Al Nisbet cartoonist—fishing for an angle

Cartoonist Al Nisbet happy fossicking for a feed

There’s a sense of the nomadic in him— wanderlust—a desire to explore or perhaps an inability to sit still. The foundation may have been laid at age six when his family emigrated from Scotland to the warmer climes of Australia; a month on a ship and endless hours at the stern watching the wake change the colour of the sea like a magic wand had a profound impact. Al Nisbet loosely attributes that experience to his enduring love of boats, the sea and fishing.

However, Australia proved too hot so the family uprooted again and, at the age of 11, Al found himself in a time warp; Christchurch with its cold drizzly days and austere architecture drew him into the pages of 1940s England and promoted his desire to explore New Zealand, albeit anchored to the Garden City by family, eventually work and, ultimately, a family of his own. When time permitted, he rambled about the country, drawn to places because of his love of scenery and always with a rod in hand.

This restless spirit was also a prerequisite for becoming a cartoonist, an innate ability refined from years doodling and creating comic strips as a kid. In the early 80s he met Bill Paynter, political cartoonist and commercial artist for the Press, who took him under his wing and into the fold of the Christchurch newspaper’s advertising and art department. He learned layout in the days of meticulous cut and paste— pre-computer graphics—and illustrating by hand, but couldn’t put the ‘doodling’ completely to bed; Al cartooned in his spare time and submitted works for publication and, in doing so, developed broad shoulders and the ability to weather rejection.

“When I finally got a cartoon in print, it was such a buzz—addictive— something that never really goes away!”

Nisbet was hooked.

Al with a solid Kaikoura rig

While the stint at the Press ultimately lasted until 2018, the were interludes. The wanderlust and growing love of diving and fishing saw him move to Nelson where he lived in a van ‘up the Maitai’ for a year. He worked for a time for Wellington Newspapers in the Art Department but a spate of domestic burglaries convinced him the South Island contained better ‘brood stock’.

The era of Newspapers in Education played to his creative talent and he was kept busy designing pages to lure kids into reading newspapers. While there was some educational merit to the concept, he says it was more about increasing circulation and selling more papers. His cartooning skills provided the connectivity between the kids and current events.

As a cartoonist he was driven; he always wanted to improve, to create a cartoon better than the last one.

He says his best cartoons are the contentious ones; the ones that should never have been published but were. He loves the art of finding the angle, of thinking ‘outside the media and tackling what people think but are too scared to say.

“I like pushing the envelope!”

Nisbet says his best ideas often come over a beer.

“They just pop into your head and then you have to wrestle them and tie them down so they don’t escape.”

Other cartoons have to be pried out of thin air.

“Usually it’s a sense of outrage or annoyance that sparks an idea,” he says. “Then the gloves come off.”

Ironically it’s his edginess that backfired on him; in 2018 he was finally squeezed out of the Press ‘because his cartoons upset too many people’—welcome to the Woke PC era— so he took redundancy, cashed in his Super and trundled off to Kaikoura where he built a house with his partner Carol.

The place suits him.

“I love free-diving now, and fishing—I just love stooging out there in my little boat and grabbing a feed or two.”

Interestingly it’s not the big catches that create indelible memories for Al.

When his kids were young, he had two in the boat and they spotted a large fin cruising South Bay Kaikoura, so they followed it. Ultimately, another fin appeared. And then another beside that. Then one behind us and another to one side. Suddenly the ocean exploded with breeching orca, including a mother with a pup the size of a small car, and we were in the middle,” he chuckled. “The kids were excited and scared witless at the same time!”

It’s what you see’ while fishing that create memories.

Now a freelance cartoonist, he does a weekly cartoon for the Kaikoura Star, illustrations for a few mags and caricatures for private clients through his website:

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