He’s the enfant terrible of local political caricature with those clever ‘toons of Malema, Zuma, Mantashe in The New Age. Yes. Gasp! Jeremy “Jerm” Nell that paper. But his work alone is more than worth the daily cover price. By MANDY DE WAAL.
For a long time Jerm has called himself South Africa’s 39th best cartoonist. A darkly funny young man with a strong sense of self-irony, Jerm says there are about 40 mainstream cartoonists in South Africa. “Thankfully, I’m not as crap as the 40th one.”
But the enfant terrible of South African political caricature has been forced to revise this position after recently winning Cartoonist of the Year at the 2011 Vodacom Journalist of the Year Awards. Now if you go to Jerm’s site you’ll read: “My name is Jerm and I am South Africa’s greatest cartoonist in the history of the world since 1652.”
With a nascent career that’s six years old, Jerm’s garnering growing respect for the sharp commentary of his cartoons. It comes as no surprise that he started his career at the same newspaper as Zapiro.
“Zapiro is one of South Africa’s best cartoonists; there’s no doubt about that. But his process and my process are quite different,” says Jerm. “Firstly, we have differing political ideologies and, secondly, I’m one of the few – if not the only – mainstream South African cartoonist who works fully digitally, which certainly influences the way in which we think and work.
“Thanks to his legacy and brand, he is generally able to get away with more than most cartoonists. Unfortunately, journalists tend to feed into it by ignoring or glancing over most of our equally great – but less hyped – cartoonists, some of whom have been around longer than Zapiro,” he says.
Jerm’s one of those Linux-loving, open-source geeks who works from his home studio in Cape Town’s northern suburbs using a Wacom tablet and a 27-inch Dell UltraSharp monitor. He also has a penchant for listening to the Sex Pistols and Beastie Boys while he’s creating cartoons. “I drink coffee or alcohol, depending on the deadline. I like to work alone and pump up the volume of my music and the lunchtime news report on Cape Talk (but not at the same time). It’s difficult to explain what my process is because it changes. I get bored quickly. In fact, I’m amazed at how I manage to get anything done.”
Engaging the public discourse is important to Jerm, but it’s not the sole focus of his work. “I focus on stuff that interests me, despite it sometimes being unpopular or un-PC. I don’t know how to describe my work. I’d rather let readers do that. But I admittedly do enjoy laughter before shock.
“That said, I’m a communist capitalist. I offend all people equally, but for my own gain. If I offend people, then so be it. If I help people to laugh, then so be it. If I influence nothing or no one, then so be it. Ultimately, I am entertaining myself and, hopefully, I am entertaining my readers. And getting paid for it,” Jerm says.
Cartoons aside, Jerm’s not averse to controversy and raised more than a few eyebrows when he accepted a position at The New Age, the Gupta funded newspaper which recently hosted Zuma at a business breakfast sponsored by Telkom to the tune of R4 million.
“The newspaper received a lot of negative hype. But I’m not scared of controversy. I was granted editorial freedom and that’s all that mattered to me. Knowing the problems facing South Africa’s media – self-made problems included – I saw The New Age as an opportunity to challenge my balanced and imbalanced ideas and ideals. Regarding the Guptas, I had no interest in them then, and I have no interest in them now. Similarly, I feel the same about the owners of Avusa, Media24, and so on. They’re all businessmen who are boring, cartoonwise,” Jerm says.
When it comes to local cartoon gods, Jerm doesn’t worship any. “I don’t have one. I admire some local artists, but I prefer the ones who I can beat at Scrabble and boules. Like Rico. He can’t beat me at Scrabble or boules.
“My biggest weakness is slapstick humour like Monty Python, for example, and cartoons from decades ago, when mice smoked cigars, coyotes blew themselves up, pink panthers were squashed by fat people, rabbits dressed in drag and droopy dogs were turned on by thin women with big breasts; you know, the time when society wasn’t shoved up its own arse like it is today.”
“I’ve loved cartoons for a long time and, in all honesty, it was a big gamble trying to make a living out of it. It’s not something for which one can study and find employment. In fact, it’s actually a really stupid career choice and I won’t recommend it to kids. And I don’t need the competition.”
The breakthrough came when he was a suit, climbing the corporate ladder and hating shuffling his feet from rung to rung. “I was sitting in traffic one morning and thinking about doing a strip about sitting in traffic and people on the streets. I drew it for myself and uploaded it to my website so that I could show my friends. I deliberately focused on cultural stereotypes and sub-cultural language, which worked against me in the end. It was too politically incorrect, I was told many times.”
Despite being snapped up by The Times, Urban Trash taught Jerm that it’s not easy to succeed as an underground artist in a commercial industry. “It’s about finding that underground-commercial balance where enjoyment and money are married,” he says.
Urban Trash was dumped because of editorial complaints that it was politically too incorrect, and Jerm gave birth to those anthropomorphic toddlers called The Biggish Five, now syndicated nationally and one of the most widely published local cartoons.
This makes one wonder whether Jerm has got his eye set on The New York Times, The Guardian or any other global titles. Asked if he’s attracted any “foreign interest” yet, Jerm replied: “Yes, from a girl living in Belarus a few years ago. But she didn’t have any interest in me. Those Russian websites are misleading.” DM
Photo: Jerm parodying the Parlotones’ Kahn
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.