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Toby’s Story

Cartoonist and illustrator Toby Morris remembers getting a present from a family friend who he thinks may have recognised his love of drawing. It was a stack of Asterix and Tintin books, tatty old editions with missing pages, really banged up. And it was the coolest thing ever.

‘That probably solidified the path for me,’ Toby says now. ‘Then I remember trying to draw my first comics, when I was eight. And the first one I ever made and printed up and gave to my friends—I was about 13. It’s a really bad superhero comic—it was terrible and is really embarrassing now. I printed it up on my dad’s photocopier at work and handed it out at school.’

Toby’s come a long way. He’s better known now as the cartoonist for The Spinoff online news site—whose new offices are in Morningside, round the corner from Crave—where he contributes a monthly critical take on the news of the day, The Side Eye. It’s a brilliant, funny, deeply political and sociological take on NZ life. For example, he recently took on the subject of Maori Language Week, which he recast as Humanoid Language Week, with humans fighting for their language to be retained and valued in the context of a world run by aliens.

Toby’s work has always reflected his long interest in politics as much as his ability to see the world through illus-trations and humour.

‘I went to Vic [Victoria University] and was interested in politics and English, and immediately after study I thought, how is this ever going to get me a job? But now it’s very relevant to what I do.

‘As much as I learnt from my degree, I think the biggest education was drawing comics for the student newspaper, Salient, and getting involved in that. I started doing the weekly comic for them and I also started flatting with the de-signer of the magazine. I kind of learnt design from looking over his shoulder and him showing me how he did it.’

If you’ve seen Toby’s work you’ll recognise his style. Before The Spinoff he had a regular column for RNZ’s news site The Wireless, called Pencilsword. He also did a regular column for the Radio NZ website called Toby and Toby, together with Toby Manhire, the current editor of The Spinoff.

Toby says Crave was their brainstorming spot—the place they would meet every Monday morning to work up their ideas. Toby and his family also live in the hood, which he describes as the ‘little pocket’ of Auckland that has helped him to love a city he used to be hold in suspicion.

In recent years Toby’s published a couple of books through local publisher Beatnik, and more recently contributed illustrations for the book Oh Boy (Puffin), about inspirational Kiwi men.

It’s no surprise that his simple style reflects that of Tintin creator Hergé, the father of the drawing technique called clear line (ligne claire) that Toby follows.

‘For me, it’s a massive part of what I do—to try and be clear. My work isn’t like art comics where I’m trying to be mysterious. It’s trying to get a message across as clear as possible. That’s probably why the drawings have always been quite clear and simple.

‘But yeah, Tintin was the one I got swept up in. I still read that and lose myself in it—they’re so classic. One thing I’ve always found fascinating with Tintin is that all of the stories take place in the present day. They’re written over a period of 50 years or something, but the technology in them is always like the latest cars … you can see what era you’re in when you read. It’s fascinating.’

On the subject of eras, this is an interesting one for political cartoonists. The recent controversy and debate over the Serena Williams caricature by an Australian cartoonist is a case in point. Political cartoonists are facing more and more challenges, whether it’s commenting on issues in an increasingly sensitive social context, or depicting divisive figures like Trump in a more politically polarised time.

‘I recently went to the States to a conference of American editorial cartoonists,’ Toby says. ‘And I think there’s a bit of worry among really traditional political cartoonists that newspapers are winding down and is there going to be a place for political cartoons? For me, the opportunities that being online opens up are actually exciting. I don’t have to stick in that one square on the letters page that the cartoonists traditionally are.

‘The conference was the week after [the Serena Williams controversy]. It was definitely a topic of conversation there. Some of the cartoonists said we should be able to draw what we want and people can’t be so sensitive about it. Maybe it’s a bit of a generation thing. For me and some of the younger cartoonists there, if people are telling you that they’re getting upset about something, then it’s not hard to not do that.

‘Whether or not he was meaning to be racist or meaning to be disrespectful, that’s how it came across. I feel like all you can do is say sorry and that you’ll take it into account next time. Lots of cartooning is about boiling things down, and it can … be easy to fall into a trap of using stereotypes that could be racist or sexist.

‘To me, having to be more careful about not offending people in those kinds of ways is a good challenge. I feel like I should have to think about whether I’m hurting people. I don’t want to be a dick to people. I wouldn’t walk around stomping on people’s feet, so why would I do it with my drawings?

‘If your joke is just to shock, then there’s not much to it. There’s more to talk about than just get under people’s skin.’