Art media

Ian Knox on the delicate art of satirizing sensitive subjects

Irish News cartoonist Ian Knox with some of his recent work. Photo by Hugh Russel

Tagged a ‘sectarian disgrace’ on Twitter by former DUP leader turned GB News presenter Arlene Foster and later advised to ‘hang your head in shame’ by vocal loyalist Jamie Bryson on the same social media platform , Irish News cartoonist Ian Knox caused a minor ‘Twitter storm’ with two of his famous satirical illustrations last month.

The Ian Knox cartoon that led Arlene Foster to call it a ‘sectarian disgrace’

In one cartoon, a burly loyalist is comforted by his buddies over his distress at being called a “planter” by US Congressman Richard Neal. In the other, elderly Orangemen march on walkers and wheelchairs during Northern Ireland’s centenary celebrations as a spectator suggests that ‘next time they’ll need avatars’ – a reference to the labor-saving holograms currently employed by septuagenarian Swedish pop. ABBA sensations for their ‘live’ concerts.

The Orange Order Centenary Parade in Northern Ireland met the avatars of pop group ABBA in Ian Knox’s cartoon for The Irish News on May 28.

Complaints to the Independent Press Standards Organization (Ipso) included allegations that the loyalist cartoon was offensive to a minority group, an inaccurate stereotype and raised tension, while other complainants suggested that the Orangeman caricature was ableist and ageist.

However, Ipso found no reason to investigate any of the complaints.

“Tim McGarry contacted me to say he’s removed all my cartoons from his walls at home, just in case,” Belfast-born Knox (79) laughs of the recent controversy over his work.

“However, apparently he put them all back together.”

Tim McGarry has put his Ian Knox cartoons back on his walls following the cartoonist’s recent vindication.

Commenting on the reaction from some high profile circles, he adds: “I’m quite happy with it, quite honestly. Looks like I was able to convince Arlene to get him to say the things she did.

As for Bryson, who has already praised the cartoonist’s work via his favorite communication platform — it’s Twitter, by the way, not blue trash — it looks like Knox is ready to give him another shot.

“I’m seriously considering removing Arlene from my fan club, but if Jamie agrees he can stay,” he advises.

Based at his home away from home in Ardglass since the onset of Covid, Knox continues to delight the majority of said ‘fan club’ with his regular satirical illustrations for the Irish News, where he has been resident cartoonist for over 30 years now.

Before joining the paper in 1989, the cartoonist cut his teeth in satire with Red Weekly and Socialist Challenge (earning him the professional nickname “Blotski”) and Quinzaine, having previously helped entertain a more young thanks to his work on the IPC comics Krazy and Whizzer & Chips.

“A funny thing was that the vast majority of the letters they received were from readers in Ireland,” Knox recalls early feedback from enthusiastic comic book fans following the exploits of Pongo Snodgrass and other characters he drew at the time.

Flash forward to the present day, where the missives he receives for his Irish News cartoons can become a little less salutary.

The candidates received the Knox treatment during the newspaper’s coverage of the May Assembly election.

However, Knox takes any flak in his stride. After all, a satirist can start to wonder if he’s missing his marks when no one is getting upset on the day of publication – and things could be much worse, as he explains.

“Actually, you wish someone would complain sometimes,” he tells me of his four weekly cartoons to contribute to this article, which were supplemented by regular work for the Hearts and Minds program at the BBC in Northern Ireland until its cancellation in 2012.

“There was this Danish cartoonist [the late Kurt Westergaard, who died last year] who drew Muhammad and his turban with a wick on it, like an old-fashioned bombshell. He received death threats and had to go into hiding.

“I remember thinking, ‘I draw hundreds of cartoons and nothing happens but this guy draws one and embassies go up in flames and people riot all over the world.

“But hey, I’m pretty glad I don’t have that. I mean, I have the privilege of working in such a ‘civilized’ environment as I do here.”

Of course, having started working with The Irish News long before the peace process kicked into high gear, you might be wondering how much of a ‘civilized’ response it has received from some of our paramilitary groups — organizations that aren’t exactly known for their sophisticated sense of humor — that featured in his work in the 1990s.

“It was actually when the violence stopped that the writs started pouring in,” recalls Knox, who first trained as an architect before finding his true calling sketching skewers.

“There were a lot more problems with the politicians [than paramilitaries] about cartoons. I remember one editor telling me he had a drawer he put the briefs in and let them smolder until they finally came out.”

Ian Knox has long had a knack for capturing the essence of our political figures

As recent events have underscored, it seems that Knox’s fan club unionists have long been his most enthusiastic supporters over the years, whether it’s writting out something in one of his cartoons that upset them, to denigrate him on social networks or sometimes simply to want to get their hands on a print to proudly display in their toilets.

The artist admits that the “orange” side of politics here has always provided ample material for his work, as well as a healthy aftermarket. For example, Knox has drawn many likenesses of the Paisleys over the years.

The Many Faces of the Late Ian Paisley by Ian Knox in this 2007 cartoon.

“Ian Senior never mentioned anything I did, which was politically smart of him,” he tells me of the late DUP founder and former prime minister.

“Once in a while, Ian Junior didn’t like something I did about him. But especially with Ian Junior, he just wanted cartoons. That’s the other side of the question: unionists buy more of them – the nationalists don’t want my cartoons.

“Unionism is ‘wild and wacky’ in a way that nationalism is not. Nationalism tends to be controlled and cautious, whereas unionism is divided by headbangers. I mean, that’s it simply amazing.

“There is also guilt in unionism. They have to present themselves as victims, as in many other scenarios where the aggressor presents themselves as the victim.

“Before, there was a TV show called Neighbors from Hell and there was a common thread running through it: the abuser was normally the one moving when the cameras were rolling, while the victims were normally white-faced, pinched and talked about it in a fairly discreet way.

“I think that applies to power blocks as well. The abuser always says they’re ‘defending’ or straightening things out and immediately the [‘victim’] story begins. And now, since we have social media, everything has accelerated in a very depressing and unstoppable way.”

A criticism leveled at Knox is that the cartoonist often resorts to unfair stereotypes when portraying Protestant/Loyalist/Unionist subject matter and subject matter. It is a concern he takes seriously.

“There’s a temptation to use stereotypes and, just like in literature, that’s not right – it’s a negative thing to use stereotypes,” he tells me.

“A stereotype is basically a projection of prejudice and it’s also very boring and, in a way, dishonest.

“I’m sometimes accused of overdoing ‘simian loyalist’ imagery – drug-dealing ‘gorillas’ and stuff like that – and I probably use too many Orangemen to portray trade unionists.

“It’s hard, but people need to know who it is [I’m drawing]. Maybe if I could find a new way to represent a trade unionist…”

Following recent criticism from Arlene, Jamie and others, columnist and former Irish News editor Tom Collins has come to the defense of his fellow cartoonist while simultaneously lamenting the way Knox’s illustrations can immediately summarize complex situations in an extremely powerful way. commentators can only dream.

“Before human beings developed language, they judged with their eyes,” Knox muses.

“I think the power of a cartoon comes from the fact that its message goes to a different part of the brain than the things written.

“If someone is said to be tough but you see them driving a Lamborghini, it’s the Lamborghini that forms your judgement. So if I draw someone a certain way, people pick up on my message and believe it because they saw it.

“So I’m aware that the power exists – and I use it.”

He adds of his subjects: “Nobody imagines that I do an insightful study of their personality or anything like that – they are cyphers for what they say. And I breathe into them what I want. Someone one could be the worst in the world one day and the best in the world the next.

“I like to draw them as characters they imagine themselves to be far removed from. And people who take themselves seriously are the most fun to draw.”

So each time the cartoonist gets to work, he revisits, expands and further populates “Planet Knox” – a surreal yet recognizable take on our own world populated by caricatures of familiar characters. A nice place to visit, perhaps, but you probably wouldn’t want to live there.

“Indeed – and if they stare at it for too long, people are going to have nightmares,” he smiles.

Some people more than others, of course.