FUMA has a remarkable collection of 73 cartoon originals and sketches from the most seminal period of Bruce Petty. Initiated by Robert Smith, Flinders University’s then inaugural Fine Arts Lecturer, the majority of works were donated in 1969 by the great satirist himself and seven from The Bulletin in the same year. Among them are these five cartoons published in The Australian between May of 1966 and September 1967, during that newspaper’s progressive, almost revolutionary, first decade.
These fragile objects, sometimes stuck together with glue, take us straight into the maelstrom of the Vietnam War before the moratorium marches, when Prime Minister Harold Holt won the 1966 election in a landslide promising to go all the way with LBJ. Petty was in the vanguard of a small but vocal opposition, drawing the war as a tragedy for the Vietnamese and a reckless farce perpetrated by the West resulting in deep tragedy for the Vietnamese. Getting there is half the fun (19-11-1966), a cartoon about President Johnson’s imperial triumph of a visit to Australia marks the contrast, and the jagged black blob, which covers about half of the box, colours the movement from farce to tragedy arrestingly black.
Petty’s busy line attracted more than its fair share of the ‘my grandchild could draw better than that’ sort of criticism. He doesn’t aim to please. He wants to stop readers with a shock of the unfamiliar and make them think. He is also a humane but stern critic of fools and villains. Look at “Hospitals – regrettable, but in the name of democracy, don’t hit a polling booth” (6-2-1967). Are Johnson and his adipose generals conscious villains, or merely fools being driven by murderous ideas and scarcely sublimated self-interest? I think Petty gives them the benefit of the doubt, but then drives home the fact that being venal fools does not excuse them from the crime of bombing innocent people. Something similar happens with the women under the hairdryers in the cartoon, “Who says we women aren’t interested in politics?” (31-5-1966). Is this the moral fecklessness of consumer society projected onto women, or is it the dawn of concern for the people ravaged by a needless imperial war? As so often for Petty, it is both.
A large part of the power of these cartoons comes from Petty’s deep engagement with the people forced to live with the war. His first book, Australian Artist in South East Asia (1962) is a graphic account of his journey through seven countries, and he went to Vietnam again during the war, as a cartoonist-correspondent. He is drawing the Other – how could it be otherwise for a still White Australian audience? – but he is doing it with an intimate sympathy born of real knowledge. “I must say, I’ve found the first day of democracy a little disappointing” (5-9-1967), is a wry and ironic cartoon about the debauched South Vietnamese election then underway, but it takes you there, to the people actually affected.
Finally, Peace Feeler, published 7-2-1967 while Johnson talked peace with South Vietnamese generals in Honolulu, even while continuing to bomb the Viet Cong with huge and brutal fire power. Publish it unchanged today, and everyone would see it as about the war in Ukraine. Sadly, great satire like Petty’s keeps finding its moment.
Professor of English, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Flinders University
Adelaide, Australia, 2023
© the author and Flinders University Museum of Art