One Good Turn
Word travelled fast about cartoonist Mary Leunig’s new book. I received a text from a friend before I’d even opened the first page: “Mary Leunig has lost her mind. She hates her kids. She hates her brother. She seems mentally ill. I’m not sure it was very responsible of The Lifted Brow to publish her.” It was being spoken about in hushed tones and with raised eyebrows. Writer Anna Krien described it as “lacerating ... and unhinged”, and this was for a blurb.
On initial reading, One Good Turn – Leunig’s first book of art in nearly 25 years – presents as brutally raw and emotionally honest to the point of excoriating. And it raises the question: Who is hurt most in the publishing?
Nobody is spared the bitter venom and power of Leunig’s drawings. Politics, feminism, motherhood, family – everyone cops it. Leunig’s more famous brother, Michael, is depicted with Mary delightedly shooting him through the arsehole, his guts splaying across the page in the form of dollar signs and shit, with the accompanying caption: “I finally get the recognition I deserve by shooting my brother in the bum.”
There’s a lot of shit in One Good Turn – actual shit, turds scattered around political figures, splashing over relatives, faeces puddled around Leunig herself. On one page she’s drawn, curled up and broken in a pool of piss, witnessed by the curious gazes of animals she clearly adores.
The book will likely distress Leunig’s estranged adult children, not to mention several other family members who are treated to the ruthless blowtorch of her creative practice. Her kids are depicted as literal fascists, ungrateful capitalists, aloof and uncaring monsters who have left their mother’s pain unheld. It’s unlikely she gives much of a shit about their reactions – one page celebrates her and her husband grimly loading firearms in order to take the kids “out! one...last...time!”
When recently asked about this no-prisoners attitude, Leunig said: “Betraying a family member doesn’t sit well with me at all, and I wonder if I am. It’s a hard thing to do, it’s not an easy thing to do.” Every artist has the right to seek catharsis through their chosen medium, and there’s no reason to assume Leunig needs to be polite about the pain she has suffered, or caused. Families are fucked up; Leunig’s no more than anybody else’s. That she chooses to turn her art to understanding her trauma is a gift, though the result is a book that hurts to read as much as it must have hurt to write. KR
Brow Books, 96pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 27, 2018 as "Mary Leunig, One Good Turn". Subscribe here.