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November 28, 2022

Ron Cobb’s cartoons on Australia, 1972 – all missing from the mainstream obituaries

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Phillip Frazer

American graphic artist Ron Cobb drew dozens of powerful political cartoons in the 1960s and ’70s, which were published in all the emerging alternative papers of the day, across the US and Europe. He also spent time in Australia back then and did a series of commentary drawings about us and our country, which were published in the countercultural monthly The Digger, of which I was co-editor.

Ron died last week and is getting that post-mortem second wind of attention, but mostly for his later career as a superstar concept designer in Hollywood movies, including Alien (the first one, with Sigourney Weaver and the thing that pops out of John Hurt’s chest), ET, and Back to the Future.

The tourists wandering in Central Australia are unaware that the biggest US base for war-intel on foreign soil was built in the ’60s at Pine Gap. Whitlam’s threat to reveal the base’s secret spy functions contributed to his overthrow in 1975.

Last Thursday the Sydney Morning Herald ran almost two pages on Ron’s sci-fi art, and never mentioned his acerbic political cartoons, even though some of his best were about Australia.

Cobb’s cartoons featured impeccable caricatures and startling settings – rendered in an amazing variety of hatchings, cross and otherwise. He said he wanted to expose the brutal repressions of his government – Nixon’s America – and of the ruling conservative culture of that period. His broadsides against his country’s imperial ways still seethe with righteous anger.

In 1972, with the war in Vietnam at its peak, Robin Love of the Australian Union of Students invited Cobb to tour our universities, sharing the stage with another American dissident, troubadour Phil Ochs. Since their tour coincided with the launch of Australia’s counter-cultural newspaper, The Digger, I invited Ron to draw some of his perceptions of Australia for us.

Roadkill was Ron’s first piece submitted to The Digger on Australia published in
September 1972.

His first submission was a single panel depicting an 18-wheeler truck disappearing on an endless highway through the desert, leaving an Indigenous man and a big red roo in its dust – fellow roadkill of White Australia. The sign on the side of the highway doesn’t say where it’s going, it doesn’t say anything.

Each one of his single-frame cartoons had the look and the heft of a stone tablet chiselled by a sturdy fellow with a chunky beard, whose perspective was of one who sees things from above the planet. That was how Ron himself looked, and also how he saw things.

As a kid he drew spaceships, and after his brief period as a graphic commentator on American and Australian society, he returned to sci-fi, spectacularly, by designing the spaceship in that first Alien movie, and then ‘concept designing’ for many other superhit movies.

He believed sci-fi films could be more successful than cartoons at helping us see the troubles we humans can get into, and, perhaps, how to get out of them.

Ron Cobb and Robin Love got together back when the 1972 tour and The Digger were happening, and they stayed together through the intervening 48 years, living in Sydney and Los Angeles. They have a son named Nicky.

The best collections of Cobb’s cartoons were published by Wild & Woolley in Sydney, run by another Californian, Pat Woolley, who came to visit Australia way back, and stayed.

Thanks Ron, you did good for your fellow humans, and for the planet.


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5 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks Phillip Frazer, for this great nostalgic and informative tribute.
    It can seem that lucid humour may be the only vehicle left, to stir truth where it desperately needs to be noticed.
    I note that Ron Cobb’s birth and death dates are 21st Sept.!!
    He just made it to 83.

  2. I was just wondering why in the 1960s and 70s just we had to go throught the pain of the denigration of the Australian character?
    Phillip Frazer needed a job.

  3. In the 1960’s and 70’s American graphic artist Ron Cobb did not draw his gun when he wanted to put Australians down, he drew rediclule.

  4. In the early 70s I owned a “Cobb Book” of his illustrated cartoons. I would pay a good bit to get a copy of it now. It was similar to some “Joliffe” presentations, the Larsen “Far Side” and some later “Leunig” publications.

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