Margaret Thatcher by Steve Bell
Episode of ‘If’, caricaturing UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Labour politician Michael Foot.

Steve Bell is a British political cartoonist, known as one of his country's sharpest graphic commentators. For four decades, he was one of the house cartoonists of the newspaper The Guardian, where his work occasionally irritated thin-skinned politicians and was victim of censorship. Bell is best known for his long-running series 'If...' (1981-2021), which combines political satire with a comic strip format. Earlier in his career, he also drew children's comics, as well as the political comic strip 'Maggie's Farm' (1979-1987) for the magazine Time Out, ridiculing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. 

Early life and career
Steve Bell was born in 1951 in Walthamstow, a town East of London, but he grew up in Slough, near the West of the city. His father was an engineer. From a young age, Bell enjoyed drawing. Among his graphic influences were Leslie Illingworth, Trog (Wally Fawkes), James Gillray, William Hogarth, George Cruikshank, David Low, Ronald Searle, E.C. Segar, Leo Baxendale and Robert Crumb. Bell studied art at the Teesside College of Art, but disliked the school's "narrow definition of art". Instead, he studied art and film at Leeds University, where he met future cartoonist Kipper Williams, who became one of his lifelong friends. After graduation in 1974, Bell then got his teaching certificate from St. Luke's College in Exeter, after which he taught art at a secondary school in Birmingham. However, Bell quit after only one year, since an authoritarian job with a specific dress code wasn't his thing. 

Moving House by Steve Bell
'Moving House' (From: Shiver and Shake Annual 1980).

Early comics
Encouraged by his girlfriend (and future wife), Bell tried out cartooning. In 1977, he applied with the children's comic magazine The Beano, but was rejected. Nevertheless, he kept their rejection letter, feeling honored that they at least sent him a reply. That same year, his comic strip 'Maxwell the Mutant: Marauding the Midlands' (1977) saw print in the alternative paper Birmingham Broadside. He signed it with "S. Bell". The story revolves around a man who could mutate in whoever and whatever he wants. His rival, Neville Worthyboss, was a thinly veiled caricature of the head of the local city council, Neville Bosworth. Through his cartoonist friend Kipper Williams, Bell found work at the children's magazine Whoopee, for which he made the short-lived comic 'Dick Doobie, The Back to Front Man' (April- September 1978). Another children's magazine, Jackpot, printed his comic 'Gremlins', about a gang of mischievous ink blots. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bell's comics also ran in the children's magazine Cheeky and more adult-oriented publications like The Journalist, New Society, The New Statesman, Punch, Private Eye, The Radio Times and Social Work Today, The Spectator. 

Maggie's Farm
While Bell enjoyed drawing children's comics, he was more interested in politicial cartoons. The 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister and her conservative administration increased his social consciousness. When Time Out magazine looked for a cartoonist who could satirize Thatcher, Bell created the political comic strip 'Maggie's Farm' (1979-1987). The title was reference to the Bob Dylan song of the same name. 'Maggie's Farm' was popular enough to become Bell's breakthrough and was later transferred to another magazine, City Limits, where it ran until 1987. Several compilation books have been published: 'Maggie's Farm' (Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 'Further Down Maggie's Farm and Other Stories' (Penguin, 1982) and 'Maggie's Farm - The Last Roundup' (Methuen 1987).

Lord God Almighty
For the left-wing magazine The Leveller, Bell made the comic strip 'Lord God Almighty' (1980-1981). This blasphemous gag comic starred God as a cranky character who swears a lot and has utter contempt for mankind. His secretary Gabe serves as an adviser and carries out all the dirty jobs and complicated things the Heavenly Father couldn't be bothered with doing himself. Bell later used God as a recurring character in his 'If...' feature too. 

Ivan Meets G.I. Joe
In 1980, Bell drew a visual interpretation of the song 'Ivan Meets G.I. Joe' by the British punk band The Clash. The song's Cold War-inspired lyrics were adapted into a comic strip, printed in the sleeve of The Clash's album 'Sandinista!' (1980). Another graphic artist who has collaborated with The Clash was Derek Boshier.

Ivan Meets GI Joe by Steve Bell
'Ivan Meets G.I. Joe'.

While Bell was unsuccesful in applying for a cartoonist job with The Guardian in the late 1970s, the success of his 'Maggie's Farm' comic caught the attention of The Guardian's design editor Mike McNay. Bell was invited to make a similar political comic series for The Guardian, giving him complete creative freedom. On 2 November 1981, the first episode of Bell's signature comic 'If...' saw print. The title referenced Rudyard Kipling's iconic poem 'If...'. The main character, Reginald Kipling, shares his name with the famous poet and novelist, but is otherwise different in personality. In the spring of 1982, during the Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina, 'If...' found its form. Like many people who were critical of Thatcher's administration, Bell felt this war over a couple of tiny islands was ludicrous and an unneccessary waste of lives. He moved the action of 'If...' to The Falkland Isles, where the socialist Reginald Kipling becomes a marine officer. Bell gave him a talking penguin for a sidekick. In sharp contrast with Kipling, the bird is a conservative capitalist. Over the course of decades, storylines in 'If...' mirrored current affairs. Real-life politicians had frequent unflattering cameos, including Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Khomeini, Henry Kissinger, George Bush Sr. and Jr. and Donald Trump. The final episode of 'If...' was published on 29 April 2021. The Guardian's budget cuts were the main reason for its cancellation, though Bell has remained on board as an editorial cartoonist for the paper.

'If...' has been compiled in various books, namely 'The If... Chronicles' (Methuen, 1983), 'If... Only Again' (Methuen Publishing, 1984), 'Another Load of If...' (Methuen, 1985), 'The Unrepeatable If...' (Methuen, 1986), 'If... Bounces Back' (Methuen, 1987), 'If... Breezes In' (Methuen, 1988), 'The Vengeance of If...' (Methuen, 1989), 'The Revolutionary If...' (Methuen, 1990), 'If... Kicks Butt' (Methuen, 1991), 'If... Goes Down the John' (Methuen, 1992), 'If... Bottoms Out' (Methuen, 1993), 'The Big If...' (Methuen, 1995), 'The If... Files' (Methuen, 1997), 'Unstoppable If...' (Methuen Publishing, 2001), 'Unspeakable... If...' (Methuen, 2003), If... Marches On' (Methuen Publishing, 2006) and 'If... Bursts Out' (Jonathan Cape, 2010). 'If... The Graphic Novel' (Jonathan Cape, 2015) has a cover that parodies the 'Tintin' story 'The Cigars of the Pharaoh'. 

If... by Steve Bell
Episode of 'If', caricaturing U.S. President George Bush Jr. in conflict between his lying tongue and his talking ass.

Political cartoons
Apart from 'If...', Bell also contributed one-panel cartoons, forcing him for a long time to reach two deadlines a day. From 1990 until 1993, he made two to three daily cartoons a week. Between 1993 and 2017, he raised the number to four cartoons a week, before bringing it back to three again. Since 1997, he occasionally published in color, until in 2006 all of Bell's cartoons were printed in full color. To observe his targets in real life, he often visited political party conferences. Some of his graphic reports of these party meetings have also been printed in The Guardian. In Bell's opinion, seeing the politicians live in action inspires him to spot small details in their physical features, which he didn't notice in photographs or news footage. One such example was the "psychotic glint" in the eye of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He also gave Margaret Thatcher a popping eyeball, drew Prime Minister John Major with his underpants outside of his trousers and depicted U.S. President George Bush Jr. as a chimpanzee. Bell also famously portrayed Prime Minister David Cameron as a talking condom. According to Daily Mirror journalist Alastair Campbell, he once indeed observed Major tucking his shirt into his underpants. And Major's biographer, Anthony Seldon, confirmed that Major was aware of Bell's cartoon portrayal of him. In the words of the Prime Minister, it "was nonsense (...) intended to destabilise me and so I ignore it." 

Together with photographer Brian Homer, who also designed the 'If...' books, Bell published 'Waiting for the Upturn' (Methuen, 1986), a mix between a humorous cartoon and a photo book, starring two men who try to make a profit in an offshore, post-industrial wasteland. A compilation of Bell's cartoons from the period 1988-1991 is 'Funny Old World' (Methuen, 1991), set to humorous verses by Roger Woddis. British politics between 1990 and 1994 are chronicled in 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' (Methuen, 1994). Together with satirical columnist Simon Hoggart, Bell published the book 'Live Briefs' (Methuen, 1996), while with Brian Homer he brought out 'Chairman Blair's Little Red Book' (Methuen, 2001), mocking U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair was ridiculed again in 'My Vision For A New You' (Methuen Humour, 2006). Steve Bell's cartoons about George Bush Jr. have been collected in 'Apes of Wrath' (Methuen Humour, 2004), while British Labour politician Jeremy Corbyn is mocked in 'Corby: The Resurrection' (Guardian Faber Publishing, 2018). Cartoons poking fun at French politicians were compiled in 'Bell Brochette. Les Présidents de la République Française' (2020), the official catalogue for the traveling exposition 'Bell Brochette - Les Presidents de la Republique Française Vus Par Steve Bell', curated by Olivier Auvray. 

A compilation of two decades' worth of Bell's cartoons is 'Bell's Eye' (Methuen, 1999). An updated edition was brought out in 2011, 'Bell Epoque' (Cartoon Museum, 2011), which was also the catalogue for an exhibition at the Cartoon Museum. The book features written contributions by Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame), Nicholas Garland, Geoffrey Strachan and Simon Hoggart. 

Cartoon by Steve Bell
Episode of ‘If’, depicting UK Prime Minister Tony Blair gradually transforming into Margaret Thatcher’s face. A criticism of his policies mirroring hers more than his own party ideology.

Bell's merciless style often caused controversy. A 1982 episode of 'If...', which poked fun at Pope John Paul II and Khomeini, was refused publication. A 1983 cartoon depicting Henry Kissinger as a giant turkey with a German accent was taken to the Press Council. Five years later, a speaker in the House of Lords condemned a cartoon about Ronald Reagan as "obscene". After drawing a pièta with Margaret Thatcher as the Virgin Mary and John Major as Jesus, while Catholic and Conservative politician John Gummer looks on, Gummer wrote a letter of protest to The Guardian. He stated that "Steve Bell's perversions" were "degrading". Reportedly, Blair's deputy PM John Prescott told a friend that if Bell ever came to a party conference he would "head-butt" him. In The Guardian, few cartoons by Bell was ever refused publication: in the early 1990s, he depicted Prime Minister John Major as a turd, an image that was rejected out of "good taste". Another paper, The New Statesman, actually fired Bell over a cover depicting Tony Blair's brain in a food-processor. 

A 2012 cartoon depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu using British politicians Tony Blair and William Hague as glove puppets was condemned by some for being antisemitic, which Bell strongly denied. On 16 March 2015, the Guardian received more than 300 angry readers' letters, caused by a comic strip by Bell mocking Scottish politicians Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. The comic in question depicts Sturgeon and Salmond defending the "core demand" of their party: "incest and Scottish Country Dancing". Between 3 and 6 April 2017, Bell caused another stir with a comic strip about politician Ken Livingstone. Livingstone had been banned from the Labour Party after claiming that in 1932, Hitler wanted to export all Jews to Israel, making him technically a Zionist. For several days in a row, Bell depicted Livingstone being put on trial in a literal kangaroo court. The kangaroo judge claims he's guilty for "mentioning Hitler too often" and "bringing the Kangaroo Party into disrepute". When Livingstone points out that he is in a kangaroo court, the marsupial condemns him for using a "blatant antisemitic stereotype". On 25 June 2018, The Guardian refused to print a cartoon by Bell depicting Netanyahu and British Prime Minister Theresa May sitting by a fireplace, with the face of Palestinian nurse Rouzan Al-Najjar in the flames. Al-Naijar had been shot by a Israeli soldier. The cartoon was censored because an editor thought the fireplace was a reference to Nazi camp ovens and the Holocaust. Bell found this interpretation so far-fetched that he went public with the news of his censorship.

On 18 July 2019, a cartoon by Bell that ridiculed Labour politician Tom Watson as a witch hunter seeking "unholy antisemitic tropes" also caused controversy. Watson was portrayed next to Netanyahu, who holds two plush puppets, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump and politician Boris Johnson. Earlier that year, in April 2019, two cartoons in The New York Times that also satirized Netanyahu, by respectively António and Roar Hagen, were accused of antisemitism as well. In António's case, he was fired and The New York Times announced it would no longer publish political cartoons.

On 9 June 2020, U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel gave a speech in the House of Commons about her personal experiences with racism. She named a cartoon by Steve Bell from The Guardian in which she was depicted as a fat cow. As a woman of Ugandan-Indian descent, she felt this drawing was "not only racist, but offensive, both culturally and religiously", given that in Hindu faith cows are considered holy animals. In October of that same year, Bell drew a cartoon parodying Caravaggio's painting 'The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist', only with Labour politician Keir Starmer offering party leader Jeremy Corbyn's head on a platter. The drawing referred to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission who had condemned the Labour Party of having broken equality laws regarding its handling of antisemitism. After Corbyn stated that the problem was "dramatically overstated", he was instantly suspended. Various readers complained about the cartoon for different reasons. Some disliked that Corbyn had been depicted as a martyr, others felt the imagery was antisemitic. Again others felt that depicting a decapitation was "insensitive", regarding a then current incident where a French teacher, Samuel Paty, had been murdered by one of his students. Bell stated that the cartoon was more about the fact that he considered Corbyn's suspension to be a disproportionate punishment. 

Art by Steve Bell
Episode of 'If', showing Thatcher using Blair as a ventriloquist's dummy. The first two lines are a reference to a misquotation of French president François Mitterrand, who is said to have described Thatcher as having "the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe", while he actually said she had the "eyes of Stalin and the voice of Marilyn Monroe".

Media adaptations
Together with Bob Godfrey, Bell made the animated cartoon series, 'Margaret Thatcher - Where Am I Now?' (1999) for Channel 4.

Graphic contributions
Steve Bell was one of several cartoonists to make a contribution to 'Spitting Image. The Giant Komic Book' (Pyramid Book Ltd & Octopus Publishing Group, 1988), a comic book based on the satirical puppet TV show 'Spitting Image' by Peter Fluck and Roger Law

In 1984, Bell was voted "Humorous Strip Cartoonist of the Year". He won the What the Papers Say award for "Cartoonist of the Year" (1993) and the Premio Satira Politica Grafica Estera ("First Prize for Political Satire by a Foreign Graphic Artist'", 1993) in Forte Dei Marmi, Italy. In 2001, he was bestowed with the "Political Cartoon Society Cartoon of the Year Award" and named "Cartoonist of the Year" twice, respectively in 2005 and 2007. In 2002, the British Press Awards named him "Cartoonist of the Year", while Channel 4 gave him the "Political Humour Award" (2005) and the Political Studies Association bestowed him with the "Best Political Satire Award" (2005). Bell additionally won the Cartoon Arts Trust Award eight times and received honorary degrees from the University of Sussex, Teesside, Loughborough, Leeds and Brighton. 

His work has been exhibited in The United States, France, Germany, Sweden, Syria, Lebanon, Palestina, Jordan, Egypt and New Zealand. 

Legacy and influence
Steve Bell was a strong influence on Ian Knox.

Thatcher and Reagan by Steve Bell
President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Series and books by Steve Bell you can order today:


If you want to help us continue and improve our ever- expanding database, we would appreciate your donation through Paypal.