Catty cartoonist alone in field

CATS AND SATIRE: Cartoonist Sharon Murdoch, with her hairy red alter-ego Munro.
CATS AND SATIRE: Cartoonist Sharon Murdoch, with her hairy red alter-ego Munro.

Sharon Murdoch is one of a rare breed, having the bittersweet honour of being the only woman regularly producing political editorial cartoons for a mainstream New Zealand newspaper.

Colleagues assure her the dearth of women in the field isn't a conspiracy. Indeed, another political cartoonist told her a "glass ceiling" did not exist - at least, not for those whose work was good enough.

Murdoch - a finalist for cartoonist of the year in this month's Canon Media Awards - isn't so sure. In the same way that the number of women in orchestras increased when they began holding blind auditions, she wonders whether the same would hold true for her discipline.

So, she signs her work with her surname only, to take gender out of the equation.

After all, it's not that women aren't funny, or grumpy, or vicious - traits often ascribed to political cartoonists. And it's certainly not because they're uninterested in politics.

"A lot of what I cartoon about upsets me deeply. If the surface seems mild, underneath it's often seething."

A graphic designer by training and trade, Murdoch was first encouraged to pursue political cartooning by her former partner Trace Hodgson, a political cartoonist for the New Zealand Listener.

But she'd had little exposure to cartoons up until that point, having been raised in Invercargill, which she describes as "a bit like growing up in Iceland but without the epic poems".

Instead, she pursued her political interests through design, working for metropolitan newspapers, Wellington City Art Gallery and the Wellington Media Collective - a group of designers interested in social justice and political change.

She also spent a year co-drawing a comic series about early childhood education and HIV/Aids prevention with a Xhosa women's community development group in South Africa.

But life changed forever when she was asked to fill a space on The Dominion Post's daily puzzle page, and her hairy red alter-ego Munro the cat was born.

As if he appeared on the page quite independently of her putting him there, Murdoch calls the cartoon "one of the loveliest things that ever happened to me".

Through him, she has connected with people of all ages - an antidote to the curmudgeonly isolation political cartoonists often work in.

Murdoch says the repetition of drawing Munro (more than 500 times to date) was great practice for the next stage in her career and freed her to experiment with political subject matter, something she'd lacked the confidence to do.

It hadn't helped she'd also been reluctant to upset people.

Now more assertive, she began illustrating a political column and her work was gradually picked up by newspapers outside Wellington.

Murdoch says she spends most of her time in a state of panic. To spark the creative process, she trawls news websites, political columns and social media, particularly Twitter. From there, she sketches and scribbles lots of notes. Then she goes for walk.

"It feels good when suddenly it does click into place," she says. "Then there's days where it doesn't and the newspaper's going off to print and you still think 'Oh no, that was a dreadful mistake,' and you're going to have to see it in the morning."

As a satirist, she sees her role as lifting the curtain on human folly, and considers it a privilege to comment on the awful or the absurd in a public forum. But she is wary of kicking vulnerable groups while they're down. "There's a lot of easy jokes you could make. Sometimes I find myself sketching them, then looking at them and thinking, 'Ew'."

She is also careful not to stereotype. Murdoch, who has a daughter and a stepdaughter, is deeply distressed by how women can be portrayed. She has a love-hate relationship with the underground comics that influenced her early on. "The women depicted were not treated well. They weren't even really people."

In her own work, she is conscious to portray women as they are. 

Follow Sharon Murdoch on Twitter.

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The Dominion Post