Cartoonist Jeff Bell came to The Learning Connexion after 10 years in journalism and communications. After completing a Diploma in Creativity, he’s now drawing weekly cartoons for Stuff.co.nz and in 2022 was awarded Cartoonist of the Year at the Voyager Media Awards. We spoke to Jeff about his work as an editorial cartoonist, and how The Learning Connexion gave him the confidence to realise his dream.
Hi Jeff. You enrolled at The Learning Connexion in 2017. What brought about that decision?
I wasn’t satisfied with my career, and wanted to have a real crack at being a cartoonist. I’d got to a point where I was really determined to make a go for it. I’d never studied art before, so it was a big leap.
Do you think it was a good decision?
It was undoubtedly one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Within a few weeks of finishing my Diploma I was drawing a weekly cartoon for the Dominion Post, The Press and all the other Stuff.co.nz newspapers around New Zealand. It was my dream job.
The Learning Connexion helped me upskill in areas I needed improvement, like drawing anatomy and painting backgrounds. But it also gave me the confidence to finally believe that I could be a cartoonist. I started approaching editors again – and this time it worked.
How did your job with Stuff come about?
After I finished my Diploma in 2018 I started approaching editors and art directors with some of the work I had produced in my year of study. But it wasn’t really going anywhere. I would get told my work was good, but they didn’t have any openings, or there wasn’t a budget.
On top of that, I was unemployed and starting to run out of money. This wasn’t helped by the fact that a few months earlier I’d booked a trip to Indonesia with my partner. So there I was – July 2018 in Bali – literally on my last few dollars and freaking out about my employment situation. I was starting to seriously wonder if I should give up on my pipe dream of being a cartoonist.
And that’s when I got that call from the editor of the Dominion Post. He told me they were looking for a new cartoonist for their Monday paper and would I be interested in stepping in? Ummm yes!
That phone call changed the direction of my creative life. I went from being on the verge of giving up my dream of being a cartoonist, to having a cartoon published weekly by one of the biggest media companies in the country. It was quite a surreal change.
You recently won Cartoonist of the Year, that must have been exciting?
It was very exciting and unexpected. I was up against some great talent, cartoonists who have been doing it a lot longer than me. I feel like I’m still finding my style, and my voice. But, I seem to be reaching an audience, and the award was a great affirmation that maybe I'm not too bad at this.
Why is political cartooning your choice of creativity?
I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a satirical illustrator. I discovered my brother’s stash of Mad Magazines when I was about eight – I think I was looking for another type of magazine. But Mad captured my imagination, with its satirical cartoons and anarchic humour. I grew up wanting to be a cartoonist for Mad or the newspaper – that was pretty much it.
What’s your purpose as a political cartoonist?
My purpose is to offer a different perspective on issues. I really like bringing humour to things, but it’s more complex than that. I think cartoons can be a platform for constructive anger, for telling stories, making people think and feel. But mostly for me, it’s about looking at issues in an ironic way, pointing out hypocrisy and cutting through political spin.
I’m always conscious of that idea of punching up rather than punching down. I firmly believe cartoonists should hold the powerful to account. We function in a similar way to journalists – it’s just that we have the added protection of satire, so we can be more subjective and get away with a lot more.
How do you come up with ideas?
I spend a lot of time reading and watching news content. I like to get a feel for what the biggest issues are that week, and then it’s a process of working out which ones I care about the most. Then I’ll sketch out some ideas and see which ones stick. I’ll often have that a-ha moment, when I know I’ve hit the idea I’ve been looking for.
Do you receive any complaints about your work?
Yeah, it comes with the territory. I don’t go out of my way to cause a reaction or create controversy, but in four years I’ve managed to piss off the dairy industry, the gun lobby, Destiny Church, Bob Jones, monarchists, National Party supporters, Labour Party supporters, and plenty of others. As a fairly non-confrontational person it’s been odd.
There was one cartoon in particular about gun control that generated a lot of positive feedback, but it was also shared on a couple of gun blogs, and I started getting some really ugly messages from gun owners. There were no direct threats, but I was definitely feeling rattled for a couple of days.
How do you handle negative feedback?
One thing I’ve had to learn is to tone down my sensitivity. You can’t get too caught up in feedback, whether it’s positive or negative. You just keep doing your job. As artists, I think we struggle with that conflict of wanting our work to be seen, but also feeling very protective of it. But with editorial cartooning you have to let that go and accept that once your work is out there, it’s very open to criticism and pushback.
How do you find that line between stirring debate and being offensive?
That’s an interesting one. I recently did an interview with RNZ where I talked a bit about this. For me it’s about trusting my own instincts and “reading the room”. I think I’m lucky with Stuff – I have a really trusting group of editors, and because of that I’ve never felt restricted in what I can draw about.
Have you ever had a cartoon rejected?
Only once. It was about another cartoonist, Garrick Tremain, after he drew a cartoon that saw him stood down from The Otago Daily Times. I knew at the time of drawing it might be iffy – not because it was offensive or mean – but because it was a big, controversial issue that week, and I could understand why my editors might be feeling a bit nervous about adding fuel to the fire.
The Learning Connexion has made a habit of producing cartooning talent – in 2013 you were runner up to another of our students Cory Mathis in the New Zealand Listener Young Cartoonist Award. Tell us about that?
I know right! Cory was a big factor in me coming to The Learning Connexion. He really talked up the School’s illustration classes, and tutor Iain Watt. He was right. Iain’s illustration classes gave me a chance to grow as an illustrator. I was suddenly thinking about how to really craft an editorial illustration and how I might approach editors. I was actually seeing myself as an illustrator for the first time.
You graduated with a New Zealand Diploma in Creativity (Level 5) – would you like to continue your study?
I would like to – there’s so much I want to learn. It takes years for cartoonists to develop their own unique style and voice, and I don’t think I’ve quite nailed a consistent style yet. I think doing Level 6 could help fast-track that process, so I’m keen to do it when the time is right.