Whatever Happened to Phil Evans?

Posted by on December 2nd, 2009 at 6:55 AM

In the old days, a left-wing sect could conduct its internal disputes in private without worrying about whether non-members had access to factional documents and the like. A major reason why police and intelligence agencies in the twentieth century placed agents inside Communist, Maoist, and Trotskyist organizations was precisely to acquire the financial reports, position papers, and so on that circulated exclusively among party members. Part of the appeal of joining a left sect was that it guaranteed access to the same documents that government informers worked so assiduously to acquire.

In the age of the Internet, dense texts intended for party cadre are finding their way to a whole new audience of political trainspotters. Ensuring that internal documents remain restricted to a select few is increasingly difficult now that the very distinction between “private” and “public” forms of political discourse is breaking down. The current factional dispute inside Britain’s Socialist Workers Party is a case in point. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I attended numerous SWP public events as a credulous young person, the idea that I could read what the Central Committee was saying to its membership without paying dues and pouring myself into party activity would have seemed absurd. The lines between outsider, sympathizer, member-in-good-standing, and former member were solid. If the party were undergoing some sort of internal crisis, I would not have known about it. At most there would have been a few whispered rumors. The grown ups were in charge.

All that has changed. While the SWP continues to crank out Internal Bulletins during its “pre-conference discussion period,” the bitter feud between the so-called “Left Platform,” led by John Rees and Lindsey German, and the SWP’s Central Committee, has spilled onto the nets. Anyone with a modem can peruse the October and November 2009 bulletins for herself, courtesy of the SWP’s micro-rival, the Communist Party of Great Britain, and plenty of bloggers have weighed in as well. The relevant links are here http://cpgb.org.uk/worker/790/formationof.php and here http://www.cpgb.org.uk/worker/794/index.php. Also of interest are the recent posts of the Irish blogger Splintered Sunrise, who writes with flair on the far left, as well as Catholicism, republicanism, and the Irish media – but not cartooning, alas: http://splinteredsunrise.wordpress.com/. Splinty’s posts on the internal state of the Socialist Workers Party are almost medical in their diagnosis of tensions inside the party. SWP loyalists must be in a condition of postmodern agony as they watch their narrowcast polemics scrutinized and satirized by commentators who quite often lack any sort of sympathy for the party’s distinctive traditions and the Sisyphean labors of its aging leadership.

Sadly, while I can find loads of information on the web about the SWP kafuffle, I can barely find anything concerning the party’s one-time cartoonist, the masterful Phil Evans. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, and the number of relevant Google images and links is tiny. For all intents and purposes Evans has fallen off the map. If anyone reading this has contact information, please let me know. I would dearly love to interview him for the Journal. It seems likely he dropped out of the SWP sometime in the eighties or early nineties. I suspect his sardonic sense of humor was an imperfect fit with the “all oars in the water” culture of unorthodox Trotskyism. He still seems to be drawing cartoons; there are a few recent pieces of his featured on a U.K. site called Advice Now (http://www.advicenow.org.uk/). I’ve contacted the site, in hopes of tracking him down. But the web is not exactly overflowing with samples of his work.

And yet, along with Steve Bell and Donald Rooum (interviewed in The Comics Journal numbers 272 and 247 respectively), Phil Evans is one of the most compelling visual satirists to comment on British politics in the past half-century. His career gives new meaning to the phrase “underrated.” His pen-and-ink drawings mainly appeared in SWP periodicals, most notably the weekly Socialist Worker. But they also turned up in numerous U.K. trade union publications in the seventies and eighties. His work was at one time highly regarded among labor movement activists, but invisible even then to many fans of English political cartooning. For American readers, the only plausible point of entry into Evans’ work would have been Trotsky for Beginners, published in 1980, with text by Tariq Ali, or Marx’s Kapital for Beginners, published two years later with text by David Smith. Amazon has plenty of used copies of both, starting at $2.89 and $4.50 respectively.

The sole collection of Evan’s cartoons – The Joke Works: The Political Cartoons of Phil Evans – is long out of print. The title is a pun; in England, “works” can mean “factory” as well as “succeeds.” Published in 1982, with a foreword by the essayist David Widgery, The Joke Works is filled with editorial cartoons and comic strips that pit gormless toffs against telly watchers, longhaired teenagers, and blue collar workers. The book is not particularly well organized or laid out, and it includes awkwardly designed adverts for long-forgotten magazines. The introduction by the book’s coeditor, Steve Irons, is painfully didactic in places. Yet The Joke Works merits a special place in my comics bookcase. In my next post I hope to suggest a few reasons as to why Phil Evans’ cartooning holds up nicely in a world utterly transformed by global capitalism.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.