Four Kiwi cartoonists offer their take on the year that was.

I can't now remember whether I first encountered the work of Giselle Clarkson on the only-recently-released but already-quasi-iconic Kiwi tea towel "Biscuits and Slices of New Zealand" or through the Twitter account of best-selling literary purveyor of Scottish beefcake, Diana Gabaldon.

Clarkson's path to this not-insignificant level of fame started at art school in Canterbury where she went with the aim of becoming a painter but ended up majoring in photography. After graduation, she worked in shops, woolsheds and forestry, spent time measuring pine trees and figured she would eventually become a ranger.

Then, one day while unemployed, she started watching the Olympics.

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She says: "Team sports I don't really get because you don't know all the rules and there's all this strategy and stuff that I just don't understand. But if you see someone running really, really fast or jumping really, really high, there's this sense of, 'Wow, I really could not do that' - that's really so impressive.

"I found myself watching all day and by the third or fourth day or something I was like, 'I have to do something; I have to feel productive somehow,' so I started drawing fish, just for fun. Then I started getting really carried away with that and turning it into this whole chart of fish. But I didn't do anything with that for a while. That was just sort of there until ages later when friends were like, 'You should sell that.'

"But in a really roundabout way, it was probably at that time I joined Twitter."

This is an extremely relevant career origin story, because it speaks so clearly to Clarkson's off-kilter thinking, and to her aesthetic and her approach to comics, which her fellow cartoonist Sarah Laing describes as, "So funny and sly."

Giselle Clarkson
Giselle Clarkson

It was on Twitter that Clarkson eventually got her first serious public attention. On Geoff Robinson's last day hosting RNZ's Morning Report in 2014, he chose the kōkako as the bird call, and because she was bored she drew it and put it on Twitter, where someone running RNZ's social media saw it and retweeted it.

"So five people saw it," she says, "and I was like, 'Wow! This is amazing!' And I just made a decision then to draw the bird call every day for a month."

At the end of that month she had gathered about 300 Twitter followers and had drawn the attention of the editor of Forest and Bird's children magazine, which got her her first commission. From there, her career took off, earning her commissions from the School Journal, various websites, various commercial and conservation clients, publishers and editors from all over, including for this magazine's Women's Suffrage issue, for which she drew a series of brilliant portraits of important women.

In December 2016, for a book called Annual 2, she produced the work "Common Biscuits and Slices of New Zealand", which on first glance was a traditional entry in the longstanding genre of "taxonomies of relatively boring things for annuals" but in its details reveals itself to be a subversive, funny, sly take, full of clever Latinate descriptions and cute, friendly drawings. In its new tea towel version it threatens to be one of this year's best budget Christmas presents.

In August this year, she produced a superbly condensed comic version of an academic paper on the Tawaki, an extremely rare penguin that swims an unnecessarily long way to find its food, and it was this comic that caused famous mega-selling author Diana Gabaldon to tweet a link, with associated comment: "That. is. BRILLIANT!!!"

Clarkson says: "The reason I like the comic format is that you can get a lot of information into a couple of pages but you can actually skip out all the connective stuff. You can put things in bubbles and string them together with pictures and little arrows. You can connect the information in a way that doesn't have to be so wordy and then a lot of what you're saying and a lot of the humour can go in with the pictures.

"So it becomes this really digestible thing. You can get the gist of what's going on with a glance, but actually you pick up an entire 26 page paper in one tweet, basically, because it's got four images in it."

Giselle Clarkson's issue of the year
Giselle Clarkson's issue of the year

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The work of Toby Morris first entered my consciousness through his brilliantly incisive non-fiction comic The Pencilsword on RNZ, in which he took on big, complicated issues - tax evasion, inequality, justice - and reduced to rubble the idea that they were difficult to explain or to understand.

Morris's pre-cartoon/comic career was in advertising but he'd been cartooning since he was a kid and would periodically contact magazines like The Listener and Metro to see if they'd be interested in his work.

"Looking back on it now I can see why it's kind of a bonkers pitch, like, 'I'm totally unproven, I need like six pages or something to do this thing that you never normally do and I don't really have any examples to show you.'"

But when news and current affairs sites started sloshing budget around for online-only content, the space constraints of newsprint disappeared and Morris had the freedom to unleash his extended vision.

Toby Morris
Toby Morris

His big breakthrough was a comic about inequality called "On a Plate", which appeared in 2015 on The Pencilsword. It went seriously viral, worldwide-viral. He still gets emails about it today. People have asked him whether they can do versions in other languages: Bulgarian, Czech. Just the other day, someone from Bangladesh got in touch asking to translate it.

His work now appears mostly online, predominantly on The Spinoff, where he works part time and he describes what he does as mostly "non-fiction comics" or "comics journalism". His comics often use the techniques of journalism, including interviews with subjects and fly-on-the-wall-style reporting. His work typically has social concerns at its heart and is notable for its empathy and sincerity
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"I don't think we're very good at being earnest sometimes," he says. "It's super uncool to be sincere but I feel like I'm just farting around if I'm trying to look cool. I could definitely write the comics in a way that's a bit more detached and a bit more ironic and a bit more like, 'Yeah, whatever' about stuff, but I spend lots of time making them, they take me f***in' ages, so I want to say something. The purpose of the exercise is not for me to look cool."

Toby Morris's people of the year: striking workers
Toby Morris's people of the year: striking workers

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I first encountered the character of Sarah Laing in her autobiographical online comic Let Me Be Frank and was instantly intoxicated by her mix of neuroticism, loopy handwritten text and probably-unintentional romanticism of mundane domestic reality.

Toby Morris says of Laing's work that, "When you meet Sarah, it seems like it matches up - it's like people looking like their pets or whatever - her personality and her drawing style are so entwined, which I love."

Of her own work, Laing says, "I do kind of bumble along."

"For a while, I spent quite a bit of time reading profiles of people in the newspaper and going, 'Oh my God, they're so amazing, they've got it totally together, they're so brilliant and accomplished and they seem remarkably without self doubt,' whereas I was constantly riddled with self doubt and uncertainty."

Sarah Laing
Sarah Laing

Laing has revealed much about her own life and that of her family in Let Me Be Frank, which apart from appearing online has also been published in Metro magazine.

She says she found the kind of comic that generates the most feedback deals is typically the one that deals in public self-humiliation. "You have to resist the urge to publicly emotionally undress so that you get lots of retweets," she says. "You have to fight that urge because you will regret it afterwards."

Along with her online work, she's written three novels, including her latest book, the graphic novel Mansfield and Me, which was part biography of Katherine Mansfield, part autobiography, and part account of her nagging insecurity about her own abilities.

"I was never entirely certain what my purpose in life was," she says. "So I suppose my comics philosophy is just exploring that uncertainty and revealing that I don't actually have my shit together and I'm reasonably insecure about my work and that I'm still trying to figure it all out. And I just thought it was useful to articulate those ideas. And I feel like quite a lot of other people feel that way as well. It's sort of a way of connecting with people."

Sarah Laing's issue of the year
Sarah Laing's issue of the year

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I can't remember when I first encountered the work of Rod Emmerson, so long has he been the country's consciousness, so long has he prodded and challenged the powerful, questioned our assumptions and prejudices, made us laugh, made us think, made Australian rugby coach Michael Cheika angry. It's hard to imagine a time when he didn't wield arguably New Zealand's most powerful and cutting pen.

His job as an editorial cartoonist is to push the envelope, to create and stimulate debate, to take a position that is simultaneously not a position. He says Leighton Smith asked him recently where he stood on the political spectrum. The answer is nowhere. The answer, he says, is to, "Treat 'em all with contempt." He is, he says, "A loose cannon." He is, he says, "Loyal to none, sworn to fun."

Emmerson's high-quality art, which is in part his signature and is in part his insurance against imitators, is also just an additional extra for readers on top of the most important part of any cartoon: the message, the joke, the payoff. A good editorial cartoon, he says, is able to be read and digested and to deliver its payoff in three to five seconds.

In the new digital media environment, there is increasing pressure on cartoonists to make their work interactive or to make it move, to make it do things it never could before, but none of this matters, he says. If it lands with the reader in three to five seconds, it has done its job.

After 30 years in the game, 15 of those in New Zealand, he says he has a fair idea when he's delivered something that will hit a nerve, and he knew he'd done that when the Herald's sports department asked him, during the last Rugby World Cup, if he could deliver something that would get Cheika fired up.

"Easy," he says. "Very easy. And of course the trick is you've gotta be able to visually find a way through the clothing, between the ribs and into the heart. So you want something that is so pointed that it will pierce all their defence mechanisms and they'll go…" (he pauses to mime a person exploding) "And I thought he would, but it took 12 hours before he finally blew up."

How did it feel when he did?

"Mission accomplished."

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It feels like a golden age for the wildly disparate range of styles that make up the art form we might loosely call "words combined with pictures".

"Loosely" because, if asked about the connecting thread between the people featured here, it's hard to find something more specific.

Toby Morris says: "Lots of New Zealand comics and cartoonists are quite idiosyncratic and quite personal and kind of, I think, rather than there being an established house style of, 'This is how we do it', I think there's lots of people with unusual and distinctive and unique approaches that show their personality.

"With comics, the hand of the author in a real literal sense is super visible in it. When I was a kid, I had this thought that it would be so cool to read novels in the author's handwriting, like there'd be a whole different side of what you're trying to get across.

Emmerson believes we're in a great moment for the form. He sees brilliance everywhere - at zinefests, at Armageddon Expo, in the unheralded talent he stumbles across online.

Occasionally, he'll contact talented young cartoonists to offer them support or guidance. More than once, they've told him to bugger off. He's okay with that; he even seems to admire it: "Loyal to none; sworn to fun."