some of the responsibility he took on with the book rubbed off on him.”

Working on the book has engendered in Mosher a profound respect for Canada’s best political cartoonists. By his reckoning these are: Duncan Macpherson of the Toronto Star, Len Norris and Roy Peterson of The Vancouver Sun, and Jean-Pierre Girerd of Montreal’s La Presse. “There are some damn fine cartoonists in Canada for some strange reason because we’re pretty God damn bad at everything else,” says Mosher. “I’ll eat humble pie and say that it’s an honor to be considered among them.” His warmest praise is reserved for the legendary Macpherson, whom Mosher calls “my professional godfather, in that not only is he the greatest political cartoonist we’ve produced in this country, but his dealings with editors, and his recognition of his own worth has

been a tremendous inspiration to me.”

Duncan Macpherson has a high regard for Mosher’s talent. “He’s a very good draftsman; he has a sense of the satirical, and an eye for the jugular. Caricature is the key to any excellent political or satirical cartoon, and Terry is excellent at that: number 1. He can articulate a face beautifully, and get across the meaning with an expression or an attitude.” But Macpherson is also aware of imperfections in Mosher’s work. “He tends to get very static in his compositions,” he says, and remembers an exchange he had with Mosher: “I said, ‘You can’t draw anything from the neck down,’ and he turned to me very quickly and said, ‘You can’t draw anything from the neck upY ” Macpherson is also critical of the over-all design of Mosher’s panels. “The panel should be designed so it can compete with a very good Japanese woodcut: it should be of visual interest without the detail interfering too much with the topic. Terry’s not doing that now, but he will.”

Mosher has a healthy disrespect for editors: “Editors are almost a necessary evil because most cartoonists can’t spell, and that’s what editors are there for—to correct our spelling mistakes! Cartoonists deal with a visual medium and to most of them editors are damned word-merchants who don’t think in a visual way.”

Christopher Terry Mosher was born in Ottawa in 1942. His father, Jack, is a journalist, and the author of a hilarious novel, Some Would Call It Adultery. Terry grew up in Toronto during the heyday of Duncan Macpherson, when he was the scourge of Diefenbaker. Mosher was booted out of high school for peddling pot in 1961. He putin brief stints at Toronto’s Central Technical School and the Ontario College of Art (“my academic career was less than spectacular”) before taking to the road. He hitch-hiked for two years in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, covering an estimated 24,000 miles. “That was when I taught myself to draw,” recalls Mosher. “My common trick was to wander into a bar or a restaurant and start sketching the people there. Somebody would become interested, and I’d be paid a dollar for a caricature or a portrait. I taught myself not only how to draw, but how to hustle.”

He also introduced himself to a variety of drugs (“I took anything that was popular”) and alcohol. An autobiographical cartoon done at that time shows him on his back, yelling, “Give me Librium or give me Meth!” as a cop drags him away by his feet. The wild-living cartoonist got into a lot of fights, and there were times when his fists were as quick as his pen. Yet during those tur-

bulent years he always managed to reach within himself for the discipline which allowed him to get his work done. He never failed to meet a deadline, even when hung over or spaced out. For the present he is on the wagon, and drinks

mineral water. He does not take drugs. He is grateful to his wife, Carol, for “hanging tough” through the unsettled

years.

In 1965 Mosher entered L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Quebec City by forging a high-school certificate. “It was a magnificent piece of work, a masterpiece. Had I not become a cartoonist I would have become a professional forger.” He graduated in 1966, and two years later began doing political cartoons. Jokingly he signed them with his daughter’s name; it stuck, and Aislin has remained his pen name. He became staff cartoonist for The Montreal Star in 1969, and was also art director of Take One magazine. In 1970 he founded the Last Post magazine, and has remained an associate editor. Since 1972 he has been staff cartoonist of the Montreal Gazette.

Of his early work, Mosher says, “In quite a few cases I consider it almost insecure, because of the elaborate care I took with the drawings, and also the hostility in some of the drawings. Now I’m no longer hostile toward these char-

acters. I consider them more as jokers than as evil beings. They are not sinister: they are incompetent.

“We’ve inflated our politicians—or perhaps they have inflated themselves through the media—into an area that is beyond the reach of the average person,” says Mosher. “That’s why I think the role of satire is important. It’s a process of dragging them down where they belong with the rest of us.” We certainly produce some pretty inane politicians in this country.”

While on the subject of politicians, Mosher’s thoughts turn naturally to Joe Clark. “The mind boggles at the spectacle of Joe Clark as prime minister of Canada. It’s going to be great shooting for me and the rest of the cartoonists. Clark looks like a young Diefenbaker: w the chin is gone already.” Mosher’s eyes £ gleam, and his left hand, his drawing hand, twitches like that of a gunfighter ^ before a draw. The day after Clark’s jr election victory, Mosher portrayed Can§ ada’s new prime minister as an un? gainly Howdy-Doody puppet, controlled ^ by unseen hands pulling on strings. Another cartoon shows a tuxedoed Clark sitting inside a grand piano, saying smugly, “They laughed ...”

“I’m not looking for the good side: I’m looking for the Achilles heel,” says Mosher bluntly. The job of the person who does the work I do is to point out the disease and not suggest a cure. If you suggest a cure then you become guilty of trying to be a prophet yourself.”

But his seriousness evaporates and he laughs hugely at the changes in Western leadership. “Jimmy Carter, Margaret Thatcher and Joe Clark leading the Western world!” Mosher’s body shakes with seismic laughter, and his spectacle frames jiggle like gilded stick insects making love.

Today Mosher draws with a scalpel instead of a sabre, and his rage is kept on a tight rein. But he can still meet savagery with savagery. When Uganda’s Archbishop Janani Luwum died in 1977 in an “automobile accident” which left his body riddled with bullets, Mosher drew a leering Idi Amin breakfasting on the archbishop’s body. When John Spenkelink was executed in the electric chair in Florida State Prison in May of this year, Mosher protested with a cartoon showing a skeletal, inkycloaked figure of Death standing next to the electric chair and talking to a trendy interior designer: “. . . And even though the latest Gallup has the majority of people supporting us on this, they find our technique and basic environment unpalatable. So we thought that you might come up with a new audiovisual Star Wars package ... or

perhaps something softer incorporating muted Pierre Cardin fabric patterns?”

A cartoon like this demonstrates what Duncan Macpherson means when he says that Mosher “knows the jargon and vocabulary of his age, and uses it very well.”

Mosher is often regarded as a leftwing radical, but he is a liberal who thinks of himself as apolitical, and he is suspicious of nationalism. “I don’t have this great pounding heart for my country. I’m not against it, but I just refuse to get on that God damn bandwagon. I find any form of nationalism suspect. I’m a great believer in the territorial imperative. I believe in that a hell of a lot more than I do in the House of Commons.” He has portrayed the Canadian Nationalist as a ridiculous figure wearing the Grey Cup on his head and carrying a volume of Leacock under his arm. And as for the Quebec Nationalist, he is shown as a naked contortionist with his face pressed between his buttocks— “disappearing up his own ass” is how Mosher describes the difficult feat.

“Montreal is the ideal place to be a cartoonist,” Mosher observes. “I used to do cartoons of Bourassa castrating the man, and all my Parti Québécois friends said, ‘That’s fine.’ But now that I do the same to Lévesque, they say, ‘Wait a minute. This is the master.’ Well, bullshit! He’s in power. He’s spending my money.” Adds Mosher: “A politician with a cause seldom has a sense of humor about himself. Lévesque is a classic illustration of this, and that’s one reason why he’s one of my favorite targets.”

A 1977 Mosher cartoon shows Lévesque with his pants fallen about his ankles, saying solemnly, “We can’t afford to lose our heads . . .” (This in the wake of the exodus of head offices like, that of the Sun Life insurance company.) The cartoon won the National Newspaper Award for that year. Ironically, Lévesque was the guest speaker at the awards dinner and, as he presented the award to Mosher, he indicated that his belt was firmly in place.

Mosher’s critics have accused him of being scatological. It’s true that he has placed Joey Smallwood in a toilet bowl, like a preacher in a pulpit; and the late Nelson Rockefeller was once shown holding a roll of toilet paper and declaring, “Of course I’m clean! I can afford it.” In a pre-election cartoon in the New Statesman, British cartoonist Ralph Steadman drew the British voter as feces emerging from the rear end of Margaret Thatcher, who was shown as a mangy bitch in the act of strenuous defecation. There is nothing in Mosher’s work remotely comparable to this for crudity and offensiveness.

Where does a cartoonist draw the line? In Canada he does not have unlimited freedom, as was proved last winter when a B.C. court ruled that Victoria Times cartoonist Bob Bierman had libelled a politician. The ruling has Mosher worried, but he is reluctant to discuss the case while it is under appeal. “I’m not upset about the politician suing—I don’t think cartoonists are above the law. I question the fact that the judge was not interested in any previous examples of satire and parody

and its role in a healthy society.”

Expressing his ideas on paper comes more easily to Mosher now, and he spends an average of four hours on a cartoon, from roughs to finished drawing; far less than in the old days, when he went in for intricate crosshatching and microscopic detail. He prefers drawing large heads on small bodies: “In this age of television we spend hours looking at people’s eyes and faces. The cartoon seems to have more impact the more you concentrate on the face. The secondary jokes are reserved for body movements and outfits. Then comes the wording, the captions. I love puns...”

Dandruff breeds like bacteria around the heads of Mosher’s characters. “Dandruff is the great equalizer,” he explains. “You see a drawing of a guy with little dots all around him and you can’t help but see the guy as human, seedy, suspect.”

Mosher lives in a Westmount row house with his wife Carol, his two daughters, Aislin, 13, and Jessica, 10— and eight cats and a dog. His contract with The Gazette requires him to do three cartoons a week for 10 months of the year. The cartoons rejected by his editor eventually turn up in Mosher’s collections, four of which have appeared so far. His published cartoons are syndicated to magazines and newspapers throughout Canada by the Toronto Star Syndicate. He also does free-lance work for several major publications in America and Britain. Last year his income was $50,000 but, he adds quickly, “I don’t have a dime. Money is something I make use of. I don’t invest it.”

To relax from the intense concentration of his work, Mosher reads widely (“I read more than I draw”) fishes, plunks on a banjo, and watches baseball. He dreams of retiring to a cottage he has bought in the west of Ireland, a country for which he has an irrational love, though not a drop of Irish blood flows in his veins. In Ireland, he is convinced, “My mind would not go blank. Guy Lafleur would no longer be a factor!”

Isn’t it a little early for him to be talking about retirement? “A political cartoonist has a life-span,” the 36-yearold Mosher says quietly. “If I ever reach the position where I thought I was out of touch and was redrawing my old cartoons, then I’d want to quit, and I hope to God I do. A lot of cartoonists stick around for too damned long.” Duncan Macpherson doesn’t expect Mosher to disappear from the arena just yet. Says Macpherson: “Terry has made political cartooning his life’s work, and we’re going to hear from him for a long time.”