An Interview With Sam Wallman, TLB32 Cover Artist

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To celebrate this morning’s announcement of our pay-what you think it’s worth experiment for TLB32—and just as a general reminder that this excellent edition is a thing out there in the world that you can read—our two new arts editors, Ben Juers and Bailey Sharp, have interviewed the issue’s cover artist, the tremendously talented Sam Wallman. This interview resumes our occasional series of short interviews with Brow cover artists.

Sam Wallman is a cartoonist and comics-journalist based in Melbourne.


The Lifted Brow: Given the political substance of your work (which is everywhere right now), asking you to do the cover for a Capital-themed issue of the Brow seems like an obvious choice. How do you feel about being thought of as a ‘political cartoonist’?

Sam Wallman: Firstly, I am so glad the Lifted Brow exists, it’s such great bottom-up culture, and it supports such a diversity of voices, I really appreciate being asked to do the cover. Especially for the ‘Capital’-themed issue. I feel like people don’t feel very confident using the c-word these days.

As for being called a political cartoonist I feel pretty good about it I think, yeah. There seems to be a desire among a lot of cartoonists to be called “graphic novelists” or “visual storytellers” or fuckin I dunno, all these fancy terms, as if the lineage of the art form isn’t something to be proud of. I see my practise coming from the same lineage as hieroglyphics, and from, like, people in the 1800s explaining political ideas through images and metaphors, when the broader population wasn’t able to read words. I love the lineage I work inside of.

That said, there are a lot of political cartoonists doing their best to give us a bad name, hahaha. The racist dickheads at Charlie Hebdo, Bill Leak, the newspaper cartoonists deploying the same stale visual metaphors that have been used for the last 100 years. It’s no wonder memes are taking over at the game of exploring politics visually. When’s the last time you lolled at a newspaper cartoon? Like, maybe Michael Leunig made you feel sum flimsy whimsy or do a little sad chuckle but that can’t compete with the energy of memes. I’m glad for the pressure, because it means I feel compelled to focus my energy on comics-journalism, and more inventive forms of graphic politics.

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TLB: Many—maybe a majority—of memes are more or less in comics form. If the “graphic novel” and other fancy terms indicate status anxiety on the part of comics, do you reckon memes are the counterpoint? Like embracing the medium’s roots as mass culture? Or are memes a whole other thing unto themselves? Does it even matter?

SW: Haha yeah memes seem to be so comfortable in their own skin. Especially for such a young form. And they expect a lot from the audience which is great. I feel like so many cartoonists take easy shots to build their career, or to sell papers or clicks.

You’re right when you say memes embrace the same roots as cartoons, but memes do it in such an immediate way. Like, I bet people used to open the newspaper and look at a cartoon and think “Wow that just happened in Parliament yesterday and already here is an artwork about it”. Now you have people making memes literally as things happen. They occur as the thing occurs. Like, you could watch the presidential debates unfold as memes if you wanted, as if it was a sports commentary. And you get funny, insightful, high level analysis. Instead of one (usually white, male, middle-aged and straight) cartoonist, who had been appointed by the conservative newspaper editor, you now have thousands of producers folding in on themselves, without hierarchy, without ownership and with an immediacy that is so fun and exciting.

It’s a shame none of them get paid! If we had a universal income, everyone could be making stuff all of the time. Instead we’re seeing meme producers trying to integrate their services into the economy in really fumble-y ways. Some are trying to monetise their accounts, with paid-for memes, which are almost always awful, and people really get riled up about it in the comments section. I wonder where that stuff will be in five years.

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TLB: I saw a cartoon you did where a lady is wearing a shirt reading “join yr fucking union”. The next day, I joined my fucking union. How did you get involved with union work?

SW: Ahh, that’s so good to hear! I can’t believe it isn’t just a given that when we have a job, we just immediately join the union. Like putting on your shoes. There are no working- or middle-class jobs in this country without a representative union. Even the unemployed have one now. I understand though, I mean, I was kind of anti-union as a teenager, having the default centre-right politics of Australia’s unconscious running through me. I worked a lot of nasty factory and warehouse and sex club and call-centre jobs, and I felt that pointed alienation and rage toward sleazy and greedy employers, which changed my politics soon enough. I was kinda just ignorant or like numb prior to that. Also I learnt a bit of history, that basically everything that’s good in Australia came from collective organising, and a lot of it in the form of trade unions – that woke me up. I found that even if I was in a really bleak job, being an active member of the union made that work meaningful. Kicking back is an excellent way out of alienation.

So I was an active delegate, which is like a voluntary union representative, at a call centre I worked at in the city, a few years ago. Soon after becoming active in that role, the union approached me and invited me to work for them directly, which I was very grateful for. They built me up a lot, different skill sets and different kinds of confidence, and even though I eventually quit so I could draw full-time, they still feel like family to me for real.

TLB: What do you think of Uber, Airbnb and other examples of the ‘sharing economy’? Are they a threat to unionism?

SW: Kinda, yeah, but I don’t think there needs to be a binary position when we’re talking about these services. I don’t wanna be ‘for’ or ‘against’ them. They exist and they will continue to exist. Like, sure, they are hyper-capitalist, hyper-exploitative corporations who dress themselves up as progressive and utopian while not giving a shit about their workers or literally anything except their bottom line. But hotels and taxis and the old industries are not great either. Owners of taxis take huge cuts of the money that drivers earn. The drivers are atomised and are not organised industrially. And hotels are whatever.

Uber is awesome the way it’s so easy to order and pay and monitor the trip. And the flexibility of the drivers situation would be great too, if it came with guarantees of wages, and if the incredibly profitable company were to cover the costs of the cars, and superannuation, and insurance, and sick care and holiday pay and annual leave and maternity leave and all of the things that took hundreds of years of struggle to win. And if they didn’t make the drivers give people lollies and drinks out of their own pockets, what the actual fuck. Also this whole ‘star rating’ thing is so gross, imagine being at work and feeling like you were being judged like you were on Australian Idol. But these are young industries, so hopefully we will see people start to organise within them.

There have already been wildcat strikes, which are grassroots strikes without any union involvement, forming organically and rapidly in London by UberEats drivers. No industry is formed with a pre-made force ready to make demands of the bosses. That has to come from workers deciding that things aren’t fair.

TLB: At this moment, you’re nearing the end of a trip to the U.S., where you covered the election through daily cartoons for SBS Online. Did your time there confirm or contradict any preconceptions you had about the political process, the candidates and their supporters?

SW: My work was focusing mostly on the voters. My whole thing was that I’d produce the only coverage that didn’t feature Hillary or Trump, hahaha. I was working for a number of outlets, SBS being one of them – they have an obligation to appear non-partisan and unbiased, because they receive funding from the government. That ended up not being such a challenge since I really disliked both candidates. 

I had organised to go to the U.S. to draw about the election when I thought it was going to be a mythic Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump showdown. What eventuated was something much more bleak. And just about everyone in the U.S. felt it. Less than half of the sixty per cent of Americans who actually voted cast their ballot for Donald Trump. And everyone I spoke to who voted for Hillary really mistrusted her. It was depressing, but at the same time I was impressed by the clarity of analysis from people on the street. People who like Hillary would call it cynicism, but I think a deep criticality about that election was so warranted. People are so tired. And that’s what I noticed after Trump won.

Friends back in Australia were asking me “Are people there freaking out?”, but where i was, in Detroit, a lot of people are not invested enough in establishment politics to be scared of Trump. Nearly 50% of the population there is illiterate. My friend’s buddy was killed for a $20 note. The police don’t respond to the majority of call-outs. Things are already so dire, that a lot of people were willing to take a gamble on Trump. Hillary was marketed as the safe bet, but a safe bet on business as usual sounded like a horrific option to a great majority of people. At least Trump was acknowledging that the nation was ablaze. Meanwhile you had Hillary walking around saying “AMERICA IS ALREADY GREAT”. No wonder people got grossed out.

I remember looking out the window of a bus I was on immediately after reading a New York Times pro-Hillary puff piece on my phone, in which she was quoted saying that ‘America is already great’ line, and the streets were cracked and there were homeless people everywhere, and everything looked like shit, and the bus I was on was hours late, and I was just like, “where do you live?” Progressive patriotism or nationalism always falls on its ass, whether it’s from Hillary Clinton or on ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ posters. When Bernie spoke about America, he talked about the things people have struggled and fought for being great, about the struggle being great, he talked about the resilience of working class people and their ability to organise. In no speech I heard did he heap praise on a white supremacist nation, insisting that it was once great, or imagining that it already was.