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Mercier, Emile Alfred Lucien (1901–1981)

by Peter Spearritt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Emile Alfred Lucien Mercier (1901-1981), cartoonist, was born on 10 August 1901 in Noumea, son of French parents Edouard Mercier, baker, and his wife Emilie, née Le Mescam.  Emile came to Sydney at the age of 21, took a job in a flour-milling firm as an office boy and started to teach himself English.  Showing an early talent in black-and-white drawing, he attended Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School.  Mercier sold his first cartoon to Smith’s Weekly in February 1923.  Continuing with freelance sales to the diggers’ magazine Aussie, the Bulletin, the Melbourne Punch, the Melbourne Herald, the Sydney Sportsman and the ABC Weekly, he also made money with humorous cartoons for advertising campaigns.  His 1927 brochure for Advanx Tires included the caption 'invite us to your flat'.

On 1 March 1924 Mercier married Esther Rodo Dunbar at the Methodist parsonage, Robertson.  Divorced in November 1932, on 17 December he married Flora Hazel Joan Gallagher (d.1958), a bookkeeping machine operator, at St Canice’s Catholic Church, Darlinghurst; they had two sons.  Together Emile and Flora produced alphabet primers and children’s books.  He was naturalised in 1940.  On 22 May 1963 at the district registrar’s office, Chatswood, he married Patricia Clare Alfonso, a 40-year-old divorced typist with three sons.

When Lennie Lower, Australia’s greatest prose humorist, had rejoined Smith’s Weekly in 1940, Mercier was one of the artists selected to illustrate his pieces.  His fellow artists and journalists saw Mercier as a man who could never control his 'natural Gallic naughtiness'.  He worked on Truth and then Sydney’s Daily Mirror as a cartoonist during World War II.  Entering the world of comic production with the Sydney publisher Frank Johnson, Mercier sent up American cartoon heroes with his own action characters from Supa Dupa Man and Mudrake the Magician to Tripalong Hoppity.

Mercier obtained full-time employment on the tabloid Sydney Sun in 1949 and remained there until 1968.  His cartoons were syndicated to newspapers in other States and Angus & Robertson Ltd published thematic collections of his cartoons in book form.  Wake Me up at Nine (1950) was followed by Sauce or Mustard? (1951).  In the foreword to Gravy Pie (1953), Kenneth Slessor described Mercier’s cartoons as 'the Late Final Extra of black and white . . . Yet, because they are founded on the constants of human life and not on its crotchets, they do not die in the morning as the evening papers die'.  In the tenth volume, Hold It! (1960), an Australian seeking 'corn beef and cabbage' in Kings Cross finds instead 'Gou Lash', 'Escargots' and 'Nasi Goreng'.

Most of the characters in Mercier’s cartoons are everyday people, including down-and-outs.  One of his greatest cartoons depicts unshaven and unwashed street buskers looking at a press announcement of the Queen’s birthday honours, anticipating that they too were on the list.  With an unnerving ability to detect and lampoon pretension in an Australia that liked to think of itself as egalitarian, he delighted in crisp language and tart observations to celebrate human foibles.  He regularly contributed to the International Salon of Cartoons, which exhibited in the Montreal International Pavilion of Humour, Canada.

Vane Lindesay, author and illustrator, suggested that Mercier rejected the then popular stock situations (mothers-in-law, pretty secretaries) in favour of satirising characters unique to Australia.  Mercier showed us crowded pub bars, backstreet alleys and the denizens of the city, from waitresses to taxation officials.  Lindesay quoted Mercier as saying 'I am more interested in types than personalities'.  His signature characters included gossiping housewives, a bearded Frenchman, barefoot city kids and scruffy dogs and cats.  The nonsensical 'Post No Shrdlus' appeared as a small sign in countless of his cartoons.  Eschewing party politics, he created cartoons that were about daily life, not about the day’s editorial.

Mercier depicted himself with a pointy nose, moustache and quizzical eyebrows.  A medium-sized man, at work he dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and a tie.  He stood up to bullying newspaper editors and earned the respect of his fellow cartoonists.  After retirement he continued to produce cartoons for the Sun and then for the Wine & Spirit Buying Guide (1976-80), which was ironic, as he had always satirised wine as 'plonk', with one of his best-known motifs a wheelbarrow full of empty bottles.  He suffered for some years from Parkinson’s disease.  Survived by his wife and the two sons of his second marriage, he died on 10 March 1981 at Castlecrag and was buried in the Catholic section of the Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blaikie, Remember Smith’s Weekly? (1966)
  • V. Lindesay, The Inked-in Image (1979)
  • Sun (Sydney), 11 March 1981, p 2, 16 March 1981, p 15
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 13 March 1981, p 6
  • North Shore Times, 18 March 1981, p 26
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 November 2001, 'Good Weekend', p 34

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Spearritt, 'Mercier, Emile Alfred Lucien (1901–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mercier-emile-alfred-lucien-14968/text26157, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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