From doodling in the margins of his schoolbooks to drawing the biggest local and international personalities, Serge Chapleau has gone from pens to touchscreens in his half-century-long career. Known as Quebec’s most famous press cartoonist, he nonetheless frowns when asked about what that implies.
“I don’t think ʻcartoonist’ is a job title. In fact, there’s no such thing as a cartoonist. It’s not a job, it’s the result of going off course!”
In the early 1950s at the Chapleau household on Drolet Street in Montréal, no one played hockey or copied Maurice Richard’s great plays. This modest, working-class family had no books, only paper and pencils. The youngest of seven children, all boys, Serge made his way straight to the École des Beaux-arts de Montréal, an institution that “saved his life”, one drawing at a time. While not very talented when it came to painting or sculpting, Chapleau’s passion lay elsewhere.
“My role models came from the comic book scene. It was the era of magazines like Pilote or Fluide Glacial. We were poor hippies, so we bought magazines instead of food and we loved it!”
Since he began publishing his work in Perspectives magazine in 1972, Chapleau has immortalized in pencil over 400 artists – his specialty. After many notable collaborations, including with Le Devoir, L’actualité and 7 jours, Chapleau made the jump to daily news in 1996 by becoming the editorial cartoonist of La Presse. He still works there and remains one of its undisputed pillars.
Over the years, his more than 7,000 cartoons have made people laugh and some of his victims shudder, among them many politicians. He meets these public figures here and there, but always keeps them at arm’s length.
“I don’t want to know these people, since I draw them. I sometimes see them at a restaurant, and they come over and shake my hand – almost hard enough to break my fingers – and say, ʻLove your work,’ but they clearly don’t.”
“Cartooning should be done with a surgeon’s precision and a butcher’s focus.” He likes to bring up this quote by English cartoonist Ronald Searle (1920-2011), a true reflection of Chapleau’s vision of the profession. The work must strike a delicate balance on a very thin line: one step forward, and you’ve gone too far; one step back, and it’s a yawn-fest.
“Cartoonists may often slip up, but they do it with humour. When you just miss the mark, the best you can hope for is dusting yourself off and moving on, and people are good enough to forget what you did the day before… as long as you really nail it the next day!”
In the tribute Un dessin dans la marge, columnist and colleague Yves Boisvert wrote about Chapleau’s accurate view of society. “When I see his cartoons some mornings, I wonder if in fact it’s the whole newspaper that’s on the fringe of his art.”
Chapleau is also known for his famous character, Gérard D. Laflaque, a retrograde and vulgar forty-something who delighted TV audiences for 20 years. Using an innovative soft rubber he created himself, the artist wanted to move beyond drawings by creating puppets he believed would get more attention.
In 1982, Chapleau became the first cartoonist to bring his characters to life on the small screen. Over time, graphic designs replaced puppets, and between 2004 and 2019, nearly 500 episodes of Et Dieu créa… Laflaque, then ICI Laflaque, were aired on Radio-Canada.
While Chapleau enjoys poking fun at artists and policymakers, he also knows how to draw about the issues of our time.
His cartoon selected for the stamp expresses the bitter taste left with many Quebecers from the large gathering in Montréal three days before the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty. On October 27, 1995, some 150,000 Canadians from across the country gathered in the city to proclaim their love for “La Belle Province,” an event sovereignists strongly criticized.
Winner of a record eight National Newspaper Awards (Editorial Cartooning category), Chapleau has published L’année Chapleau, a yearly collection of his best press drawings, since 1993. When he was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2015, he was recognized as “one of Canada’s most innovative and respected cartoonists,” and also a pioneer, having created animated cartoons for television.
Chapleau is fond of comparing the cartoonist to the court jester who is always one misstep away from the gallows. However, he believes cartooning is here to stay, with all its threats and pitfalls.
“There’s always going to be someone who’s willing to make funny drawings. The New York Times (international edition) may have stopped publishing cartoons, but other papers haven’t. And I’m still around at La Presse, just a wiser man making doodles.”
New stamp issue celebrates Canada’s wealth of talent in editorial cartooningAvailable now