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Real appeal of Emile

Mercier’s single-panel newspaper cartoons of the 1950s and ’60s focused on daily life rather than current events.

Journalist and poet Kenneth Slessor once observed that Mercier’s cartoons

are founded on the constants of human life and not on the crotchets … they do not die in the morning as the evening papers do.

Mercier’s milieu was working-class inner-city Sydney of the postwar years, long before gentrification. It was a Sydney of drab shop and terrace frontages and rubbish strewn in street gutters. He had a cast of eccentric characters, including a long-whiskered old gent driving a three-wheeled bath chair. His cartoons were filled with drunks and tramps, flat-footed policemen, geraniums in rusty cans, dogs and cats sniffing in rubbish bins.

He loved drawing greasy spoon cafes, the Saturday races, trams and inner-city pubs. Whether inside or outdoors, his characters’ feet would often curl over the floorboards of the cartoon panel under which – alongside the bed springs – were invariably fish bones and empty cans.

In his flights of whimsy, Mercier tweaked the noses of petty officialdom and the avant-garde alike. He depicted a Sydney – and an Australia – before multiculturalism and the youth and feminist revolutions. His characters were mostly older, white and male.

…it’s a sexist and unworldly era by today’s standards. Yet, within this monoculture was an accommodation of eccentricity and absurdity. As writer and former politician Peter Coleman has observed:

[It was an era when] there was an orthodoxy that tolerated disagreement

compared with the political correctness of later decades. A distinctive style of cartooning died with Mercier in 1981.

from the Sydney Morning Herald: 25 May 2013

Mercier also had a naughty ‘Gallic’ sense of humour, and would often include double meanings in his jokes. His cartoon ‘My wife’s swallowed a bishop!’ shows a woman who appears to have accidentally ingested a chess-piece, but the allusion is to fellatio.

 In another, a crow is showing another crow several golf-balls among the eggs in her nest, complaining that ‘… my husband has a detestable habit of leaving his balls lying all over the place!’ (I’m Waiting For an Earthquake, p. 52)

While on the staff of Smith’s Weekly, Mercier contributed a cartoon which included a cat in the foreground. Mercier added a cross under the cat’s tail, representing its anus. The Smith’s Weekly art editor rejected the cartoon and gave Mercier an angry lecture about including ‘smutty gimmicks’ in his work. Mercier then drew a down-drawn holland blind under the cat’s tail, which hid the cat’s anus but emphasised its presence, and re-submitted the cartoon.

Mercier officially retired from The Sun in 1968 and he died on 17 March 1981 in Sydney from Parkinsons Disease.


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