1901 - 1981 | NSW | Cartoonist
Emile Mercier’s mischievous eye gave his work a sharp edge yet it always retained a gentle humour marked by whimsy, absurdity, self-deprecation and double-entendres. It was a distinctive inner urban style that mocked the ordinary things of daily life, an approach followed by many successors. He worked for a wide variety of Australian publications before taking up a position on the Sydney afternoon tabloid The Sun in 1949. He steered away from cartooning clichés of the time like mothers-in-law and pretty secretaries in favour of unique Australian characters from daily life, crowded pub scenes, barefoot city kids and scruffy dogs and cats.
One day, Claude McKay, the editor-in-chief of Smith’s Weekly, took a dim view of an X Emile Mercier had drawn under the upwardly extended tail on a cat. After a few stern words about “dirty gimmicks in cartoons”, the grim-faced McKay instructed Mercier to get rid of the cross.
This presented Mercier with a challenge. He was someone who used to say you “have to think funny as well as draw funny” and he was not keen to let McKay’s prudish approach to his cat go unchallenged. Mercier’s solution was to draw a miniature roller blind under the cat’s perpendicular tail. He was in no doubt the blind would draw more attention to the cat’s anus than the X had. Fortunately for him, McKay saw the funny side of the addition and let the cartoon run. Not a man to push his luck too far, Mercier drew all future cats without an X at the base of their tails.
When Mercier took on McKay he was only a contributor to Smith’s Weekly. He had been working freelance since he arrived in Sydney just over 20 years earlier. It was not by choice: “At that period, and for many years afterwards, I would have given my right arm for a staff job on a newspaper. But while I was selling joke drawings, no one would offer me a permanent job.” He did however obtain a regular spot on Smith’s Weekly in 1940 illustrating Lennie Lower’s weekly columns.
Emile Alfred Mercier was born in New Caledonia on 10 August 1901. From an early age he wanted to be an artist. When 11 years old he drew a green hill covered with doves on a large sheet paper. On seeing the drawing his father, who was a well-known banker, wrote under it, “Emile is wasting a lot of good paper.” Mercier was to spend his working life drawing on good paper. Few sheets were wasted.
As a schoolboy he spent a short time attending Darlinghurst Public School in Sydney. He returned to Noumea and served in the French Colonial Army before moving back to Sydney, intending to study at night at the Julian Ashton Art School. He lived in a run-down room in Paddington overlooking a back yard and alley that was inhabited by cats, dogs and overflowing rubbish bins. With a limited command of English, he earned a living doing odd jobs which included office boy, translator-clerk and deck hand on coastal ships.
It was Ashton who suggested Mercier take up cartooning. Using his locality and back yard view for inspiration, Mercier dispatched some drawings to Aussie and his first published cartoon appeared in the magazine in 1922. Soon after, he was getting cartoons into Melbourne Punch, The Bulletin, Sportsman, The Daily Telegraph and Smith’s Weekly. By then he had given up part time work and lived off his cartooning.
Kenneth Slessor once said: “There was nothing cerebral about Mercier’s humour”. Mercier said he was “more interested in types than personalities”. However, he did put a lot of thought into his work and the local vernacular held particular fascination: “Australia is the only country in the world where you can call a dark horse a fair cow and be understood.”
There was nothing too complicated about Mercier’s work. Wine was plonk, with the setting for most of his cartoons the working class inner city Sydney suburbs of Surry Hills and Redfern. Terrace-houses, backyards, cats in back lanes, cafes, pubs, public transport, men on stilts, roads on springs, racecourses as well as fishing, boxing and local shops all featured in his funny line drawings. He was shocked by what he thought was Australia’s obsession with putting gravy on everything. It was reflected in his cartoons. Gravy was everywhere. It was found on the menus as gravy in aspic, fried gravy or just gravy bones and empty tins littered streets.
These details and his originality endeared him to middle class readers. His drawings of homes and localities were so right that people felt that he drew them from their own streets: “I want people to see themselves, I never draw faces you can’t see around you in a crowd.”
George Blaikie, in his book Remember Smith’s Weekly, said Mercier “could never control his natural Gallic naughtiness and delighted in introducing to his comic drawings touches that were likely to offend the gods a little. When contributing to The Herald in Melbourne for Sir Keith Murdoch, he found he could horrify his employer by doing drawings of dirty dustbins in back alleys. Emile immediately specialised in extra dirty bins with fish heads and other horrid things poking out of them. Most readers found the dustbins very funny to look at, Sir Keith’s teeth were set on edge every time he sighted one, which Emile cheerfully arranged, every second day or so.”
Later his cartoons became synonymous with an old, vanishing Sydney. It was suggested by historian Vane Lindesay that Mercier’s fascination with Sydney limited his Australian audience as well as his international appeal.
In 1940, Marcier obtained regular work with Truth as a political cartoonist and for the paper created two comic strips, News Splashes and Week Spots. In 1941 he started Pen Pushers, a comic that ran in the ABC Weekly and soon after he linked up with Frank Johnston Publications where he drew a number of comic books including Speed Umplestoop, Supa Dupa Man, Tripalong Hoppity, Three-Gun Ferdie, Wocho the Beaut, Doc McSwiggle, Bowyang Bill and the Snifter Princess, The Case of the Haunted Piecrust and Search for the Gnu-Gnah. Many of Mercier’s cartoons reappeared in anthologies published from the 1940s to the early 1960s.
Lindsay Foyle is a former deputy editor of The Bulletin and Australian Business Monthly and has also worked for The Australian. He has been drawing cartoons and writing about cartoonists since the mid-1970s.
Emile Mercier in 1954. Courtesy of Fairfax
Remember Smith’s Weekly, George Blaikie, Rigby, 1966
The Inked-in Image, Vane Lindesay, Hutchinson Australia, 1979
Bonzer, Australian comics 1900-1990s, Annette Shiell, Elgua Media