Iconic cartoon celebrates

There can be very few adult South Africans who have not heard of the Madam & Eve cartoon strip featuring the Anderson family and their domestic sidekick Eve.

The family have been part of the South African landscape for nearly a quarter of a century and the cartoon remains as fresh and original in its take on politics and domestic life today as when it first appeared.

In October publishers Jacana released the 2016 compilation of Madam & Eve strips and reading through it is a great reminder of the year South Africans have had.

The 2016 political arena was a particularly wild one and the cartoons featured in Madam & Eve: Take Us to Your Leader capture the highs and lows of this ride.

The page dedicated to Madam & Eve’s new South African emojis is a fun touch.

It is written by Stephen Francis and illustrated by Rico Schacherl. The Daily Dispatch spoke to Rico about the creation of this national gem.

What cartoons did you love as a child and how did they influence your work?

A: As a child I read a lot of Asterix, Tintin and also quite a few Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. I later developed an appreciation for comic strips like Calvin & Hobbes (still my all-time favourite), The Far Side and Doonesbury. All these had various influences I guess – the importance of clarity and rhythm in visual storytelling – that the whole is a balance between words and pictures and they need to complement each other, the importance to have fun and be playful …and to imbue as much “life” and personality into the characters as you can.

Given that Madam & Eve features two women, one white and one black and it is written/drawn by two (white) men, do you have sounding boards?

A:After doing these cartoons for so long [over 24 years] we kinda know what we are doing these days – how far to push the boundaries of political incorrectness and good taste – and also keep the humour in line with the charm and tone of the comic strip.

What’s the most difficult thing about drawing/writing characters from the opposite sex?

A:Not difficult at all. We kind of kept all the main characters female and have found never to really require many male main characters. The comic strip does, however, steer clear of certain subject matters like violence, rape etc, as our remit is to be hopefully funny and look at the lighter side of everyday life and politics, and we leave those subjects to editorial political cartoonists.

How much self-censorship goes on?

A:Not much – we pretty much have been allowed to say whatever we like (within the boundaries of the tone we have set for Madam & Eve, and also being aware that we have a lot of young readers as well). We are constantly aware of things like bad taste, racist and sexist stereotyping, but in terms of our message and opinion we
pretty much don’t self-censor at all.

What is your opinion on the hate speech bill? Will it have an impact on your work?

A:The jury is still out on that. We obviously are strong advocates of freedom of speech and expression and predict that any SA government attempting to curtail these, will have a massive fight on its hands from its media and citizens who will not stand for it.

You have been around for 24 years – to what do you owe your longevity? How do you keep yourselves relevant?

A:I think our longevity (I can’t believe next year May will be 25 years of Madam & Eve) is probably due to our living and working in a dynamic, interesting country where things are constantly changing and in flux (and even the politicians sometimes virtually write our material for us) and as commentators and observers.

I believe you also paint? What medium do you use; what do you paint? Do you exhibit this work?

A:Besides drawing Madam & Eve I like doing as wide a variety of illustration work as I can, and I especially love doing work for children, educational or otherwise. I have dabbled in acrylic and water colour painting (I took part in a few group exhibits around 2006–2008), and especially loved doing fun watercolour and pen and ink children’s illustrations.

Does drawing energise or exhaust you?

A:Depends on the deadline pressure.

How long on average does it take you to do a cartoon?

A:The 4-frame daily cartoons can take anywhere from an hour to two hours, depending how much is going on in the strip – the large weekend cartoons take between 6 to 8 hours to finish, again depending what the storyline is and what visuals are required.

If you could tell your younger self anything, what would it be?

A:Not sure – haven’t really thought about it much – don’t believe in pondering too much on possible regrets or “missed” opportunities.

How did publishing your first work change your process of drawing?

A:It’s a lifelong, ongoing learning process…every illustration project, every new caricature is a learning experience and you refine your work and techniques as you go along earning experience.

What was an early experience where you learned that your work had power?

A:I am not sure about “power”, but the first few times we had book signings and we realised how many younger kids were (and still are) reading and loving Madam & Eve – this was very inspiring.

How do you select the names of your characters?

A:The main characters were named because of the Madam & Eve title, which came first. Gwen (Madam) is named after Stephen’s then mother-in-law, no idea where Mother Anderson’s first name Edith came from …Thandi just because we liked the sound of the name.

Do you hide any secrets in your cartoons that only a few people will find?

A:Not really – no time usually to add anything extra.

What kind of research do you do before you sit down to do a cartoon?

A: Depends on what goes into the cartoon – sometimes I need to look up a reference – thank goodness for the internet, this was much more laborious before Google.

If you didn’t draw, what would you do for work?

A: Can’t really picture myself doing anything else; still pinch myself sometimes that I basically draw funny pictures for a living…probably be a historian or game designer.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: Buy more Madam & Eve books – they don’t need recharging or batteries and laughter is good for the soul!