University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Charting the major milestones of the Space Race: Wally Fawkes and the satirical cartoon

On 1 March 2023 the renowned jazz musician and cartoonist Wally Fawkes passed away aged 98. In his long career, Fawkes illustrated satirical cartoons for The Daily Mail under the pseudonym ‘Trog’. His most famous creation was the comic-strip ‘Flook’, but his illustrative work increasingly focused on British politics. In this blog, alumnus student Daniel Millard discusses Fawkes’ role in familiarising the British public with the country’s role in the ‘Space Race’ during the Cold War years. Daniel interviewed Fawkes as part of his research for his undergraduate dissertation, ‘Exploring together: how curators, correspondents and cartoonists presented the Space Race to the British public, 1957-1975‘. Daniel graduated with a first-class BA (Hons) History degree in 2019 and is now working as an optical assistant.

Fawkes self-portrait with his most famous creation ‘Flook’
                                Wikimedia Commons


In recent weeks two reported events have caught the attention. The first has been the news of NASA’s growing ambition to return astronauts to the Moon.[1] Attention has also turned to the sad passing of cartoonist Wally Fawkes, better known to readers  as ‘Trog’.[2] Whilst for many, these two events appear unconnected, for space historians they hold special interest for it was Mr Fawkes, along with his fellow cartoonists, who helped keep the nation abreast of developments during the Space Race years (1957-1975), at a time when Cold War sensibilities ran extremely high.

Fifty years before Sputnik 1 was sent into orbit, Marion Spielmann concluded that cartoons offer the historian a valuable insight into the “prevailing feeling” of a nation.[3] It is surprising, therefore, to note that they have remained a largely overlooked resource for those investigating how the race to the Moon was presented to the British public. This is a clear oversight given that space activities were taking place in a century when the newspaper cartoon emerged as a national institution [4], and seventy-five million newspapers were being routinely purchased every week.[5] Many historians, it would seem, have been unwilling to stray beyond scientific, technical, or political treatments and it has been left to devotees of cartoons working outside the field, to extol their importance. Eminent space scientist Professor Colin Pillinger is a good example. Space cartoons, he believed, have the power to close the gap between expert and lay audience and so promote mutual interest in planetary science. [6]

In November 2018, as part of my final year dissertation, I was fortunate enough to conduct an oral history interview with Mr Fawkes. Whilst the interview took place four decades after the Space Race ended, it is to be hoped that the information gathered satisfies Portelli’s belief that ‘informants are usually quite capable of reconstructing their past attitudes even when they no longer coincide with present ones’. [7]

It is notable that Britain’s cartoonists charted both the major milestones of the Space Race and the lesser-known aspects of it. In 1965 Stanley Franklin, for example, presented a cartoon announcing the failure of the Russian Luna 4 mission. [8]  How far such detailed mapping of events was led by the need to satisfy readers’ insatiable appetite for space news at the time can be determined through secondary and primary records. In 1948, American cartoonist Eugene Byrnes reminded his British counterparts that “you can make an acceptable cartoon on any subject on God’s green earth if public interest is thoroughly aroused”, [9] a sentiment echoed by Fawkes seventy years later when he stated:

I was working for a newspaper that was read by a lot of people. I felt that I had to shed light on what the public had a personal interest in at the time. My personal interests were never the focus of my work.[10]

Fawkes’ personal apathy towards space exploration was a direct response to his life-long disinterest in all things mechanical, admitting ‘I never drove a car and the most advanced piece of technology I owned was my bicycle.’ [11] But within his testimony we also get hints of something more profound. Despite an awareness that his outputs were for a wider audience, he acknowledged that his cartoons were ‘always about my take on something. Many people agreed, but I’m aware that not everyone did.’[12] Equally important was his declared understanding that talk around space science at the time was so diverse that ‘I don’t think it was possible to ever have a ‘one-sided conversation’. [13]

Whilst, in the late 1940s, British cartoonists used their artistic skills to hit back at American suggestions that the nation was in decline,[14] there is nothing to suggest a similar attitude prevailed during the Space Race.  Britain’s cartoonists, it would appear, were fully aware that their home nation was never going to be a significant player in the story. On 11 August 1965, Michael Heath presented the public with a cartoon depicting a British spectator watching the launch of an American rocket while proudly announcing to his fellow onlookers that the on-board astronaut was wearing a British corn plaster. [15] Fawkes himself embraced such pessimism declaring:

The Space Race was ultimately the big two fighting it out. Russia won with the man in space so America responded by putting a man on the moon. In my opinion, that was very much the end of the game. We were always an onlooker. [16]

Such comments mark a significant shift in attitude from a series of cartoons produced by Joseph Lee in 1954 that inferred Britain would very much be part of the upcoming Space Age. [17]

Whilst primary evidence confirms that British cartoonists never sought to heroise the Russian cosmonaut, they never knowingly depicted him in unflattering terms as American cartoonists are known to have done. [18] Nevertheless, a preponderance of cartoons linked to the Apollo program suggest they generally viewed the United States’ space activity in more benevolent terms. [19] For Richard Wevill this hints at a persistence of cordial wartime relationships when Britain and America had fought closely alongside each other. [20] For Fawkes, the reason was far simpler. He found it easy to get information about the American space programme at a time when NASA had an open-door policy for the world’s press. [21]

Despite the lack of homegrown involvement, it is notable that British cartoonists continued to chart space progress throughout the 1970s – even though global interest had begun to wane after the Apollo 11 moon landing. [22] In 1972 cartoonist Mac acknowledged the growing apathy when he presented the nation with a cartoon showing bored staff at mission control, Houston, using their screens to watch Disney cartoons instead of monitoring the Apollo 16 mission.  Fawkes himself echoed the lethargy declaring:

I don’t think that the public ever lost interest in space completely, but I’d say that the moon landing was the peak of its popularity. After the moon landing, I couldn’t help but feel ‘so what’ whenever space was brought up, so I understand how many other people felt at the time. It wasn’t that it was no longer impressive, it just wasn’t as impressive as that initial win.”[23]

With the recent announcement of America’s planned return to the Moon and the UK’s upscaling of its own space activities it is to be hoped that interest will be rekindled among Fawkes’ successors. If so, future historians would be well served by keeping a close watch.



[1] Nadia Drake, “Artemis I Launches U.S.’s Long-Awaited Return to the Moon”, Scientific American, (November 16, 2022), last accessed March 10th, 2023, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/artemis-i-launches-u-s-s-long-awaited-return-to-the-moon/

[2] George Melly, “Wally Fawkes Obituary”, The Guardian, (March 7th, 2023), last accessed March 10th, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2023/mar/07/wally-fawkes-obituary

[3] M. H. Spielmann, Cartoons From “Punch”, Vol. I, (London: Bradbury, Agnew & Co Ltd, 1906), v.

[4] Peter Salisbury, “Giles’s Cold War: How Fleet Street’s Favourite Cartoonist Saw the Conflict”, Media History, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2006), 157.

[5] Martin W. Bauer, Kristina Petkova, Pepka Boyadjieva and Galin Gornev, “Long-Term Trends in the Public Representation of Science Across the ‘Iron Curtain’ 1946-1995”, Social Studies of Science Vol. 36, No. 1 (2006), 103.

[6] Colin Pillinger, Space is a Funny Place: Fifty Years and More of Space Exploration Seen Through the Eyes of Cartoonists, (Barnstorm Productions, 2007),  ix.

[7] Alessandro Portelli, “The Peculiarities of Oral History”, History Workshop Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (1981), 102.

[8] Stanley Franklin, “If Number Five Shot Fails, We’ll Make Sure Number Six Shot Doesn’t”, Daily Mirror, December 7, 1965.

[9] Gene Byrnes and Albert Thornton Bishop, A Complete Guide to Drawing, Illustration, Cartooning and Painting, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1948), 134.

[10] Walter E Fawkes, Telephone Interview by Daniel Millard, November 5, 2018.

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Allen McLaurin, “America Through British Eyes: Dominance and Subordination in British Political Cartoons of the 1940s”, Journalism Studies, Vol. 85, (2007), 694-695.

[15] Michael Heath, “I Understand He’s Wearing a British Corn Plaster”, Punch, August 11, 1965.

[16] Walter E Fawkes, Telephone Interview by Daniel Millard, November 5, 2018.

[17] See for example: Joseph Lee, “London Laughs: Flying Saucer”, Evening News, January 6, 1954;

Joseph Lee, “London Laughs: Hire Purchase”, Evening News, July 16, 1954.

[18] Christopher P Lehman, American Animated Cartoons of the Vietnam Era: A Study of Social Commentary in Films and Television Programmes, 1961-1973, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company Ltd, 2007), 24.

[19] Colin Seymour-Ure, “FAREWELL CAMELOT! British Cartoonists’ Views of the United States since Watergate”, Journalism Studies, Vol. 8, No. 5 (2007), 730.

[20]  Richard Wevill, Britain and America After World War II: Bilateral Relations and the Beginnings of the Cold War, (London: I B Tauris & Co Ltd, 2011), 1.

[21] David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek, Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014), vii.

[22] Richard S Lewis, “End of Apollo: The Ambiguous Epic”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 28, No. 10 (1972), 43.

[23] Walter E Fawkes, Telephone Interview by Daniel Millard, November 5, 2018.

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