In conversation with Crippen, the pioneering disability arts cartoonist

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Dave Lupton, aka Crippen, Britain’s leading Disability cartoonist, has donated his huge archive of over 1000 cartoons to the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA) to be housed  in Buckinghamshire New University. Anne Teahan speaks to the man behind 30 years’ worth of irreverent cartoons.

Cartoon by Crippen, entitled Grim Reaper

Grim Reaper by Crippen, courtesy of the artist.

NDACA which goes live in 2018, is an expanding and pioneering collection of digital material and cultural objects. It will tell the story of the Disability Arts Movement and   its Golden Age, when disabled people and their allies broke barriers, changed the law and made great art about the struggle.

Crippen is the only cartoonist whose work spans 30 years of changing social and political attitudes to disability, including the 1980s activism which NDACA will celebrate and document.

His cartoons have brought pleasure and hilarity to disability activists – particularly his Grim Reaper series – and complaints leading to their removal.

The NDACA project offers Lupton a timely opportunity for reflection.

Like many artists, an obsession with drawing started in childhood. But for Dave, drawing offered an escape from a harsh home life.

“When I was 3 years old I had a nasty ‘accident’. My step father was violent and I was badly injured and unable to start school. But I discovered that by drawing little characters I could build up these fantasy worlds, and that’s where it started. As I grew older, I developed cartoon strips and kept a diary of daily events with little drawings. I could control the characters in the cartoon. I wasn’t brave enough to portray my step father directly, but I created other characters that represented him and heroes to win over them.”

Dave’s use of drawing to challenge oppression, was to re-emerge in adult life, when ‘Crippen’ the cartoonist came into being:

“30 years ago, I was involved in an accident – a reckless driver wiped out my car and I was hospitalised.   It was suddenly a new world for me. I used a wheelchair for quite a while. People would immediately give me the ‘disabled person’ label. I felt very frustrated. I fell back into cartooning to explain what I felt about the way I was being treated.”

Dave’s mainstream pseudonym previous to this had been ‘Sox’. Now he became ‘Crippen’ – or “Crip with a pen”.  He started drawing for campaigning disability and trade union publications. Dave describes this period as his education.

“I began to meet disabled people who were politically enlightened and aware of the social model of Disability. My mind opened up to all these possibilities for cartoons about barriers and oppression. Looking back, I realise I’d always been a disabled person because of impairment and mental health issues following childhood trauma – but using a wheelchair focused things.”

In the early days of Crippen, Dave felt a tension between mainstream and disability-aware audiences.

“I used to produce cartoons for disability equality training – mostly addressing barriers and attitudes, but in my gut I felt the root cause was political. I had to split myself into the Crippen who produced sanitised material for non-disabled people and the Crippen who created increasingly anti-government cartoons.”

In the end, he turned down work which over-sanitised disability. Today Dave follows his cartooning instincts and feelings. He greatly admires Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell and his cultural home is Disability Arts Online.

where editor Colin Hambrook has showcased Crippen and numerous disabled artists and writers. Dave values his contact with a community of disabled artists and thinkers. He uses Facebook to develop and critique new cartoons:  “…without being censored.” Dave feels that Crippen has become a collaborative venture, as a result of online discussion: “I’m gathering suggestions, creating and sharing ideas with other disabled people.”

Daddy, a cartoon by Crippen

Daddy by Crippen caused controversy for its depiction of David Cameron’s dead son.

A popular cartoon in Disability circles, was inspired by actress Liz Carr’s ‘Not Dead Yet’ campaigning.  A wheelchair user tells The Grim Reaper who lurks by his hospital bed: “And you can Fuck off!” (above)

But cartoons combining death and disability can be contentious. One such cartoon – removed and then reinstated by Facebook – featured David Cameron’s disabled son who had recently died.

“I drew Cameron with the ghost of his son hovering at the bottom of the bed…  saying, ‘why are you killing my disabled brothers and sisters?’  That one got taken off.   But I explained to FB that it was a valid political point.   Cameron had been defending disability benefit cuts, but when challenged he spoke about having had a disabled child himself. I thought ‘You hypocrite!’ Even disabled people commented that maybe I’d gone too far! But if I get a negative reaction, I’m actually getting through.  If people are prepared to enter into dialogue it gives me an opportunity to explain why I’ve drawn the cartoon. Disabled artists are well placed to bridge these gaps in understanding through their work.”

Reflecting on changing attitudes, Dave is optimistic about younger people:

“Very slowly, an understanding of the social model, seems to be getting into mainstream awareness and education. Young Disabled people still encounter the same oppression and barriers as we older crips. But non-disabled younger people are ‘getting it’ now. They engage online and ask questions about disabled artists’ work. At protests, I see young disabled and non-disabled people interacting in a non-patronising and equal way”.

But Dave has also observed rigid attitudes elsewhere:

“It is mainly older non-disabled people who are locked into a medical, charitable view of disabled people as ‘looked after’ and not allowed to have their own voice.  Their reaction to an angry voice/cartoon is to be offended.”

Dave’s archive also reflects changes in his art form from his early days of hand-drawing in black and white.

“The BBC would send a courier to take the artwork down the motorway. I had to send roughs by post or fax. A very slow process!  Once the internet started it completely transformed.  Now I draw outlines by hand and use my drawing archive of politician’s faces. Everything else is done by computer and off they go by email. My style of thick black line and bold colours has evolved. I used to fuss around with shading, but now it’s cruder. I like the bold colours. As kids we got inspiration from Tintin and comics like The Beano. I’m going back into my childhood!”

And childhood is where it started – but instead of challenging his step father through drawing, he now tackles Ian Duncan Smith, David Cameron and the Grim Reaper.