Michael Leunig

Michael Leunig, typically referred to as Leunig, is an Australian cartoonist, poet, artist and cultural commentator. His best known works include The Adventures of Vasco Pyjama and the Curly Flats series of book compilations of his cartoons. He was declared an Australian Living Treasure by the National Trust of Australia in 1999.

Life and career

Leunig, a fifth generation Australian, was born in East Melbourne and grew up in Footscray, an inner western suburb, where he went to Footscray North Primary School. He then went to Maribyrnong High School, but as the school had not finished being built, he first had to attend classes held at the nearby Royal Melbourne Showgrounds in Ascot Vale. He failed his final year examinations, twice.
After working as a labourer in an abattoir, Leunig enrolled at the Swinburne Film and Television School, where he was at first interested in making documentaries. He was conscripted in the Vietnam War call-up, but he registered as a conscientious objector; he was rejected on health grounds when it was revealed that he was deaf in one ear.
Leunig began his cartoon career while at Swinburne in 1965 when his cartoons appeared in the Monash University student newspaper Lot's Wife. In the early 1970s his work appeared in the radical/satirical magazines Nation Review, The Digger, and London's Oz magazine, as well as mainstream publications including Newsday and Woman's Day.
The main outlet for Leunig's work has been the daily Fairfax Media newspapers, Melbourne's The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. In more recent years he has focused mainly on political commentary, sometimes replacing or supplementing his simple drawings with reproduced photographic images with speech balloons attached. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has also provided airtime to Leunig to discuss his views on a range of political and philosophical issues.


Leunig's drawings are done with a sparse and quivering line, usually in black and white with ink wash; the human characters are always drawn with exaggerated noses. This style served him well in his early years, when he gained a loyal following for his quirky take on social issues. He also made increasingly frequent forays into a personal fantasy world of whimsy, featuring small figures with teapots balanced on their heads, grotesquely curled hair and many ducks.
Leunig has frequently satirised concepts such as Americanisation, greed, consumerism, corporations and ing, in a personal proclamation against the War on Terror. Readers and critics took special note of his parodies of political matters, especially those concerning former Australian prime minister John Howard and former American president George W. Bush. These have earned Leunig a description as a "political cartoonist", although only some of his works are political in nature or reference.
His work has also frequently explored spiritual, religious and moral themes.

Controversial works

Leunig's cartoons have occasionally been a source of controversy. In 2008, he wrote that "Artists must never shrink from a confrontation with society or the state."
Between 1995 and 2000, he drew the ire of "working mothers" by satirising the heavy reliance upon childcare services in Australian culture in several of his works.
Leunig's opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, although in line with over three quarters of the Australian populace, drew some criticism in the press. He commented that "if a cartoonist is representing the government line on Iraq, they're nothing better than a propagandist".
In 2006, Fairfax Media censored a cartoon in New South Wales, but not in Victoria, which criticised the then prime minister, John Howard.
Leunig has also stated his opposition to the Israeli government. Three of his 2004–2006 cartoons drew letters of protest nationally and internationally in relation to this. The three pieces took as their subjects: IDF bomber pilots ; Sheikh Ahmed Yassin's assassination order from Ariel Sharon ; and the renewed Gaza occupation. A fourth piece was refused publication and has since been more widely criticised for potentially confounding his opposition to the policies of Israel with an antisemitic, generalised subversion of the Jewish experience, by relying upon a reference to the Jewish Holocaust. This cartoon came to international attention after it was entered in an Iranian competition conceived by the newspaper Hamshahri as retaliation for the Muhammad cartoons controversy. Leunig denied he had submitted the cartoon as an entry to the competition and said "I've been set up horribly, maliciously." He demanded that his cartoon be withdrawn; the newspaper did this and also apologised to him. It later emerged that the cartoon had been submitted as a prank by Richard Cooke, a web contributor to the Australian comedic team The Chaser.
Leunig has partially defined his position with this statement:
There has also been controversy around Leunig's views on vaccinations as well as a controversial work that depicted a mother on her mobile phone scrolling through Instagram not noticing that her child had fallen out of the pram, the poem reading:
Mummy was busy on Instagram
When beautiful bubby fell out of the pram
and lay on the path unseen and alone
Wishing that he was loved like a phone.

Characters and themes

In the series of cartoons that Leunig has created over the duration of his career, a number of characters have persistently appeared, including:
Leunig has, from a very early stage in his career, often included his own handwritten poetry within his cartoons; subsequently he has also published books of poetry. He has been very open about his themes, in interviews about his work.

Personal life

Leunig's first marriage, to Pamela Munro, ended in divorce. He married his second wife, Helga, in 1992 but separated in the 2010s. A film documentary about his life by Kasimir Burgess, The Leunig Fragments, was released in 2020 and reveals various difficulties that Leunig has experienced with family relationships. He did not attend his parent's funerals and is not in regular contact with his sibings. His four children were all born on notable dates: Gus on Guy Fawkes Day 1974, Sunny on Valentine's Day 1977, Minna on Australia Day 1992 and Felix on Christmas Day 1994. All of his children were homeschooled.
His sister, Mary Leunig, is also an accomplished cartoonist.
Leunig has a studio in North Fitzroy, Melbourne, and a property in north-east Victoria.

Honours and celebrity

In 2006 Australian musician Gyan Evans released the album Billy the Rabbit, which was based on the poetry of Leunig. Gyan and Leunig launched the album at the Melbourne Writers Festival, with Leunig illustrating during Gyan's singing. They also performed together at the Byron Bay Writers' Festival and the Sydney Opera House.
According to Gyan:

Published works

Works in the Australian National Bibliographic Database