Kem's Cartoons in the Second World War: Valerie Holman Describes the Little-Known Role Played by the Cartoonist Kem in Assisting the British Propaganda Effort Aimed at Iran

By Holman, Valerie | History Today, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Kem's Cartoons in the Second World War: Valerie Holman Describes the Little-Known Role Played by the Cartoonist Kem in Assisting the British Propaganda Effort Aimed at Iran


Holman, Valerie, History Today


`When War began and the Ministry of Information was formed I was asked to submit some ideas for our propaganda in the Middle East.'

Nothing in this laconic recollection from the Egyptian-born political cartoonist Kem (Kimon Evan Marengo, 1907-88) hints at the prodigious output of visual material that was to follow. Nor does it give any indication of the extent to which, during the Second World War, the British Government ultimately committed itself to publishing and distributing overseas printed propaganda, from periodicals, posters, tracts and cartoons to tiny cards for packets of tea (produced in millions) and miniature booklets dropped over target cities by the RAF. Once he had been interviewed by a general at the Foreign Office and entered what he referred to as `five years of civil servitude', Kem submitted not only ideas, but well over 3,000 political cartoons in the first four years of the war.

Born in February 1907 into the Greek community of Alexandria, he had already written (in French), illustrated and published his own satirical magazine before leaving to study full-time in Paris from 1929 to 1931 at the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques. During the 1930s, with a keen eye but no artistic training, Kem drew cartoons for Le Petit Parisien, and le Canard Enchaine in France, and for numerous newspapers in England including the Daily Herald and the Daily Telegraph. His work for these earned him the honour of designing the menu card for the Foreign Press Association's fiftieth anniversary dinner in 1938 at which Neville Chamberlain was guest of honour. In 1939 Kem went up to Oxford, but only graduated from Exeter College under the accelerated BA programme at the end of 1946 when he began work on a Ph.D. thesis `The Cartoon as a Political Weapon in England: 1783-1832'.

Kem saw the cartoonist first and foremost as a political commentator with a viewpoint of his own, comparing his art to that of a leader-writer in the national press. Like the eighteenth-century satirical draughtsmen whose prints he studied and collected, his chosen weapon was ridicule rather than vilification, and many of his cartoons during the Second World War show the follies and foibles of the Axis leaders. For example, a single image conjures up the `progress of Russian and German cooperation'. With one boot between them, Hitler and Stalin's three-legged race looks doomed from the start: one points forward as the other turns back, their weapons more an encumbrance than a threat, and their prancing at odds with the pitiful state of their uniforms. This hapless, laughable, down-at-heel pair epitomise the way in which Kem caricatured dictators and show why he was already on the blacklist of both Hitler and Mussolini. Originally designed as a poster and captioned in Arabic, this particular image was distributed throughout the Middle East where the image of Stalin was forced to undergo a major transformation after Russia switched allegiance and became a key member of the Grand Alliance, following the German invasion of Russia in June 1941 and the collapse of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

By then, Kem was producing an average of sixteen cartoons a week for the Ministry of Information, where he was based. In September 1941 he agitated for reform, pointing out the problems of producing work that was effective and up-to-date. While an idea could be created and approved in twenty-four hours, it was taking twenty-four days to prepare the blocks for printing. He wrote:

   As it takes another four or five weeks before they reach the newspapers
   abroad, there falls on the cartoonist the astrological task of forecasting
   in picture form events which may be topical SEVEN or EIGHT WEEKS hence.

Kem's position was clarified in an internal memo on January 9th, 1942:

   Kem is to be regarded as an `official cartoonist' in the sense that he is
   the only producer of cartoons directly on our books, and that his special
   knowledge and experience makes it desirable that he should be brought into
   consultation by the regional specialists for Latin America and the Middle
   East on matters touching his particular province. … 

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