What began as a spoof or an advertisement can become something much more. Back in the 1970s a cartoonist in Port Moresby PNG did a series of humorous ads in pidgin for Isuzu trucks featuring a character called Isuzu Lu. These ads by Bob Browne proved so popular that they later became a regular comic strip in the PNG Post Courier and Browne used the good-hearted and somewhat naive character to gently satirise aspects of PNG society. The early Isuzu Lu cartoons have been collected into several anthologies. I am lucky enough to still hold 'Namba 3'. All good memories!
Sadly, Bob Browne died in March 2011 in Port Moresby General Hospital - more here. Apart from the Isuzu Lu cartoons, Bob was also the creator of Mista Grasruts (Grass Roots), perhaps PNG’s most loved comic character, which the magazine Islands Business once called “the social conscience of PNG”.
Browne’s life and work could almost be read as an allegory of change in PNG. Browne arrived in PNG as a British volunteer in 1971 when the country was preparing excitedly for independence and he stayed with his adopted homeland through thick and thin until his death.
It is tempting to write that he saw the country change beyond recognition in the intervening 40 years but he also witnessed its failure to advance in some important ways, especially in areas of social justice and the fight against corruption, both issues which he and his sidekick Grass Roots cared deeply about in their own ways.
Roots became the Papua New Guinean Everyman, the knock-about character with a heart of gold, a belly full of beer and a thick skull where his long-suffering wife, Agnes, berated his foolishness with her famous sospen.
Through Roots – who actually started as the character called Lu promoting Isuzu trucks – Browne was able to reflect on PNG life through an eerily indigenous perspective and criticise its shortcomings in a gentle but incisive way.
Browne could easily have been a success in the much larger media ponds of Britain or Australia, but instead in 1990 he chose to become a PNG citizen and re-joined the National Arts School as Head of Visual Arts as it was being integrated into the University of PNG.
He and Grass Roots continued to tilt at the windmills of a declining public service, the waste of abundant national resources and escalating lawlessness which he felt were largely fed by corruption and greed amongst leaders and others in authority who should have been setting a better example.