Opus 340 (May 30, 2015). With this hoppy posting, our 340th, we finish the 16th year of Rancid Raves. That’s right: we’ve been doing this for sixteen years. HOOrah! That probably makes us one of the longest-running websites on comics. In fact, if we add a few qualifiers—we are definitely the longest-running website of comics news and reviews, cartooning history and lore being operated by two cartoonists. Amazing what a few qualifiers can do for one’s ego. And the other cartoonist, our webmaster, Jeremy Lambros, and I are on the cusp of adding a new feature to the enterprise—about which, more when we get closer.
In the meantime, we celebrate this anniversary with an opus that rambles conversationally from one topic to another as we think of them. The longest ramble takes us through the thicket of issues prompted by Garry Trudeau’s reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders—whether freedom of expression should be limited by ordinary politeness to reduce or eliminate offensiveness. Cartoonists reaction to Trudeau’s remarks had barely died down when PEN revived the foofaraw by planning to give Charlie Hebdo an award for courage that some PEN members objected to, saying it would “valorize” offensive cartooning. Isn’t satire inherently offensive—to someone? What, then, of the future of satire? And before the award could be given, a Muslim hate group’s Draw Muhammad cartoon contest was attacked by Cutthroat CalipHATE hooligans of the home-grown sort, who were killed in their attempt.
Engaging as such a discussion on the nature of cartooning and free expression is, that’s not all we offer in Opus 340. In fact, it’s a whopper of a posting. We encourage you to scan the list of topics and articles that comes next in order to pick those that interest you—rather than trying the impossible, reading the whole enchilada at one sitting. So here’s what’s here, in order by department—:
NOUS R US
Summer Super Flicks
Archie Kickstarts then Kickstops
Denver Comic-Con Passes 100,000
Maus Banned in Moscow
Tom and Jerry
Roundup of the Month’s Crop
THE QUESTION OF OFFENSIVENESS PERSISTS
Trudeau’s Punching Up and Down
Charlie’s Hate Speech
Dozens of Cartoonists Describe Their “Red Lines”
Charlie’s Luz Quits
Cartoonists Draw Their “Red Lines”
Trudeau’s Response on “Meet the Press”
THE HYPOCRISIES OF PEN
Members Oppose Giving Charlie an Award for Courage
200 Sign a Petition
Others Protest the Protesters
Charlie Hebdo Jabs at PEN
The Myopia of the Writing Class
Art Spiegelman Musters the Opposition
Alison Bechdel, Neil Gaiman, Gene Luen Yang, Jules Feiffer
ANTI-MUSLIM GROUP SPONSORS
MUHAMMAD CARTOON CONTEST
Two Cutthroat CalipHATE Hooligans Killed at Cartoon Exhibit
Sponsor’s Pamela Geller Triumphant
Cartoonists React in Cartoons
PEN’s Courage Award Given
Spiegelman Comments on the Role of Cartoons
What I Think About Hate Speech and Offensive Cartoons
PAT BAGLEY REDUX
How Editooning Fares in LDS Country
AAEC Condemns Shootings at Contest Exhibit
Pamela Geller Marches On with Ads for Buses in D.C.
Iran Runs Anti-Isis Cartoon Contest
NEWSPAPER COMICS PAGE VIGIL
A Selection of Comic Strips that Amaze and Amuse
Goodbye God? by Hunt Emerson
Weird Al’s Mad
The Mythology of S. Clay Wilson, Vol. 1
Howard Chaykin’s Black Kiss XXXmas in July
Unusual Mutt and Jeff (not by Bud Fisher)
Caricatures by Milton Caniff
RCH Interviews Mort Walker, Brian Walker, and Jules Feiffer
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
The Big Con Job
Tales from the Con
Daredevil Resists Donning TV’s Duds
Red One by Terry and Rachel Dodson
PEN Letters Quoted in Full
Our Motto: It takes all kinds. Live and let live.
Wear glasses if you need ’em.
But it’s hard to live by this axiom in the Age of Tea Baggers,
so we’ve added another motto:.
Seven days without comics makes one weak.
(You can’t have too many mottos.)
And our customary reminder: don’t forget to activate the “Bathroom Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version” so you can print off a copy of just this installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu, then, here we go—:
NOUS R US
Some of All the News That Gives Us Fits
THE SUMMER’S OFFERINGS of superhero flicks got off to a spectacular start April 30-May 1 with the opening of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which pulled in $84.5 million, besting the $80.8 million debut of the first Avengers film in 2012, according to Disney estimates, which predict the “Ultron” movie will eventually beat the first Avengers’ all-time record of $207.4 million.
The summer’s supers schedule resumed on May 15 with “Mad Max: Fury Road,” to be followed by “Jurassic World” (June 12), “Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out” (June 19), “Terminator: Genisys” (July 1), “Ant-Man” (July 17), and “Fantastic Four” (August 7).
ARCHIE KICKSTARTS THEN KICKSTOPS
Riding the crest of a wave of fan enthusiasm about the forthcoming revamped Archie, the first issue of which is due in July, Archie Comics decided to catapult that popularity into revamps of other characters, scheduling three new titles: a new Kevin Keller-starring series from Dan Parent and J. Bone (Life With Kevin), a new Jughead-oriented series with Chip Zdarsky writing and an artist to be named later (Jughead), and a Betty and Veronica-oriented series by the creator Adam Hughes (Betty and Veronica).
Co-publisher Jon Goldwater wanted to get the new books onto the newsstands fast in order to hitch onto the success of the new Archie, written by Mark Waid and drawn in an entirely different style by Fiona Staples. Goldwater, who has overseen other revamps and new directions in his company in the last few years, was eager to continue to get attention “for the company and our creators, to celebrate our 75th anniversary and to really jazz our audience.”
But Archie Comics had just signed a deal to supply Wal-Mart and Target with digest titles, and that project sucked up financial resources. So to fund the new titles, Goldwater launched a Kickstarter campaign.
“Normally, we could put these books out over time,” Goldwater explained to Tom Spurgeon at comicsreporter.com. “We'd just have to sprinkle them out over a few years, as opposed to fast-tracking them. The Kickstarter allows us to build on the expected success of Archie No.1 in a more meaningful way while also offering some cool rewards for our fans who choose to back the Kickstarter. ... The idea is to make them happen faster because we know fans want them faster.”
Makes sense to me. And Goldwater is bubbling over with excitement and hype. The plan was to raise $350,000. The rewards for donors to Kickstarter consist, it seems, mostly of copies of the new titles when they come out. Maybe a few sweeteners, too. It all seemed a grand way to celebrate Archie’s 75th anniversary.
Problem was: crowdfunding is usually launched by entrepreneurs “in need,” not major publishing houses like Archie Comics. Goldwater assured Spurgeon that the company was not in financial difficulty. He just wanted the new books out fast in order to feed and foster the kind of fan interest that the new Archie has stimulated.
Goldwater said over and over again, his company was a bold, innovating company, and resorting to Kickstarter was just more evidence of the “new Archie”—the Archie Comics that had married Archie to both Betty and Veronica, then killed the redhead, introduced the first openly gay character, and launched a zombie title in Afterlife with Archie. Bold. Try anything once.
But as soon as the Kickstarter program started, Archie Comics was assaulted with questions and concerns from fans and retailers. The company has only just begun to get into comic book shops, and the shop owners wondered about how the Kickstarted titles would feed into their system. It looked as if they’d be cut out of the equation as the publisher began distributing titles directly to readership via the Kickstarter rewards system. And there were other concerns, on all hands.
At first, Archie responded by revamping and expanding the rewards. But that didn’t quell the concerns. Finally, it was too much. Archie Comics cancelled its Kickstarter.
The decision to pull the Kickstarter, Goldwater told comicbookresources.com, came after the Internet conversation was no longer about the books themselves. Instead of talk about the new titles and writers and artists, social media brimmed with criticism of crowdfunding products by a major publishser.
"Once that happened,” Goldwater said, “we decided it was time to stop. While we don’t mind putting ourselves under the microscope or answering questions, the creators involved didn’t deserve that level of negative attention. Though we fully expected to get funded, we felt it was time to step back."
The new books will still be published, said Goldwater. “It’ll just take a beat, and we won't be able to create this movement or wave of comics over the next year and change.”
Jughead No.1, for instance, was originally scheduled for September, and has now moved back at least a month.
"Very broadly, Jughead will come first, sooner than you'd think," Goldwater told CBR News. "Probably October. Then we'll take a pause, figure out the rollout of the other two and how to best position them in the market. It's going to take longer than we'd hoped, obviously, but these titles are top priority for us, and we want to make sure our fans get the best books possible."
Meanwhile, the company will thank the donors who jumped on board with a special thank-you gift.
DENVER COMIC-CON GETS ANOTHER BIG NUMBER
It was a heppy heppy weekend (May 23-25) at the Denver Comic-Con, which, according to BleedingCool.com, broke the 100,000 attendance mark, the number that had been anticipated due to enthusiastic advance registrations. The official announcement, made by DCC factotum Jason Jansky, pegged the final number at 101,500 (up from last year's 86,500, which, in turn, topped the previous year's attendance). In a mere four years, DCC is within striking distance of unseating the record-holder, the San Diego Con.
BleedingCool also reported that the programming was “the most extensive” he/she’d ever seen—and 400 tables in Artists Alley (which is dubbed “Artists Valley” here due to the proximity of the mountains).
Like most comic-cons in recent years that are not devoted to movies and tv shows, the DCC is part “craft show” (the artists in Artists Valley sell jewelry and t-shirts, buttons and bows, not just drawings of comic book characters) and part “costume parade.”
But the DCC is determinedly a family show and has aggressively discouraged costumes that show too much skin. Still, the real world has started invading cosplay. For the first time I realized it, I saw several alleged men dressed as women. Transgender is on the moves, kimo sabe.
MAUS BANNED IN MOSCOW
“Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, Maus, has some very memorable cover art,” said Robert Siegel at npr.org: “It pictures a pair of mice — representing Jews — huddling beneath a cat-like caricature of Adolf Hitler. Behind the feline Hitler is a large swastika. That last element has become a problem for Maus this spring. For Russian observances of Victory Day, the holiday commemorating the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany, Moscow has purged itself of swastikas. In an effort to comply, Russian bookstores cleared copies of Maus from their shelves.”
Asked what he thought of this development, Spiegelman replied: “I think it's rather well-intentioned stupidity on many levels. I'm afraid that this is a harbinger of the new arbitrariness of rules in Russia. And the result will be like what happened in the obscenity rulings that closed down a lot of theater plays. It's arbitrary rulings that make playwrights and theater owners afraid to put anything on that has an obscenity in it. ... Be very careful if you're writing about anything else we decide is the red line this week. So this is a way in which I fear that Maus has been instrumentalized to ends I don't approve of.”
This isn’t the first time Maus’s swastika cover has caused trouble, Spiegelman said. When the book was offered to a German publisher—“way back when Maus was not a known entity”—the publisher cited a German law against displaying the swastika on the covers of books. But the publisher found a loophole: the government can make an exception for “works of sserious scholarly import.”
Siegel wanted to know just how important the cover can be. Said he: “As we all know, you can't judge a book by its cover.” So what’s the big deal?
To which Spiegelman said: “Well, the whole point of what we're calling graphic novels is the melding of visual and verbal information—to sound professorial for a second. And part of that information starts with the first thing you see.”
He recalled that Pantheon didn’t want to give him the right to do the cover back 1986 when the first volume was published. “I was sputtering,” Spiegelman continued. “How can you do that? The cover's part of the book, of course. And then my friend up at Pantheon, Louise Fili, the superstar art director of Pantheon at the time, said shut up and don't worry about it. You'll do the cover. It goes through me. So I did. I got a separate paycheck on top of the relatively small advance. And when the second book came out, they insisted that I do the cover so I don't get any extra money,” he finished with a laugh.
But in Moscow, you didn’t see Maus covers for a while.
ODDS & ADDENDA
Animated cartoons on prime-time tv rank as the longest-running sitcoms: “Family Guy” racked up 250 episodes recently, saith Time, and “The Simpsons,” with 574 (and a two-year renewal in hand) will easily pass 600. The nearest competitor is the vintage 1950s live-action “Ozzie and Harriet” with 435 episodes; “Cheers” lasted for 11 seasons but achieved only 275 episodes.
Scholastic has lately secured a grant from the Herb Block Foundation to start
an editorial cartooning category in the Scholastic Awards. ... In 2013, a
musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home, was
mounted at the Public Theater in New York with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and
music by Jeanine Tesori. In March 2015, “Fun Home” moved to Circle in the
Square Theatre and opened to rave reviews on April 19th.
Disney’s much acclaimed attempt at turning animated cartoons into film artistry, “Fantasia,” is 75 this year. According to John Wenzel at the Denver Post, “The 1940 film, which interprets eight different pieces of classical music through lush, hand-drawn animation, arrived as flagship character Mickey Mouse was slumping in popularity.” The inspirational heart of “Fantasia” was, then, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment in which Mickey stars: this would, it was hoped, revive the character’s standing among fans, who’d been slowly won over to Donald Duck since the quacker’s first appearance in “The Wise Little Hen” in 1934. The eight-part “Fantasia” grew out of Mickey’s appearance.
But the “Fantasia” we see today is not the “Fantasia” of 1940. It has been modified, tweaked, and changed here and there as it aged. Says Wenzel: “For esxample, early versions of the segment for Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral Symphony’ featured black centaurettes polishing the hooves of white centaurs. These scenes were removed in the late 1960s for fear of perpetuating racist stereotypes.”
MGM’S TOM AND JERRY are 75 this year, too. The first of the duo’s 163 adventures on the screen arrived February 10, 1940. Entitled “Puss Gets the Boot,” the debut cartoon features Tom and Jerry but Tom is called “Jasper” and Jerry has no name. (He was called “Jinx” around the studio, but the name isn’t used in the final film.) No one attached any special significance to the one-shot cartoon until, later that year, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Short Subjects, Cartoons. Producer Fred Quimby promptly pulled creators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera off other projects and put them to work making more Tom and Jerry cartoons.
The Tom and Jerry cartoons have been de-racistized in later years: the only human in the series was “Mammy Two Shoes,” a heavy-set African American maid. Although her face is never shown (we see only her chubby body below the neck—and, of course, her shoes), by accent and the color of her hands and harms, she’s clearly identified as black. Because the mammy stereotype is now regarded as racist, her appearances in the televised cartoons have been edited out—or she has been re-animated as a slender white woman. Saith St. Wikipedia: “She was restored in the DVD releases of the cartoons, with an introduction by Whoopi Goldberg explaining the importance of African Americn representation in cartoon series, however stereotyped.”
ART SAMSON’s Born Loser is 50 this month, having debuted May 10, 1965. Since Art’s death in 1991, his son Chip has been running the misadventures of Brutus Thornapple, the hapless loser of the title.
Herewith, the Sunday anniversary strip and a daily (May 6) from the run-up week. The anniversary is being celebrated and Universal/Uclick’s website, GoComics.com, where you can enter a contest to win a “high quality” print of the strip if you’re one of the lucky contestants. You can also print out a “Born Loser” certificate, which has a blank spot for you to insert your name. Or you can print out the one that accompanies this announcement.
Here’s Chip’s account of his career as his father’s successor—:
“My career as a cartoonist began in 1977. My dad, Art Sansom, created The Born Loser in 1965 and by 1977, he was looking for an assistant so he could ease up his heavy workload, especially with the gag writing. I had started a career in the business world immediately after I graduated from college four years earlier, and by this time I had become disenchanted with that career path and was looking for something more creative. Sounds like a perfect match, right? Except I never dreamed I could be a cartoonist, because I believed I was a terrible artist. I think I was intimidated by the fact that both my mother and father were fabulous artists. There was no way I could live up to the high bar they had set, so I decided at an early age not to try. This is not to say they did anything to make me feel this way: it was all in my head.
“Believe it or not, I never took an art class in college, high school or even junior high school. In retrospect, I think if I had taken art classes, I probably wouldn’t have been all that bad and certainly would have learned many things that I would find helpful to this day. On the other hand, I was an English major in college and had loved creative writing from an early age, so I was confident I could help my dad out with the writing on the strip. I started by submitting a series of gags to him, as had multiple other professional writers. They were all talented, but they didn’t know The Born Loser like I did. I grew up watching my dad create the strip in his studio in our home. I knew it so well, my gags worked better for the strip than those of the other writers.
“Dad offered to hire me as an apprentice and teach me the art side of things while I was writing gags for him. I accepted under the condition that I work for free on a trial basis for one year, while still working my other job. I passed the audition to the satisfaction of both of us and started my official apprenticeship one year later.
“Dad taught me every aspect of producing the comic strip exactly as he did. The artwork progressed slowly but surely. I found that even though I was unable to quickly draw the characters, my eye was trained to know what they should look like and I would keep working on my drawings until they passed my eye test. By the time Dad passed away in 1991, I was able to take over the complete production of The Born Loser by myself. I still felt I wasn’t a great artist, but I believed I could produce The Born Loser better than any other living person. I have made a conscious effort to continue the comic strip in the style Dad taught me. As a tribute to him, I still sign both of our names to every strip.”
Chip said that “at a very young age,” he was a fan of Dennis the Menace. Maybe that accounts for Hurrican Hattie, the juvenile terror of The Born Loser. Chip was never into comic book superheroes, but when he discovered Carl Barks, everything else took a back seat.
Fascinating Footnit. Much of the news retailed in the foregoing segment is culled from articles eventually indexed at rpi.edu/~bulloj/comxbib.html, the Comics Research Bibliography, maintained by Michael Rhode and John Bullough, which covers comic books, comic strips, animation, caricature, cartoons, bandes dessinees and related topics. It also provides links to numerous other sites that delve deeply into cartooning topics. For even more comics news, consult these four other sites: Mark Evanier’s povonline.com, Alan Gardner’s DailyCartoonist.com, Tom Spurgeon’s comicsreporter.com, and Michael Cavna at voices.washingtonpost.com./comic-riffs . For delving into the history of our beloved medium, you can’t go wrong by visiting Allan Holtz’s strippersguide.blogspot.com, where Allan regularly posts rare findings from his forays into the vast reaches of newspaper microfilm files hither and yon.
QUOTES AND MOTS
“I don’t judge people based on color, race, religion, sexuality, gender, ability or size. I base my judgement on whether or not they’re an asshole.”—A. Nonymous
“The rich are not the job creators. The job creators are the vast middle class and everyone aspiring to join them, whose money businesses need in order to justify expanding and hiring.”—Ex-Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich
“If Obama came forward with a cure for cancer, they [the everlasting GOP] would oppose it.” —Joseph Cirincion in The Washington Spectator
The Mock in Democracy
STACKED UP WITH BOOK REVIEWS last time, we skipped over this department in order to finish a posting within readable range. I’m not sure, upon reflection, that we accomplished the latter goal, but we’re back with Editoonery again this time anyhow.
Surprisingly, we’ve missed little in terms of developments worthy of the editoonist’s pen. Jon Stewart says that he’s quitting “The Daily Show” because, among other things, of boredom with American politics. Every day, it’s the same old shit. And as I look back over the crop of editoons from the last two months, I see a lot of familiar events: the Grandstanding Obstructionist Pachyderm is still hypocritically attacking Obama over and over again for doing exactly what the GOP would do were it in the White House, the House has voted—pointlessly, again, for the 59th time?—to repeal Obamacare; otherwise Congress does nothing, “failing to govern” (in the favorite GOP phrase) in all directions at once; racism continues to roil in American streets, the Cutthroat CalipHATE persists, with cartoonists still the targets. The only thing that changes is the contortions the Prez must perform in order to execute the laws he’s obliged to execute.
Despite a certain sameness, editorial cartoonists persist in exploring the resources of their visual medium to expose pettifoggery and other kinds of political mummery. In our first visual aid, at the upper left, Signe Wilkinson’s visual of a roadside billboard captures succinctly the situation in the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. Unhappily, it ain’t funny: it is, in fact, a fairly accurate prediction of what the next century or so will look like.
Next around the clock, Jeff Danziger gives us a hysterically comical image of “Israeli Leadership,” ludicrously leading the way to suicide—as if the only way to combat terrorism is to blow oneself up by “lousing up” the Iran deal. Immediately below, Matt Davies manages to ridicule both Netanyahu and the GOP in a single image. Bibi, revealed on the eve of the Israeli election as motivated only by crass political self-interest, stakes his future on the supposed support of the American GOP-controlled Congress, which, in a single comment, reveals itself to be as naive about Middle Eastern politics as Bibi is about American politics. Who is being “played” is a good question.
At the lower left, Pat Bagley gives GOP’s pecksniffering hypocrisy the spotlight it deserves. The cartoon is more verbal than it is a blend of word and picture, but the pictured “mess” gives the words their ironic satirical edge.
Galumphing GOP folly is Joe Heller’s subject, opening our next exhibit at the upper left. In two successive panels, he reveals the Pachyderm’s hypocrisy in faulting Hillary for doing exactly what the GOP Senate did by writing a letter to Iran, undercutting Bronco Bama’s nuclear negotiation. The sameness of the image from panel to panel emphasizes the two-facedness.
As for Hillary’s supposed criminality in dodging government e-mail mechanisms, she joins a number of GOP presidential aspirants in the practice: Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush (not to mention former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice) who have all admitted trying to avoid government oversight by conducting business through private e-mail accounts. As Will Durst put it: “It’s become such a boring predictable dance, Lady Gaga will probably write a song about it soon.”
But it’s Jeff Danziger’s imagery for the infamous letter to the mullahs that best captures, for me, the nature of the “crime”: the 47 senators who signed the letter did not, exactly, commit treason (although there are enough of the political opposition who say they did to make the charge seem momentarily credible), but they did usher in a new era of American foreign policy-making, one that is about as guaranteed of success as wading off into the ocean is both uncertain and unproductive.
There’s a reason that the writers of the Constitution left foreign policy to the Prez: he speaks with one voice, while the Senate, in this instance, speaks with 47 of the 100 possible voices.
Below Danziger, Nick Anderson provides an apt visual metaphor for how the Iran deal is being viewed from two American perspectives: for Obama, it’s the happy ending of an Easter-egg hunt; for Congress, it’s just another meal, waiting to be fried out of existence. Finally, Tom Toles at the lower left reveals—as if it needed revealing—the GOP policy with respect to the Prez. But this time, the irony—mostly verbal—reverberates across both domestic and foreign affairs.
Next up, images of the Congress. Clay Bennet starts us off at the upper left with a deft visual metaphor of the work of the 113th Congress, the one that left town after last fall’s election. A colorful ribbon wrapped around nothing. Walt Handelsman, next around the clock, supplies a suitable image for the arrival of the 114th Congress. Just another weight for Obama to bear.
Chan Lowe shifts to another subject—the emerging U.S.-Cuba relationship—at the lower right with his imagery of American tourists invading the island nation. And at the lower left, Bennett is back with one of his potent images, this time vividly showing us where the “path to citizenship” goes.
The fate of the GOP, its plans and other obscene behaviors, is the topic in our next display. It’s Paul Combs’ deliciously detailed comical artwork that gives his cartoons their bite. Here, he refers to the GOP attempts—with its invitation to Netanyahu and the Senators’ letter to Iran—to give itself power that it Constitutionally doesn’t have. The fine print on the elephant’s blanket says “Power Grab Show.” It’s the portrayal of the teetering elephant that makes its behavior laughable.
Next, Clay Bennett invokes a standard cultural image of horror to remind us of just how the Republicons’ bid for minority support must look to the minorities whose lives the GOP policies affect. And below, Chan Lowe’s metaphor of a hairy, big-footed cave man suggests how primitive (and therefore transparent and crass) the GOP’s attempt to garner women’s votes is.
Finally, we have Tom Toles, who, in four panels, presents the ludicrousness of the GOP lie about Obamacare. It’s a circular argument that goes nowhere, but, laughably enough, the Republicons behave as if they don’t see the illogic in their repeated lies.
Iconoclastic comedian Bill Maher, interviewed in the May issue of Playboy, calls these effusions “zombie lies—lies that live forever even though they’re not true. They’re the undead of politics. I noticed Iowa Republican senator Joni Ernst referring to the Keystone jobs program in the Republican response to Barack Obama’s State of the Union address this year. Okay, we’ve proved for a couple of years now that the Keystone jobs program would create only 35 jobs. As one senator said, you’d create more jobs by opening a single McDonald’s. Trickle-down economics is another zombie lie: give the rich tax breaks and the poor will thrive. Sam Brownback, the governor of Kansas, destroyed his state’s entire economy selling that zombie.”
Meanwhile, the 2016 Presidential Campaign has already begun. (In fact, if you had your head about you, you would have noticed that it began the day after the results of the 2012 election were announced. No wonder Stewart is bored.) Tom Toles’ opening shot at the upper left of our next visual aid depends upon an actual fact: the dome of the capital building is being renovated.Toles gives the dome a new look more in keeping with the present condition of electioneering. Next, Lisa Benson pokes at Hillary (who has lost her last name lately), to whose inevitability the Democrats have hitched their hopes for the White House in 2016; unhappily, Hillary, being the inevitable target for GOP slings and arrows, finds her campaign crumbling as the Clinton Foundation is being attacked, and she therefore threatens to take the Democrat Party over the cliff with her.
Clay Bennett takes a look at Jeb Bush’s incipient campaign and anticipates the difficulty he’ll have in courting the Tea Baggers in the GOP (who look like the disease Jeb doubtless thinks they are). And then Ted Rall fires off a broadside, finding Jeb’s religious faith shallow to the point of nonexistent.
Religion is the topic in Jeff Danziger’s shocking orange cartoon that opens the next exhibit. He depicts all the GOP candidates trying to associate themselves with a popular religious figure while at the same time proposing to disown Jeb Bush, presumably because he isn’t sufficiently religious to appeal to Tea Baggers, among whom are many evangelical fanatics (who Maher characterizes as “snake handlers and flat-Earthers who make up the party’s base”). Danziger is one of the hardest-hitting editoonists around these days, but he can’t caricature worth a toot, and here, he confesses his shortcoming by listing all the GOP candidates by name in the lower left corner of the cartoon—admitting that his pictures of them are not convincing themselves. Too bad. But I still admire his ability to visualize the chicanery of politics in a vivid and memorable way.
During his Playboy interview, Maher was asked about the Presidential campaign. “The real question mark,” he said, “is what the Repupblicans will run on because they can’t run on jobs; unemployment is too low. I suspect we’ll see the batshit campaign tactics we saw with the last few Bush runs: John McCain had a black baby; Willie Horton came out of nowhere; John Kerry went somehow from a war hero to a despicable coward in that insane turnaround. It’s going to be some made-up issue that the Republicans will harp on. Remember Jeb Bush’s father running in 1988? We had these rumors about Kitty Dukakis burning the American flag and all that shit about Michael Dukakis not cleaning up Boston Harbor. If things are still going well, we’ll have some pictures of Hillary scratching her ass at Mount Rushmore in 1975. That’s all the Republicans can run on at this point.”
The fate of gay marriage is next under fire on the exhibit at hand. Chris Britt offers one of his patented hysterical panicky bigots to chastise the anti-gay crowd. David Horsey asks the question no one is asking. Would a baker forced to bake a cake for a gay couple poison the batter first? Finally, Chip Bok ponders a Supreme Court that refuses to bake the cake for a gay wedding. I’m not sure the metaphor translates into a cohesive comment but that is doubtless because of my pro-gay marriage bias.
The justices seem to be adopting the attitude of bakers who refuse to bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples. What’s the answer to the question Chief Justice Roberts poses? What will happen? Nothing? What?
The Court’s decision will supply the answer.
Still, where is Bok on the issue? By turning the proposition on its head in this fashion, Bok seems to be making a case against forcing the populace to accept same-sex marriage. In other words, he’s against gay marriage. That anyone intelligent enough to be a editorial cartoonist could hold that opinion these days seems outlandish, and so I have trouble translating Bok’s cartoon into a statement.
But maybe he’s just having a little fun, poking both sides in the eye with a stick of imponderability. In any event, Bok’s caricatures alone are worth the posting.
Baltimore is the subject of the next display. At the upper left, Pat Bagley starts us off with classic imagery about the race relations between African American communities and the police departments that protect and serve them. Reflected in their glasses is what each party sees when they look at the other: the black guy sees a sheeted Ku Klux Klanner; the cop sees a hulking thug. The imagery, reflections of reality, is powerful. Bagley is back next on the clock with another tellingly sad image: “silence” would seem to mean absence of life as well as absence of sound.
And then Lisa Benson lands on the one bright spot in the Baltimore brouhaha—the single mother of six, Toya Graham, who chased her son out of the protesting mob and back home, where, she alleged, he belongs. At least there, he’d stay out of trouble.
"I was pretty much just telling him, 'How dare you do this,'" Graham said.
When she first saw the video of herself, she thought, "'Oh my god, my pastor is going to have a fit.' That's it."
At the end of the day, she told cbsnews.com, her intention was to bring her son to safety. She said when she saw her only son with a rock in his hand, she just lost it. “He has been in trouble before, and he knows right from wrong. He's just like the other teenagers that don't have the perfect relationship with the police officers in Baltimore City, but you will not be throwing rocks and stones at police officers," Graham said. "At some point, who's to say that they don't have to come and protect me from something, you know? ... Two wrongs don't make a right, and at the end of the day I just wanted to make sure I had gotten my son home."
Graham represents the power in most African American communities where fathers are hard to find. In attempting to solve the so-called “problem” of the fatherless black family, we have undoubtedly been looking in the wrong place: we keep trying to re-engage black men, fathers; we should be looking for ways to enhance the power of the existing power structure, the mothers.
Almost immediately, numerous of the saintly population jumped all over Graham for physically abusing her son. Sigh.
Finally, in a bitter recognition of a reality we seem to be living with, Humor Times, leading up to its 25th anniversary, reprinted the Joel Pett cartoon it published on the front page of its first issue, April 1991. As we see, the problem of police brutality has been with us for a long time. Humor Times is a monthly newspaper printing chiefly editorial cartoons, plus a couple of columns (by Will Durst and Jim Hightower). You can get a sample copy through its website, humortimes.com, for a buck (shipping and handling charge); a year’s subscription is $24.95 for 12 issues of the print paper; $9.95 for a downloadable digital version. I recommend it, either way.
Next, a little untrammeled recreation—three cartoons by Flash Rosenberg, who muses on everyday preoccupations in the most fanciful visuals. She doesn’t say anything political or, even, stupifyingly profound, but the decorative embroidery on life is refreshing.
And then we have a few cartoons by Patrick Chappatte, whose international perspective gives his observations a detachment that is often bitting. At the upper left, Chappatte asks the question that no one else seems to be asking—and it’s a crucial question. In “Teenage Crisis,” he pairs a couple of near look-alike portraits for a comment on our present troubles; we thought we had it bad “then.” Below that, he shows us “Race in America”—a black man as Prez watching black riots in Ferguson; bitterly ironic. And finally, in the last image, we have soccer offered as a panacea for starving populations. I don’t remember what, precisely, this cartoon addresses, but it’s a beautifully rendered image, and its truth is undeniable.
Turning next to other current issues, we come first upon Keith Tucker’s panels about the impending Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, aimed at facilitating and improving trade and, hence, national revenues. A dozen or so nations around the Pacific rim are engaged in negotiations on the TPP, and while Bronco Bama has spoken forcefully in favor of it recently, the issue Tucker highlights here is only recently getting much attention. How true is it? Dunno. But even a casual Google on the topic brings up articles that illuminate the difficulty in the ways Tucker does here.
Unhappily, most of the information on TPP is based upon leaked documents or fragmentary statements on matters still being negotiated; nothing is final, so it’s impossible to say whether Tucker is being reasonable or alarmist. The best alternative is Elizabeth Warren’s: let’s open up the talks and discuss it all. Negotiators resist transparency at this stage because the secrecy permits hesitant countries to confront issues that would otherwise drive them away from the table.
Immediately below Tucker are two Prickly City strips by Scott Stantis, generally a conservative editoonist who grinds his axe in the strip by deploying in the desert two charming seemingly innocent characters, a little homeless girl named Carmen and her coyote buddy Winslow. Lately a pink-eared bunny rabbit has invaded the premises, and, judging from its (her?) comments here, the long-eared character is a stand-in for Hillary. Stantis’ sarcasm coupled to funny pictures is enough to amuse even me, flaming liberal that I doubtless am.
Back to the top right of the visual aid, we get to cartoonists’ reactions to the most recent terrorism, this time, in the U.S. “homeland.” As usual, inspired by cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, a brace of AK-47 toting adherents of the Cutthroat CalipHATE attacked an helpless exhibit of Muhammad drawings in Texas, a suburb of Dallas. More about this incident ’way down below. Here, Ted Rall kicks off with a few snide remarks prompted by Garry Trudeau’s comment last month that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists wandered into hate speech (quoted at some length below). Rall has turned Trudeau’s notion into raw comedy (“Marked for a Pulitzer or Marked for Death?” “Death? Or slow death?”) by depicting an imaginary “Jihadi Art Critics Circle.”
Below Rall, Jimmy Margulies assumes an imaginary Muslim attitude to explain the prohibition against depicting the Prophet: Muhammad is too embarrassed by the antics of the Cutthroat CalipHATE to show his face.
With that, we conclude our sermon on editorial cartooning this time—and leap, forthwith, into the latest Charlie controversies—:
Trudeau’s Charlie, PEN’s Charlie, and Geller’s Charlie
THE QUESTION OF OFFENSIVENESS ABOUNDS
WE HAD THOUGHT, until a few days ago, that the monstrous Charlie Hebdo issue had slipped into a forgotten past, like most matters that are urgent only as long as they sell newspapers or enhance tv viewership. But Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, prompted by the need to say something in accepting the George Polk Career Award (see Opus 339) in early April, said things about Charlie that created no little stir in cartooning circles. We have posted the entire speech at Opus 339, but here below we repeat those of his remarks that caused the stir (all in italics):
Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.
By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila—the 7 million copies [of the magazine] that were published following the killings [of Charlie staff] did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died. Meanwhile, the French government kept busy rounding up and arresting over 100 Muslims who had foolishly used their freedom of speech to express their support of the attacks.
The White House took a lot of hits for not sending a high-level representative to the pro-Charlie solidarity march, but that oversight is now starting to look smart. The French tradition of free expression is too full of contradictions to fully embrace. Even Charlie Hebdo once fired a writer for not retracting an anti-Semitic column. Apparently he crossed some red line that was in place for one minority but not another. [France has a law prohibiting anti-semiticism.]
What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must. Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain. Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.
I’m aware that I make these observations from a special position, one of safety. In America, no one goes into cartooning for the adrenaline. As Jon Stewart said in the aftermath of the killings, comedy in a free society shouldn’t take courage.
Writing satire is a privilege I’ve never taken lightly. And I’m still trying to get it right. Doonesbury remains a work in progress, an imperfect chronicle of human imperfection. It is work, though, that only exists because of the remarkable license that commentators enjoy in this country. That license has been stretched beyond recognition in the digital age. It’s not easy figuring out where the red line is for satire anymore. But it’s always worth asking this question: Is anyone, anyone at all, laughing? If not, maybe you crossed it.
WHAT TRUDEAU CLEARLY BELIEVED was a humane and thoughtful re-consideration of the Charlie cartoons—by American standards, unusually gross and vulgar in flinging their satiric barbs—suddenly looked as if he were blaming the victims: the Charlie cartoonists brought on their own murders by drawing those outrageously offensive cartoons.
Cartoonists immediately took sides. Some supported Trudeau; others did not. Rueben Bolling was among the latter in his Tom the Dancing Bug. Bolling, who likes and respects Trudeau, was troubled by his impulse to criticize him, as he explained at his blog at GoComics.com (in italics):
So why would I draw this cartoon, attacking the position on Charlie Hebdo he presented in his speech accepting the George Polk Award? Well, I'm fascinated with the issue, and when his speech was released, I found that I disagreed with him in a way I thought was interesting. Of course, when America's most prominent cartoon satirist provocatively weighs in on a huge global story about the most important tragedy in cartooning satire history, I'd say it's worthy of our attention.
I wrote a few tweets about his speech. And then, as I thought about it, I came up with this comic, using the example of America's abortion debate to show that it's not always clear whether a satirist is punching up or down, or why that should matter. In Charlie Hebdo's case, poking fun at religious authority, and violent religious fundamentalists, could certainly be seen as punching up.
Anyway, once I had the comic sort-of written, I felt it would be dishonorable or even cowardly to scuttle it because I didn't want to anger Garry Trudeau, or because I wanted to be sure to be in his good graces. We're satirists, and we should be able to disagree with each other through our chosen medium (which doesn't lend itself to nuance or equivocation).
Also, to be honest, once I have a comic I like in mind, it's very hard for me to shift gears and change subjects. As I try to write another comic, my mind will keep wandering back. I'm like a dog with a chew toy; I can't let it go. ...
Well, I will email Garry and explain that while I disagree with him, I do so respectfully, but I suspect he won't be happy about this comic. And that genuinely bothers me. But I guess if I can write satire about newsmakers whom I don't know and respect, it's only fair that I don't back away from writing satire about newsmakers whom I do.
Here's the original opening panel, showing Trudeau's stand-in Mike Doonesbury making the speech. I decided I needed to give the reader more background with a fuller explanatory panel (one of the weaknesses of this comic), so I substituted in the B.D. / Zonker panel.
Editorial cartoonist Ann Telnaes is another who disagrees with the notion of “red-lining” editorial cartoons. At a presentation at the Library of Congress on April 30 (reported by Sukrana Uddin at Young DC.org), Telnaes said that limiting oneself according to other individuals’ “red line” of comfort would eventually box in a cartoonist’s free speech and creativity. Reported Uddin: “Adhering to stern censorship rules stifles a cartoonist’s job of provoking thought and conversations. Rules would eventually restrict true free speech. She had produced a cartoon as long ago as 2006 that vividly illustrates the dangers of red-lining.” Too many red lines make that box we’re trying to avoid.
Telnaes co-presenter, Signe Wilkinson (who, like Telnaes, is a Pulitzer-winning editoonist), agreed: “Each group has something sacred. The question is whether we can let each group decide for everyone else what is sacred. And if we do, we will not be drawing [editorial] cartoons.”
OTHER CARTOONISTS responded to a ComicsRiff survey conducted on April 27 by Michael Cavna, who wanted to know if any of them hold any potential targets as truly, personally taboo. Said Cavna: “In other words: If editorial cartoonists are surgeons of satire, is there anything that is off their operating table? When they cut so incisively, are there any ‘red lines’ each of them prefers not to cross? Here is how 15 of America’s leading cartoonists responded”—:
Nick Anderson (Houston Chronicle): I don’t think in terms of red lines; I tend to think in terms of context, which requires judgment. What is over the line in one context might not be over the line in another. If I’m drawing a really outrageous cartoon, it is probably because I’m trying to employ a fitting metaphor for a situation that I find particularly outrageous.
That being said, I can’t say I’ve ever felt the need to attack or belittle the founder of a religion — Jesus Christ, Muhammad, etc.. I prefer to attack and belittle their followers, who often willfully misinterpret the words of the founders for their own twisted ends. I agree with Trudeau that “because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must.” And this does not mean that criticizing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons puts one in league with the Charlie Hebdo murderers. One should be able to cross the line in a free society without fear of violent reprisal. The answer to speech that crosses the line is more speech.
Pat Bagley (Salt Lake Tribune): I’ve cartooned for decades in a state that comes as close to a theocracy as any in the United States of America. Garry Trudeau said in [his] speech that “the French tradition of free expression is too full of contradictions to fully embrace” — suggesting it was impossible to grasp and there should be a role for censorship. The Mormon tradition of “freedom” and “choice” suffers from the same contradiction. When I went to BYU in the ’70s, the running joke was that the university motto was “Free Choice; and How to Enforce It.” I thank whatever Enlightenment thinker — probably French — came up with the idea of free speech, now enshrined in our U.S. Constitution. Otherwise the 90-percent Mormon, white, privileged male Utah legislature would be tempted to dictate my choices.
(RCH: Okay, Bagley doesn’t seem to be addressing the question. Does he have any personal red lines? I interviewed him years ago, and I’m posting some pertinent parts at the end of this segment under the heading “Pat Bagley Redux.” The short answer—well, there is no short answer. See for yourself down the scroll.)
Nate Beeler (Columbus Dispatch): Personally, I generally think it’s unwise to publicly set “red lines” for what you won’t draw. Every controversial cartoon idea needs to be judged on merit within its context, and that’s both a personal and editorial decision on whether to go forward. Each cartoonist must decide what type of reputation he or she wants to cultivate.
I agree with much of Trudeau’s speech, particularly with the notion that “because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must.” But I take serious issue with Trudeau giving rhetorical cover to terrorists who murdered his cartooning compatriots. … People everywhere have the inherent right to freely express themselves in “childish” and “unserious” ways — which is lucky for Garry Trudeau. …
I can tell you that you’ll never see me draw a cartoon about Garry Trudeau being savagely beheaded by free-speech absolutists.
Darrin Bell (Washington Post Writers Group): I won’t blame religion for anything in my cartoons. Fanatics are fair game. People who cherry-pick from their religion in order to justify the denial of equal rights to others are fair game. People who use religion as an excuse for tribal fighting and slaughter are fair game. Holier-than-thou hypocrites are fair game. But so far I’ve never depicted an entire religion as being fundamentally flawed.
I don’t draw that line because I think religions are above reproach; I draw that line because I feel blaming religion itself lets the bigots, the hypocrites and the ignoramuses off the hook. Religion is a tool. Some use it to build discriminatory laws. Others use it to build civil-rights movements. I’d rather focus on the carpenter than on the tool.
(RCH: Incidentally, if you haven’t noticed, Bell is back doing editorial cartoons, the work he did while in college. He does three a week for WPWG, plus writing and drawing two 7-day comic strips in syndication, Rudy Park and Candorville. Glutton for punishment. He also has an 18-month-old son. And he just won the Robert F. Kennedy Award for editorial cartooning. Obviously, he never sleeps. )
Matt Bors (Medium’s The Nib; Universal Uclick): Obviously, I think satirists should punch up and not down when choosing targets, including scolding dead cartoonists.
I use my best judgment and try not to gauge what I do based on the most easily offended or quick-to-murder reader.
Steve Breen (Union-Tribune, San Diego): I thought that what Garry Trudeau said was right on. It seems to me, from what I have read, that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were pushed by their editor to cross red lines…to become, as Trudeau put it, fanatics for free speech.
It seems to me a good editor pushes us [cartoonists] to be as accurate, clever, clear and concise as possible. He or she should help you affect people but not intentionally enrage them. When people are enraged, they hate you — and when they hate you, they’re no longer able to be objective when they consider your point of view.
I don’t operate in terms of specific red lines, but I do rely on the filters in my head, as well as the guidance of my editor to look at something and say: “Whoa, this might be a red zone we should steer away from — why not try making the same point in a powerful but less-inflammatory way?”
Mike Luckovich (Atlanta Journal Constitution): Great question. I view my mission differently than the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. I don’t set out to provoke. My goal is to get my point across. If it upsets one group or another, so be it. I’m nominally Catholic. During the pedophilia scandals, I hit the church repeatedly and was criticized for it. However, my red line is never drawing a cartoon mocking Jesus Christ or any other religious icon to make a point about a particular faith. I won’t negatively caricature Muhammad to slam Islamic radicalism.
Jimmy Margulies (King Features): The question of which topics or issue I would shy away from in my editorial cartoons is somewhat difficult to answer. Personally, I try to distinguish between things which people have no control over or choice in — such as nationality, race, ethnicity, disability — and those which they do have a conscious role in, such as thoughts, beliefs, actions, policies, etc. The former in my opinion are not fair game, but the latter are.
I say that the question is somewhat difficult to answer because in reality, the red lines are not set by cartoonists themselves, but by an editor who decides what is suitable for publication.
Whether an editorial cartoonist is employed by a newspaper or draws for syndication, it is always the decision of the editor what gets published. So the question of what a cartoonist may decide is acceptable makes for a very stimulating discussion. Ultimately it becomes an academic exercise, since the cartoonist does not have the final say. When I was employed at the Record in New Jersey, my editor would not permit cartoons which ridiculed Governor [Chris] Christie for his weight. I never proposed any that targeted him for his weight alone — they were always in conjunction with something else for which I was criticizing him. But the mere suggestion of poking fun at his size was always an obstacle to getting approval.
Jack Ohman (Sacramento Bee): I think any cartoonists who work on daily newspapers stay within what are commonly accepted parameters. Offhand, I wouldn’t say there were subjects I wouldn’t or can’t comment on. I do try not to be derogatory about a person’s religion. I will comment on a religion if I disagree with a position the leadership of that religion has taken. While cartooning is extremely reductionist, there are taste boundaries, and those boundaries are stretched constantly. One example for me was Governor Jerry Brown’s use of the word “fart,” in describing Governor Rick Perry. That was the first time I went in that particular direction.
Joel Pett (Lexington Herald-Leader): Where to draw the line when drawing lines?…Okay, I personally, would never draw anything that might get large numbers of people killed. This also applies to “maimed” and “imprisoned for life at the mercy of Dick Cheney.” … Unless, of course, I could select the individuals from the ranks of corporate and government evildoers past and present against whom I harbor grievance.
I would also never criticize a cartoonist of Garry Trudeau’s stature, whom I respect for many reasons. Major red line! I would graciously, but not obsequiously, concur with some of his major points, like “punching up” and that writing satire in a free society is a privilege, one that comes with attendant responsibility. I would downplay the holes in his speech, giving him the benefit of the doubt, assuming that something was lost in translation, or lack of inflection or facial expression or the like. Examples of these would be: 1) that “free speech absolutists…denounced using judgment and common sense”; and 2) the usefulness of his conclusion about “whether anyone at all is laughing.”
Never one to nitpick, I’d just smile and internalize my thoughts about how “absolutists” merely defend the right of people to say dumb things, and that some idiots will laugh at almost anything. Also, small point, but the lines aren’t red at all, and in fact they have more shades of grey than “insert S&M joke.”
I might mention that all of the highly publicized battles over free speech involve parties acting irresponsibly, or at least doing and saying things that most of us wouldn’t dream of. Like publishing Hustler, donning swastikas and marching in Jewish communities, picketing military funerals with signs reading, “God hates f—“, drawing the prophet for a nonprofit, or simply being Rush Limbaugh.
Please do not translate this into any other language, hand-letter onto a scroll or chisel into a tablet, as something may get lost over the centuries, causing untold misunderstanding. Thank you.
Rob Rogers (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette): I consider myself a free-speech absolutist in the sense that I don’t believe anyone should be murdered or even jailed for expressing themselves. I don’t think any kind of speech, no matter how offensive or “taboo,” should result in a death sentence. Once we begin to allow certain people or groups to dictate what is okay to say or draw, it is only a matter of time until those exceptions become more and more restrictive. It is a slippery slope to ultimate suppression. By criticizing the content of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and there is certainly plenty to criticize, we run the risk of blaming the victim. If only they hadn’t drawn the prophet Muhammad. ... If only the rape victim hadn’t worn that short skirt. … These kind of arguments only embolden the attackers and those who think their actions were justified.
Also, while I would never draw the kind of shocking images found in Charlie Hebdo, I think it is also a big leap to say that by depicting Muhammad in an unflattering way, those cartoonists were attacking a powerless disenfranchised minority of Muslims. I read it as them attacking a religious taboo, not a group of people.
My own personal moral code is certainly one of not punching downward. My goal is to create satire that champions justice and equality, and I try to avoid images that may undermine that purpose. I believe in going after the oppressors, not the oppressed. I attack the hypocritical and corrupt, the rich and powerful, the cruel and pompous rulers—not their poor followers. While I don’t think I have any red lines, per se, because I would never want to put those kinds of restrictions on my creativity, I probably do have some pink lines. I avoid images that could be seen as racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc., because they would be antithetical to my intended message.
In 2014, I was called anti-Semitic for a cartoon I drew about Gaza that criticized Israel’s use of military force in the region. My particular cartoon style includes large, bulbous noses on all my characters. I don’t think my depiction was anti-Semitic, but in the future, I will be more sensitive when drawing cartoons about Israel.
Jen Sorensen (Fusion and Austin Chronicle, et al.): I’ve been asked this question a lot over the past year, and I’d suggest that the phrase “red lines I won’t cross” is somewhat flawed. People crave absolutes, but there are no lines — only specific contexts and circumstances. Also, the phrase seems to imply that I’m repressing something I *should* be saying.
I’ve often said that being a political cartoonist is like being a doctor; I try to heed the golden rule of “do no harm.” Will my work contribute to hatred and misunderstanding? Or does it serve to illuminate and defend the less-powerful in society? The only subject I won’t draw about is one about which I have no good cartoon ideas. Rather than follow lines, I follow my conscience. And in the U.S., I’m fortunate to have tremendous freedom to do that.
I may be in the minority among my colleagues, but I greatly admired Garry Trudeau’s speech on Charlie Hebdo. Garry gets it. There are ways to criticize terrorism and religious extremism without humiliating and alienating an entire people at the bottom of the power structure.
Scott Stantis (Chicago Tribune): [I have] no hard and fast “red lines.” Like the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on pornography: I’ll know it when I see it. I would also ask Garry [Trudeau] or any others defending the pretext of the Charlie Hebdo attack exactly what “punching down” the people at the kosher deli, where the attackers went next, were guilty of?…
[Trudeau’s] point seemed to be that the satirist’s first obligation must be to sensitivity and not to moral outrage. Apparently, one of the Charlie Hebdo covers that really set off the attackers ridiculed radical Islam, going as far as renaming the publication Sharia Hebdo. If that’s “punching down” then more satirists ought to do it.
I am also aghast at his sneering label of “free-speech absolutists.” Count me as one of those as well.
Signe Wilkinson (Philly.com; Philadelphia Daily News): Different people have different lines, which is why no ONE person should be able to declare crossing a particular line to be a death-penalty offense. Personally, I work for two newspapers with general-interest audiences with wide tastes. I don’t do nudity, profanity or graphic violence. My line on religion is that when a religious group starts asking for special favors from the state — whether it’s tax privileges for their schools or exemptions from regulations everyone else must abide by — or acting in ways that affect others — abusing kids, cutting off apostates’ heads — they become part of the political process, and should be treated as the political players they are.
As much as I respect Garry Trudeau, I disagree with his argument on Charlie Hebdo. Like Trudeau, I wouldn’t have drawn most of the cartoons they published, and didn’t follow their publication. However, their cartoons did not kill people. Humorless religious fanatics did. It is the assassins we should be worried about, not a bunch of cartoonists whose work was largely being ignored by non-terrorists.
Adam Zyglis (Buffalo News; this year’s Pulitzer winner): As Trudeau mentioned in his speech, I, too, believe my role as a cartoonist is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” My goal is to express an opinion to my readers in a way that’s honest about what I believe to be right and wrong. If in the process I provoke anger or vitriol, then so be it. But to needlessly provoke is to reduce what I do to public shouting. I suppose that’s my red line: Do not be gratuitously offensive.
I don’t have any topics that are off the table in my commentary. I let my editors do the editing, and I’m lucky that in my case, I’m given free rein in terms of message. With imagery, my paper used to be sensitive to depictions of the Pope and the Catholic Church [in light of the abuse scandals], but I still found ways to make my point.
Free speech has its limits, and producing work for a mainstream newspaper means certain images will needlessly provoke. Religious symbols, such as the cross or a depiction of Muhammad, need to be handled with care when crafting cartoons. It doesn’t mean they’re off the table — it just means you must use them responsibly. The same is true for racially charged imagery.
The cartoons of mine that have been the most controversial have been ones immediately following a tragedy. For instance, after a Buffalo plane crash in 2009, I was highly critical of the poorly trained pilot and the sub-par safety standards of the regional airline industry. The cartoons were circulated around the airline industry to many who weren’t regular consumers of satire. The reaction was overwhelming — so many people were offended because they didn’t know cartoons aren’t always like Garfield. But since then, I’m more cognizant of the timing of my cartoons.
WRITING AT HIS BLOG, Daryl Cagle, editoonist and owner of his syndicage, Cagle Cartoons, expounded even more, starting with his observations about Charlie cartoonist Rénald “Luz” Luzier, who drew for the first post-killings issue of Charlie Hebdo the now-famous cover caricature of Muhammad with a tear running down his face, saying“Tout est pardonné,” or “All is forgiven.” Luz decided at the end of April that he would no longer draw Muhammad cartoons.
“He no longer interests me,” Luzier told French magazine Les Inrockuptibles. “I am tired of him, just like [former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy. I am not going to spend my life drawing them.”
To which news Cagle responded (in italics): I can sympathize with Luz’s choice: since he’s now “typecast” as the premier Muhammad cartoonist, it seems reasonable that Luz wouldn’t want his career to be boiled down to being the “Muhammad cartoon guy.”
I’m an editorial cartoonist; I haven’t drawn a Muhammad cartoon myself, because I haven’t been inspired to do so. I shy away from drawing cartoons that some people would find offensive. I don’t use four letter words, or the “N-word” in my cartoons. I don’t draw sexually explicit cartoons. Offensive subject matter in cartoons can be so loud that it drowns out anything else I might want to say in a cartoon, except, “Look, I have the freedom to draw something offensive.”
Many cartoonists have drawn Muhammad cartoons, and racist cartoons, and dirty cartoons; that’s fine, that’s their business—but drawing offensive stuff just to draw attention to myself, or to prove that I have the right to do so, just looks like lousy cartooning to me. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were doing more than that; they were addressing issues in French culture that were important to them, and rejecting all religions that they felt didn’t fit with their secular society.
I knew three of the five Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were murdered earlier this year and I got to know more of them at French cartoon festivals. They have a genuine passion for their issues and our conversations always turned to a discussion of their religion-bashing cartoons. Here in America we’re not faced with the same social pressures and similar cartoons here should seem out of place.
It doesn’t matter that I personally don’t choose to draw Muhammad cartoons, or that most cartoonists don’t care to draw offensive cartoons, all editorial cartoonists are now being seen as recklessly poking surly Islamic beasts. My profession is being painted with the Muhammad cartoon broad-brush.
I was recently asked to speak at a local college, and I met the college president; the first thing he said to me was, “Now, don’t show any of those Muhammad cartoons.” This is not unusual. Casual conversations with editorial cartoonists often start with, “So, do you draw those Muhammad cartoons too?”
Like Luz was typecast, it seems we’re all typecast now.
A MONTH AFTER GIVING UP drawing Muhammad, Luz announced that he was leaving Charlie Hebdo. According to Inquisitir.com, the stress of being Charlie’s only cartoonist combined with media pressure and a need to rebuild his life following the attack have convinced him to part ways with the publication. Said Luz:
“The time came when it was just all too much to bear. There was next to nobody to draw the cartoons. I ended up doing three of every four front-pages. … Each issue is torture because the others are gone. Spending sleepless nights summoning the dead, wondering what Charb, Cabu, Honore, Tignous would have done is exhausting.”
Charb, Cabu, Honore and Tignous are the pen names of the cartoonists killed on January 7. As was their custom, they and other staff members were gathered that day around a table, concocting the next issue of the paper through a group dynamic of creative contributions. On that fateful day, Luz was running late—and was therefore not in the Charlie’s Paris office when the murderous Islamic hooligans stormed in. The rest of the survivors now live under police protection, including Luz’s colleagues at other newspapers.
Luz hinted that inspiration has been elusive since the tragedy and that he’s lost interest in “returning to normal life as a news cartoonist.”
“We’re not heroes,” he said, “—we never were and we never wanted to be.” He stuck around, he explained, only because he survived the attack, to “continue in solidarity, to let nobody down. Except that at one point, it was too much to bear.”
Leaving Charlie, Luz said, was a “very personal choice” that will help him “to rebuild, to take back control” of himself.
“You don’t know anymore which Luz you are speaking for,” he said, “—the one born on Jan. 7, 1972 or the one that was born for France on the 7th of January 2015.”
EDITOONISTS IN VARIOUS VENUES of the realm pondered Trudeau’s punching and red-lining. At The Nib, the cartooning corner of Medium.com, Kevin Moore conjured up a helpful guide to appropriate targets for punching—at the upper left of the first of the two accompanying visual aids.
And James Van Otto, next around the clock, provides a vividly visual interpretation of the red line prohibition. Immediately below, Signe Wilkinson shows the best response to offensive cartoons, a theme continued on the next exhibit.
At the upper left of the second exhibit, Van Otto continues to play with the red line notion, suggesting a way a cartoonist may gauge the offensiveness of his/her cartoons. Next, John Trever offers a memorable image of the knee-jerk response of Islamic hooligans to whatever offends them, in this instance, the classic endorsement of freedom of expression. And Phil Hands’ visual shows us that while many Muslims might be offended by cartoons of the Prophet, only a tiny minority resort to violence to express their objection.
In his response to Cavna’s survey, Rob Rogers alludes to a red-line caution that is probably more to the point than discussions about religious taboos. He said he “avoids images that ... could be antithetical to my intended message.” If an image so outrages readers that they focus only on the cause of their ire and therefore miss on the cartoonist’s message, then the cartoon is rendered useless. To a great extent, this is exactly the problem with Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons when being viewed by people not familiar with either the issues in France or the devices of French cartooning—as we’ll explain at painful length further on.
IN THE ENSUING BROUHAHA, Trudeau was sufficiently embarrassed to do something he rarely does. He consented (or arranged for) an April 26 interview on tv by NBC’s “Meet the Press” moderator, a very friendly Chuck Todd, to whom the cartoonist, looking every bit as chagrined as he clearly was, explained that he was “not at all” blaming the victims and that he “should have made it a little clearer” that he was “as outraged as the rest of the world at the time. I mourn them deeply,” he said—a sentiment not apparent in anything he said in his Polk acceptance speech. (He could not have made his feelings “a little clearer” because they weren’t even slightly evident to begin with.)
So affected was he by the Paris tragedy, Trudeau continued, that he produced a special Sunday Doonesbury, memorializing the slaughtered cartoonists. In this March 8 production, Trudeau was on firm ground: he was determinedly respectful of the work of his French colleagues, and he finished with a wry antic flourish, a little self-satire, flagrantly referencing the prohibition against picturing Muhammad that Charlie Hebdo so frequently flouted. But in his Polk speech, he had another agenda.
The “powerless, disenfranchised minority” on whose behalf he spoke are the millions of French Muslims who immigrated to France from northern Africa and the one-time French colony Algiers but who have not yet, for one reason or another, been assimilated into their new home. They live in abject ghettos around the fringes of large cities.
Their separateness and isolation is partly self-imposed: many French Muslims wish to continue Islam’s religious practices in conduct and dress, thereby invading the French public square with religion in a way that the French have rigorously opposed. In freeing itself from centuries of Catholic Church dominance in private and public life, the French have erected an insurmountable wall to keep church separate from state. To the French, then, their Muslim countrymen threaten a hard-won tradition that the French treasure zealously.
It is possible, as Trudeau has demonstrated, to see Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons as striking back at a French Muslim population’s insistence on making religion an active and evident part of daily life, something the French tradition and law strictly forbids—despite Charlie’s repeated claim that the magazine was, in Trudeau’s terms, “punching up.”
Charlie Hebdo maintains that in mocking religion their aim has been not to attack religion itself, but rather the role of religion in politics and the blurring of lines in-between, which they see as promoting totalitarianism—an argument some have made about the incursion of religion into American politics. And most, if not all, of Charlie’s cartoons can be understood in that context.
The paper sees itself as an equal opportunity offender: past covers showed retired Pope Benedict XVI in amorous embrace with a Vatican guard, former French president Sarkozy looking like a sick vampire, and an Orthodox Jew kissing a Nazi soldier. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik described the cover of a special Christmas issue entitled “The True Story of Baby Jesus”; it was “a drawing of a startled Mary giving notably frontal birth to her child.”
But if the pictures in Charlie Hebdo are offensive to some, they are also intended to make us laugh, to see the absurd follies of human hypocrisy running rampant through our so-called civilization.
“The aim is to laugh,” said Charlie journalist Laurent Lege (quoted by Megan Gibson at time.com). “We want to laugh at the extremists—every extremist. They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept.”
“We’re a newspaper against religions as soon as they enter into the political and public realm,” editor-in-chief Gerard Biard told the New York Times in 2012, adding that religious leaders, and Islamic leaders in particular, have manipulated their followers for political purposes. As Signe Wilkinson said in Cavna’s survey: once a religious group “becomes part of the political process, they should be treated as the political players they are.”
Trudeau, however, sees it differently. In his “Meet the Press” interview, he returned to the ideas in his Polk speech. (What follows is quoted from a report at TheNib.com. I could not find these remarks in either the broadcast interview or in the extended version of it streamed at nbc.com; but what I’m quoting seems consistent with those of Trudeau’s remarks I could find. Perhaps the elaboration that appears herewith came during remarks Trudeau made at the Richmond Forum in January.)
“I was as outraged as the rest of the world at the time [of the Paris killing of the Charlie cartoonists]. I mourn them deeply. We’re a very small fraternity of political cartoonists around the globe. ... What I didn’t do is necessarily agree with the decisions they made that brought a world of pain to France. I think that in France the wider Muslim community feels disempowered and disenfranchised in ways I’m sure is also true in this country. And that while I would imagine only a tiny fraction were sympathetic to the acts that were carried out and the killings, I think probably the vast majority shared in the outrage. Certainly that seems to be what people are hearing in the schoolyards in France now. They’re finding common cause at least with the issue if not with the action. I think that’s bad for France, it’s unfortunate. It’s a tragedy that could have been avoided. But everybody has to decide where the red lines are for themselves.”
On the one hand, Trudeau says “no, not at all” does he blame the victims; he blames only “the decisions they made.” In other words—on the other hand— he blames the victims.
Writing dialogue for his Amazon Prime political tv show, “Alpha House,” has evidently equipped Trudeau with all of the argot of equivocation deployed by the pandering politician who is adept at saying one thing and then contradicting himself in the next breath in order to appeal to a different audience—or to cover his/her butt—all the while, failing to see that he/she has reduced communication to blather by committing blatant hypocrisy.
Suddenly, Trudeau the master satirist is guilty of some of the sins he so deftly skewers in politicians.
Then he was rescued as the journalistic spotlight turned to PEN and its hypocrisies—:
The Hypocrisies of PEN
PEN IS AN INTERNATIONAL, NON-GOVERNMENTAL organization for writers and others actively engaged in any branch of literary endeavor; PEN has consultative relations with UNESCO and with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Founded in 1921 in London, its first president was John Galsworthy; among its earliest members were Joseph Conrad, Elizabeth Craig, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. PEN’s stated aims are:
To promote intellectual co-operation and understanding among writers.
To create a world community of writers that would emphasize the central role of literature in the development of world culture.
To defend literature against the many threats to its survival which the modern world poses.
Although headquartered in London, PEN has autonomous centers in over 100 countries, one of them, the United States.
Just as Trudeau was digging a deeper hole for himself on “Meet the Press,” members of the American PEN Center were circulating a letter protesting the organization’s plan to honor Charlie Hebdo by presenting it with PEN’s first Free Expression Courage Award during the annual gala on May 5.
It all began when six members of PEN withdrew as table hosts because they believe many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are racist and bigoted, and they don’t want to honor racism and bigotry. Caleb Crain succinctly stated their position at his steamthing.com: “Yes, technically, a cartoonist killed for a racist or bigoted cartoon was being courageous if he drew it knowing that he might be killed for it [which accurately describes the Charlie situation]. But no, it isn’t right to honor him.”
The writer Deborah Eisenberg elaborated on the reasons for the protest in a letter to PEN’s Executive Director Suzanne Nossel, and Nossel responded—both at great and carefully reasoned length—and Eisenberg replied to Nossel, and we’ve quoted all three letters in their entirety at the end of this Opus. Here are a few excerpts—:
From Eisenberg’s first letter: It is clear and inarguable that the January slaughter of 10 Charlie Hebdo staff members as well as 2 policemen in the Charlie Hebdo offices is sickening and tragic. What is neither clear nor inarguable is the decision to confer an award for courageous freedom of expression on Charlie Hebdo, or what criteria, exactly, were used to make that decision. ... I doubt there are many who consider the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to be models of wit, but what is at issue is obviously not the value of the cartoons. What is at issue are the various – confused, vague, and sometimes contradictory – symbolic meanings with which the magazine has been freighted in recent months, and exactly which of those symbolic meanings PEN is intending to applaud. ...
I can hardly be alone in considering Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons that satirize Islam to be not merely tasteless and brainless but brainlessly reckless as well. To a Muslim population in France that is already embattled, marginalized, impoverished, and victimized, in large part a devout population that clings to its religion for support, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as intended to cause further humiliation and suffering. ...
Apparently PEN has reasoned that it is the spectacularly offensive nature of Charlie Hebdo’s expression in itself that makes the magazine the ideal recipient for the Courage Award. ... Is there not a difference—a critical difference—between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable and enthusiastically awarding such expression? ...
To which, Nossel responded (in part): We believe that honoring Charlie Hebdo affords us an opportunity to inflect global opinion on an issue of longstanding concern to PEN and to free expression advocates worldwide, including many in the Muslim world: namely, efforts to devalue, ban, or punish acts deemed to constitute the defamation of religion. ... I worked on this issue for more than 18 months as an official of the U.S. State Department during the Obama Administration. At the time, certain delegations, led by Pakistan, were waging a powerful global campaign to try to secure an international treaty banning the so-called defamation of religion. Their efforts, they explained to me, were fueled by a sense of deep grievance by ordinary citizens in their countries toward the West and toward insults against their religion. ...
I heard from officials who admitted that they did not believe that international bans on blasphemy were the right answer to the problems and pressure they were facing. They shared concerns that campaigns for such bans gave a kind of license to those assailants, including rioters in Kabul and assassins in Islamabad, who treated insults to Mohammed as grounds for violent reprisals. In making an award to Charlie Hebdo, we call attention the fact that such policies are abhorrent and extremely dangerous. ...
The reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings, which united many governments, religious leaders and civil society organizations in a joint expression of solidarity, drew global attention to the dangers of intolerance for criticism of religion. ... The idea that no words, no matter how offensive or insulting, can ever justify violence seems basic to us here, but is honored in the breach in many parts of the world. We see honoring Charlie Hebdo as a potent way to affirm and elevate that principle at a moment when the world is paying attention. ...
We also believe strongly in upholding and defending the role of satire in free societies. Satire is, by definition, disrespectful and often insulting. Based on Charlie Hebdo’s history, their statements and the accounts of those within PEN who have personally known and worked with the magazine, we believe that it sits firmly within the tradition of French satire. ...
The new editor of Charlie Hebdo has said that in mocking religion their aim has been not to attack religion itself, but rather the role of religion in politics and the blurring of lines in-between, which they see as promoting totalitarianism—an argument some have made about the incursion of religion into American politics. As we look through the cartoons we think most if not all can be understood in that context. In pushing the boundaries of discourse as the best satirists do—American, European, or otherwise— Charlie Hebdo broke taboos, raised questions and sparked debates that expanded the space for expression and the exchange of ideas. They paid a heavy price for doing so, and then pressed on despite heartbreak and devastation. We think that shows a powerful commitment to free expression no matter the costs, and it is that commitment that we wish to honor. ...
In sum, we are honoring Charlie Hebdo not because of the material you find offensive, but because of their fearless defense of their right to express themselves, a defense that has made our spines stiffen here at PEN and throughout the free expression community as we recognize the depth of our obligation to stand firm in the force of powerful and dangerous interests.
Eisenberg, however, was not convinced: Here is a point [she said] on which we differ. Or at least as I understand it, this is something that you and PEN are asserting: that people who are murdered for expressing themselves are automatically deserving of praise. Really? Why is that? A person who is murdered (or threatened or harassed) for his or her views is by definition a victim – but not by definition a hero. He or she may be a hero or not. Let us say that a man considers his wife to be inferior to him and derides her repeatedly, and that she then murders him in his sleep. I think most of us would agree that it is wrong to murder the husband, but I hope few of us would agree that the husband deserves an award. ... Terrorism seeks to inhibit and control behavior and even ideas through the simple and very effective expedient of violence, so it is critical to respond by maintaining our autonomy, both in refusing to be silenced by threats or acts and also by refusing to let fear and intimidation interfere with our ideas and responses to the world around us—which is of course a subtler, vaguer, and more easily manipulated business.
Like you, I greatly admire the courage of those who retain their autonomy and hold fast to reasoned ideals in the face of intimidation. But by the same token, I do not believe that a repudiation of terrorism obliges me to join forces with prejudices I find repugnant. If I were to follow PEN’s line of thought in this instance – the equating of free expression with offensiveness – to its logical conclusion, I would have to distort my own inclinations and convictions and devote myself to drawing incredibly offensive magazine covers. And that, in my view, would be as much a capitulation to terrorism as silence would be. ...
The Muslim population of France, so much of which feels despised and out of place in their own home, is very aware that the non-Muslim population of France is reading and enjoying mockery of their religion, and they are very unlikely to care what objectives Charlie Hebdo ascribes to itself, however lofty those objectives may be. A person wounded by ridicule is unlikely to much care what the ridiculer intended – to care whether the goal of the ridicule was to stimulate insight or to inflict humiliation. ...
What actually matters most in this instance, in my opinion, is what people believe is being awarded: What does PEN wish to convey by presenting this prestigious award to Charlie Hebdo? And that is still not one bit clear to me. Charlie Hebdo is undeniably courageous in that it has continued irrepressibly to ridicule Islam and its adherents, who include a conspicuously and ruthlessly dangerous faction. But ridicule of Islam and Muslims cannot in itself be considered courageous at this moment, because ridicule of Islam and Muslims is now increasingly considered acceptable in the West. However its staff and friends see it, Charlie Hebdo could well be providing many, many people with an opportunity to comfortably assume a position that they were formerly ashamed to admit. This is not a voice of dissent, this is the voice of a mob.
More PEN Uproar
THE FULL TEXT of the Eisenberg-Nossel correspondence appears, as I said, at the end of this Opus. Among the table hosts who withdrew was a former president of PEN, Francine Prose, who wrote:
“The award is for writers and journalists who tell us the truth about the world in which we live, not drawing rude caricatures and mocking religion. ... Let me emphasize how strongly I believe in the ideals of PEN; for two years I was president of the PEN American Center. I believe in the indivisibility of the right to free speech, regardless of what – however racist, blasphemous, or in any way disagreeable – is being said. I was horrified by the tragic murders at the Charlie Hebdo office; I have nothing but sympathy for the victims and survivors. I abhor censorship of every kind and I despise the use of violence as a means of enforcing silence. I believe that Charlie Hebdo has every right to publish whatever they wish.
“But that is not the same as feeling that Charlie Hebdo deserves an award. As a friend wrote me: the First Amendment guarantees the right of the neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, but we don’t give them an award. The bestowing of an award suggests to me a certain respect and admiration for the work that has been done, and for the value of that work and though I admire the courage with which Charlie Hebdo has insisted on its right to provoke and challenge the doctrinaire, I don’t feel that their work has the importance – the necessity – that would deserve such an honor. ...
“Our job, in presenting an award, is to honor writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live. That is important work that requires perseverance and courage. And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.”
Salman Rushdie, the Indian author who spent years in hiding after a fatwa was issued against him for some of the content in his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, was appalled by the defections:
“The award will be given. PEN is holding firm. Just 6 pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character,” Rushdie wrote on Twitter on April 27. “If PEN as a free-speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” he said.
Others took the decidedly opposite tack. Acclaimed New Yorker cartoonist and author Liza Donnelly (Women on Men) says she cannot salute PEN’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo with an honor.
“I believe in the right of cartoonists around the world to draw freely without fear,” Donnelly told Michael Cavna at his blog at the Washington Post. “As a political cartoonist and supportive member of PEN, I am in solidarity with the signers of the PEN letter. I believe in absolute freedom of speech. We need all voices at the table,” said Donnelly, who is also a political cartoonist at Medium.com, as well as a cartoon editor and creator of WorldInk.org. “Yet as I wrote in my editorial for the New York Times, I believe that cartoonists have a responsibility to use their pens carefully. Because cartoons are visual and thus uniquely universal, they are extremely powerful. In a world that is increasingly interconnected, I believe it’s important to consider the possible global ramifications when wielding such power.”
In other words, Prose and Donnelly and their ilk support freedom of expression but only so long as the expressions are decent and don’t offend anyone. A pretty puny championing of free speech, if you ask me. Those who take this position are as guilty of sniveling hypocrisy as any craven political panderer: they say freedom of speech is absolutely essential (but only some of it).
THE “PEN LETTER” TO WHICH DONNELLY REFERS is a petition that was eventually signed by more than 200 members of PEN. The petitioners oppose giving Charlie the courage award because such an honor necessarily “valorizes” the nasty content of Charlie’s cartoons. Officially, that’s scarcely the case, as President Andrew Solomon explained in an op-ed in the New York Times on May 2:
“In offering this award, PEN does not endorse the content or quality of the cartoons, except to say that we do not believe they constitute hate speech. The question for us is not whether the cartoons deserve an award for literary merit, but whether they disqualify Charlie Hebdo from a hard-earned award for courage. Charlie Hebdo’s murdered editorial director, Stéphane Charbonnier, said he aimed to ‘banalize’ all areas of discourse that were too fraught to discuss. He maintained that generations of satire of Catholicism had made the lampooning of it — and thereby, the legitimate discussion of it — unobjectionable, and he felt that the same could be achieved with Islam and other topics.
“That the cartoons were not intentionally racist does not preclude their being experienced as racist. Cartoons can and do offend. Yet Christiane Taubira, the black French justice minister who was parodied as a monkey in a cringe-worthy cartoon, delivered a poignant elegy at the funeral of one of her supposed tormentors, Bernard Verlhac, known as Tignous, saying that ‘Tignous and his companions were sentinels, lookouts, those who watched over democracy,’ preventing it from being lulled into complacency.
“The leading French anti-racism organization, SOS Racisme, has called Charlie Hebdo “the greatest anti-racist weekly in this country.” Its current editor, Gérard Biard, says it deplores all forms of racism. According to Le Monde, of 523 Charlie Hebdo covers published from 2005 to 2015, only seven singled out Islam for ridicule (ten were cited as mocking multiple religions); many more mocked Christianity and the racism of the French right.
“Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons resist religious extremists’ attempts to redraw the boundaries of free speech by using violence. They do so in defense of norms to which free societies subscribe. Anti-Muslim prejudice in the West is a serious matter. So is fundamentalism, Islamist or otherwise. Feeding off one another, both ills threaten civil liberties and tear at social fabrics. But a statement or an award that addresses one problem does not thereby deny or acquiesce to the other. The distressing absence of broad respect toward Muslims in France does not undercut Charlie Hebdo’s bravery in defending the right to be disrespectful. ...
“Great satirists — Jonathan Swift, Rabelais, Voltaire, Alexander Pope, Mark Twain, Stanley Kubrick — have all offended and been excoriated for it; Daumier was imprisoned after depicting a grossly overweight king excreting favors. Satire is often vulnerable to being construed as hate speech, especially at first blush. Many contemporary American voices jeer at vulnerabilities as a means of unmasking them — think of Joan Rivers, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Louis C.K., ‘South Park’ or ‘The Colbert Report.’
“Charlie Hebdo’s staff members knew that producing satire aimed at venerated targets was dangerous. Their valor lies in their dauntless fortitude patrolling the outer precincts of free speech. While many question the defense of that far-flung territory because of the bigotry that can lurk there, Charlie Hebdo has guarded it vigilantly, keeping it open for all should a time come when we, too, may need to challenge taboos and risk sacrilege. Without those who stake out the border provinces, we would all be forced to dwell in an ever-shrinking expressive terrain.”
AT THENATION.COM, KATHA POLLITT continued in the same vein only somewhat less restrained:
“This was a magazine that kept publishing after its offices were firebombed by Islamists in 2011, and kept publishing after nine staffers were horribly murdered by Islamists in January. Compare that to, say, Yale University Press, which dropped the illustrations for Jytte Clausen's book about the Danish Muhammed cartoons after the book's first printing, or Random House, which canceled publication of Sherry Jones's The Jewel of Medina, a historical novel about Muhammed's wife Aisha. Both publishing houses cited fears of violence by Muslim extremists. Those fears were not irrational. The head of the British publishing house that picked up Jones's novel had his house firebombed—and the book was dropped. Violence works.”
Pollitt talked with Francine Prose, who told her “Charlie Hebdo’s work is not important. It’s not interesting. It’s a racist publication, let’s not beat about the bush.” To which Pollitt responded:
“I've known Francine since we were in college, and admire her and her writing enormously. I agree with her that there's a distinction between supporting the freedom to speak and write, as we both do, and honoring the speech itself. ... I don't agree that the drawings of Muhammed are in a different key than the magazine's rude caricatures of the Pope or Hasidic rabbis or the Virgin Mary just after being raped by the three kings, but maybe that's in the eye of the beholder. ...
“Garry Trudeau accused Charlie Hebdo of punching down—i.e., making jokes at the expense of the weak and powerless. In a long letter to PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel, the short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg said the same thing. There's something to that—why make struggling people unhappy?—but not enough. It's basically saying you can make fun of Christianity, but Islam is out of bounds. Furthermore, Charlie doesn't mock Muslim people—the shopkeeper who runs the corner store, the woman working in a call center, the boys hanging out in the street. It mocks fundamentalism—the narrow, bigoted, superstitious version of Islam that lies behind actually rather a lot of violence against writers.”
Pollitt cites the protestors’ objection to Charlie: “‘There is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable,’ they argue, ‘and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.’ Well, sure, but excuse me: violates the acceptable? The acceptable what? And don't we need writing and artwork that pushes the boundary of what the acceptable is?”
At newyorker.com, Adam Gopnik joined the anti-protest chorus. Some PEN protestors suggested that “maybe we could find someone better to honor than those inclined to print cartoons of Muhammad sodomizing his followers. We can regret their deaths without honoring their views—which some find bigoted or, at least, to use the word of the decade, insensitive.
“This badly misunderstands the actual views, history, and practices of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Their work, as I’ve written, was not for those who like subtlety and suavity in their satire—it was not entirely to my own taste—but they were still radically democratic and egalitarian in their views, with their one passionate dislike being, simply, the hypocrisies of any organized religion. Few groups in recent French history have been more passionately ‘minoritarian’—more marginalized or on the outs with the political establishment, more vitriolic in their mockery of power, more courageous in ridiculing people of far greater influence and power. They were always punching up at idols and authorities. No one in France has, for example, been more relentlessly, courageously contemptuous of the extreme right-wing Le Pens, père et fille.”
At his 33revolutionsperminute.wordpress.com, author Dorian Lynskey joined the chorus protesting the initial six protestors.
“One of the great fallacies in the debate about Charlie Hebdo, articulated by Garry Trudeau, is the binary distinction between punching up and punching down, as if there were a ladder of power and a simple diagram to decide between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ satire. If you think the magazine was only attacking French Muslims, then it was punching down, but its obvious target was religious fundamentalism. In the era of Islamic State, Boko Haram and Wahhabism, it’s idiotic to equate religious extremism with powerlessness. ...
“And isn’t there something insidious about suggesting that mocking religion is unworthy? Unnecessary? Progressives usually go to the barricades to insist that mocking religion is a valid form of freedom of speech.
“I’ve genuinely been trying to understand why these six writers feel compelled to take a stand against Charlie Hebdo — why they cannot bear even to sit in the same room while the award is being presented. ... Charlie Hebdo is not being honoured because it was doing the bravest, most important work in the world — braver and more important than the work of [other] preferred candidates, including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. It is not being honoured for its unfailingly progressive values and always punching in the ‘right’ direction. It is being honoured because nine staff members and contributors were murdered in cold blood by fanatics who found their cartoons offensive. I struggle to come up with a definition of freedom of speech, or of courage, that doesn’t cover what they did, and the price they paid for it. ...
“My question for the six boycotters is this: if you cannot physically bear to sit in a room and show solidarity with people who have been murdered for drawing cartoons — murder being the most terminal form of censorship — then what is the point of belonging to PEN at all?”
A PEN Interlude: Another Victim
IN THE MIDST of the PEN brouhaha, Charlie Hebdo itself weighed in, reported Jennifer Schuessler and Rachel Donadio at the New York Times. The cover of that week’s issue, released on Wednesday, April 29, featured a double-entendre referencing the PEN fracas and the continuing political family feud between Marine Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing, anti-immigrant National Front, and her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder (now defrocked) of the political party.
The cover shows the Le Pens, daughter and pater, in contorted profile, shouting “Croak, Le Pen!” at each other. It was a jab at current events on both sides of the Atlantic: Ms. Le Pen had just suspended her father from the party he founded, prompting him to say she should “change her name.” Inside, a center spread offered articles and cartoons addresses the PEN controversy.
In an opinion column written in a serious tone in contrast to the comic cartoons surrounding it, Philippe Lançon, a journalist shot in the face in January attack, expresses his surprise at the PEN dissenters. “He writes that he understands that some writers might want to distance themselves from PEN, and that the magazine itself mistrusts such institutions, ‘so as not to become one itself — one of those places where it’s indispensable to show how bien-pensant you are in order to get ahead and believe you’re loved.’
“‘It’s not their abstention that shocks me,’ Lancon continued, ‘—it’s the nature of their arguments. That novelists of such quality — Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi — come to say so many misinformed stupidities in so few words, with all the vanity of good souls, is what saddens the reader in me.’
“During the PEN controversy, defenders of the magazine have charged its critics with ignorance of the magazine’s contents and context. Charlie Hebdo, they pointed out, is a leftist magazine with a longstanding history of anti-racist activism, and in fact has pilloried the anti-immigrant policies of the National Front far more often than it mocked Islam.”
End of interlude; diatribe continues—:
The Myopia of the Writing Class
PART OF PEN’s problem is that its members are mostly writers, wordsmiths not picture-makers. Michael Cavna observed that among the 200-plus signers of the petition, he could find the name of no “true” cartoonist. (A possible exception may be Liz Donnelly, who sides with the signers but perhaps had not actually signed the document. Some cartoonists, like Donnelly, are members of PEN but apparently none of them have joined in the protest.) With only a writer’s verbal perspective, many (if not most) of the PEN protesters doubtless don’t understand the cartoons because in cartoons the verbal is blended to the visual for a meaning neither has alone without the other.
The New Yorker’s art director, French-born Francoise Mouly, who is co-hosting a table, emphasizes this difference, in suggesting that some writers and editors don’t fully appreciate the cartoonist’s art, and so might judge Charlie Hebdo with less perception. “Some people’s intelligence is narrow, within their own ‘language’ and mode of communication,” Mouly told Cavna. “Cartoonists are canny because they work on both fronts. They can do a mental dance. And there is a concision that cartoonists bring. They speak in symbols — that’s what they’ve trained their mind to do.”
Her husband, Pulitzer-winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, agrees: “The problem is cartooning is as much a literary form as it is a visual form, and it requires a great degree of sophistication to grapple with it. It builds on symbols, metaphor, irony, and one has to have a fair amount of cultural context to know what you’re looking at. It’s easy therefore to misread and misunderstand, and I found that some of my cohorts and brethren in PEN are really good misreaders.”
Moreover, as I pointed out in Opus 336, French cartoonists deploy the medium in ways Americans don’t often see and, consequently, cannot readily appreciate. The French use a bludgeon; American cartoonists use barbs and needles. Charlie’s cartoons seem to us crude and vulgar. (Even more so if you’re a writer looking at pictures that seem inexplicably gross and just a little nauseating.)
Caleb Crain at steamthing.com confronted this aspect of the dilemma as well as the cultural divide:
“The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo are captioned in French, and they depend for their meaning on memes that won’t be familiar to anyone who isn’t a regular reader of French newspapers and watcher of French television. I can read French, but I don’t keep up on French domestic politics, and I draw a complete blank when I first look at most Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In the past week, many people have said they aren’t funny, and yeah, I have to agree. They aren’t funny. I think there are two reasons.
“First, they’re puerile—pitched at roughly a Mad magazine level of sophistication—and in the American ecosystem, editorial cartoons are usually a little more tony, and don’t seem to have as broad a permission to engage with racial imagery as movies and comics do. Taste is to a great extent learned, and I’m afraid that an American reader of my ilk just isn’t likely to find vulgar and puerile cartoons about politics much to his taste.
“But second, and more globally, Americans can’t find these cartoons funny simply because the cartoons always have to be explained to us. We don’t recognize the political figures being caricatured; we don’t know the political slogans being tampered with; and we haven’t surfed the particular waves of enthusiasm and disgust that have been flooding French political life lately, and on the surge of whose waves these cartoons sprang into being.”
Without a familiarity with French politics and cultural surgings, we can scarcely understand what Charlie’s cartoonists are saying—let alone appreciate the nature of the satire on display. I attempted explanation of some of the more outrageous cartoons in Opus 336, but since that was posted, a website, understandingcharliehebdo.com, has been launched to do the explication—and much better than I did (even though I was relying upon others to piece together explanations). Often, as Cavna observes, the cartoons “are shown to have meanings the opposite of what has been assumed by Anglophones.”
Alison Bechdel, author of the award-winning Fun Home graphic novel, agrees: “Satire is a powerful weapon,” she wrote at her blog, “but it’s also extremely culturally specific, and often doesn’t work when it’s the slightest bit out of context.”
So—members of the American PEN are baffled from the start: they don’t understand the cartooning medium—particularly as practiced by the cartoonists who are more heavy-handed than their American counterparts—and they are utterly unfamiliar with the French domestic landscape that is addressed by the Charlie cartoonists. No wonder some of them are objecting to honoring the magazine. But only “some.” The number of petitioners, 200, seems a robust turn-out—and it is if we remember that the protest began with only 6 malcontents— but there are about 4,000 PEN members, so the signers represent only a pittling 5 percent of the membership.
AND WHILE THERE WERE APPARENTLY NO CARTOONIST NAMES on the petition, PEN counts a few cartoonists among its members. And one of them, Spiegelman, was not sitting on his hands. When he heard that some PEN members had floated the idea of standing up and turning their backs when the award was presented— or hissing— he thought: “That’s obscene,” he told Cavna. So he talked to few friends, inviting them to attend the gala and sit at a table with him and his wife, symbolically occupying some of the six empty chairs.
“It seemed necessary as a corrective to what I saw as boneheaded reasons for the pullout,” he told Kirsten Salyer at time.com the day after the award ceremony. “I decided to accept an invitation to host a table that I’d passed on before because black tie galas aren’t my thing, and I had something else I was supposed to do that night. But after those six authors, who I’ve come to think of as a kind of superhero team called the Sanctimonious Six, pulled out, I just felt that it was necessary to be a corrective and invite other sympathetic people to be there to shout, ‘Cartoonist lives matter.’”
Asked why it is important to give Charlie Hebdo the Courage Award, Spiegelman said:
“One point that was made over and over again was that this is an award for courage. And it’s hard to be more courageous than going back to work after your office has been bombed and your comrades have been slaughtered. On those grounds alone, one would think, ‘It’s a no brainer. They get the award.’
“Beyond that,” he contilnued, “the magazine was getting a really bum rap. It’s actually anything but a racist magazine. One of the most touching things for me during the award ceremony last night was having the head of SOS Racisme, a French organization that combats racist activity, very movingly talk about Charlie Hebdo being a great force against racism in France. They received the award for using their particular vocabulary and medium to stir debate on issues, not to create mischief, and they did it estimably, even when people didn’t agree with them. As one of the editors pointed out yesterday, the Charlie Hebdo editors don’t even agree with each other. The point of these cartoons is to start conversations about these issues. And these issues are not trivial.”
So Spiegelman phoned a few friends, he told Cavna. “Neil Gaiman [The Sandman] was game to change his plans and come along. And Alison Bechdel, who is now so involved in the world of a Tony Awards whirlwind [the musical adaptation of Fun Home just received 12 nominations], said she’d come and be at the table. Matt Groening [creator of ‘The Simpsons’] tried to come but he was in production this week.”
“Cartoonists tend to stick together because they have to,” Cavna said, adding, as Gaiman pointed out, that their work is disproportionately singled out for suppression both abroad and in the U.S., while at the same time often regarded as not “serious” enough to deserve a full-throttle defense.
Cavna went on: “Cartoonists are particularly vulnerable when addressing Islam, as some (but not all) Muslims believe that it is sacrilegious to depict their prophet visually in any way. This is not a threat limited to Europe. Earlier this year, CNN reported that the Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris is still in hiding, four years after she attracted death threats for drawing non-satirical images of Mohammed on a teacup and thimble and domino. Her name recently appeared on the most-wanted list of the al-Qaida magazine Inspire.”
“It seems irrational to me not to attend,” Gaiman said to Cavna, “— I spent 12 years on the board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, for which I was fighting on a daily basis to keep people who had written, drawn, published, sold or owned comics out of prison and from losing their livelihood for having drawn something that upset somebody. It’s really, really easy in comics for one image to be taken out of context,” he added.
Said Cavna: “Cartoons and comics are a symbiosis of images and text, and sometimes viewers don’t — or, because of language and cultural barriers, can’t — absorb the meaning of the words before reacting to the images.”
This kind of misreading happened, Gaiman said, in every court case he’s been involved with. In one CBLDF case, he recalled for Cavna, everything boiled down to a single drawing of the artist Picasso, depicted walking around his studio naked, as was the painter’s wont. “There was an argument over whether this tiny Picasso penis was erect or just flapping up as he walked. You’re laughing, but we had to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees for this. It was fucking nuts.”
Gaiman, who has been researching Charlie Hebdo since agreeing to act as a table host at the gala, added: “I don’t know that I would have said ‘yes’ any less enthusiastically if Charlie Hebdo really were this straw man publication described by some of the people who write to me online, a publication that does nothing but anti-Islamic cartoons. From what I’ve read, that does not seem to be the case. But for fuck’s sake, they drew somebody, and they [al-Qaida] shot them, and you don’t get to do that.”
Talking with Cavna, Spiegelman reported that his wife regards the campaign against the award as a form of snobbery. “She said, ‘Now I get it: PEN is a union, a literary guild, and they want to keep the barbarians out.’”
As Gaiman put it to Cavna, “Cartoonists, and especially cartoonists outside of whatever world you grew up — we’re in the gutter. And that’s fine.” Similar cases, he points, might have been made against other PEN-award recipients who work in other forms. “It’s that thing where people look at it and say, ‘I could draw that. It’s not real art, is it?’”
Some Charlie Hebdo critics have insisted that this debate is rife with subtle distinctions and interpretations.
Cavna quoted Gaimen again: “Some people say, ‘You don’t understand the nuances.’ I don’t give a f— about the nuances. Charlie Hebdo showed up to work in 2011 after they were firebombed, and kept working to put out an issue. And they continued and put out an issue after 12 murders. As far as I’m concerned, this is the [precise criteria for an] award for courage for cartoonists.”
None of the Spiegelman ensemble like all of Charlie’s cartoons. “Things can get pretty crude and sophomoric,” Bechdel wrote at her blog. “It’s not my kind of humor. [But] just because I wouldn’t do [Charlie Hebdo's] kind of cartoon doesn’t mean I want to live in a world where no one is allowed to. Making space for this type of expression seems vital.”
The content of the cartoons is beside the point for Gaiman: “The work is not to my taste and it’s not a magazine that I read,” he told Cavna. “But as far as I can see, this is not an award for quality. This an award for courage and turning up after your offices have been firebombed. Turning up after 12 people in your office have been murdered. Just turning up, putting out the next issue. The amount of courage in that is something that I find incomprehensible.”
Spiegelman acknowledged to Cavna that, while “not the greatest thing since Chris Ware,” the magazine has been the work of cartoonists who often “wield their power intelligently. They know how to boil things down to that essence.”
As a PEN member, Mouly is in an uncommon position because, Cavna explains, as a French native, she brings a deep and personal understanding of the cultural context of Charlie Hebdo.
“When I was young, I read Charlie Hebdo for the cartoons,” Mouly said. “I was shaped by their courage, and they had influence on me when I was a teenager — it was attached to history,” adding how important the magazine was to her “1968 generation” amid protests in Paris.
But, Mouly said to Cavna, just because she read the satirical weekly didn’t mean she liked a lot of it, let alone agree with it: “When I was a kid, it made me terribly uncomfortable to read Charlie Hebdo. When I was a young woman, in the ’70s, they were taking on feminism. … Women were their main target. It was uncomfortable, not funny—raunchy and sexist stuff. But it was an important part of France – the dynamic of the satire. That is something that I relate to.”
Gene Luen Yang, the cartoonist, educator and two-time National Book Award finalist (American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints), echoes the sentiments of fellow PEN members Spiegelman and Mouly in registering his reservations about Charlie Hebdo’s work — even as he defends the magazine’s right to free speech.
“As someone who cares deeply about the representation of minorities in cartooning, and as someone who is a practicing Roman Catholic, I find many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons downright horrific,” Yang told Cavna. “But that’s the whole point of free speech, isn’t it? People get to speak — and draw and write — things that are downright horrific, and the way we’re supposed to fight it is by speaking ourselves. Free speech is a radical condemnation of violence.
“I see Charlie Hebdo’s PEN Award through that prism: PEN isn’t condoning all, or any, their cartoons — PEN is honoring them as a symbol of that radical condemnation of violence.”
Jules Feiffer, the Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist, screenwriter and graphic novelist, says he cannot strongly enough underscore the word courage in the award’s very name: “I think the Charlie Hebdo courage award is really a symbolic act,” he said to Cavna. “It’s not about the quality of their work, but about carrying on in the face of mass murder. That’s probably more courage than any others who signed the petition are likely to have exhibited in a lifetime. I’ve certainly never been challenged that way. … To pick up and continue after mass murder is deserving of any courage award.
“I might have my reservations” about Hebdo’s work, he said, in character as a curmudgeonly commentator, “but I have reservations about nine out of every 10 cartoons I see.”
And then, suddenly,
SHOTS RANG OUT
at a conference center in Garland, Texas, where the
the American Freedom Defense Initiative
was deliberately staging a perversely provocative exhibit of—:
More Drawings of Muhammad
TWO AMERICAN MUSLIM residents of Phoenix, Arizona, drove 900 miles to Garland, a suburb of Dallas, to protest the blasphemy of depicting the Prophet. Arriving at the Garland school board’s Curtis Cullwell Center about 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 3—just two days before the PEN gala was to take place—the two Islamic hooligans, inspired, it is said, by the Cutthroat CalipHATE, were heavily armed and armored—three pistols, three assault rifles, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and body armor. Unhappily for this duo of homegrown terrorists, the AFDI and local authorities had anticipated trouble, surrounding the Center with more than 40 law enforcement officers. The would-be terrorists never got into the building: they got off a shot or two, hitting an unarmed guard in the ankle, then, reported nbcdfw.com, five officers responded, killing them both.
The exhibit consisted of a couple dozen or so drawings, the finalists in the AFDI-sponsored “cartoon contest” featuring pictures of Muhammad. The contest, which opened February 11 and closed April 5, was conceived to honor the murdered Charlie cartoonists—in effect, thumbing the nose at Muslims who don’t think the Prophet should be visualized. Pamela Geller, a 57-year-old former car salesman, invented AFDI as a way of protesting what she calls “the Islamization of America.”
According to Geller, explained Tina Susman at latimes.com, every time we as a nation behave in ways that Muslims approve—like refraining from drawing Muhammad—we become, by tiny increments, more Muslim than secular, slowly adopting Islam as our national religion. Crusading as an advocate for free speech and expression, Geller objects—vociferously and all around the country.
She began her tirade after 9/11 by starting to rant at her blog.
In 2006, Geller was incensed and ashamed that American news media would not publish any of the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, claiming deference to the Islam religious beliefs.
Said Geller, quoted at the Washington Post: “If the Western media ran the Danish cartoons back when this Islamic supremacist movement first started gaining steam, the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo would be alive today. European press ran the Hebdo cartoons in the wake of that jihad slaughter. But the American press would not. The beacon of freedom, the shining light on a hill, is running scared. Well, that’s not who we are. The elites do not represent the people.”
From her blog (now called AtlasShrugs in deference to Ayn Rand, doubtless Geller’s guiding light), she branched out, starting AFDI with Robert Spencer. The AFDI website says its mission is to “act against the treason being committed by national state and local government officials, the mainstream media and others in their capitulation to the global jihad and Islamic supremacism, the ever-encroaching and unconstitutional power of the federal government and the rapid moving attempts to impose socialism and Marxism upon the American people.”
From this catalogue of bogeymen, it might be supposed that Geller is not only right-wing but slightly crazed and just a tense hypocritical. A good Tea Bagger, in other words.
In June 2010, said Alan Feuer at the New York Times, Geller organized a group of maybe 5,000 protesters (her count) to march in objection to plans for building an Islamic community center, which she dubbed “Ground Zero Mosque,” near where the World Trade Center had been destroyed. Plans were subsequently abandoned.
The next year, she tried to block the Qatar-based tv-network Al Jazeera from expanding into the U.S., scarcely the act of a free speech advocate. She lost. Late last year, Feuer reported, her AFDI made headlines when she sued to get the New York’s Transit Authority to permit her to buy ads on buses and subway trains that trumpeted the evils of jihad and Sharia law. One of the ads reads (in part): “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us closer to Allah” (attributed to Hamas MTV).
Geller said the ads were intended to educate the public; her growing band of critics, however, call them hateful anti-Muslim/anti-Arab propaganda. This time in court, she won. Briefly. The Transit Authority subsequently banned all “political advertising.”
Raised in a Jewish household in Long Island, Geller “champions Israel as a ‘beacon of freedom in a very oppressed and violent region,’” said Meghan Barr at the Washington Post. Geller married Michael Oshry in 1990, and the couple owned a luxury auto dealership on Long Island, according to the Los Angles Times. They divorced in 2007, and “Oshry died the following year as the dealership was being investigated in connection with an alleged identity theft and fraud scheme. Prosecutors said the scam supplied drug dealers, gang leaders and pimps with luxury cars bought using stolen identities. Mrs. Oshry was never charged.”
The New York Times reported that Geller received nearly $4 million in her divorce settlement, plus some of the proceeds from the sale of the couple’s $1.8 million home. The AFDI enables Geller to continue to live in the style to which she became accustomed: the organization took in $960,000 in donations in 2011; Geller paid herself a salary of $192,500.
Early in her career, Geller worked briefly in the business departments of the New York Daily News and the New York Observer. But she found her calling as a publicist, opposing the Islamization of America. And the cartoon contest in Garland is the latest platform for her campaign to manipulate news media into giving her the publicity that inspires donations to her cause. Or so I suppose.
Said syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker: “Waging a one-woman crusade against the Muslim world, Geller says she wanted to draw a line in the sand and demonstrate to terrorists that, when it comes to free speech, America bows to no one. ... And Geller’s contribution to these [free speech] protections and our unwavering dedication to their preservation is, exactly, what? A taunt.”
Parker continues: “Geller is a media creature and knows how to bait a media field as well. Make a noise and the media will come. Draw a crowd and the cameras will roll. Become the ‘victim’ of death threats—in essence, a fatwa —and, voila, you’re on television.”
Geller sees it differently.
“We’re holding this cartoon contest and exhibit to show how insane the world has become,” Geller told Bob Price at Breitbart Texas, “ — with people in the free world tiptoeing in terror around supremacist thugs who actually commit murder over cartoons. If we can’t stand up for the freedom of speech, we will lose it — and with it, free society.”
For Geller, the cartoon contest was an obvious next step. “This event will stand for free speech and show that Americans will not be cowed by violent Islamic intimidation,” she stated. “That is a crucial stand to take as Islamic assaults on the freedom of speech, our most fundamental freedom, are growing more insistent.”
Bill Maher agrees. (And who would not?) “The contest is obviously a provocation,” Maher said on his “Real Time” HBO program. “But this is America. Do we not have the right to draw whatever we want?”
He also critiqued the opinion that those who provoke Muslims are ultimately to blame for the violence that ensues. “This assumes that we just have to accept that Muslims are unable to control themselves the way we would ask everyone else in the world. To me that’s bigotry. That’s the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
THE RULES FOR THE AFDI CONTEST at freedomdefense.typepad.com go on for pages—six when printed off my computer. Most of it is legalistic boilerplate. In this vein comes this happy circular argument: “In order to enter the Contest, you must agree to the Rules. ... You agree that submission of an entry in the Contest constitutes agreement to these rules.”
Writing a “guest editorial” at some undisclosed website (quoted at rpi.edu/~bulloj/comxbib.html, the Comics Research Bibliography), Kathy Mannix noted an inherent contradiction in Rule 5: “AFDI will assume that all art entered for consideration does not infringe upon the copyright of a third party. The artist shall assume all liability if an infringement claim is made."
To which Mannix responds: “It sure seems that the estate of Norman Rockwell has an infringement claim for the event poster AFDI used at the event and has for sale from its site for $50. It doesn't seem within the realm of parody to replace the triple image of Rockwell with a triple image of Muhammad.”
You can see this image—and a picture of the winning cartoon—at pamelageller.com.
The judges, whose identities are not disclosed, were to pick ten “finalists” whose work would be displayed at the Cullwell Center. The judges then picked a winner. Then those attending the exhibit voted to select “the people’s choice.”
Attendees at the event paid an admission fee: $25 for standing room, $50 for an assigned seat at a table; $100 for “premium seating,” plus an autographed copy of Geller’s book and a copy of the poster; for $250, you get “VIP seating,” meet-and-greet cocktails with the event organizers and cartoonists (if any are in attendance; their presence was not required) and an autographed copy of the winning cartoon. Reportedly, 200 people attended.
Bosch Fawstin, a former Muslim who says he’s now an atheist, won both the contest and the fan favorite vote, collecting $10,000 for the first; $2,500 for the second. Fawstin (which may not be his actual name) admits he’s received death threats and wouldn’t reveal to reporters where he lives. But he denies he’s gone into hiding.
Fawstin calls himself “a recovered Muslim,” adding: “That is, if Muslims don’t kill me for leaving Islam, which it requires them to do. That’s just one of the reasons I’ve been writing and drawing against Islam and its jihad for a number of years now. But fortunately for us, Islam hasn’t been able to make every Muslim its slave just as Nazism wasn’t able to turn every German into a Nazi. So there is Islam and there are Muslims, Muslims who take Islam seriously are at war with us and Muslims who don’t.”
The day after collecting his award money, Fawstin tweeted: “They came to kill us and died for it. Justice.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center plans to add Fawstin to its list of hate mongers. When he heard this, Reuters reported, Fawstin laughed: “So they want to put a cartoonist on there who doesn’t act out violently? Go for it.”
THE CONTEST ATTRACTED SOME 350 ENTRIES, but only about 30 were displayed on easels at the Cullwell Center. One cartoon depicted a pencil shoved through Muhammad’s body; in another, Muhammad’s turban is shaped like a bomb, with a lit fuse protruding from the top (a reproduction of the image of one of the most infamous of the Danish cartoons.)
Mannix, who viewed them all while they were still in a slideshow at Photobucket (now inaccessible), remembers from her only view of the cartoons that “one was a scan of stick figures on looseleaf paper, most were assemblages of stock images, and fewer than five came from the drawingboards or computers of professional artists or editorial cartoonists,” only one of whose work she recognized.
Mannix quotes from that cartoonist’s April blog, in part: “AFDI is an anti-Muslim right-wing hate group that is intent on picking a fight with whatever right-wing Muslim hate group will take their bait,” remarks that had the cartoonist included in his/her entry would have disqualified it.
After the shooting at the Cullwell Center, Geller seemed somehow triumphant. She had provoked violence and got it—along with a lot of national and international publicity.
And she had no regrets.
Meghan Barr reported that Geller believes “she probably saved lives by hosting the event”: had they been successful, the two dead gunmen would have picked another soft target and killed innocent people. “Would you regret saving lives?” she asked.
Geller plans to have more events of a similar nature—“with one difference: next time, she’ll be wearing a bulletproof vest.”
She argued that “any blame should be focused on extremists who can’t be criticized or lampooned without resorting to violence.
“My event was about freedom of speech, period,” she said. She rejected the notion that it was irresponsible to host such an event in light of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and scoffed at the supposed danger: “It’s dangerous because we’re increasingly abridging our freedom of speech so as not to offend savages. ... No one is saying there aren’t peaceful Muslims,” she added. “But there is a problem in Islam as illustrated last night, and anyone who addresses it gets attacked.”
Here, again, Bill Maher seems to agree. In his May Playboy interview, Maher said, in response to questions about his reaction to the Charlie killings:
“If there are this many bad apples, there’s something wrong with the orchard. The fact remains that Islam is a uniquely intolerant and violent religion at this point in our history. ... The vast, vast vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists. But here’s the point people don’t bring up: they’re not terrorists, but they share some very bad ideas with terrorists, and bad ideas lead to bad behavior. You couldn’t put the Muslim equivalent of ‘The Book of Mormon’ on Broadway. You can’t write a book like The Satanic Verses without millions going jihadi on you. You couldn’t have an art exhibit like ‘Piss Christ,’ which made Giuliani mad in the 1990s. [I think it was dung on a painting of the Virgin Mary that most notoriously angered Giuliani, but Maher’s point is still operative.—RCH] Hundreds of millions of Muslims believe that if you leave the religion you should get killed for that. Try walking down the street in Muslim areas—even in more tolerant places like Amman, Jordan—wearing shorty shorts or a t-shirt that says ‘Hey, I am Gay.’ That shit is not going to fly, not at all. ...
“Thus just doesn’t happen with Episcopalians,” Maher finished.
A DAY AFTER THE SHOOTING, Geller, quoted in the New York Times, said: “This incident shows how much needed our event really was. Freedom of speech is under violent assault here in our nation. The question now before us is: will we stand and defend it, or bow to violence, thuggery and savagery?”
“Cartoons are political critique,” she said to Meghan Barr. “It’s a cartoon. Is that what we want to outlaw? We want to outlaw humor? We want to outlaw comedy? If you want to know who rules over you, find out who you cannot criticize.”
On their face, these are sensible statements. And when I cursorily dipped into Geller’s websites, I found nothing that one couldn’t find any right-wing political extremist saying; she blames Bronco Bama for nearly every disaster of modern times, but many postings are simply news reports of menacing events around the world.
But other, perhaps more dedicated, observers evidently know more than I know (or could find out by browsing Geller’s websites). Many find Geller highly objectionable, the result, doubtless, of her earlier vituperative campaigns against “Ground Zero Mosque” and Al Jazeera. Susman at latimes.com said Geller has earned a slot in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s extremist files as “the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead. She’s relentlessly shrill and coarse in her broad-based denunciations of Islam.” The AFDI is listed on SPLC’s national list of hate groups as “an active anti-Muslim group” according to Feuer at the New York Times.
In an editorial, the New York Times said Geller “has a long history of declarations and actions motivated purely by hatred for Muslims” and called the Garland event “an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom. ... Those two men were would-be murderers. But their thwarted attack, or the murderous rampage of the Charlie Hebdo killers, or even the greater threat posed by the barbaric killers of the islamic State or Al Qaeda, cannot justify blatantly Islamophobic provocations like the Garland event. These can serve only to exacerbate tensions and to give extremists more fuel.
“Some of those who draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad may earnestly believe that they are striking a blow for freedom of expression though it is hard to see how that goal is advanced by inflicting deliberate anguish on millions of devout Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism. As for the Garland event, to pretend it was motivated by anything other than hate is simply hogwash.”
Art Spiegelman, quoted by Kirsten Salyer at time.com, said unequivocally: “The American Freedom Defense Initiative is racist organization. It’s exactly the nightmare version that the writers who were protesting the PEN award thought Charlie was. But Charlie is an anti-racist, political magazine that does not have an agenda that consists of wanting to bait or trouble Muslims. Pam Geller’s organization is intentionally trying to start war of culture with Islam by saying that all Muslims are terrorists under the surface, and we’re going to prove it. Do the group members deserve free speech protection? Of course. But they’re hiding behind that banner with things that have very little to do with free speech and a lot to do with race hate.
“Je suis Charlie, mais je ne suis pas Pam Geller,” he went on. “She and her dim-witted, ugly organization deserve the protection of the free speech mantle that they wrap themselves in. But would I ever give them a courage award? Hardly. Would I ever want to be in the same room with them? No. Do I wish they would stop? Yes.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the Garland attack, calling it “more insulting to our faith than any cartoon, however defamatory.” But, Susman continued, the group blamed Geller and like-minded activists also:
“Unfortunately, human history shows us that hatred breeds more hatred and extremism leads to more extremism. Pamela Geller ... and the perpetrators of yesterday’s attack all seek to provoke a downward spiral of mutual hostility and mistrust in America and around the world.”
HERE ARE A FEW REACTIONS to the AFDI contest from American editoonists.
Clay Jones gets us going with a cartoon that turns Geller’s strategy on its head by baiting the instigator of the baiting contest. Milt Priggee is next with a stunning if grisly metaphor that not only depicts the contest as a trap (well, the cheese in the trap) but portrays the Islamic hooligans as the rats attracted by the cheese. Next around the clock, Stuart Carlson shows us how “everybody wins” with the cartoon contest: Geller (in another hideous caricature) gets publicity; Islamic hooligans get martyred. Then Steve Sack supplies another memorable image in the same vein as Priggee’s rat trap. The logic of the poke-a-rattlesnake context is precisely the logic of the AFDI Muhammad contest.
In the next display, Jimmy Margulies’s nicely ironic image shows how unflattering Islamic hooliganism is for Islam. Next, Gary Varvel mocks the AFDI “Rockwell” poster with another Rockwell image, this one focused on the Cutthroat CalipHATE, not the AFDI contest: in painting a self-portrait, the terrorist produces a picture of the devil. Below Varvel, Ted Rall produces another of his comic strips that piles up its indictment, panel-by-panel.
Giving his strip a bitter but pointed poignancy is his incorporation of the rhythms and syntactic logic of German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous formulation about the cowardice of German intellectuals as the Nazis purged the country of various allegedly undesirable groups. Miemoller’s words reveal the dangers of political apathy:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist; then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist; then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Rall’s target here is the cartoonist who is so considerate of reader sensibilities that he/she avoids all commentary altogether. And with that, he/she forfeits his very livelihood.
At the lower left, Steve Benson’s image touts the power of the editorial cartoon. About his cartoon, Benson wrote the following to accompany the its publication in the Arizona Republic: “Whatever one thinks, the pen is mightier than the sword; that’s why nuts are now trying assault weapons. That said, those terrorists wouldn’t have been killed if it wasn’t for the fact that they were trying to kill cartoonists and/or their supporters. Besides, you can’t kill cartoon ideas, even if you can kill cartoonists. Their ideas live on. That’s why their pen is mightier than the sword.”
In our last visual aid for the nonce, Clay Bennett takes a moment to be wholly realistic about what his red lines are. (I’m sympathetic because my red line on Muhammad caricatures is the same as his.) Going clockwise, Jim Morin offers a symbolic explanation of his editorial cartooning goal on Muhammad cartoons. Next, Gary Varvel is back with a terrifying image of the future of editorial cartooning.
Finally, changing the subject altogether and bringing us up-to-date on the latest horrors in a gun-packing nation, Clay Jones ties the AFDI cartoon contest to the biker shoot-out in Waco with a thoroughly laughable statement. The joke doesn’t arise from blending words and pictures—the comedy is mostly verbal—but after all the recent bloodshed in the name of ideology, it’s comforting to know we can still find something in the so-called societal order that’s worth a laugh with no obvious political axe to grind.
PEN’s Courage Award
THE AWARD WAS CONFERRED AS SCHEDULED on Tuesday, May 5, at a gala event at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Because of the presence of Charlie staffers and the recent shootings at Garland, security was enhanced: guests passed through metal detectors and a gauntlet of armed police, reported Hillel Italie at the Associated Press. Police cars lined the street outside the museum's main entrance. Despite these encumbrances, the award was presented, accepted, and applauded.
Charlie’s editor-in-chief Gerard Biard and critic-essayist Jean-Baptiste Thore accepted the award to a standing ovation. In his remarks, Biard noted the magazine's history of shocking readers with its irreverent drawings of religious figures.
"Growing up to be a citizen is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images, can be shocking," he said. "Being shocked is a part of democratic debate. Being shot is not."
While virtually everyone stood and clapped for Hebdo, not everyone was an unabashed admirer. Roz Chast, the best-selling author and New Yorker cartoonist, called the Charlie drawings "sort of stupid and ham-handed. But if I didn't support their right to publish them I wouldn't be here," she told Italie.
Italie summed up the evening: “The Hebdo award made the PEN gala the most controversial in recent memory, but also the best attended. More than 800 came for the event, at $1,250 a ticket, compared with around 700 a year ago. Expression itself was the real guest of honor.
“PEN president Andrew Solomon said the Hebdo award, and dispute, were reminders that the ‘defense of people murdered for their exercise of free speech is at the heart of what PEN stands for, so is the unfettered articulation of opposing viewpoints.’
Spiegelman was struck by the role of cartoons in the debate, telling Kirsten Salyer: “It’s interesting to me that cartoons have been so central to it. Cartoons are so much more immediate than prose. They have a visceral power that doesn’t require you to slow down, but it does require you to slow down if you want to understand them. They have a deceptive directness that writers can only envy. They deploy the same tools that writers often use: symbolism, irony, metaphor. Cartoons enter your eye in a blink, and can’t be unseen after they’re seen. But to understand some of these cartoons requires a lot of culture immersion and symbol reading and a lot of analysis.”
He continued: “There was a New Yorker cover back in the beginning of my time at the magazine that helped change the magazine’s DNA enough to embrace controversial images. It was in the wake of the Crown Heights race riots in which the West Indian black community and the Hasidic Jew community came to bloody blows. As I was doodling I wondered, ‘What would the guy with the monocle [Eustace Tilley] look like if he were Hasidic?’ And then I had a black woman kiss him. [It was for the Valentine’s Day issue, February 15, 1993.] When the cover came out, it created a riot of its own—as much indignation on both sides as possible in the world before the Internet.
“Among the letters that came in to the magazine,” he went on, “was a letter from a young woman saying that she thought it was really sweet that on Abe Lincoln’s birthday there was a picture of Lincoln kissing a slave. What’s so amazing about that is that it gets right to the heart of the problem that some of the protesting PEN writers have: learning to read images. They’re very easy to misread without enough information, and some of my writing brethren are great mis-readers.”
Asked what was so wrong-headed about not publishing images that could be deemed offensive, Spiegelman said: “[Because] there’s no stopping it. What would it be based on? Would it be based on when someone takes up arms against the image? Would it be based on when someone thinks it’s offensive? God knows where the line would be drawn. It can’t be drawn that way. There is an incredible efficiency cartoons have, once you learn to read them, in clarifying the issues at hand, making them memorable.
“There’s something basic about cartoons,” he said. “They work they way the brain works. We think in small, iconic images. An infant can recognize a smiley face before it can recognize its mother’s smile. We think in little bursts of language. This is how cartoons are structured. They’re structured to talk to something deep inside our brains. A cartoon becomes a new kind of word that didn’t exist before. It’s interesting how little respect they get. ‘Oh, anyone could draw that crude, vulgar scrawl,’ said a number of critics of Charlie Hedbo. That’s not quite true. They’re not totally dismissible. If a writer had made some of the points that Charlie Hebdo had made, I don’t think the writers protesting PEN would have been so condescending and dismissive.”
Let me give the penultimate words on the ongoing controversy over the award for Charlie to Francoise Mouly, who said to Cavna: “I hope this fuels an ongoing conversation about freedom of expression for cartoonists. Because unwittingly, this controversy has served as a kind of coronation for the importance of cartooning.”
The last words, of course, are mine.
What I Think About Hate Speech and Offensive Cartoons
ACCORDING TO ST. WIKIPEDIA: "In law, hate speech is any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group." So any cartoon that "disparages" a "protected group" is, ipso facto, "hate speech." Depending upon on how elastic the term "protected group" is, it might be hard to find work as an editorial cartoonist.
On the other hand, since I don't think Muslims in France are a "protected group," I suspect Garry Trudeau wandered onto shaky ground by accusing Charlie Hebdo of hate speech.
Is "offensive speech" the same as "hate speech"? Ever since Freud, we've recognized that humor is essentially aggressive and is therefore likely to offend whoever is the butt of the joke. By this twist of logic, then, all satire is "hate speech" and all editorial cartoonists are out of work.
Clearly, we don’t, as a society, wish to go that far. But we do want to go as far as possible in supporting and promoting freedom of expression.
Being a free speech/expression absolutist, I don’t think we can have “a little” free speech. It’s all or nothing. We can’t have freedom of expression except for matters concerning Islam. Or Roman Catholicism. Or Tea Baggery. Or the sexual orientation of Bert and Ernie. As a matter of law and societal custom, free speech must be wholly unfettered. After that, it’s a matter of personal taste. We may choose, personally, not to ridicule gay people. Or Muslims. Or Muhammad. But such choices are personal, not legal or institutional. We can’t establish a universal “shalt not” rule that serves everyone in every circumstance. So leave it up to the individual cartoonists. That’s how it ought to be.
Now for a few loose ends—:
PAT BAGLEY REDUX
I interviewed Bagley in April 1991 in his office at the Salt Lake Tribune. The Gulf War had just concluded, and George H.W. Bush was Prez. Here are excerpts—:
Working in the community dominated by the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) imposes certain constraints upon the editorial cartoonist, but Bagley sees quite another side to his situation.
“Doing political cartooning in Utah is not ... hard,” he said (pausing to select the most appropriate descriptive term), “because there are things that come up in Utah consistently that made good cartoons. This latest issue about the abortion controversy is the kind of thing Utah puts on itself all the time. The state legislature is very moralistic, and they see themselves as being in the forefront of the fight against creeping moral decay in America. So I can count on them at least twice a year to give me something to do.”
“Something that will keep you supplied with material for weeks, you mean?” I said.
“Yes,” he said grinning impishly. “It’s kind of like shooting fish in a barrel.”
But the blessing is not unalloyed. “The Church has a huge influence here,” Bagley went on. “And it’s a two-edged sword. It’s good in some respects in that I can do cartoons that wouldn’t make any sense anywhere else because the humor is sort of ‘in the family.’ If you’re from Utah, you understand what I’m getting at. On the other hand, the thing that’s bad is that the Church wields such influence in the state that the paper is hesitant to publish a lot of those kinds of cartoons. My guess is that one of every three that have to do with the LDS Church get printed; the others never see the light of day.”
[These days, I suspect Bagley’s published percentage is a lot higher: he’s been cartooning at the Tribune for over 36 years, and he’s an institution in Salt Lake City. You don’t get that kind of longevity by misfiring 30% of the time.—RCH]
A lot of those “others” of the early 1990s have been published by Signature Books of Salt Lake City in two paperback collections of Bagley’s cartoons: Treasures of Half-Truth in 1986 and Oh My Heck in 1988. The books are unusual in several respects.
First, their content breaches decorum. (Joyfully— with such carefree abandon that there’s a kind of innocence about it.) The cartoons in them are almost all based upon aspects of the Mormon faith, and joking about religion— particularly an oft-persecuted sect— was, until quite recently, a firmly held taboo almost everywhere. Secondly, understanding the cartoons requires special knowledge. The jokes are so specific to tenets and practices of the Mormon religion that many of them cannot be understood without knowing something about the LDS Church. Finally, in spite of these seeming obstacles to success— or, perhaps, because of them— the books sell very well. Probably better than most collections of editorial cartoons. Bagley said he’s heard that Oliphant’s annual collections sell about 7,000 copies; each of Bagley’s two books has sold better than 15,000.
For all the aura of innocence that infects the books, the cartoons have bite. Their joyousness is not gentle. And some of them are downright wicked in their assault on Mormon sensibilities. So how does Bagley get away with it? How does he survive, going around blithely treading on the sensitive religious toes of his readers?
To begin with, he was raised Mormon. Although he grew up in Southern California (which, he says, “explains a lot”), he was born in Salt Lake City. And he did the customary missionary duty (serving in the Bolivia La Paz Mission 1975-77). Thus, his cartoons are, as he puts it, “in-house humor— it’s all in the family.”
[At the time of this interview, Bagley said he was a “semi-retired” Mormon. Nowadays, he calls himself “Mormon emeritus,” by which he signals a certain separation from the faith. But he recognizes that the Mormon Church played a huge role in his life, and he regards the Church with great affection.]
As I told Bagley, seeing the cartoons in the books was, for me, something of a revelation:
“I grew up in this part of the country,” I said, “— in Denver, Colorado— and I knew the Mormons were over the other side of the mountains in Utah. And I always felt Mormons were a particularly serious, dedicated bunch— scarcely the sort of people who would laugh at themselves. And yet they must be doing just that when they buy and read these books, or else you’d be vilified in the streets. People would come after you with sharp sticks and other kinds of weapons— ”
“Well, that happens,” Bagley laughed. “Not the weapons part but being vilified. I’ve had nasty letters and phone calls and vaguely threatening letters because some people don’t appreciate how I’m portraying the Church. They think it’s sacrilegious. It’s wrong— ”
I chimed in: “And some people will write in and say, You’re got it right on the button, I suppose.”
Bagley nodded. “I know that the cartoon has hit the nail on the head when I show it to a Mormon neighbor of mine. He’s fairly orthodox, fairly straight. His first reaction— if he laughs, you can see something registering in the back of his brain: I really shouldn’t be laughing at this— ”
“Yeah— he’ll laugh and then say, ‘Well I don’t know— this may be going a little bit too far.’ And that’s just what I want to do.”
And here is a sampling of the Bagley cartoons that appeared in those two subversive volumes in the late 1980s.
The Dallas Morning News reports that cartoonist Bosch Fawstin, the winner of the Draw Muhammad contest for the best depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, created a two part comic book called The Infidel, released through Comixology. Fawstin described the plot thusly:
“The Infidel is about twin brothers Killian Duke and Salaam Duka whose Muslim background comes to the forefront of their lives on 9/11. It’s Recovered Muslim vs Born Again Muslim. Killian responds to the atrocity by creating an ex-Muslim counter-jihad superhero comic book called Pigman, as Salaam fully surrenders to Islam. Pigman’s battle against his archenemy SuperJihad is echoed by the escalating conflict between the twins.”
AAEC CONDEMNS GARLAND SHOOTINGS
The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists posted the following official statement condemning the recent shooting attempt in at the AFDI contest exhibit—:
The shootings in Texas once again demonstrate that art is provocative, but we must not cower in the face of threats to this profession or to free expression. Political art, be it cartoons, paintings, sculpture, or anything else, is protected speech under the First Amendment. The group that sponsored the “art contest” has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The leader of the group seems to have her own tasteless and ignorant agenda. However, a group’s political agenda, whether we agree with its goals or not, is subject to the same constitutional protections we all enjoy. Cartoons are powerful, as has been repeatedly shown in the past few months, and the AAEC condemns this senseless attack.
GELLER MARCHES ON
At last report (May 28), Geller had submitted the contest winning cartoon as an ad to be posted in the Washington, D.C. area metro stations and in buses. Quoted in the Washington Post, Geller said: “There is nothing about this cartoon that incites violence. It is within the established American tradition of satire. If America surrenders on this point, the freedom of speech is a relic of history.”
Fawstin’s drawing depicts a sword-wielding Prophet Muhammad shouting, “You can’t draw me.” At the bottom of the drawing, hands wield a pencil and the off-camera artist says, “That’s why I draw you.”
Unhappily for Geller (or perhaps not: she garners publicity no matter what happens), the Metro’s Board of Directors decided, shortly after she submitted her ad, to “temporarily ban issue-oriented ads on Metrorail and buses until the end of the year,” reported Matt Cohen at dcist.com. “Issue-oriented advertising ... includes political, religious, and advocacy advertising.”
The Board claims its decision was made independently of Geller’s submission: a Metro spokesman said the AFDI “did not come up in the discussion.”
Another spokesman, however, said: “My view is, you put that ad up on the side of a bus, you turn that bus into a terrorism target.”
In an e-mail to cdist.com, Geller waxed sarcastic: “The Washington MTA suspended all issue-oriented ads through the end of the year after we submitted our free speech ad. Oh, the irony. These cowards may claim they are making people safer, but I submit to you the opposite. They are making it far more dangerous for Americans everywhere. Rewarding terror with submission is defeat. Absolute and complete defeat. More demands, more violence will certainly follow. This is sharia in America.”
IRAN STEPS IN
Meanwhile, Iran is running an anti-Isis cartoon competition, reported independent.co.uk, “inviting submissions from around the world that mock the militant group and the atrocities it has committed.
“Mohammad Habibi, the executive secretary of the contest, said 280 works had been selected from 800 submissions, including entries from over 40 countries such as Brazil, Australia and Indonesia. Habibi told the Tehran Times that some foreign cartoonists were attending the contest, but that they had been forced to travel under pseudonyms due to security concerns.”
He told Iran’s Press TV: “Nowadays everyone around the world knows about the parasite by the name of Isis and what crimes they have committed against humanity and art and culture. Artists now have the duty to raise public awareness about this group by participating in such events.”
And here, at your eye’s elbow, is what I assume to be some of the contesting submissions.
PERSIFLAGE AND FURBELOWS
“Today, we tend to think of Jim Crow’s legal barriers [to the integration of the races] as merely the expression of secular prejudice. But de jure segregation reflected pervasive religious beliefs in the inequality of races and divinely commanded social order.”—Patricia Williams in The Washington Spectator
“Religion serves the common good when it cries out against injustice not when it dictates personal morality.”—Rev. William J. Barber II and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in The Washington Spectator
NEWSPAPER COMICS PAGE VIGIL
The Bump and Grind of Daily Stripping
IN THE COMIC STRIP Frazz, the title character is a millionaire song writer who has lots of spare time, so he takes work as a custodian in an elementary school; his full name is Edwin Frazier but everyone calls him Frazz. He’s also a physical fitness enthusiast and a dedicated bicycle rider. So there’s plenty of opportunity for joking about his interactions with the faculty at the school and the pupils, each of whom has his/her own distinctive personality. (“You’re unique—just like everyone else,” as Michael Jantze once put it in his masterful strip, Norm.)
Jef Mallett (who doubles every letter in his name except the obvious— a misguided practice he perpetuates in his protagonist’s name, which should have only one ‘Z’ instead of two) is a brilliant practitioner of the cartooning arts as the few examples posted here reveal. He frequently plays with the comic strip form on Sundays, as we see here. The gag calls for kids being far enough apart to throw the ball back and forth, and so Mallett elongates the panels to dramatize the distance between them.
But word play is also Mallett’s forte. Because the kids don’t often catch the ball their throwing, they’re playing “throw” not “catch.” The same sense of play animates the dailies. In the first at hand, Frazz is running with one of the teachers (the African American, as it happens), who notices how pale Frazz’s legs are. So pale that they don’t even show up in the pictures, a comedic maneuver that’s possible in a visual medium. And then Mallett enriches the gag with a bit of language as picturesque as the drawings.
Finally, the kid in the bottom strip takes Mrs. Olsen at her word. If she asks if there are questions, he, naturally, has one. Not one pertinent to Mrs. Olsen’s concerns as his instructor but one that has no doubt been plaguing the kid for weeks, days—even hours. The kid is Caulfield, who is a genius. He tries to convince Mrs. Olsen that he’s a disadvantaged child but his father is finishing a Ph.D in pharmocology and his mother is a civil engineer. Mallett regards Caulfield as the hero of the strip: “He won’t give up the joy of learning for the sake of a test score.”
Mallett says the strip is not really about the school or about Frazz: it’s about discovery. And we all get to participate.
SEX REARED its tantalizing head in Greg Evans’ Luann as Tiffany invited Gunther, the strip’s resident nerd, into her dorm room at college. The two have just returned for a field trip in the woods, where Tiffany suffered ant bits all up and down her legs. Gunther applied mud and “cured” her. Upon her return to her dorm room, Tiffany promptly showered, and now, she emerges clad in robe and towel—“au naturel,” as she says.
But then what happens? The room temperature goes up, but does Gunther? Did the lascivious Tiff seduce the hapless Gunth? As we see in the third strip, Gunther ain’t talkin’. More to come, no doubt.
Meanwhile, Dagwood goes in for one of his periodic haircuts, a recurring gag setting over the last few years—making fun of Dagwood’s weird hair-do. What about his eyes? No one else in the strip has such large, elliptical eyeballs.
More Dagwood in the final strip on this exhibit. Exquisite word play.
AT THE END OF APRIL, Jan Eliot started a continuity in her Stone Soup strip. At first, it looked as if it would be a tragic story about how death affects the survivors. But within a couple days, death was no longer on the table, as we see in the second strip posted near here. Eliot builds suspense, though, from the very first—the top strip posted here, dated April 29. “P. Jackson” is Phil, a motorcycle cop who, after years of dating working mother (with two young daughters) Val, the chief protagonist in the strip, finally proposed last December. And Val accepted. By the end of the last week in April, we know Phil survived the accident. And then Eliot eases into the theme of the series.
Val visits Phil, but very soon, she manifests uneasiness about their impending marriage. Val is a widow, and her first husband died and left her with two children. As her mother notes in the fifth strip down the page, Val is “afraid of losing” another husband. And Phil’s accident dramatizes the possibility that, as a policeman, he might get killed.
For the next week or so, Val is paralyzed with anxiety, not knowing, exactly, what to do. She told Phil that she “isn’t sure” she wants to marry him, but Phil in his hospital bed has fallen asleep and doesn’t hear her. Val’s sister Joan (the dark-haired woman in the top strip) learns of Val’s anxiety and tells her that not marrying Phil will be the biggest mistake of her life. Then Val’s mother flies in from South Africa, where she lives with her new husband, and lays it out for Val, as we see in the last strip here.
Dunno if that’s the end of the story, but it’s clearly not been about biking. It’s about second marriages.
Eliot was a single working mother for 10 years, during which she started Stone Soup, in which two single mothers are the principals. Eliot made a trip to South Africa a few years ago, and soon thereafter, Val’s mother visited the country (where she met and eventually married Arnold). Since starting the strip, Eliot has married again. And now it appears she’s passing along to her readers some of what she’s learned. She does that consistently.
WILEY MILLER, whose regular gig is the comic strip Non Sequitur, spent a few years doing editorial cartoons, which he gave up when he sold the strip into syndication. (Unlike many editoonists at the time, he figured he shouldn’t be simultaneously occupying two of those scarce cartooning slots; one was enough.) But he’s never got editooning out of his system, and it creeps into the strip every so often. Here is a portion of a week that he spent at Flo’s Diner, where Flo has to deal with a couple religious zealots who are attempting to force upon everyone else their Religious Freedom rights under law. Eddie the lobsterman gets the last, er, word, and a fitting end to the episode—and the editooning. For the nonce.
But the fever returneth before long. After Eddie's departure, comes a duel in the streets by which a gaggle of zealots are trying to settle the question of whose religion is the one true religion. Notice that the disputants are arrayed in a circle, so once they start banging away, there's a fair chance most of them will kill each other.
Then, finally, we have a brief assault on stick figures— who leave the real work to others. (I'm not sure that's precisely what Miller had in mind; but I like this interpretation.)
Previews and Proclamations of Coming Attractions
This department works like a visit to the bookstore. When you browse in a bookstore, you don’t critique books. You don’t even read books: you pick up one, riffle its pages, and stop here and there to look at whatever has momentarily attracted your eye. You may read the first page or glance through the table of contents. All of that is what we do here, starting with—:
By Sean Michael Wilson and Hunt Emerson
120 6x9-inch pages, b/w; May 2015 New Internationalist paperback, $12.30
EMERSON IS ONE OF BRITAIN’S iconoclastic cartoonists, author of graphic novel adaptations of such classics as Dante’s Inferno and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and this book is another feather in his bad-boy cap. Under the subtitle “A Visual Exploration of Science vs Religion,” writer Wilson takes a look at the science vs religion debate in what he supposes is a graphic novel format and brings together a wealth of facts, figures and the views of some distinguished scientists, philosophers and atheists—and Emerson draws up this vision, filling pages with single panel and comic strip depictions of various personages looking at the arguments that rage over Creationism vs evolution, belief vs atheism, etc.
The exploration is mostly verbal; Emerson’s pictures, while, as always, amusingly antic, contribute no substance to the arguments raging. He pictures Darwin, for instance, and Darwin utters one of his utterances in a speech balloon. It would be more graphic novel-like if Darwin were shown fishing and suddenly catching a fish with legs about to walk onto dry land.
Instead, Emerson’s pictures are mostly just decorations for Wilson’s words. And that’s too bad because the cartoonist’s own views on the topics under consideration would doubtless add to Wilson’s explications.
Talking with reporter David Bentley at birminghammail.co.uk, Emerson says the notion that a divine being created the world is "a dangerous and retrograde idea that should not be imposed on children’s minds" and argues that state education should be entirely secular.
Emerson, named one of the 75 European Masters of Cartooning of the 20th Century by the noted French Comics Academy, explained how he came to collaborate with Wilson on this new tome exploring the age-old debate of whether God exists and where life came from.
Said he: "I got involved in the Goodbye God? project for three main reasons. The first is straightforward: it was paid work, and in the comics business we cannot afford to be too choosy about that. Secondly, I am always interested in the ways that comics can be used as a medium, and this project is one of the more radical and intriguing that I have come across. The third reason is that I am very opposed to the teaching of Fundamentalist, Creationist views to children. I think Creationism is wrong, is contrary to scientific truth, and is a dangerous and retrograde idea that should not be imposed on children’s minds."
He added: "Further than that, I disagree strongly with the teaching of any religious beliefs in school, and in so-called faith schools of whatever creed. State education should be secular—and, of course, free—and should not be dictated or shaped by the demands of patriarchal, morally authoritarian institutions whose primary purpose is to further their own views and beliefs at the expense of truth and freedom of thought."
So, Bentley wanted to know, is Hunt Emerson himself a total non-believer?
Said Emerson: "Am I an atheist? I suppose I am, though I don’t like to make a big fuss about it. I was raised in an average, not fanatical, Methodist household, and I hope that I carry the morals, gentleness and wisdom of those concepts. I have no regrets about it— but I can’t in all honesty believe in the supernatural basis for that or any religion."
Mad, No.353: June 2015
56 8x10.5-inch page magazine, color; E.C. Publications, $5.99 (cheap)
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC is guest “editor,” but I wonder what that means. I doubt that he “edited” much of anything. He supplied some copy for a few features in which he is the star, and he may have helped decide some of the other content. Otherwise, Weird Al’s most evident contribution to the issue is his well-known visage on the cover.
His face dominates the opening page’s Weird Al comic strip in which Al talks about editing the magazine; he answers the letters; and he follows the usual “Fundalini Pages” of snippets and squibs with “The Weird Al-ini Pages”—but he didn’t write any of the snippets and squibs thereupon: no, he says he “suckered” famous and talented friends to perform this “thankless job.”
The only big Weird Al feature is a 6-page tour of his Notebook which contains ideas for song parodies. “You’ve Got a Friend” becomes “You’ve Got Depends”; “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” becomes “Belushi Eating Fries with Diamond” (accompanied by a picture of John Belushi having lunch with Neil Diamond).
Weird Al “stars” in Al Jaffee’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” but only as the visual. Next, a two-page spread depicts a manic Weird Al Concert. And Weird Al, as ostensible editor, chooses a vintage Mad piece from No.93, March 1965, parodying tv kiddie shows. The show here is entitled “Uncle Nutzy Clubhouse.” Al says he loved it. And always has. But since there are no tv kiddie shows of this ilk anymore, I doubt that any of Mad’s pre-adolescent readership will get the jokes. In other words, poor choice, Weird.
Weird Al also picks the movie for parodying, “American Sniper.” But the movie doesn’t actually show up. Instead we have “American Sniping” with Michael Moore and Sarah Palin making snide remarks about the movie.
Otherwise, the content is largely the usual gang of features—among them, the eternal Sergio Aragones “looks at California” for 4 pages of his patented pantomime strips; Spy vs Spy; and “The Strip Club” aggregation of comic strips on random subjects; Jaffee’s fold-in.
I don’t see Mad regularly as a doctrinal matter: the comedy is too infantile for even me. But I look in every once and a while, and I’m often shocked (SHOCKED!) by the license Mad’s writers and cartoonists enjoy these days—on sex and profanity and other traditional unmentionables. In this issue, we have a feature called “Things to Ask Your Sex Ed Teacher,” in which a gaggle of young people fling questions of dubious taste at their teacher. One asks about “pulling out”; another, about taking photos of his “junk”; others, about condoms, pregnancy, and so on. Not your Harvey Kurtzman comedy, aristotle.
PERSIFLAGE AND BADINAGE
With daily headlines alternating between alleged police brutality in Baltimore and the trial in Denver of the shooter who killed 12 and wounded 70 innocent movie-goers at a Batman movie in suburban Aurora in 2012, this might be a good time to remember how superbly the police responded to the Aurora tragedy, arriving on the scene in minutes, evacuating the theater, separating the dead from the wounded, and transporting the injured to hospitals.
Some of the testimony at the trial—so far, from survivors and first responders—is gut-wrenching. There was blood everywhere. Police officers carried many of the wounded out of the theater, but holding onto them was a struggle because the bodies were slippery with blood. The testimony that is heart-rending came from an officer who was guarding the deserted building after the victims had been cleared out. He recalled hearing the cellphones left behind in the empty theater starting to ring. “One by one, you would hear a vibrate or a ring tone, songs people had as ring tones. It went on all morning.”
Critiques & Crotchets
The Mythology of S. Clay Wilson, Volume 1:
Pirates in the Hearthland
Edited by Patrick Rosenkranz
232 8x11-inch pages, b/w and some color; 2014 Fantagraphics hardcover, $34.99
ALTHOUGH THE CONTENT is mostly a healthy dose of Wilson’s art from c. 1968-75, plus a few of his more than one thousand comic strips drawn while a teenager and some photographs, many in color, Rosenkranz has manufactured a biographical text from interviews he conducted with many of Wilson’s friends. The narrative takes Wilson from his college career at the University of Nebraska to his arrival in San Francisco, hub of the underground comix movement, with an 18-month detour en route at the University of Kansas.
“It took him five years to get his bachelor’s degree in fine arts since his education involved more than attending classes and earning grades. During his college years [1959-65], he experienced the exhilaration of freedom that leaving home offers. ... He also became familiar with the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and the long arm of the military industrial complex, expanded his artistic repertoire, grew his hair long [much to the consternation of his sergeant in the ROTC] bought a motorcycle, found girls who liked to party, communed with dead Indians, smoked pot with Allen Ginsberg, and in time because a more confident and aware young man,” says Rosenkranz.
Robert Crumb may be the icon of comix, but Wilson was its creative goad. Rosenkranz quotes Crumb: “I was immediately overwhelmed by the force of his personality. I’d never met anyone like him before. He struck me right away as a larger-than-life, archetypal character, a synthesis of the boisterous, expansive, beer-swilling Midwestern American and a decadent, eccentric, dandified aesthete. I studied the portfolio of drawings he had handed to me as he kept up a rapid, inspired patter, full of white-hot enthusiasm for a vast gamut of cultural subjects. ... In fact, I was being blasted away, dissolved, atomized! ... I was never quite the same after meeting Wilson.”
Crumb continues: “The drawings were rough, crazy, lurid, coarse, deeply American, a taint of white-trash degeneracy. Every inch of space was packed solid with action and crazy details. The content was something like I’d never seen before, anywhere, the level of mayhem, violence, dismemberment, naked women, loose body parts, huge, obscene sex organs, a nightmare vision of hell-on-earth never so graphically illustrated before in the history of art. After the breakthrough that Wilson had somehow made, I no longer saw any reason to hold back my own depraved id in my work.”
Victor Moscoso is also quoted: “He came over to my house and gave me one of his purple portfolios, which I still have. I looked at it and said, wow, this is far out. It’s like crude and weird but really impressive. This guy is really into what he’s into even though what he was into—pirates chopping each other up—wasn’t quite my thing. Still, I was impressed.”
About one of Wilson’s stories, “Head First,” Moscoso said: “I can imagine someone having this fantasy. I can even imagine someone drawing this fantasy. I could not imagine something publishing that fantasy. It was at that point I realized—not only I, all the other artists saw it too—that I had been censoring myself. Every artist censors himself, and Wilson blew the doors off the church. Bada boom. Crumb set up the form, and Wilson came along and put it into earth orbit.”
Robert Williams agreed: “He had such an enormous effect on underground comix. He liberated underground comix and make them truly liberated. If it were not for S. Clay Wilson, Robert Crumb would still be doing funny animals to this day. It was Wilson that freed us all, and it’s a debt that I owe that dipshit.”
Most of those Rosenkranz interviewed spoke about Wilson’s charismatic personality and his reckless partying. The text is crammed with anecdotes about excessive drinking and other wild behaviors.
Insightful as these textual interludes are about the craziness of Wilson’s social life and peccadilloes, it’s the pictures that show us how his mind works. Rosenkranz’s description attempts the impossible—and succeeds: “Wilson’s comic stories go full bore from the first frame to the last. ... His gleefully pornographic scenes of sexual frenzy and wanton slaughter are often insightful interpretations of the base desires that fuel man’s inhumanity to man. His characters are propelled by greed, lust, and villainy: the basic fuels for our primal urges. ... Yet even in the midst of th goriest carnage or worst exceess of the flesh, there is always humor—at someone’s expense, of course.
“Not jokes, not punch lines, but anatomical exaggeration and giddy violence, the burst of ecstasy at seeing your enemies humiliated, along with authentically brutal dialogue that baldly declares what most of us are loath to admit. ... Wilson amazed his fans with the increasing complexity of his minutely detailed ‘dense packs’—his intricate single-page compositions that had to be studied carefully to determine who was dong what with which and to whom.”
But Wilson has the final word, the truth of personal testimony: “I’m doing these things because I like drawing dirty pictures. It’s enjoyable because it’s dirty. It’s the idea of breaking a taboo.”
The two-page tale “Ball in the Bung Hole” that we’ve posted near here is an early work (from Zap No.4, 1969) and typical of Wilson’s graphic imagination, which envisioned a human anatomy in which every orifice was connected to every other orifice. But the most extravagant in this mode is a parody entitled “Pudocchio,” which was written by Karin Green, Justin Green’s sister. She was Wilson’s squeeze after Nadra Dangerfield (who’d come to San Francisco with Wilson) left him because their life styles would not coincide (she wanted to go to college and acquire a degree).
Pudocchio is a philandering youth whose wooden pecker, like Pinocchio’s nose, grows longer with each lie he tells his girlfriends. As he lies and fucks Sally, his cock grows inside her, progressing from her cunt up through her insides until it protrudes from her mouth—and into Pudocchio’s, whereupon it lengthens its way through his body until it emerges from his asshole. An anatomical impossibility that Wilson’s pictures persuade us is possible. After all, seeing is believing.
Volume 2 of the Wilson saga is due sometime this summer.
Not until Howard Chaykin’s Satellite Sam, or, more recently—and more exactly— Black Kiss XXXmas in July , have oozing cunts and spurting cocks been so flagrantly a feature of comics stories, as you can readily ascertain by perusing the accompanying sample pages from Black Kiss. Stimulating as such a pictorial frenzy may be, the most interesting of this comic book’s content are the two pages at the end wherein Chaykin demonstrates how he constructs the art, using computer-generated models for the backgrounds. He’s clearly enamored of this process, and although it lends the pictures an aura of realism heretofore not evident in comics, it also clutters up the visuals with a plethora of distracting detail. Making sense of Chaykin’s narrative these days requires the microscopic discernment of a jeweler. Us comic book readers are left, alas, behind.
BEEFS & BOFFOS
Why Jim Steranko left comics, in his own words: “I felt I’d achieved a certain measure of my vision and found new areas to challenge my imagination. I’ve always been drive by the tyranny of my visions and never being satisfied with anything. I’m like a shark which must swim or die. I have no choice in the matter but to keep creating compulsively almost every waking minute. It’s a curse and a gift at the same time.”
Welcome to our sentimental section where I muse and marvel about antique volumes on the shelf and rare finds in old bookstores and the like. Nothing major. Skip over this if you’re busy.
HERE'S A RARE CULLING from Jim Ivey's cARToon Museum. As the caption explains, this version of Bud Fisher's A. Mutt was drawn by Russ Westover, who took over the strip at the San Francisco Chronicle when Fisher left for greener pa$tures at Wm. R. Hearst's SF Examiner a few weeks after the strip's debut. Because Fisher had taken the precaution of proclaiming his copyright on the strip when he drew the last one for the Chronicle, he and Hearst were able to get the Chronicle and Westover to cease and desist after a few weeks of legal saber-rattling. Westover would eventually go on to fame and fortune with Tillie the Toiler. Boy! Talk about raw palpitating history! The strip, courtesy Bill Blackbeard (as noted).
ANOTHER ENTRY from Jim Ivey's cARToon Museum. Milton Caniff left Columbus, Ohio, for New York in the spring of 1932, starting at the feature department of the Associated Press on April 1. One of his jobs was drawing pictures of all the presidential candidates— about thirty, he recalled. (So times haven't changed all that much.) But he also did such celebrities as those depicted here. (The date under Adolf's picture is clearly wrong: by 1936, Caniff was deeply into Terry and the Pirates with no time for portrait-making— and no longer in the AP feature department either.) Caniff prevailed upon the AP photo lab to do blow-up photographs of his subjects faces, then he traced them onto pebbleboard. Two of the presidential candidates "were particularly hard to draw," he remembered— Hoover and Roosevelt.
BADINAGE AND BAGATELLES
Last month, I wandered away from this keyboard and backlit screen to journey to Connecticut and environs to interview cartoonists for Tom Tanquary's documentary on newspaper comic strips. Among our victims were Mort Walker and Brian Walker. And here are photos of our visit at Mort's studio in Stamford.
ANOTHER CARTOONIST we interviewed during our Eastern ramble was Jules Feiffer.
Here are pictures of him working at his East Hampton studio. Doing his first graphic novel, Kill My Mother, for which he uncorked as many plot devices from noir fiction as he could, Feiffer found he enjoyed the medium immensely. In effect, the cartoonist within was born again. And now he's working on a sequel, a page of which appears in one of the photos at the corner of your eye.
READ & RELISH
Ireland voted on May 22 to change the country’s constitution to define marriage as a union between two people, regardless of their sex. Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton declared the victory “a magical moving moment, when the world’s beating heart is in Ireland.”
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
An admirable first issue must, above all else, contain such matter as will compel a reader to buy the second issue. At the same time, while provoking curiosity through mysteriousness, a good first issue must avoid being so mysterious as to be cryptic or incomprehensible. And, thirdly, it should introduce the title’s principals, preferably in a way that makes us care about them. Fourth, a first issue should include a complete “episode”—that is, something should happen, a crisis of some kind, which is resolved by the end of the issue, without, at the same time, detracting from the cliffhanger aspect of the effort that will compel us to buy the next issue.
LEADING UP TO THE COMIC-CON SEASON, we have [Jimmy] Palmiotti & [Matt] Brady’s The Big Con Job, an adventure muscularly drawn by Dominike “Domo” Stanton. In the first issue of a 4-issue series, we meet a small gaggle of elderly actors who once played superheroes in movies and on tv. Having lost their sex appeal, they no longer work as actors. Instead, they make the rounds of comic-cons for a living. But they’ve lost their lustre. The comic-con audience is changing: the fans are younger. When they were older, they remembered the characters the old actors played, but the younger fans have no such nostalgic recall. To attract them, convention management goes after the young stars of current hot shows. The old timers used to get up-front money and guarantees; no longer. No up-front money, the only money they make is by selling autographs
And that’s not enough. In one of the completed episodes herein, washed-up Danny Dean returns to his motel room after a show and finds that he’s locked out because he can’t pay. He goes to visit another old actor, Poach Brewster, and the two of then drink themselves into unconsciousness. The next morning, Poach finds Danny dead, a suicide. The night before, he’d said he couldn’t take it anymore.
At the end of the book, Poach and his old actor friends are at another comic-con where the management hasn’t even booked hotel rooms for them. Then they meet Tony King, a young promoter, who suggests a way they can make some money: he proposes that they rob the San Diego Comic-Con.
And that’s where we leave them for this issue.
And that’s enough to bring me back.
The story brims with knowing glances at the comic-con business—Palmiotti at least knows it well. And it’s fun for those of us who attend such shindigs to find ourselves on such familiar ground.
There’s also a tender scene involving Poach, whose young live-in actress friend decides to leave him because her career is still ahead of her—and Poach, whose career is now behind him, can no longer help her. They still love each other, and their parting is painful; still, Poach knows she is right to leave him. But the next morning, awakening alonein his bed, her fragrance clings to the bedclothes, and Poach embraces the blanket in a poignant moment.
Stanton’s drawing style, angular anatomy with heavy outlines, is a little clunky but still pleasing. And it’s cartoony enough that all the characters are easily recognizable.
ANOTHER ENTRY in the comic-con comic book trials is the second issue of Tales from the Con, a title that debuted last year. Chris Giarrusso’s squared-off comedic drawing style is, as before, refreshing and funny. But Brad Guigar’s jokes veer off into the obscure reference realm a little too much for me. Then again, I’m an old coot and I can’t keep up with every new nuance of comic-conning or comic bookery, so maybe the jokes aren’t so obscure to more informed—and younger—witnesses. Here are a few that even I understood.
NOW THAT MARVEL’S DAREDEVIL has begun streaming through Netflix wearing a black costume, I cringed to think that us funnybook fans would soon see his apparel in print modified to conform to the tv duds. That’s the way these things play out. As soon as Captain America showed up on the Big Screen in something suitable for the hero in a movie—something different than star-spangled tights—we saw the comic book Cap wearing something akin to the uniform worn by the motion picture incarnation. Hence, for Daredevil in the comic books, red is surely destined to give way to black.
How we’ll be able to see DD, who usually works at night, is another problem, seems to me. It’s hard enough to see him on Netflix but his being in motion helps: we see movement and discern that it is he. But in the static imagery of comics? In black, he’ll be lost.
The so-called thinking governing the tv costume is probably that red is too visible for a crime-fighter who fights at night to wear: like a crimson flag, a red costume draws attention to its wearer. Or so it would seem. But red is not especially visible at night: as the color of a costume, it isn’t like a neon sign.
Unexpectedly, then, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee, who control DD’s fate in the funnybooks, have so far declined to adhere to this new pattern. Daredevil, now working in San Francisco, is known to be Matt Murdock: he gave up the secret of his civilian identity. And he is now, as a result, a highly public figure. And in No.14 of the title, Murdock shows up in court in a new suit that flaunts his alternate identity as Daredevil.
Wonderful. Waid and Samnee have, so far, resisted the temptation to conform to newly emerged custom. No motion picture garb for them.
FOR ALL OF US who like Terry Dodson’s exquisite pictures of delectably beautiful women (as inked by his sister, Rachel), Red One enjoys a welcoming arrival at the comic book store. The plot is simple enough: a Russian female agent, Vera Yelnikov, is sent to America to eliminate a costumed do-gooder named The Carpenter, who is idolized by a Puritanical movement that threatens, er, world order, I assume. Vera is one of Dodson’s delections. In the first issue, she displays her physical prowess (and her figure) and accepts her assignment to go undercover in the U.S. In the second issue, she’s in the U.S., working as a chauffeur and helper to a old movie maker. In both issues, she takes on various baddies and handily whips them. At the end of the second issue, she finally confronts The Carpenter in physical combat. But the issue ends before the combat does.
Xavier Dorison’s story is infused with light-hearted humor, some of which involves Vera’s sex appeal (and, even, her enjoyment of canoodling). But there are other laughs, too. Even the fight sequences sparkle with wit, both verbal and pictorial.
Based entirely on the Dodsons reputations, the first two issues of Red One are being re-issued as a hardcover book this summer. Presumably, there’s a third issue a-borning somewhere, but I haven’t seen hide nor hair of it yet, what with all the hype about the hardcover.
The Dodsons pictures are beautiful and highly competent. Attention to detail is masterful. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the title, however, is how small most of the pictures are. Pages are full of panels—many of them tiny close-ups of faces or aspects of the action. Most pages have one somewhat large panel in which Vera (or “Alabama Jane” as she styles herself) is depicted. But most of the action and the narrative takes place in the small panels.
Dunno whether the page layouts are a direct result of the script by Xavier Dorison or not; I assume, though, that they are. The Dodsons are fully capable of telling the story under these circumstances, but their drawings suffer from the reduction in size. Dorison is not capitalizing on the Dodsons’ forte as much as he could with fewer panels to a page and larger pictorial content in each panel. Still, it’s fun to look at all of the tiny detail, panel after panel, and the Dodsons are such expert renderers that their pictures are always engaging.
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
The Thing of It Is ...
DAVID REMNICK, editor of The New Yorker, wrote a long piece about Barack Obama about 18 months ago. I underlined parts of it, hoping to have occasion to quote them. Now, having no occasion at all, here they are:
“The Republican Party is living through the late-mannerist phase of [the Reagan Revolution], fuelled less by ideas than by resentments. ... Rejection is all. Obama can never be opposed vehemently enough. ... For the moment, the opposition party is content to define itself, precisely, by its opposition.”
And he quotes Obama on the racism that seems to infect opinions about him: “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President. Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”
It seems a crying shame to me that when we at last have a thoughtful, articulate, dignified-looking, patriotic and wholly admirable, decent and moral man as Prez, he faces blind, knee-jerk opposition in virtually everything he would like to do for the good of the country.
AS FOR THE MUSLIM UNREST in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria—In his Playboy interview, Bill Maher had a suggestion: “The long-term solution to radical Islam is to let them have the civil war they need to have between themselves. Let the people who want to walk into the 21st century stand up against the people who want to stay in the seventh century. ... You wonder if we hadn’t opened Guantanamo Bay after 9/11 and started wars in Iraq and Afghanistan whether disaffected Muslims would have settled this differently. As long as our armed forces are in their countries and in their lives and killing them with drones, they don’t get to have this internecine warfare that intelligent observers agree they need to have. They need to take out their own trash.”
In short, we should get the hell out of there and let them fight among themselves until they have settled their differences or worn themselves to death. Maher is scarcely a model of diplomatic sensitivity, and while I enjoy his comedy and his biting commentaries on social as well as political issues, I’m not sure I’d nominate him for Grand High Poohbah of International Politics. But on this, I think he’s right. It’s their fight; they’ve been at it a long time, and we haven’t a clue about how to get them to reconcile. And refereeing by gunpoint is no long-term solution. So let’s stop trying. Let them have the fight they’ve been aching for all these centuries.
PEN PALS OVER CHARLIE HEBDO
Below are the key documents giving rise to the controversy that has erupted inside PEN America over the award the group is bestowing on Charlie Hebdo. They include the correspondence between the writer Deborah Eisenberg and PEN’s Executive Director Suzanne Nossel, which sparked the controversy.
Eisenberg letter to Nossel, March 26, 2015
What a wonderful thing to give an award to some person or institution that courageously exemplifies freedom of expression – and how entirely in keeping with the objectives of PEN. But as a member, up until now anyhow, of PEN, I would like to express myself freely on PEN’s decision to confer the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on the magazine Charlie Hebdo.
It is clear and inarguable that the January slaughter of 10 Charlie Hebdo staff members as well as 2 policemen in the Charlie Hebdo offices is sickening and tragic. What is neither clear nor inarguable is the decision to confer an award for courageous freedom of expression on Charlie Hebdo, or what criteria, exactly were used to make that decision. Indeed, the matter is fraught, complex, and very troubling.
I doubt there are many who consider the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to be models of wit, but what is at issue is obviously not the value of the cartoons. What is at issue are the various – confused, vague, and sometimes contradictory – symbolic meanings with which the magazine has been freighted in recent months, and exactly which of those symbolic meanings PEN is intending to applaud.
An award for courage is inevitably an award for the value in whose service courage has been exercised. In the case of the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award that value is “freedom of expression.” But freedom of expression too, is a very broad designation. Anything at all can be expressed, and just because something is expressed doesn’t ensure that it has either virtue or meaning.
I have read – and heard – that “equal opportunity offense” is the aspiration of Charlie Hebdo. But how is such an aspiration to be fulfilled unless the disparate “targets” of offense occupy an equal position and have an equivalent meaning within the dominant culture?
I don’t doubt that the Charlie Hebdo staff is, and was, entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of principled disdain toward organized religion. But although the magazine apparently disdains all organized religion, certain expressions of anti-Semitism are illegal in France, so Judaism is out of bounds for satire. In fact, the author of a purported anti-Semitic slur in a 2008 Charlie Hebdo column was fired. Therefore, in pursuing its goal of inclusive mockery of large organized religions, at least those that have a conspicuous presence in France, Charlie Hebdo has been more or less confined to Catholicism and Islam.
But those two religions hold very different positions in France, as well as in most of the Western world. Catholicism, in its most regrettable European roles, has represented centuries of authoritarian repressiveness and the abuse of power, whereas Islam, in modern Europe, has represented a few decades of powerlessness and disenfranchisement. So in a contemporary European context, satires of Catholicism and satires of Islam do not balance out on a scale.
Additionally, an insult particular to Islam lies in a visual portrayal of the Prophet, which is in itself interdicted. Christianity, on the other hand, not only condones, but actually encourages visual portrayals of the sanctified – in fact, for hundreds of years Christian artists painted little else but Jesus and His mother.
I can hardly be alone in considering Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons that satirize Islam to be not merely tasteless and brainless but brainlessly reckless as well. To a Muslim population in France that is already embattled, marginalized, impoverished, and victimized, in large part a devout population that clings to its religion for support, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.
Was it the primary purpose of the magazine to mortify and inflame a marginalized demographic? It would seem not. And yet the staff apparently considered the context of their satire and its wide-ranging potential consequences to be insignificant, or even an inducement to redouble their efforts – as if it were of paramount importance to demonstrate the right to smoke a cigarette by dropping your lit match into a dry forest.
It is difficult and painful to support the protection of offensive expression, but it is necessary; freedom of expression must be indivisible. The point of protecting all kinds of expression is that neither you nor I get to determine what attitudes are acceptable – to ensure that expression cannot be subordinated to powerful interests. But does that mean that courage in expression is to be measured by its offensiveness?
Apparently according to PEN it does. Apparently PEN has reasoned that it is the spectacularly offensive nature of Charlie Hebdo’s expression in itself that makes the magazine the ideal recipient for the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award – that awarding Charlie Hebdo underscores the very indivisibility of the principle of freedom of expression and the laws that protect it.
But in that case, one has to ask, is Charlie Hebdo really the most tasteless, brainless, and reckless example of free expression that can be found? Is it more deserving of the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award than other example of tasteless, brainless recklessness?
What about the racist chapters of SAE and other fraternities right here in our own country? I would say that they meet the criteria. We have our own reviled population, under constant threat of police brutality, prison and the like. So, are our racist fraternities not equally deserving of the Award? We are PEN America after all, not PEN France, and the fraternity brothers have expressed their views – even in humorous (to them) song – with great clarity and force.
And France itself offers compellingly meritorious alternatives to Charlie Hebdo for the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. What about those recently responsible for the desecrations of a Jewish cemetery? Were there no virulently anti-Semitic graffiti to be found in that ravaged cemetery that should be considered outstanding examples of courageous free expression? Or what about giving the award retroactively to Julius Streicher’s “Der Stürmer” and its satirical anti-Semitic cartoons? Streicher’s actual purpose was to mobilize popular sentiment against a vilified demographic, so perhaps those cartoons could be considered even more valorous than the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, which, although they do mobilize popular sentiment against a vilified demographic, are intended merely as representative mockery of any and all religions.
In short: is there not a difference – a critical difference – between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable and enthusiastically awarding such expression? Maybe not – maybe I’m confused. To me, in my confusion, the decision to confer the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo almost looks less like an endorsement of free expression than like an opportunistic exploitation of the horrible murders in Paris to justify and glorify offensive material expressing anti-Islamic and nationalistic sentiments already widely shared in the Western world.
these times when provisions of the amorphous Patriot Act can be invoked to
stifle and severely punish the dissemination of information, PEN could have
chosen to confer its PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression
Courage Award upon any of a number of journalists and whistleblowers who have
risked, and sometimes lost, their freedom in order to bring information to the
rest of us. Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are familiar examples, though
there are many others. There are also those who have courageously served as
conduits for the information such people have unearthed, such as Glenn
Greenwald and Laura Poitras. And there are the many journalists who have gone
to the Middle East in an attempt to clarify the tangle of horrors that has been
unleashed there over the last 20 years or so, including the American, Japanese,
and British journalists who have been brutishly beheaded by raging
fundamentalist Islamic State terrorists.
Those journalists and whistleblowers who exemplify the principles of free expression are also supremely courageous, but their courage has been fastidiously exercised for the good of humanity. Evidently, however, PEN seems to have reasoned that it would undermine the fundamental principle of free expression and cheapen the Award to give it to those whose purposes are noble, intelligent, and selfless rather than pitiful, foolish, and immensely destructive.
Nossel reply to Eisneberg, March 27
Dear Deborah (if I may):
Thanks for your note and your thoughtful reflections on our decision to confer the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo. I’d be happy to talk through your concerns by phone, but I am taking the opportunity to respond in writing so that you and those on your cc list can see the points as well. I very much appreciate the thought and rigor that went into your message and want to try to give it its due. As you say, these questions are certainly complex and matters on which reasonable people disagree. At PEN we have never shied away from controversy. I am not sure I can convince you that this was the right decision, but I do want to share just some of our thinking.
We believe that honoring Charlie Hebdo affords us an opportunity to inflect global opinion on an issue of longstanding concern to PEN and to free expression advocates worldwide, including many in the Muslim world: namely, efforts to devalue, ban, or punish acts deemed to constitute the defamation of religion. Such assaults come both from governments and from vigilantes, and they are not acceptable in either context. Moreover, the actions of governments have sometimes served to enable or urge on vigilantes, and vis-versa, an interplay which is particularly concerning. I worked on this issue for more than 18 months as an official of the U.S. State Department during the Obama Administration. At the time, certain delegations, led by Pakistan, were waging a powerful global campaign to try to secure an international treaty banning the so-called defamation of religion.
Their efforts, they explained to me, were fueled by a sense of deep grievance by ordinary citizens in their countries toward the West and toward insults against their religion. This sense of frustration and anger fueled the deadly protests in Afghanistan after copies of the Koran were disposed of inappropriately at Guantanamo as well as the assassinations of several moderate figures promoting religious reconciliation in Pakistan, including the Minister of Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti. Bhatti was murdered in 2011 because he was a “blasphemer of Mohammed.” In private discussions with diplomats from multiple Islamic governments, including at the Pakistani foreign ministry in Islamabad, I heard from officials who admitted that they did not believe that international bans on blasphemy were the right answer to the problems and pressure they were facing. They shared concerns that campaigns for such bans gave a kind of license to those assailants, including rioters in Kabul and assassins in Islamabad, who treated insults to Mohammed as grounds for violent reprisals. In making an award to Charlie Hebdo, we call attention the fact that such policies are abhorrent and extremely dangerous.
There are a range of views about the prohibition on depictions of Mohammed. In a position that has emerged fairly widely in the aftermath of the Hebdo attacks, even some Muslim government officials I spoke to rejected the notion that such a prohibition is universal or enshrined in Islam. Some did say, however, that they thought that insults to the Prophet should be unlawful, and that banning them was perfectly consistent with free speech. Their understanding of the principles of free speech was different than our own. They were willing to listen, and over time we found common ground. The Organization of the Islamic Conference ultimately decided to work very closely with us in trying to steer the debate in a new direction, precisely because they thought that banning and protesting such offensive speech was contrary to free expression and was contributing to violence. Our diplomatic efforts also took me to places such as Paris, London, Geneva, Brasilia, Santiago and Buenos Aires. At the UN, changing course on a human rights issue requires very broad consensus: the Europeans had to bend on their unwillingness to recognize legitimate concerns about respect for religious differences; Islamic delegations had to back off their proposals to ban speech; and moderate Latin and African delegations were needed to provide a measure of political cover to both sides. We worked to convince delegations that the right answer to the efforts to ban defamation of religion was not to vote the Pakistani-backed resolution down and defeat it, but rather to work with all delegations on a compromise approach that would unite the international community behind practical measures – like interfaith dialogue, education, effective hate crimes (as distinct from hate speech) prosecutions, etc.—in place of the proposed bans.
This effort at compromise was successful, culminating in passage of a consensus resolution to replace the defamation of religions resolutions in 2011. This piece recounts some of what happened. Unfortunately, while the compromise has held the matter cannot be said to be resolved. Efforts to ban insults to religion have continued to rear their heads in other places:
The reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings, which united many governments, religious leaders and civil society organizations in a joint expression of solidarity, drew global attention to the dangers of intolerance for criticism of religion. It awakened even some devout Muslim leaders with poor track records of respect for free speech to the dangers of declaring such insults out-of-bounds, or condoning open season on those who draw or publish them. The idea that no words, no matter how offensive or insulting, can ever justify violence seems basic to us here, but is honored in the breach in many parts of the world. We see honoring Charlie Hebdo as a potent way to affirm and elevate that principle at a moment when the world is paying attention. We see a chance to promote and defend a global definition of free speech that is broad enough to encompass all speech except that which falls outside the U.S.’s First Amendment, namely incitement to imminent violence; speech such as the calls to genocide over the Rwandan airwaves (the European standard is different, and there are some prohibitions on speech – such as bans on Holocaust denial and blasphemy laws still on the books in places like Ireland – that we reject). Our doing this protests the rash of attacks on others such as Kurt Wetgaard and Finn Nørgaard in Denmark and Avijit Roy in Bangladesh.
We also believe strongly in upholding and defending the role of satire in free societies. Satire is, by definition, disrespectful and often insulting. Based on Charlie Hebdo’s history, their statements and the accounts of those within PEN who have personally known and worked with the magazine, we believe that it sits firmly within the tradition of French satire (see in particular http://www.wsj.com/articles/charlie-hebdo-is-heir-to-the-french-tradition-of-religious-mockery-1420842456). They mocked religions, but also prejudices against religion, racial prejudices, ethnocentric attitudes and a whole range of other targets: Boko Harm, Brits, Jews (while I don’t know all the facts but I think the incident you described did happen, but they also published other cartoons targeting Jews. Including quite a few by Stephane Charbonnier, the murdered Hebdo editor), gays etc. They defined their role as pushing boundaries, questioning orthodoxy, casting light on obscured motives and ensuring that nothing was above comment or debate.
We have spoken since the attacks to several American cartoonists who have said that, in contrast to Charlie Hebdo, they see their role as to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” meaning that they would not publish cartoons that could be seen as offensive to Muslims, precisely because Muslims are discriminated against, targeted and marginalized within Western societies. In my own view, it is a very good thing that many or most cartoonists and satirists feel that way in that it allows Muslims to feel a greater sense of comfort and acceptance. But a commitment to free expression must make room for those who do not accept rules of prudence or political correctness, and who define their own moral obligations differently. A rule that all satirists must only target for offense those who enjoy a concomitant or equal level of security or prestige within a society would surely take too much off limits.
The new editor of Charlie Hebdo has said that in mocking religion their aim has been not to attack religion itself, but rather the role of religion in politics and the blurring of lines in-between, which they see as promoting totalitarianism—an argument some have made about the incursion of religion into American politics. As we look through the cartoons we think most if not all can be understood in that context.
In pushing the boundaries of discourse as the best satirists do—American, European, or otherwise— Charlie Hebdo broke taboos, raised questions and sparked debates that expanded the space for expression and the exchange of ideas. They paid a heavy price for doing so, and then pressed on despite heartbreak and devastation. We think that shows a powerful commitment to free expression no matter the costs, and it is that commitment that we wish to honor. We don’t see this award as legitimizing or applauding everything Charlie Hebdo has written or depicted; the very premise of their own magazine is that nothing enjoys sanctity and everything is a fair object of critique.
We also don’t believe, on the basis of written statements from and interviews with the magazine’s surviving staff, and on the opinions of PEN members who know them, that the editors of Charlie Hebdo intended to cause humiliation or suffering by printing the cartoons. The outcry by a great many Muslim groups in the aftermath of the attacks also reflects a view that satirists should have liberty to express their views, and that these cartoonists were not motivated by cruelty. We have heard from Muslims, many of whom reject the prohibitions on the depiction of Mohammed, actually decrying the discussion about Muslim grievances in the wake of Charlie Hebdo. They believe this line of discourse legitimizes Muslim extremism, which they see as a far greater danger to Muslims than Western anti-Muslim sentiment. This segment on Chinese TV displays two diametrically opposing Muslim views on the topic. (For what it’s worth, the man rejecting the discourse on marginalization is a former officer of Canadian PEN). Personally, I do think it is important to talk about Hebdo in the context of the precarious position of Muslims in French society; I reject the idea that such points should be off-limits in an explication of Hebdo. But I am very cognizant of the diversity of Muslim views on these questions so don’t see those very real issues as grounds not to honor Hebdo. Above all and vitally, we don’t accept the characterization of Hebdo as merchants of hate in the vein of a Streicher or a cemetery vandal; you may disagree but that’s not who we believe they are.
The January attacks also made vivid the types of threats that cartoonists and writers around the world face daily; these issues suddenly became front page news of concern to a much wider constituency than tends to be the case when individual, unknown writers are jailed or killed in far off places. Part of our job here at PEN is to put free expression issues front and center in the global debate. Charlie Hebdo’s notoriety and the impassioned global response evoked by the attacks thus offers the opportunity to draw into PEN’s mission new supporters who have been moved by the attacks and their aftermath. This can be a point of entry that leads new people to explore and become involved with our other work. We saw this in our membership trends, online and social media campaigning after the attacks. For those directly involved in planning the Gala and Awards there was a feeling that including Charlie Hebdo would have a mobilizing effect on PEN’s work more broadly. I understand that it can seem self-serving for an organization like ours to build on a high-profile event to generate support for our cause. But we only do it when we judge that the events and those involved are firmly consonant with our mission.
The evidence that the Hebdo attacks have energized PEN’s core constituency of writers is tangible. Here are a few examples of what new PEN members wrote as part of the spike in membership applications that we received in the immediate aftermath of the attack:
“In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, I am reminded that freedom of expression is a vital element of our humanity.”
“I have had “join PEN” on my calendar for awhile, but the tragedy in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo this past week reminded me of the importance of being part of this community.”
“After reading a Facebook post from a colleague who shared the message of PEN in the wake of the Paris terror attack, I was moved to join.”
“I have meant to join for several years but the recent tragedy in Paris was a catalyst.”
“I’ve been meaning to join PEN for some time but after the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo I believe we need to support freedom of expression more than ever.”
“While I have long written about freedom of speech issues, the recent massacre of staffers at Charlie Hebdo was a real wake-up call. I figured that purchasing an overseas subscription to the newspaper (in spite of my shaky French) and joining PEN were the least I could do.”
In sum, we are honoring Charlie Hebdo not because of the material you find offensive, but because of their fearless defense of their right to express themselves, a defense that has made our spines stiffen here at PEN and throughout the free expression community as we recognize the depth of our obligation to stand firm in the force of powerful and dangerous interests.
There are indeed a great many other great examples of courageous champions of free speech worldwide. It has not yet been announced, but this year’s PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award will go to Khadija Ismayilova, an intrepid Azerbaijani journalist now in jail. Her bravery is extraordinary and will be a focal point of the Gala and the advocacy action we all take there together. As Pussy Riot helped do for Ilham Tohti, so we hope Charlie Hebdo will help raise Khadija’s profile and make her the 36th winner (out of 40) of the Goldsmith prize to be released from prison. Last year Laura Poitras accepted our invitation to give the Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture (long before she won the Pulitzer or the Oscar) but then withdrew to our great disappointment because she was finishing the documentary and did not feel she could travel. We have held panels on U.S. whistleblowers and are doing a forthcoming report on the topic. Glenn Greenwald was, via Skype, the keynote speaker at a major symposium we held 18 months ago on NSA surveillance. We are inspired by them all. We have also stepped up significantly our work here at PEN spotlighting free expression challenges here in the United States, ranging from an original report on press freedom violations in Ferguson to two landmark reports on NSA surveillance to a series of events on Guantanamo to a new lawsuit filed two weeks ago challenging the U.S. intelligence agencies’ Upstream program.
Deborah, I hope this very long note helps shed light on our reasoning. I appreciate very much your taking the time to read it, and to consider our logic. We very much value you as a member of PEN, and are especially grateful for your involvement in our upcoming Guantanamo event in Montclair which will be amazing. A great friend of mine, Diane Archer, had the privilege of sitting with you at last year’s Gala and had such a wonderful time. We definitely don’t want to lose you here at PEN.
I am happy to discuss any and all of the above by phone.
All my best,
Executive Director, PEN American Center
Eisenberg reply to Nossel, April 10
I’m sorry to be so long getting back to you about your detailed response to my letter of March 26 – I’ve come back home to New York after long travels, and have been swamped by chores. In any event, thank you very much for your letter and for your generous offer to talk through my concerns by phone. Unfortunately, though, allaying my concerns would entail altering the state of the world, which I doubt you and I could manage to do on the phone.
But I do want to clarify a few things about which I evidently expressed myself confusingly and to try to disentangle various considerations that have inevitably come up in our correspondence about the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award.
On many or most points I’m in complete agreement with you. I agree unreservedly that an expression of views, whether satirical or not, and however disagreeable, is not to be answered by murder. I agree unreservedly that the free expression of views should not be banned. And I agree unreservedly that threats of violence let alone actual violence against people who express their views must be vigorously and vociferously opposed.
You made the very interesting point that laws against blasphemy might encourage independent vigilantes; that certainly seems plausible to me, but, as I’ve never thought there should be laws against blasphemy, I’m not sure how it applies to what I said, unless I gave you the impression that I do think there should be such laws – which I assure you is very far from the case.
But here is a point on which we differ. Or at least as I understand it, this is something that you and PEN are asserting: that people who are murdered for expressing themselves are automatically deserving of praise.
Really? Why is that? A person who is murdered (or threatened or harassed) for his or her views is by definition a victim – but not by definition a hero. He or she may be a hero or not. Let us say that a man considers his wife to be inferior to him and derides her repeatedly, and that she then murders him in his sleep. I think most of us would agree that it is wrong to murder the husband, but I hope few of us would agree that the husband deserves an award.
Your account of international negotiations regarding the differing concepts underpinning laws that regulate limits on expression is interesting and informative, but insofar is it applies to my letter to you, it seems to underscore rather than contravene my conviction that satire is largely dependent for its meaning and effect on context and cultural norms.
You say: “A rule that all satirists must only target for offense those who enjoy a concomitant or equal level of security or prestige within a society would surely take too much off limits.” I agree with that statement, too, as far as it goes. But in actual practice the matter goes very much farther than that wholesale abstract formulation, and the potential ramifications and nuances occasioned by any concrete instance of satire are likely to be ample.
Satire might be thought of as sort of a free zone, where potentially dangerous or destabilizing ideas can be safely sent out to play, or to perform for us, and social inequities are implicitly an element in most satire – though it is the parties thought to be holding disproportionate power or prestige who are the usual object of successful satire. It seems to me that power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire, and that to ignore very real inequities between the person holding the mighty pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen, risks making empty and self-serving nonsense of the discussion. In any case, your apparent assumption that I fail to recognize the value of satire is puzzling, given that I made liberal use of it in my letter of March 26.
Even leaving aside the vast and murky area that concerns freedoms, satire, and norms, at the basis of our discussion, I suppose, are – also vast and murky but urgent – questions of how to confront terrorism. And there, too, you and I are bound to stand on some common ground. Terrorism seeks to inhibit and control behavior and even ideas through the simple and very effective expedient of violence, so it is critical to respond by maintaining our autonomy, both in refusing to be silenced by threats or acts and also by refusing to let fear and intimidation interfere with our ideas and responses to the world around us -which is of course a subtler, vaguer, and more easily manipulated business.
Like you, I greatly admire the courage of those who retain their autonomy and hold fast to reasoned ideals in the face of intimidation. But by the same token, I do not believe that a repudiation of terrorism obliges me to join forces with prejudices I find repugnant. If I were to follow PEN’s line of thought in this instance – the equating of free expression with offensiveness – to its logical conclusion, I would have to distort my own inclinations and convictions and devote myself to drawing incredibly offensive magazine covers. And that, in my view, would be as much a capitulation to terrorism as silence would be.
The issue of objectives you raise in the case of Charlie Hebdo seems to me be critical, and I believe that confusion about it has obfuscated the general discussion. You inform me that the “new editor of Charlie Hebdo has said that in mocking religion their aim has been not to attack religion itself, but rather the role of religion in politics and the blurring of lines in-between, which they see as promoting totalitarianism . . . “ and that the editors (I believe that’s who you’re referring to) “defined their role as pushing boundaries, questioning orthodoxy, casting light on obscured motives and ensuring that nothing was above comment or debate.”
These are truly laudable objectives. And I am quite willing to accept your characterization of the Hebdo staff. But my belief, as I’ve indicated, is that Charlie Hebdo’s objectives are entirely beside the point.
It is the work available to us, not the objectives behind it, which we experience and judge. If, for example, I read a book that strikes me as worthless, my opinion of it will not go up simply because the author tells me that she had wanted it to be better than War and Peace. And further, the subjects of a satire are bound to have a different relationship to that satire than those who are only peripherally involved or who have the same set of cultural assumptions as the satire’s author. The Muslim population of France, so much of which feels despised and out of place in their own home, is very aware that the non-Muslim population of France is reading and enjoying mockery of their religion, and they are very unlikely to care what objectives Charlie Hebdo ascribes to itself, however lofty those objectives may be. A person wounded by ridicule is unlikely to much care what the ridiculer intended – to care whether the goal of the ridicule was to stimulate insight or to inflict humiliation.
But presumably the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award is being awarded to Charlie Hebdo for its actual publications, not for its stated aspirations. So those aspirations are as immaterial to PEN’s choice as they are irrelevant to the Muslim population of France. What actually matters most in this instance, in my opinion, is what people believe is being awarded: What does PEN wish to convey by presenting this prestigious award to Charlie Hebdo? And that is still not one bit clear to me.
Charlie Hebdo is undeniably courageous in that it has continued irrepressibly to ridicule Islam and its adherents, who include a conspicuously and ruthlessly dangerous faction. But ridicule of Islam and Muslims cannot in itself be considered courageous at this moment, because ridicule of Islam and Muslims is now increasingly considered acceptable in the West. However its staff and friends see it, Charlie Hebdo could well be providing many, many people with an opportunity to comfortably assume a position that they were formerly ashamed to admit. This is not a voice of dissent, this is the voice of a mob.
Here I am, piping up again, and re-stating some of the things I’ve already said. And how good it would be if you and I could sort out and settle all these issues and those that are attached to them in the exchange of a few letters! But obviously these matters are not easily sorted out, let alone settled – and they are not easily discussed, either. They do, however, call for discussion – for examination, for re-examination, for endless, painstaking vigilance and continual efforts at clear thinking.
You seek to persuade me that Charlie Hebdo was a judicious choice to receive the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award by telling me people are flocking to join PEN because of its support for Charlie Hebdo – but that only redoubles the anxieties I described in my first letter. I can only wonder what exactly is so alluring to these new dues-payers: are they indeed demonstrating enthusiasm for PEN’s long-standing support of free and courageous expression, or are they demonstrating enthusiasm for a license that is being offered by PEN to openly rally behind a popular prejudice that has suddenly been legitimized and made palatable by the January atrocities?
In short, it is not Charlie Hebdo I’m writing to you about, it is PEN. I would be very sorry if this essential organization were to alter radically in character, from one that supports and protects endangered voices of dissent to one that encourages voices of intolerance.
All the best,
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