Professional Heckler: The Life and Art of Duncan Macpherson by Terry Mosher

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Renowned Canadian author/journalist/broadcaster Pierre Berton once described legendary Canadian political cartoonist Duncan Macpherson as “wild, expansive, sometimes bitterly sarcastic, often wicked and totally unpredictable.”

Toronto Star writer Jack Brehl sort of echoes those sentiments, as he described his longtime friend and colleague as “enraging, hilarious, maddening, unpredictable, explosive, sudden, unusually charming, and always vital.”

Maclean’s magazine cover from 1963 showing Macpherson’s vision of Expo 67

No matter what he was like, there was no denying that throughout his 68 years of life, Duncan Macpherson may have been a roguish gentleman, but through his pen, he became Canada’s best known political cartoonist, which earned him an unprecedented six National Newspaper Awards. Whether it be for the Montreal Standard, Macleans, the Toronto Star, or his many best selling cartoon collections; whether he was mocking, deflating or criticizing targets like John Diefenbaker, Lester B. Pearson or Pierre Trudeau; or bringing to light to his millions of readers and admirers the issues of the day through his trademark “Everyman” character, Duncan Macpherson made political cartooning a vital means of transmitting the news, not to mention an art form.

And thanks to setting the standards high, Macpherson’s fluid, pointed style of political cartooning has greatly influenced generations of Canadians who gladly took up the pen and wanted to be his heir apparent, such as Len Norris, Andy Donato, Roy Peterson and Terry (“Aislin”) Mosher.

An early 70s cartoon showing how Pierre Trudeau handled Question Period in the House of Commons.

Mosher first met Macpherson in 1971, when they were covering the trial of Paul and Jacques Rose for the kidnapping and murder of Pierre Laporte the previous October, and after a round of drinks at the Montreal Press Club, struck up a friendship. This was strengthened four years later when Macpherson became one of the focal points of Mosher’s critically-acclaimed documentary about the history of political cartooning called “The Hecklers”.

After Macpherson’s death from cancer in 1993, Mosher, who has a strong sense of admiration for Macpherson the artist and the person, decided to write a long overdue book about him. But why? “Well, no one else seems to be doing it,” he writes. “People are starting to forget about Duncan and his art, and that doesn’t seem right to me. In my not always humble opinion, Macpherson drew as well, if not better, than any other Canadian artist who comes to mind. He combined the talent with a diamond-drill wit.”
So as a kind of personal mission, Mosher set out to do just that. And the result is the wonderful fitting tribute of a man and his magnificent contribution to the art of political cartooning all wrapped up in an impressive illustrated biography called Professional Heckler.

a 1961 cartoon showing Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev atop the Statue of Liberty (which earned Macpherson the National Newspaper Award).

What makes this all encompassing biography so enjoyable is that Mosher got unprecedented access to Macpherson’s vast collection of cartoons, original drawings and paintings from his family, and as an added bonus, was given permission to read a personal journal that Macpherson put together in 1984 that could have formed the basis of a memoir that never came to fruition. Add to that countless interviews that were conducted with former colleagues, family members, friends, politicians and of course past and present cartoonists, and you get a complete portrait of the two faces of Duncan Macpherson.

And there’s plenty of those two faces for the reader to enjoy.

First of all, you get to discover the evolution of the professional Macpherson. From drawing satirical cartoons of army life to disfigured RCAF pilots for a plastic surgeon during World War II, to illustrating the short stories of humorist Greg Clark for the Montreal Standard, to being the king of the cartooning hill at the Toronto Star, where no issue nor politician were safe from his pointed pen, especially Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, whose famous portrayal of “The Chief” as Marie Antoinette in 1959 in the wake of cancelling the Avro Arrow project, graces the cover of this book. 

As well, there’s a fair share of behind the scenes stories of the many cartoons that are featured in the book. My favourite story deals with Macpherson’s cartoon of a blood-splattered American flag as a commentary on the U.S. involvement in the violent coup in South Vietnam that resulted in the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem in early November 1963. The Star’s editorial board rejected the cartoon outright. However, about two weeks later, the Star decided to print the cartoon; only this time, as a commentary on the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas.

Professional Heckler: The Life and Art of Duncan Macpherson

Then there’s the private Macpherson that many readers of the Star were not aware of beyond its editorial page. Mosher offers a portrait of a man who loved his nuclear family, found refuge in the small Ontario towns of Uxbridge and Beaverton, where he live during two different phases of his life, loved to travel across Canada and around the world (which was well expressed through the many drawings that he did during his travels), his passion for boats, and of course, his fondness for bar hopping, imbibing and fighting that got him banned from the Toronto Press Club several times (and yet ended up with a lifetime membership to the place).

Professional Heckler is a fascinating book that gives Duncan Macpherson the enduring respect he so deserves as the dean of Canadian political cartooning. As well, it further reinforces Terry Mosher not only as the cartoonist who remarkably continues Macpherson’s legacy, but also his reputation as an authority of the medium that has made him and his mentor so famous. 

But the last word on the legacy of Duncan Macpherson, the man and the artist, should belong to the newspaper that was his platform for four decades … the Toronto Star, which wrote this passage in their obituary of Macpherson in May of 1993: “Duncan Macpherson’s pen was mightier than his sword — but his left hook wasn’t bad either.”

By: Stuart Nulman – [email protected]

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