Leunig's cartoons appear about four times weekly in the Melbourne Age and less often in the Sydney Sun-Herald. Here they are usually topical; a witty, poignant or satirical look at current affairs, or perhaps just revealing another side of the issue which may not be overtly obvious. Many of these weeklies find their way into his books alongside random musings which one imagines to be a spontaneous expression of a ridiculous thought or concept, but often conveying a deep truth and treatment of a fundamental spiritual idea.
The word "cartoon" is misleading to those not familiar with Leunig's work since it implies humour, satire or parody when often, the message conveyed is of pathos, sadness or simply an observation. At times Leunig manages to impart his message through a single image, such as the vagrant asleep on a park bench with a newspaper blanket; the headlines pronouncing "war looms". By divesting himself of all material possessions and social responsibilities, the vagrant is no more concerned about the threat of war than to the extent to which it, the newspaper, can comfort him on a cold night; so short-term and simple are his needs.
The irony of show business is depicted so succinctly in "Ramming the Shears". We see a hall, which could just as easily be an entertainment complex, viewed from behind on a starry night. The carpark is jammed with cars including a Rolls Royce and we can see the aura of the bright lights on the front of the hall. Central to the cartoon is the Stage Door at the back of the hall, a humble doorway illuminated by a single light, and parked next to the door is a bicycle.
Many cartoons are multi-framed and some contain quite lengthy narratives. Others comprise poetry. In some books a theme is carried through many pages, such as "The Adventures of Vasco Pyjama" (the Second Leunig) and "Glimpses of Curly Flat" (A Bag of Roosters).
Leunig's current style developed quite suddenly in 1969, as he describes in the introductory confession from the book 'Intropsective' from which I quote:
"Once upon a time I was a political cartoonist...but had trouble making witty, incisive jokes....in an act of merry insolence; as a small rebellion against deadlines, punchlines and politics...I drew what I thought was an absurd, irresponsible triviality. It showed a man riding towards the sunset on a large duck. On his head was a teapot...not a 'proper' cartoon by conventional standards...the editor laughed, shook his head and published it. Many years later I was able to interpret the meaning of the drawing with certitude...the man was most definitely me and the teapot, worn like a fool's cap, symbolised warmth, nourishment and domestic familiarity...the duck represented feelings of primal freedom and playfulness..innocently I had drawn my impending departure from political cartooning, my flight to freedom."
Frequently the duck appears as an observer, a gentle reminder of the purity and innocence of Nature; while the winged angel watches over and keeps us mindful of our own physical mortality. The moon and stars are frequent visitors; the moon, always the waning crescent, "hangs faithfully in the sky; constant companion, luminous and remote, gentle symbol of mystery, femininity and nocturnal wisdom.
Mr. Curly, of the paradoxically named town of Curly Flat, is a happy and optimistic fellow. Everyone in Curly Flat has the curious cranial feature: "..the curl is the tender, unfurling motion of nature's growth; the unfolding consciousness; the way in which the heart reaches out into the world". You can find out more about Curly Flat and its inhabitants in "A Bag of Roosters".
Mr. Curly often writes letters of wisdom to his friend Vasco Pyjama, who in "The Second Leunig" sets off on a voyage of discovery in his 'amphibious club armchair' accompanied, of course, by his faithful Direction Finding Duck (who always points towards new joys). Vasco is in depsair for the world but blessed with optimism, curiousity and an open mind, finds joy in unlikely places during the circumnavigation of his world. Like so many of us he drifts through life, hoping to find meaning amongst poverty, perils and oppression. His is not a determined search but by listening with equal attentiveness to philospher, vagrant and the proleteriat, he hopes to somehow, someday, stumble upon the simple answer; a return to joy and innocence.
Leunig uses the 'everyperson' to convey many of his ideas. In his words: "a small, wide-eyed creature with a huge nose; a naked angel, ageless and genderless; an innocent messenger-fool presenting no possible threat and therefore permitted to state any case or express any feeling shamelessly". I watched Leunig draw this character for me. He draws him from the inside out; starting with the pupil of the eye, not a dot but carefully drawn; then circumscribes the eye, adds a nose, completes the head then follows down through the body. He does not draw quickly and every stroke is carefully considered and executed.
Few of the characters are strong and their wiggly outlines convey precariousness; the fragility of the ego in the face of a predominantly cruel and depressing world.