Whether Steve Bell can be described as ‘Britain’s best loved cartoonist’ is possibly a matter for debate. Bell himself might cavil at the description, and in some quarters his offerings produce emotions other than affection.
At the Edinburgh International Book Festival to promote If: The Graphic Novel, a collection of some of his many If strips over the years, Bell was in fine form as he took the audience on his own personally curated tour of the large body of work he has produced for The Guardian newspaper over some twenty-five-plus years.
This hour-long consideration of Bell’s back catalogue began with some very early Bell indeed, including a drawing of a South Buckinghamshire railway station, one of several Bell apparently produced in his youth.
Moving on from illustrating cartoon strips after graduating from art school, Bell (and those who admire his work) were fortunate when his career with The Guardian commenced, initially creating the If strips with which many are familiar.
But it is, of course, for the larger single frame cartoons Bell has produced for the central pages of The Guardian that he is perhaps best known.
Not all have been received without various forms and levels of critical feedback. Bell began his talk with a slide of his cartoon published shortly after the murder of several staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, reaction to which was mixed, as it has been in other cases, such as the cartoon Bell drew during the Scottish Referendum campaign, in which Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon were depicted demanding their rights to ‘incest and Scottish country dancing’.
The joke was clearly lost on some, a sizeable number of whom took to the comment section of The Guardian website to berate (if not downright abuse) Bell for creating the cartoon and The Guardian for publishing it.
Such has ever been the fate of satirists in troubled times, and Bell pointed to James Gilray as one of his antecedents and inspirations. Gilray and Cruikshank set the bar that Bell and his contemporaries seek to achieve, often with at least as much attempted interference by government as they experienced.
Few, however, have been able to chronicle the lurching pantomime often referred to as ‘the longest running farce in the west End’ as fully as Bell has: Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, Tony Blair, Michael Howard and Ian Duncan Smith have all fallen under the baleful stare of Steve Bell, to emerge with their dignity more than somewhat damaged, as has been the fate of our present Lords and Masters.
The Palace of Varieties, it seems, continues to offer ample scope for Bell’s excoriating pen.
Steve Bell, If... The Graphic Novel, Vintage £18.99 ISBN 9780224102124