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Comic Strip / If

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Capitalism explained by penguins and lesser seabirds

Steve Bell's If... is a daily cartoon strip which has run in the Guardian since early 1982. Born as an intentionally subversive comment on The Falklands War and initially starring a mutinous sailor called Kipling and the Falklands penguin he befriends during the war, the strip has gone from strength to strength over its very nearly thirty years and shows no sign of flagging.

Left-wing in concept and intention, the If strip has consistently and regularly provided cheer to those despairing that Thatcherism would ever end, and has provided satirical ammunition against every British prime minister ever since. Thatcher herself, the "Iron Lady", became a soul-less robot with very obvious riveting. Her successor John Major became a barely functioning wimp wearing his underpants on the outside, Tony Blair is depicted as a bulging-eyed lunatic with control freakery issues, Gordon Brown is a Scrooge-like Scottish miser, David Cameron is a giant inflated shiny condom full of hot air and Theresa May is a "evil,scary clown", due to her rise to power coinciding with a social-media driven international "scary clown" panic in autumn 2016. Current Prime Minister Boris Johnson is an self-aggrandizing nincompoop with an arse for a face. Unfortunately in 2023, Steve Bell's association with the Guardian was terminated following a dispute over editorial policy, and the strip came to an end.

And through it all, there are penguins...

If you are searching for the equally seditious and anti-Establishment film about a British boarding school rebel starring Malcolm McDowell, go here.

Tropes featured include:

  • Artsy Beret: A recurring character used to Lampshade the pretentiousness and foibles of the art world is a French avant-garde artiste, note  who wears the classic artists' smock, and a very obviously oversized beret.
  • Bait-and-Switch: A regular plot device. A character (around 1985) is explaining to his son about why Reagan/Thatcher are right about the Evil Empire. In Poland the police are used to hammer down dissidents and supress free criticism of the regime. Workers cannot go on strike without the forces of the State being used to oppress them. Free rights to travel within your own country are taken away. The Great Leader must be reverenced as being a living God whose word must be obeyed and the Press becomes propaganda for the Leader. The son looks at the Miners' Strike happening in Britain (where all these things happened), and at an adoring Daily Mail headline showing Margaret Thatcher, and asks "So we live in Poland, then?"
  • Dirty Cop: Metropolitan (London) copper Inspector Courage, whose face is deliberately drawn to look like an arse.
  • Donut Mess with a Cop; the London coppers, when not beating up strikers and ethnic minorities or on the take for bribes, are seen spending their down-time stuffing their faces with chips.
  • Funetik Aksent: The strip is full of these. American televangelists cry Prize the Lard!, and a recurring character, an avant-guarde French artist, calls those who cannot see his artistic vision a bunch of ouanquéres!
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: In one strip Theresa May, whos depicted in a Harlequin outfit with oversized leopard skin shoes, is asked by a reporter how she responds to being compared to an "evil,scary clown". She concedes she might be evil and scary but vehemently denies shes a clown. She then proceeds to do a bizarre impersonation of a penguin swallowing a fish.
  • Insulting from Behind the Language Barrier: A story arc where Margaret Thatcher and husband Denis went on a controversial holiday in South Africa, Denis is playing golf. His black caddie, seemingly respectfully, tugs the forelock and calls him baas-fella. When Denis has gone, a small dog squats and strains at the edge of the golf course. The caddie shoos the dog away, saying don't you do none of that baas-fella on this grass, dog!
  • Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, literally so: a soul-less robot riveted together and, like iron, prone to very obvious rusting as her cracks began to show.
  • My Country Tis of Thee That I Sting: Bell's cartoons are this for Great Britain and its political elite.
  • The Necrocracy: Bell drew Tory politicians such as Norman Tebbit as animated skeletons or barely-human zombies; Michael Howard was a daylight-shunning vampire and Michael Heseltine had something of the werewolf about him.
  • Riches to Rags: One story arc saw Margaret Thatcher reduced to instant poverty, a woman with no connections or resources, married to a useless unemployable drunk and mother of a spoilt bratty son (Mark) who did not take well to penury. She is seen enduring the results of her own policies, dealing with obstructive and unhelpful bureaucrats, attempting to draw social security, and generally living a nightmare.
  • Toothy Bird: The penguins have teeth.
  • The Troubles: The London police are depicted as embodying every anti-Irish prejudice. As Hardnose the chief policeman explains they are ignorant primitives living only on potatoes, he fails to notice two bovine coppers behind him who are stuffing their faces with chips. As he explains the Irish are tribal and prone to violence because it's in their natures, another two coppers are bludgeoning a black suspect...