GALLERY, VIDEO: The rebel behind the Mercury's cartoons

Vince O’Farrell uses his mighty pencil to bring pollies down a notch or two and cope with bipolar disorder.

Few people would get more satisfaction out of their job than Vince O’Farrell. As the Mercury’s long-time cartoonist, he gets to take the mickey out of Canberra’s most powerful on a daily basis. 

"Politicians are authority figures. Any chance I get to give them a serve, I go for it," he says.

O’Farrell has always had an aversion to authority. 

The Queensland-born artist found atheism after years of physical abuse at the hands of Catholic educators and failed high-school art three years running.

As an adult, he wouldn’t join a rock band, a common refuge for subversive types, because he preferred to do his own thing. Every part of his being has been based on not doing what others tell him.

He even tackles bipolar disorder with the same irreverence he would anything trying to control him.

"You’ve got to make jokes out of very dark, black feelings," he says. "This isn’t the sort of thing that works for everybody with a mental illness, but I find if you can laugh about it, you start hitting it in the face and treating it with some disrespect."

The seeds of his rebellion were sewn in school, where O’Farrell was violently tormented by the nuns and Marist Brothers for writing with the '‘devil’s hand'’.

"’Sinistre’ or a derivation of that Latin word was accompanied by a whack across the left hand knuckles,” O’Farrell says. “But I could only write with my left hand so the punishment continued and if the poor old dears were having a bad day, there was hell to pay.

“At the Good Counsel College, the raps across the knuckles were replaced with slaps to the back that would really take the wind out of your sails. Or just a straight out caning, always to the left hand.”

While he came to detest school and religion, his teachers unwittingly sparked a brilliant career. With a sharp BS detector, a gift for drawing and a love of Australian artist Paul Rigby’s meticulously drawn black and white political cartoons, a young O’Farrell turned to caricature warfare. Nuns, brothers, priests and fellow students were all skewered on this schoolboy’s pencil. After numerous threats of expulsion, the principal made good on his word before O’Farrell could finish his HSC.

Vince's illustration The Roth Monster.

What came next was a disastrous stint as a plumber, a successful gig in radio and, after a move to Sydney, an entrepreneurial shot at T-shirt screen-printing. In 1986, O’Farrell accepted a position as an editorial cartoonist at the Illawarra Mercury, where he’s stayed put for almost 30 years, knocking the high and mighty off their perches with a spin on politics that varies from wickedly funny to darkly poignant. 

There have been lucrative offers from US broadsheets over the years but Wollongong gives O’Farrell the stability he needs to live with the illness he calls a "formidable foe".

He is candid about his struggle with bipolar disorder, describing moods that oscillate from intense joy, and with it obsessive spending and a thousand racing thoughts, to terrible lows marked by despair and even catatonia. 

In 2004 he experienced the first of 23 hospitalisations, the last of which was in April this year. Despite the best drugs modern medicine has to offer and 20 sessions of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), bipolar episodes "still come to visit like some annoying, unwanted relative".

His decline is unusually swift and his recovery just as abrupt. A noise can bring it on and a single sound or piece of music can break its crippling hold over him.

When he’s well, O’Farrell is warm, witty, unnervingly observant and guaranteed to turn in another sharp satire of the day’s major talking point.

He starts absorbing the news of the day - from the serious to the silly - well before sun-up. By the time he walks into the newsroom of an afternoon, a complete picture has formed in his head and he’s ready to draw. The next three hours are spent in a mostly meditative state in which his surroundings fade away and it’s just a thoroughly focused, relaxed process of drawing and shading.

O’Farrell has retreated to this private artistic place for as long as he can remember. His childhood fascination with drawing was kindled by his dad’s sketches of WW2 fighter planes, as well as Disney comics and the old Batman with his trunks pulled halfway to his chest - typically childish delights to deal with terribly adult feelings. Psychologists now believe that drawing was a way for a young Vince to cope with the early onset of the disorder and its confusing periods of intense joy and darkness. 

''Art is an escape mechanism, where you go into a fantasy world and build something that’s outside of this place," he says. ''It’s not like you can go down to the pub and have four or five schooners and make yourself feel better when you’re four years old. So that’s what I did, I started to draw.''

The resilient youngster would soon discover another coping strategy - and lifelong passion - in the wonder of music.

“The favourite song on my hit list was 'Long Tall Texan' by Jerry Woodard,” he recalls. ''I remember music inducing euphoria in me, which I again found out to be part of the early development of bipolar mania. I can still hear those same songs today and get a euphoric kick, one of only a few pluses from manic depression.''

It was the ’60s and the Monkees had a TV show, the Beatles and Stones ruled the airwaves and O’Farrell had Barry Ryan’s track ''Eloise'' on high rotation. He discovered Mad magazine, the bizarre and risqué world of Illustrator Robert Crumb and, momentously, the weirdo work of cult hero Ed ''Big Daddy'' Roth.

It was while following Australian Post magazine’s Ettamogah Pub cartoon series that O’Farrell first set eyes on the single greatest influence on his art. Full page ads featuring the T-shirt art of Ed Roth.

''Ed Roth built the wildest looking hot rods on the planet,” he explains. ''He also drew the wildest looking monsters driving cartoon versions of his creations.

''Imagine big googly bloodshot eyes, all teeth and tongue. Warts, purples and green skin, veiny muscled arms clutching gear sticks made from bones and skulls. Huge super-charged V8s belching fire. Big fat tyres spinning wildly, all of it airbrushed to perfection.”

Ed Roth’s art was available on T-shirts and bubblegum cards, and O’Farrell jokes that he must have chewed his way through half the world’s supply of gum in the late ’60s and early ’70s to get his hands on Rat Fink and co.

''Ed’s most infamous creation was the character Rat Fink,'' he says. ''Imagine a rodent crossed with Louie The Fly and a pit bull. He was the antithesis of Mickey Mouse and his image adorns T-shirts and hot rods to this day.''

The art was riotously funny. And so it would be for O’Farrell, only instead of monsters and bubblegum inserts it was hollowmen and newspapers.

Equally life-altering was O’Farrell’s introduction to Rolling Stone magazine, and in turn the pioneers of the rock'n'roll poster - Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley and Rick Griffin. 

O’Farrell collected the albums of Jimi Hendrix, the Steve Miller Band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Quicksilver Messenger Service - not only for the music but for the trippy cover art.

''The works contained psychedelic art and lettering that swirled like smoke from a puff on a happy cigarette,'' he says. ''The concert poster ads were stark black and white in print form, but years later when I tracked down the works online and saw them in gloriously revived colour my jaw dropped again.''

The pop culture influences jump out of O’Farrell’s vivid cartoons, but he prefers the good old days of black and white, before the digital revolution erased the need for hours of hand-rendered cross-hatching.

''I like to draw, I like to give people something to look at as well as some kind of message.''

For a rebel with a slot in a daily newspaper, O’Farrell shows admirable restraint when it comes to the message. He mostly keeps his quarrel with the Pope to himself and considers himself an equal-opportunity lampooner. He’s prepared to offend people - he has the death threats to prove it - but it’s one of his trade rules not to employ too many personal views.  

"You’ve got to cater to as many people as possible. It’s like any mass-produced item - find the middle ground so that it’s acceptable, but at the same time unacceptable. 

''The best satirical comment is about 99 per cent true and there’s only that little bit of poison in there that makes the difference.''

Looking back, O’Farrell wouldn’t change a thing. If being free of the bipolar meant giving up the creative part of himself, he’s adamant he would keep it. 

''I’ve been doing this [cartoons] and getting paid for 35 years,'' he says. ''I’ve been here 26 of them and I haven’t really had a job for 26 years. There’s never been one day, even when I’ve been quite ill, where I’ve thought 'God, I’ve got to go to work today’ - because it’s not really a job.

''One of the more important psychological tools needed in dealing with bipolar disorder is acceptance. And I’ve accepted I’m stuck with it, I’ll be back into hospital again, but life goes on.

''In the meantime, I’ll draw cartoons, listen to and play music and marvel at the brilliance of the work of all the great artists who’ve inspired me over the years, especially Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth.'' 

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