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

Steve Bell is one of Britain's sharpest political cartoonists. His best known work are the satirical comics 'Maggie's Farm'  (1979) and the more long-running 'If...' (1981). As of the 2010s the controversial cartoonist has brutally depicted both British and international politics for almost four decades now. His work has often been victim of censorship and occasionally irritated thin-skinned politicians.

He was born in 1951 in Walthamstow and studied art at the Teesside College of Art, graduating in this discipline and film making at Leeds University in 1974. Among his influences are Leslie Illingworth, Trog (Wally Fawkes), James Gillray, William Hogarth, George Cruikshank, David Low, Ronald Searle, E.C. Segar, Leo Baxendale and Robert Crumb. Three years after his graduation, he became an art teacher in Birmingham, but quit after only a year because the job was not what he expected from it. Encouraged by his girlfriend, he tried out cartooning. He was rejected by The Beano, but still impressed enough to preserve their rejection letter. His first comic strip, 'Maxwell the Mutant: Marauding the Midlands' was published in the alternative paper Birmingham Broadside in 1977. It featured a story about a man able to mutate in whoever he wanted. His rival, Neville Worthyboss, was a thinly veiled caricature of the head of the local city council, Neville Bosworth.

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

Thanks to a cartoonist friend, Kipper Williams, Bell found work at the magazine Whoopee, where he published the short-lived comic strip 'Dick Doobie the Back to Front Man' (1978). His strip 'Gremlins' appeared in the first issue of the magazine Jackpot. While he enjoyed making children's comics he was more drawn to making political work. With the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979, he had more than enough reasons to become more socially conscious. When Time Out looked for a cartoonist who could attack Thatcher's administration, Bell gave them the satirical comic strip 'Maggie's Farm' (1979), whose title was both a nod to Thatcher as well as the Bob Dylan song of the same name. The strip meant his breakthrough and was later transferred to City Limits magazine. Other projects he made around 1980 were the comic strip 'Lord God Almighty' for The Leveller and a cartoony adaptation of the song 'Ivan Meets G.I. Joe' by The Clash, which can be read inside the sleeve of their album 'Sandinista!'. Another graphic artist who once collaborated with The Clash was Derek Boshier.

Ivan Meets GI Joe by Steve Bell

Bell's best-known comic strip is 'If...', which has been running in The Guardian since 2 November 1981 and was named after Rudyard Kipling's iconic poem. The satirical gag strip only took off during the Falklands War (1982), when Bell got the idea to move the action of his stories to the Falkland Islands. Most episodes center around a socialist marine officer, Reginald Kipling, and a talking penguin who shares more conservative and capitalist ideas. Over the course of decades, storylines mirrored current events and had frequent unflattering cameos of real-life politicians, such as Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Khomeini, Henry Kissinger and George Bush Sr. and Jr.

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

Apart from 'If...' Bell also publishes one-panel cartoons, which forces him to reach two deadlines a day. His interest in politics is such that he often visits political party conferences to see his targets in real life. He claims it often inspired him spotting small details in their features which he didn't notice in photographs or news footage, such as "Prime Minister Tony Blair's psychotic glint in his eye". He also enjoys referencing famous classical paintings in his cartoons.

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.

His merciless style often caused controversy. In 1982 an episode of 'If...', which was poking fun at Pope John Paul II and Khomeini, was refused publication. A 1983 cartoon depicting Kissinger as a giant turkey with a German accent was taken to the Press Council. Five years later a cartoon about Ronald Reagan was condemned as being obscene by a speaker in the House of Lords. 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, feeling "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. 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. In 2015 a cartoon about British politician Nicola Sturgeon refusing to compromise the Labour Party's "core demand of incest and Scottish Country Dancing" also caused a stir.

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".

Bell has also published in Cheeky, Private Eye, New Society, Leveller, Social Work Today, NME, The Journalist and The New Statesman. The latter magazine fired him in 1999 after handing in a cover drawing depicting Tony Blair's brain in a food-processor.

Steve Bell was voted Humorous Strip Cartoonist of the Year 1984 and was honored with the same title by the British Press Awards in 2003. Together with Bob Godfrey, he made the animated cartoon series, 'Margaret Thatcher - Where Am I Now?' (1999) for Channel 4.

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

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