William “Bill” Mitchell

Born 1941 Kalgoorlie, Western Australia 1941
Died 1994 Muswellbrook, New South Wales

By Lindsay Foyle

Bill Mitchell was a larrikin, popular and self-effacing cartoonist whose style was followed by many others in Australia and America. His combination of superb draughtsmanship and wicked satire won him Stanley awards for best editorial cartoonist three times and his best-known strip, Bustards of the Bush, earned him the best comic strip artist award in 1988. Mitchell worked for the The West Australian, the Daily Telegraph in Sydney and The Australian. When he was dying of leukaemia in 1989, staff at The Australian queued to donate blood and NewsCorp instituted an annual award in his name to encourage young cartoonists and artists.

Bill Mitchell believed that a cartoon must look funny as well as having a funny caption. And if anyone should have known what it took to make a cartoon funny, it was Bill. He spent more than 25 years making Australians laugh, and by the 1980s was recognised as one of Australia's best cartoonists.

Mitchell held very strong political views, leaning to the right, but never let them get in the way of a food gag. He came into cartooning when darkly-shaded cartoons were all the rage, but influenced other cartoonists away from that style to lighter, simpler lines.

Mitchell was born in the West Australian town of Kalgoorlie in 1941 and lived there until he moved to Perth at the age of 15. Originally, he had no ambition to be a cartoonist. He once recalled: "When I left school, I got a job as a copy boy with The West Australian to fill in the time before joining the Air Force. It was good money and I didn't have to do much. They put me into the art department for no other reason than that's where they had the vacancy. The Air Force knocked me back because my eyes were crook, so I ended up becoming a press artist". He started submitting cartoons in 1969 and soon was appointed the paper's first daily cartoonist since it began publication in 1834.

Mitchell moved to Sydney in 1978 to work on the Daily Telegraph as the daily cartoonist, replacing Frank Benier, and then transferred to The Australian in 1980 after Larry Pickering resigned. While working on The Australian he also syndicated some of his cartoon through the American "Views of the World" service and his cartoons appeared in newspapers in America, the United Kingdom, France and Newsweek magazine.

At the first Stanley awards in 1985 conducted by the Australian Black and White Artists’ Club (now the Australian Cartoonists’ Association) Mitchell was full of life and the star of the night, dancing across the stage with a straw hat (borrowed from Rigby) and cane to collect his award. But two years later it was doubtful if he was going to be able to even come to the function. In 1987 he had been diagnosed with leukaemia. His health had deteriorated to the point that it was unusual for him to even leave his home in the Sydney suburb of Beverly Hills let alone attend a dinner in the city with 400 guests.

Mitchell was going to collect his second Stanley, but it was a secret. His wife Rhonda was told about the award and asked if she thought he would like to come and if she thought it possible. The answer was "yes" to both questions, but only if a few precautions were taken. One was that a quiet room should be available for Bill if he needed a rest during the night. The second was that as the function was being held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a little bit isolated from the main business area of Sydney, the ambulance service needed to be told that there was just a chance they might get a call, if Bill had a bad turn. The Art Gallery is not the sort of place ambulances visit on Friday nights. The third was that Sydney Hospital be informed about the possibility of the ambulance arriving with Bill in it.

Rhonda got Bill to the function in a wheelchair. He sat through the night, got his award, and went home grinning and none of the safeguards were needed.

When his health was really bad he hardly had the strength to continue cartooning. He spent much of this time confined to bed at home, only leaving the house for chemotherapy. However he continued to supply daily cartoons to The Australian. He would listen to the radio and read the daily papers trying to think of something funny to cartoon on. When he did come up with something he would get out of bed and go to work on his drawing board, which had been set up in the bedroom. Australian. Those reading the paper the next day never knew how hard he had to work to make them laugh.

By 1989, Bill was getting steadily weaker. The editorial cartoonist for the Daily Telegraph, Paul Zanetti, came up with a way to ensure his friend would be remembered for the way he supported and encouraged other cartoonists. Zanetti wanted to establish a Bill Mitchell Memorial Award through News Limited to encourage a young artist under the age of 25 and not employed by a major newspaper or magazine, to pursue a career as a black-and-white artist.

Bill sculpted the award, a Bustard from the Bush, and the \$2000 cheque came from The Australian. The original intention was to have the award presented by Bill Mitchell at the annual Stanley Awards if he was well enough. Of course, at the time the award was created nobody actually expected him to live long enough to do so.

To everyone's surprise, throughout 1990 Bill began to go into remission. By the time the awards came around in November, Bill had begun to put on a bit of weight, of which he was quite proud. When called to the stage to present the initial Bill Mitchell Memorial Award, he began by introducing himself, saying, "Hi. I'm Bill Mitchell, and I'm here to present the Bill Mitchell Memorial Award". It brought the house down, and not a few emotional tears.

After going into remission Mitchell decided to move from the suburbs of Sydney and relocate in the bush, a few kilometres out of the New South Wales country town of Muswellbrook, from where he continued to fax his cartoons to The Australian. However, the leukaemia returned and despite chemotherapy he died in May 1994.

Bill Mitchell entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2011.

Further reading