From a dentist’s office to a glow-worm cave to an Auckland recording studio, Toby Morris’s monthly comic The Side Eye has been everywhere in 2020. To mark a historic year, we’re launching the first edition of The Side Eye Annual, a printed collection of Morris’s Side Eye comics published on The Spinoff this year.
Managing editor Duncan Greive writes:
In the early winter of 2017 I received an email from Toby Morris with the subject line “Yo”. In it he said he was “keen to catch up at some point about whether you’d be interested in me doing something for you, and what that might look like”.
At the time I barely knew him, and Toby was already a star, fresh off his Wireless comic the Pencilsword going ultra-viral and being translated into dozens of languages. The Spinoff was not yet three years old, and had been translated into no languages that I was aware of. So, naturally, I was very interested.
We met for coffee, and he talked about liking what we did, feeling a kinship with it, and pitched a new comic, one that would evolve from the hit-you-in-the-chest moral clarity of the Pencilsword into a form of comic-based journalism.
It was the kind of idea that indefatigably dances in your mind and, after a brief internal debate (we had even less money then than we do now), we took a deep breath and said yes. It’s no exaggeration to say that it scares me to think where we would be had we not taken that leap.
Within weeks, Toby was working out of our dilapidated downtown offices. The building leaked buckets in winter and was unbearably hot in summer, and sat atop a terrifying, code-violating three-storey staircase. Not only did he not seem to mind, he slotted right in with the group of weirdos who made The Spinoff back then.
The comics were an instant smash hit, and the following year, NZ On Air came to the party, supporting this truly singular project. We’re all so grateful that they did, and still do.
Over the next three years The Side Eye has become a true taonga of The Spinoff – a piece of work that in its creativity and conviction represents all we aspire to be. Toby takes social issues that many might shrug at and brings them into sharp relief, or makes slices of kiwiana a window into our unvarnished past, or spies an inequity hiding in plain sight and forces us to confront it. For thousands of our readers, his work was the way they found us, but more than that, the way they understood some key aspect of their country, their world.
In 2020, that role expanded in the most jaw-dropping way. When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles suggested to The Spinoff’s editor Toby Manhire (we are Toby rich at The Spinoff) that she collaborate with Toby Morris on work that helped explain key concepts in the nascent pandemic.
The collaboration, with support from the Science Media Centre, became a series of text stories and animated GIFs, all released under creative commons, which went around the world, becoming acclaimed as world-class examples of science-based public health communication. They were so good that the World Health Organisation came calling, and The Spinoff has now been working with WHO for months on a variety of work to help make sense of the virus. In the middle, we finally made it official, and Toby was appointed The Spinoff’s creative director.
None of that would have ever happened without The Side Eye. It remains The Spinoff’s beating heart, and in 2020, in addition to piercing work on the true cost of New Zealand’s pricey dentistry and the impact of weed versus that of alcohol, he also covered the pandemic and New Zealand’s election in unforgettable style.
That’s why we decided to wrap them all up in a print package for the first time. To capture this year in a book you can return to in years to come, and pass to future generations, to capture the key beats of a year like no other in Toby’s inimitable style.
This edition will also be available from Unity Books in Wellington and Auckland from the start of December.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.