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Alumni Q&A: Jeff Bell

16 May 2023

Jeff Bell is a political cartoonist and illustrator, currently working with the prominent New Zealand media organisation, Stuff. He was named Cartoonist of the Year in 2022 at the Voyager Media Awards and has recently illustrated two children's books, The Sad Banana and The Lonely Lemon. Jeff spoke to us about how he got started in this career and what is perhaps on the cards next.


From studying political science to creating political cartoons – combining two of your interests, how did you end up in this career?

Perseverance, mainly.

I was interested in political cartoons long before I was interested in politics. I stumbled upon political satire as a kid – Mad magazine and the TV shows Spitting Image and Public Eye captured my imagination, and the first thing I noticed in newspapers was always the political cartoons and caricatures. I loved that someone could take the mickey out of these serious adults in a really creative and funny way.

As a boy growing up going to a small school, I was a prodigious sketcher, drawn to these political cartoons and satire. What better weapon for a skinny, introverted kid, too shy to answer back to those in charge than to draw them?

At UC, I had some great lecturers who really got me interested in politics – so I could finally actually understand the satire. After completing my master's in political science, I flirted with the idea of being a political reporter – ideally in the Beehive, where all the action is. But my dream was always to be a political cartoonist.

Some of my first published political cartoons were in Canta, when I came back to UC a few years later to study journalism. I was already doing a few of these for regional newspapers, but seeing them in the student magazine I read as an undergrad, was a buzz for me. After that, I did some ‘real’ jobs – a bit of journalism, then communications and marketing. I convinced myself I’d never make a living as a cartoonist – too few positions in New Zealand, and the working ones were not leaving their positions anytime soon. But in 2013, The Listener and the New Zealand Cartoon Archive ran a Young Cartoonist competition, and that was a catalyst for me to give it a real shot.

I was one of the finalists, and it led to some work with the Dominion Post while Tom Scot was on leave. Then, in 2014 Stuff commissioned me for some political caricatures. My ‘big break’ came in 2018 when a space opened up for me to do a weekly editorial cartoon. I now do two a week, and I still pinch myself that I’m getting to do the thing I dreamed about as a boy.

You and your cousin, former rugby player Tim Bateman came together to create children’s books – the first being The Lonely Lemon and The Sad Banana – can you tell us how this project came to ‘fruit’ion?

Yeah! It’s awesome. Tim just messaged me one night that he had this project in mind and I was instantly hooked. I’d long thought about creating some children’s books but never found the right time to start (note to self: there is never a right time to start). Tim seemed to be doing it for all the right reasons – with a genuine care about mental health and wellbeing. I’d been hugely proud of Tim’s rugby career, but had no idea he was an aspiring author, so I was only too happy to help him with the creative dream. We are really happy with how the books have turned out, and the great feedback we are getting from children and their parents.

With your day-to-day work being reactionary to current events, what is your process for creating a cartoon or caricature?

The work is totally reactionary in terms of the process. There is something fun and challenging about responding to news events and putting your own spin on it. It’s a huge privilege to have a platform like that, and I don’t take it for granted.

The process takes about a day. I read/watch the news, filter the news, find the topic that is either the biggest thing, or the biggest thing to me, and then start brainstorming ideas. That can look like three coffees and a sketchpad, or a power nap where I just let my mind wander. Sometimes I bounce ideas around with a friend. I do a lot of pencil sketches, scan them, and then start digital painting on my tablet. I usually get my cartoons in just on deadline, and cross my fingers that the editors don’t want any changes – and that I don’t cause a meltdown on Twitter the next day.

Coming off the back of your Cartoonist of the Year at the 2022 Voyager Media Awards, is there anything on the creative bucket list that you hope to tick off in the next few years?

That was a huge buzz. I’m hoping to attend an international editorial cartooning conference in San Francisco later in the year. Cartooning is a lonely business – very few of us are lucky enough to work in the newsroom anymore, so a chance to hang out with other cartoonists will be cool. I love my focus on New Zealand politics because I’m passionate about it, but I’d love to try and get published further afield.

I also really enjoy writing, but have mostly put that on hiatus. In addition to writing my own children’s books, I’d like to tackle a graphic novel at some point, and maybe even some scripts for a political satire show.

Are there any experiences or memories from your time at UC that you look back on particularly fondly?

I was mostly a huge nerd. Coming out of high school I was still extremely shy and lacking in social confidence. I don’t think I made the most of my social experience at UC, but I really jumped into the academic side, and truly value some of the academics I learned from.

My lecturers were passionate about democracy, and speaking truth to power – as well as the fundamental belief that humans are decent, positive change is possible, and that’s what we should be striving for. My journalism teacher Jim Tully was the same. I think that grounding has put me in good stead for my career as a cartoonist.

I have to be a bit fearless with cartooning, because it’s almost guaranteed that every piece of work I put out there will wind someone up. Once it’s out there, it’s open to interpretation, and sometimes misinterpretation – and with social media I have very little control. Letting go of that control, and being okay with it, has been one of my biggest lessons over the last few years.  


Jeff Bell was noted to be a great ally and much-loved team member of the UC Pacific Development Team from 2015 to 2017.

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