Rod Emmerson on that Michael Cheika cartoon, and the power of satire

Michael Cheika, as drawn by Rod Emmerson for the New Zealand Herald (Dan Satherley/Newshub.)
Michael Cheika, as drawn by Rod Emmerson for the New Zealand Herald (Dan Satherley/Newshub.)

Cartoonist Rod Emmerson has ruffled many feathers in his colourful career. He's satirised politicians, the powerful and recently the coach of the Australian rugby side, who took exception to being drawn as a clown.

But his work entails more than just humour - it's a social commentary that pulls no punches, even when people threaten to punch him.

Ask Emmerson who he's cheesed off in his career, and you get an impressive list.

"Key, Joyce, Collins, Judith Collins, Judith Collins, Judith Collins, Len Brown, Helen Clark, David Cunliffe, Andrew Little."

But some figures are more welcome than others - Emmerson was thrilled when Donald Trump entered the race to become US President.

"If he becomes President, all the better for cartoonists because they are the only people that will benefit from him being President - no one else will."

Prime Minister John Key is a little harder to capture.

"He was very, very difficult," says Emmerson. "He doesn't have strong features.

Rod Emmerson on that Michael Cheika cartoon, and the power of satire

Rod Emmerson (The Nation)

After 30 years in the game, 10,000 cartoons and counting, Emmerson says the aim remains the same - capturing the nuance of social debate in a simple image.  

"As a journalist takes a sentence and spreads it out to 1000 words, I'm taking those 1000 words and bringing it down to a sentence. You can deliver the whole story in three to five seconds and they will go, 'Got it!'"

And nothing is more potent than a story with juxtaposition, like Len Brown's mayoral career. In his cartoon 'Len Brown's curtain call', Emmerson says the former Auckland Mayor's pants had to be absent.

"I definitely had to have pants off, and I knew straight away that would be controversial and divide readers instantly.

"He was also quite popular, so I thought, you have got to have a mixture - have to have roses, because it is his curtain call, but you have got to have those pants off. We've got to do this. Sorry Len, but the pants have got to come off now."

But does he ever worry about offending people?

"Never. The thing with satire is that it's always at someone else's expense, so not everyone laughs."

And Wallabies coach Michael Cheika was certainly not laughing when Emmerson dressed him up as a clown before last week's Bledisloe Test.

"My brief was to needle him just a little bit."

He didn't expect a reaction from Cheika himself.

"I get home, wake up the next morning and the whole world has imploded over this clown thing. I had a look at what Cheika had said and I just couldn't believe it," says Emmerson.

"I think they were embarrassed, and they were trying to blame the media and that we were in cahoots with the All Blacks."

But laughs aside, Emmerson says cartoonists play an important role in society. 

"We all have this principle of doing the right thing, the freedom of expression and the freedom to underline what is wrong with our society, or our community or our laws. 

Many cartoonists go where other people have feared to tread. In 2015, gunmen massacred staff from magazine Charlie Hebdo for publishing cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammed. 

Many cartoonists like Emmerson united in defiance of those that tried to silence them.

"This is a media brotherhood; we are with you and it is instant. You know they have got your back, so the whole ideology of trying to take down freedom of expression ain't going to work."

It's perhaps proof that while the pen may be more powerful than the sword, courage is still required to persevere. For Emmerson's part, he's just happy to sketch out a living in peaceful surroundings .

"People get really fired up here and explode in front of you, and I love that. Because what I do is creating debate, and I want to hear what they have to say."

And politicians and the powerful should beware - this rod of satire is going nowhere.

"I just love what I do, and I think there's 1000 more good cartoons sitting in here somewhere. I am very passionate about being here in New Zealand. I think it is a great place to be a cartoonist. "

The Nation