Cartoons are true to what the artist sees, not the subject. Think about it: did your family look the way you drew them when you were five? Lurid exaggeration comes naturally, for some reason. In school, there’s always one kid drawing something rude. Gay Telese wrote a story about the actor Peter O’Toole once, where a young O’Toole drew a penis on a picture of a horse, and defended himself (unsuccessfully) from opprobrium, by saying: “I was only drawing what I saw!” The urge to break taboos is stronger in artists. As Shaun Ladd and Tony Cook’s short documentary, Portrait, shows: cartoonist Ben Jennings is a proud addition to the line of pen and ink provocateurs. His sketches are tumescent with daring.
Beginning with a selection of Ben’s early (I’d say about eight-year-old) self-portraits, the film cleverly withholds any head shots. Even when Ben is speaking directly to camera, we only see the lower half of his face. The focus is always on his work. Ben draws satire with a scatological bent. He’s like Ralph Steadman with less violence, or Gerald Scarfe with more sex. The penis seems to be at the forefront of Ben’s work; vaginas run a close second. In keeping with the William Hogarth tradition of depicting life in excess, he’s fond of sweaty caricature. As he says, “twisted subject matter is just more interesting.” The documentary attempts to draw Ben out, using his cartoons to give us clues about the man.
In Terry Zwigoff’s film about Robert Crumb, someone says (of Crumb): “the only voice he had was his pen”. Ben Jennings isn’t that far gone, thankfully for him, but there is a little of Robert Crumb’s reticence about him. Like Crumb, he’s relentlessly self-effacing. Like Crumb, his drawings are sometimes mean. I’m not saying Ben has the same deep-rooted misogyny as Crumb, but he’s not afraid to plumb his psyche, and draw from the depths – the same as Crumb. Ben’s comic strip about Katie Price is a good example of creating from the unconscious. It’s full of weird prurience and unchecked thoughts. Like Crumb’s alternative comics, where women can be both monstrous and alluring, Ben’s artwork is characterised by unresolved feelings. Sex is disgusting, but it’s also omnipresent. Ben is like a pervy disciple, prostrate before the power of the crotch.
That’s a pretty daft way to put things, I know. But there’s no getting away from the sexual neuroses that seem to influence Ben’s drawings. He hasn’t made sex his exclusive focus. There are, thank God, no confessions of onanism while making a sketch (something Crumb, alas, has confessed to). However, even when Ben draws himself, his mouth becomes a sexual orifice. As he describes his relationship with his mother (in a deft and witty piece of editing) his hands are folded over a cartoon vagina. You get the sense that Ben, in a very British way, is sometimes mortified by what he’s drawn. His parents do not appear on screen. Their response, perhaps, has too many sides for the space of ten minutes.
Where Terry Zwigoff spent six years, and a two hour running time, tracing the internecine strife in Robert Crumb’s family, Shaun Ladd and Tony Cook have decided, wisely, to limit the scope of their short film. Ben Jennings is less of an outsider than Crumb. His cartoons have a recognisable pedigree. He doesn’t harbour a trenchant hatred for the modern world; he only wants to lampoon it. He’s as immersed in popular culture as anyone his age. For Crumb, such familiarity would be unthinkable. Distance distinguishes Crumb almost as much as his fetish for big butts. There’s a fissure in his heart. It’s not so with Ben. He’s almost effusive about his love for his mum. He only holds back his feelings because he’s British.
Documentary-maker Errol Morris once said: “The proper route to an understanding of the world is an examination of our errors about it.” That seems like a good axiom for those who draw (and those who look at) cartoons. A distorted reality is more accurate to what we see. Satirical cartoons have no patience for euphemism or modesty. They show us life in the raw, often nightmarish. Ralph Steadman’s drawings look like exposed nerves. The same visceral quality could be applied to Ben’s work. Let’s face it, he isn’t likely to be hired by The Beano. Sometimes he does set out to shock, but Portrait isn’t a film about sensationalism. It’s about the insatiable urge to draw. Ben can’t picture himself without cartoons.