“I’m here to make people angry”: meet Cartoonist of the Year Morten Mortland

The Sunday Times’ star illustrator on the perils of AI and being funny in a post-satire world

Described by judges as the “best political cartoonist in the UK, in a class of his own”, Morten Mortland is not just a well-received winner of the 2023 Press Awards Cartoonist of the Year crown – he has arguably done more than anyone to make his discipline relevant to a new generation of readers.

Now in his third decade producing outstanding work for the Times and Sunday Times, among other publications, he told the Press Awards about the cartoonist’s place in the world, and his advice for aspiring artists of the future.

  • Are we now in a post-satire world, and what does that mean for your role?

It is harder to satirise when, in order to have satire you have to have a sort of basic truth. When you take away that element of truth, which politicians often do now – with examples being Boris Johnson, who can just say whatever, and [Donald] Trump to even more of an extreme – it becomes harder to make it even crazier than it actually is in reality. 

At the same time, the best thing about being a satirist when there are populists in charge, is that tyrants get really offended, and that's quite pleasing. When people are angry and you have hit a nerve, that's what we are there for. You want a reaction, whether people find it really funny or get really annoyed. It means you've done the job, and you can't please everyone all the time.

We attack whoever's in power – it doesn't matter who it is. We’ve had the Tories for 13 years, so everyone thinks all cartoonists are raging lefties but it's just because they're the ones in power.

  • What’s the hardest aspect of your job nowadays?

News today is moving faster. You have to do much more – the cartoon has to be done straight away and with social media and Twitter in particular, with memes and things like that, you're competing for gags. Stuff is out immediately and you're sitting there drawing with pen and ink still. The joke has already been done.

I thought the natural thing for that would be [to move into] animation. I can create animations really quickly, but it still takes a couple of days, and obviously that is not ideal for newspapers if you're trying to respond to things. It's also a massive technical hurdle to learn – not just the software, but to learn how to animate. Then you have the voice artists, and all the costs involved, which are much too high for most newspapers. So the simple cartoon is still ideal for modern media, because it's instant.” 

  • What’s the toughest type of story to illustrate?

Disaster stories are the absolute hardest to do, particularly terror attacks or things like natural disasters. It's quite hard to know, do you do something about that? 

This is where the political cartoons I do are different from gag cartoons. And sometimes people just don't appreciate that. There are always some people who think that when you've done something about a sensitive topic, even if it's done in a tasteful manner, you're trying to make fun of it.

The best things to draw are the big characters like Trump and Boris, because they are so easily recognisable you can make them into anything. You get so much freedom in the drawing and ideas process because you're not restricted to having to show the likeness – people will know who they are straight away.

  • Do you worry about AI infringing on your role?

I think there's definitely a problem when you could just say ‘draw this in the style of this’, and that becomes the norm. I have a slightly naive faith that it won't come to that. With any creative profession, you need an element of humanity. I don’t think AI would connect with people in the same way.

  • How did get your break?

It was kind of a fluke. I studied journalism first, then studied to become a graphic designer. I was drawing cartoons and illustrations for newspapers just to make a bit of money. I got interested in political cartooning through that and wrote my dissertation about it. 

I got an interview with Peter Brooks at the Times for my dissertation, and as luck would have it, they needed someone to cover the Christmas period. And so they asked if I could do three cartoons for them. I did them and they asked if I would do it every week. And I have stayed ever since.

  • What advice would you give someone starting out now?

Don't set out to be a political cartoonist, become a political illustrator. Then you can focus on getting a broader range of work, but there is definitely work out there for people who can do caricatures and have knowledge of political stories.

  • Is there a future for political cartoonists?

It's really hard to tell. Everyone's a comedian now and everyone's a satirist on social media, so it has become much more democratic. The hard bit is how to get paid in this day and age and how to do it for a living. 

But as long as we have politicians, we need people making fun of them. That’s never going to go away, whether it is people sitting at home drawing pictures or creating memes and putting them online. Hopefully, newspapers will keep seeing the value in having that segment because I think it's important. I think readers like it as well.