Life & Culture

'Political cartoons can be dangerous' Zoom Rockman's verdict on Martin Rowson's Guardian drawing

The cartoonist also reveals why he’s looking forward to his exhibition at JW3


Zoom Rockman has been storytelling and drawing since he was a small boy.

Sharing a room with his younger brother, the cartoonist would entertain his sibling with off-the-cuff stories, before taking his clipboard to bed to doodle.

But it wasn’t until he was eight and came across a box of vintage Beano comics at a car-boot sale that he discovered you could put words and pictures together to make funny stories.

“I was inspired,” he says. “And when I’d run out of comics to read, that’s when I started doing my own.”

He published his first issue of The Zoom! at nine, and became the Beano’s youngest regular contributor at 12. Four years later, his political cartoons were in Private Eye, where he still works.

Rockman’s comic strips were based on the Beano, “but in a more extreme way”, says the 22-year-old at his home-cum-studio, where the automata of Jewish cultural icons from his upcoming London exhibition, at JW3, adorn the walls.

His version of Dennis the Menace, Crasher, took part in the London riots, while his Backstreet Kids, The Nutters, smoked in class and hit chairs over each other’s heads.

Rockman may not have been quite that disruptive, but he was no model pupil, either. “I’m half deaf, which meant I did really badly in school,” he says.

“I wasn’t focused, mainly because I didn’t know what the hell was going on.” The deafness was caused by an accident when he was a baby.

“I might have been dropped,” he says with a hesitant laugh. “We have a concrete floor.”

What did help his schoolwork was creating comics. “If I wanted anyone to be able to read the comics I’d made, my handwriting had to improve,” he says.

As a schoolboy, Rockman wanted to be a film director, and comics were his way of storyboarding. With comics, he didn’t need a budget for special effects, and he could cast whoever he wanted.

“You just have to draw,” he says. “So it was a cool medium to use.”

School was interrupted by trips to South Korean comic competitions and meeting his fan David Cameron at Downing Street in 2012.

“I kind of lived two different lives,” he recalls. “When I was in school, I was just a normal kid like anyone else. I didn’t really talk about what I was doing outside of school. I guess it was so crazy that no one could process it at the time, so the default was just to act normal.”

He joined JCoSS the year after it opened, which was fortuitous for him because it meant the school was quite relaxed about bending the rules.

Not only was the young artist allowed to drop the subjects in which he wasn’t interested, but he was assigned his own office to work on his comics during free periods. He adds: “From the age of eight, I was working alongside school.”

Now, with his precocious success, he is well-placed for giving workshops at schools, where his key message is to get on with developing skills in whatever interests you. He adds: “If you’ve got an idea for something creative, just do it rather than sit and talk about it, which is what a lot of people do.”

In fact, he loves it is when teachers tell him that a normally easily distracted child has found new focus after his sessions; he sees his younger self in them.

Stepping into Rockman’s homestudio in hip De Beauvoir Town, north London, near where he grew up, feels like stumbling upon a gallery. It’s only on closer inspection that you see the mezzanine bed nestled above a seating area, which enables the artist to work here from 9am “until I fall asleep”.

After passing a table displaying copies of his comics, you make your way through a hallway lined by the bright, life-size satirical pinball machines he showcased at The Lakes International Comic Art Festival.

One of these is themed on drug-pushing, a topic he is tackling further with an animated film made with Chelsea’s first black football player Paul Canoville.

The studio room is where his work-in-progress automata reside: Sacha Baron Cohen as Moses parting the Red Sea, David Baddiel running a beach balls stall (the seaside theme matches JW3’s summer beach installation), Stephen Fry and Alan Sugar. Rockman credits Lord Sugar for inspiring him to make his own comics as “an Apprentice-style task.” Turn the automaton, and he fires you from his beigel shop.

“I had to listen to it over and over which was demoralising,” says Rockman as he demonstrates the complex mechanisms that have occupied him these past six months.

“What’s cool is none of this stuff really existed before. A lot of the entertainment for me is inventing.”

There’s also the life-size paper puppet of Amy Winehouse, which you manipulate by hand in time to her music. Rockman began paper puppetry during the Covid lockdowns as a creative outlet from daily life spent online.

The young inventor researched the vast history of pre-cinema techniques, developing his own until he arrived at his current combination of illustrations and mechanics — his automata, or, as he calls them, “Zoomascopes”.

Meanwhile, for members of the tribe who enjoy a bit of Jew-spotting, Rockman’s Hall of Fame will be particularly fun. He describes it as a “Jewish Madame Tussauds” and has delighted in adding names to his list. And he thinks that some of them will surprise visitors.

Timothée Chalamet and Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame, for example, who recently revealed his paternal grandmother was Ashkenazi.

“I just found out,” Rockman grins, “so now he’s on the list. Here, any Jewish connection is enough, which is why you’ll spot David Beckham, too.

Now that Rockman’s first hobby has become the way he earns his daily bread, music has become his way to relax.

He plays the piano and guitar, and paper puppets of blues singers jostle for space next to Matt Hancock and Michael Gove on a corkboard in his studio.

Meanwhile, he ascribes his sense of satire to the Nineties sitcoms Father Ted and Red Dwarf, the comedy of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (his favourite duo are on his T-shirt) and Chris Morris.

As for comics, he loves The Walking Dead. “I was reading them instead of revising for my GCSEs,” he says. And while his work has shifted towards movement, to puppetry and animated film, comics will always be key. “I just always pictured my drawings moving.”

He has also always been interested in politics, as his fortnightly cartoon for Private Eye illustrates. In fact, before studying art at Central Saint Martins, from where he graduated with a First last year, he considered a degree in politics.

“What I find interesting is I’ll do a cartoon about an issue, and people on both sides [of the argument] will interpret the cartoon as being on their side,” he says.

That also applies to conspiracy theories, he says. “There’s a weird clash going on, of people living different realities. It’s got to the point that people don’t know what the truth is. I find it interesting how people view my cartoons and respond to them.”

Which leads us to Martin Rowson’s cartoon about the resignation of the BBC’s chairman Richard Sharp for The Guardian.

It’s an “awkward” subject for Rockman because of the support he has received from this towering figure in cartooning, but he doesn’t hesitate to describe the work as antisemitic.

“I was quite hurt by it, because it is clearly antisemitic. But pairing that hurt with the reality that I’ve known Martin, and he’s really friendly, and he knows I’m Jewish, and he’s always been supportive of my career… it’s quite sad.”

He adds, quietly: “I think he knows what he did was wrong. And it’d be really sad for me if Martin was cancelled for this.”

Since political cartoons are an “exaggerated way of summing up reality”, as he puts it, how does he negotitate things in this arena?

“When I’d been doing political cartoons for a couple of years, I realised how dangerous they are,” he says.

“Summing up the essence of a story can easily be manipulated to tell a different version of reality and for propaganda, so you have to be very careful with the imagery that you’re using.”

He points to an example he came across while collecting hyperinflation banknotes, a pastime sparked by his interest in politics and also history and economics.

In Weimar Germany, the Nazis printed caricatures of Jews on existing banknotes so German citizens would associate the economic crisis with Jews and vote for the Nazi Party.

“It’s powerful imagery that in the wrong hands can cause a lot of damage. Humour can be used to mask darker stuff,” he says.

He has also noticed more antisemitism online, especially since Kanye West’s recent outbursts.

“More people are using that same rhetoric since that happened. It feels like a scary time to be Jewish,” he says, before adding, “but also a good time to have a Jewish hall of fame, to have something positive.”

Zoom Rockman’s Jewish Hall of Fame is at JW3 from May 23 to September 3.

His signed illustration of King Charles in his pants, to celebrate the launch of Nicholas Allan's children's book ‘The Kings Pants’, with all proceeds going to The Trussell Trust and the DEC Turkey/Syria Earthquake Appeal, is available to bid on until 31 May at

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