Queenslander Rod Emmerson became the New Zealand Herald’s cartoonist 11 years ago, after a successful career in Australia. The father of two says he agonises over every cartoon

1. Why does Australia produce such good cartoonists?

Both New Zealand and Australia have produced great cartoonists for more than a century. I suspect the drudgery of a convict, colonial heritage has played a huge part in that. Humour and sarcasm became the staple diet. Cartoonists are a dysfunctional bunch. Get a group of Australian political cartoonists together and it's like a Hells Angels meeting. They've got all the social bad habits you can think of. They're a wild bunch. They come from really different backgrounds like cleaners or pub owners. There's a lot of drinking that goes on. I think a lot of that is related to self confidence. You sit there all day trying to come up with something and when you're finished you go home and think that's the bloody worst cartoon I've ever seen.

2. Drinking and depression seem common issues for cartoonists: have you had any trouble with those?
I've never been a big drinker which is unusual. I don't mind a drink but no one has ever seen me drunk. We all go through [the depression]. It's a constant fight every day, trying to come up with something, manoeuvring it on to this space on a page, trying not to hate it. I can't go to the pub or whatever on a Friday night. I have to come home and spend two or three hours on my own, to fully unravel. It's a kind of zen thing to clear the head and then after that I can go out again.

3. Was music your first love?
I suspect art and music arrived at the same time. They tend to go hand-in-hand at the best of times. I recall this being of great concern to my father, who was hoping for a rugby league or union star. That was never going to happen. I drew on everything, loved Mad comics and all that and I played in bands, played guitar, became a roadie for a few years. I've done dozens of jobs in my life. My father wanted me to be an accountant, chose all the subjects for me to do in school but school and I didn't get along. On my last day I was marched to the front gate in a ponytail, I recall.


4. What's your best roadie story?
I was working on Billy Joel's first concert in Brisbane at Festival Hall, helping the American crew unload semi-trailer loads of sound gear and setting up the sound stage. It was just a job to me - I didn't know who Billy Joel was as my interests were in heavier music. At smoko one of the American guys who had helped us shift some serious gear, then sat down at the keyboards. He launched into a few very humorous piss-takes of Joe Cocker and Paul McCartney. Had us all in fits. I said to the guy next to me "he's bloody good". He said: "He should be - that's Billy Joel". Loved it and became an instant convert to keyboard appreciation.

5. What did your parents teach you?
I've probably spent most of my life trying to rid myself of some of the things my parents taught me. They were very conservative, sticklers for kids being seen and not heard. Never to question parental judgment. I'm the complete opposite. I'm probably a parent's worst nightmare. I questioned every decision made on my behalf, more from an inquiring mind than just blatant stubbornness. The social revolution of the 60s and 70s played a big part, as did the [Queensland Premier] Joh Bjelke-Petersen era. My parents and all my relatives were ultra-conservative, politically and socially. So every cornerstone of my life has seen me questioning an authority of some sort. It took years for me to educate my parents. When I first started cartooning, my father actually suggested I join the army. I still get a laugh from that.

6. Where does your daily inspiration come from?
I listen to people. That's one of the best things about getting on a bus everyday. No one knows what you do and you're listening to conversations. It keeps your feet on the ground, you see social trends, what topics of conversation they have, the way they talk and the humour, the things that get a laugh. I try and work out why they laughed if I didn't find it funny. In cartooning, there's always something going on, always something to work with. When it's quiet it just means someone is getting away with something.

7. How did you get into cartooning?
I was a design draftsman for the local government in Queensland doing roads, water and sewerage and on Friday nights I'd go to the pub with a bunch of surveyors and their wives. I'd draw caricatures of them on the beer coasters and one woman, who was a journalist, made me do a drawing to give to her editor. That got me going, doing weekly cartoons and after six months they wanted to hire me. I said "no I've got a great job and a lovely salary". But a year later [the editor] said he'd double whatever I was being paid if I went to work for him. Then he flew me all over the place so I could talk to cartoonists about what they do.

8. How hard was the move to New Zealand?
I'd be lying if I said it was easy. It was all about advancing myself as a cartoonist. I'd been working in provincial newspapers in Australia but my cartoons were being syndicated all over the place and [New Zealand Herald editor] Gavin Ellis offered me a job. It was also about improving the lifestyle of my kids. They'd been attending top notch private all-white schools, and yet had no real contact with the outside world. Coming to a country that was so like Australia, yet having a rich, diverse cultural background opened their eyes and broadened their minds. The boys are 24 and 22 now and they've excelled spiritually and professionally. For me, it's been a fabulous journey, with plenty of fuel left in the tank.

9. What's the intrinsic difference between Kiwis and Aussies?
It's an ideological thing. Australia doesn't hesitate to mine and sell uranium but takes no responsibility for the result of that. That would never happen in New Zealand. Other than that there's no real difference. The coastlines here aren't all covered in apartments, which is great. Here you can whip up a dress in your garage, open a store and a year later you're a fashion designer. What's not to love about New Zealand? It's a country with the population of Sydney but where they have three daily newspapers, we have 25. Kiwis are big readers and smart people.

10. What do you know about love?
I'm still learning that one. Ask me in a few years' time. I hit my lowest after my divorce. No one at work knew and I really loved that I could get into the office and just focus on my work and think of nothing else. Then go home to an empty house. My wife didn't understand the newspaper industry or the creative process. She always said "get a nine-to-five job". I've been with Pam now for about five years and she's worked in the industry so gets it. She's a very nice person without a bad bone in her body, plus she understands.

11. What's wrong with kids these days?
The main problem is that we have taught them that everything has a shelf life. Instead of fixing it, just throw it away and get a new one. It's an unhealthy byproduct of mass consumerism. Unfortunately, it translates to friendships and relationships, too, which is just appalling.


12. Who are your favourite politicians, and why?
It's never the person - it's the story first. Then there's the personality behind the delivery of the story, hence there are no favourites. I do try to keep politicians at arm's-length. They are, after all, human, and I believe there is an element of risk for me getting to know them socially, so I avoid it at all costs. That's the price of trying to be consistently unfair.