Phil Evans: Once More With Feeling

Posted by on January 18th, 2010 at 7:46 AM

In previous posts – “Whatever Happened to Phil Evans?” and “The Return of Phil Evans” – I introduced Journal readers to one of the overlooked political cartoonists of the past half-century, the English socialist Phil Evans. Evans has pretty much disappeared down time’s rabbit hole, and the likelihood that a contemporary fan of editorial cartooning would randomly stumble across his name is slim. He is still drawing cartoons, mainly for social service organizations in Britain, but his heyday as a political cartoonist was during the extended aftermath of the tumultuous 1960s.

Above is a paradigmatic Evans cartoon from the early 1970s that first appeared in Socialist Worker and was reprinted in The Joke Works (1982). In a single cartoon, Evans sums up the classical Marxist conception of the labor process: the worker may be a slave to the machine, but he is also a conscious human being.  On one level, the guy handling the equipment is a mere factor of production, but, on the other, his reflections cut through the illusions of official society. He’s no dummy; rather than being fashionably cynical, his comments about students are refreshingly blunt.

The cartoon tells its story from inside the labor process, from an explicitly blue collar point of view. Most editorial cartoonists see “politics” as something that concerns politicians and other prominent individuals, as something practiced in legislative chambers and presidential debates. Evans starts from the assumption that the experience of work itself is a fundamentally political question.

Like many Phil Evans cartoons, this one features Norman, a manual worker in his late twenties who usually turned up in a strip titled Our Norman. Norman probably left school around the age of 15 and has been in full-time employment ever since. He is a metalworker, or what the English confusingly call an “engineer.” As signified by his long hair, Norman is a member of the generation that came of age in the late sixties. He is part of rebellious wave of younger workers that Stanley Aronowitz wrote about, in the U.S. context, in False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness (1973). He is full of untapped potential.

Norman may be young, but he is old enough to be haunted by the question of what the future holds:

Is a busted clock the best he can look forward to? (Click on any image for a larger version.)

As it happens, creaky machinery is one of Evans’ favorite visual tropes, and he wrings comedic gold by placing his characters amidst ramshackle equipment. At the same time, Evans recognizes that labor power can achieve marvelous things, even if, as Norman discovers in the following strip, the market doesn’t always reward the artistic impulse:

Our Norman recalls a time when metalworkers and their families constituted a meaningful fraction of the English population as a whole. The strip’s creator could reasonably assume that most of his readers would have some appreciation for what it was like to work in a factory after leaving school at an early age. Norman was a genial everyman for a country with a large, traditional working class. He was a union member, and his shop steward was one of the good guys. Norman was not part of a workforce you could just push around.

That said, Norman lacked confidence in his own abilities. His failure to seize the day – to become a working class hero – was a source of both comedy and tragedy. Evans’ stance toward his trademark character is sympathetic, but at times a little impatient. Evans doesn’t think Norman is thick – not in the slightest – but he does feel that Norman and his ilk are a little passive.

Quite a few of Evans’ cartoons are concerned with this question of working class passivity. A few blamed the political system for failing to offer real choices:

Others identified popular attitudes toward socialism as a significant factor in propping up the status quo:

And here:

Slick ruling class salesmanship was a problem:

As was ruling class privilege:

Gender-based divisions within the working class also posed an obstacle:

As did revisionism in one guise or another:

The cartoon above is more recent than the other examples I’ve reprinted here, and almost certainly dates to the late 1980s or 1990s. While the others were scanned from The Joke Works, “The Man Who Decided to Redefine Socialism” is taken from the Inveresk Street Ingrate blog (many thanks). I can’t tell you where it first appeared. But I can point to the Dalek in the second panel, which by itself suggests that the sculptural revisionist is up to no good.

Evans’ linework seems to have become softer and fuzzier since he quit the Trot left. Furthermore, the tone or mood of the recent-ish examples offered by google images is generally more wistful than his earlier work. SWP loyalists would point to these distinctions and argue he was simply a better cartoonist when he was a party member. The truth is there aren’t enough examples of his post-1980s work on the web to draw any definitive conclusions. He certainly hasn’t lost his sense of humor, as demonstrated by this rather sweet graphic from the 1990s:

What distinguishes Phil Evans’ 1970s-era cartooning is its remarkable confidence in the forward march of the masses. His work from that period anticipated a time when a confident and united working class could seize the levers of power. At some point even Norman was going to get with the program. Blood would spill, and heads would roll:

While I’m not persuaded by the whole “on the day of the revolution” scenario, I find Phil Evans’ work compelling. I can picture an editor at the Telegraph, or the Spectator, perusing a stack of classic Evans cartoons and musing to himself, “confounded blighter  - why can’t one of our chaps approach him?”

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