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Drop It

Today on the site Ken Parille brings us part one (of two) of his 2014: Comics, New and Old.

While not quite a “year in review,” this two-part column looks at forty comics I read in the closing months of 2014, books that inspired some end-of-the-year reflection on “The State of American Comics,” present and past. These graphic novels, online comics, comic books, and comics tracts — a third of which appeared in 2014 — represent a range of genres: horror, memoir, religious, superhero, children’s, travel, propaganda, hate, and more. In some entries, I review the comic and in others I use it as an occasion to explore issues such as comics theory, critics vs. fans, feminism, narrative instability, “pop art,” and the “holistic interpretation” fallacy. I include my “2014’s Best” and wonder if we’re really living in, as everyone proclaims, a “New Golden Age of Comics.” (Part II will appear soon.)

Elsewhere:

The great Dutch underground cartoonist Peter Pontiac passed away this week. He was not well-known here, but was an active cartoonist since the 1970s. Artist Marcel Ruijters has an appreciation here. Pontiac’s web site is here.

The Rumpus interviews Tomi Ungerer.

I enjoyed this gif-report from Bruce Bickford’s studio.

Michael Dooley on provocative graphic art.

And a tour of a ADHD, creative home to Ben Jones.

TCJ-contributor and Vice comics editor Nick Gazin’s recent Run the Jewels logo is discussed over here.

 

Waiting for the UFOs

Matthias Wivel is working on an in-depth piece about Charlie Hebdo, the attack on its offices two weeks ago, and the many issues surrounding it. First, though, today he has a review of the most recent issue of the satirical magazine, for which a reported seven million copies were printed, and sold out, certainly placing it among the biggest-selling comic books of all time. Here is a sample of Matthias’s analysis:

The cartoonists who are still alive have the advantage of being able to respond to the tragedy; this has yielded some decent cartoons, or as decent as one could have hoped from the decimated staff working under what must have been a state of shock.

Luz, Coco, Catherine Meurisse, and Loïc Schwartz all contribute reportage from the mass demonstrations in Paris on January 11, with David Ziggy Green providing a British perspective from Trafalgar Square. These strips as well as the attendant columns are characterized by mixed feelings. On the one hand gratitude for the massive turnout, on the other disgust with parts of their newfound support from people such as Nicholas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, Benjamin Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin, and Front National leader Marine Le Pen. “I vomit on all our new friends,” as cartoonist survivor Willem so eloquently put it a few days after the massacre. Also, much mirth arises from the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger, inexplicably, has become a subscriber.

The best cartoons are the ones that, like the cover, manage poignantly to straddle the divide between reflection and provocation. Syrian-French cartoon superstar Riad Sattouf contributes an installment in his ongoing strip La vie secrète des jeunes, which is based around (allegedly) overheard conversations between young people. A French Arab tough hangs at a corner in Paris’ tenth arrondissement discussing the massacre on his cellphone. He assures his interlocutor that he “could give a fuck about Charlie Hebdau,” but that you simply do not kill somebody because they say something you do not like. Street-level Voltaire wittily written in sociolect.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

—Charlie Hebdo. In one of the more informative pieces on Charlie Hebdo, Josselin Moneyron analyzes the last year’s worth of that magazine’s covers.

Charlie writer and recovering attack survivor Philippe Lançon released an account of recent events.

Ex-Charlie staffer Zineb el-Rhazoui responded in 2013 to the Olivier Cyran letter I linked to last week.

Christopher Lydon’s Radio Open Source has an interesting episode devoted to Charlie featuring Arthur Goldhammer, Juan Cole, Michael Kupperman, and Lila Azam Zanganeh.

Jen Sorenson drew a cartoon attempting to present a possible Muslim perspective to recent events. Matt Taibi is 100% Charlie.

Newsweek spoke to Ralph Steadman about offensive drawings.

Tim Parks writes at the New York Review of Books about the limits of satire.

On Monday, a high-school student in France was reportedly arrested for posting an cartoon mocking Charlie Hebdo on Facebook.

—News. The Washington Post has an extensive article on the return of Milestone Media, which is very welcome news.

More than 80 cartoonists, critics, and comics-industry workers, including Lewis Trondheim, Jacques Tardi, Jaime Hernandez, Alison Bechdel, and TCJ contributors Rob Clough, Sean T. Collins, and Jeet Heer, signed an open letter to the Angoulême festival asking the event to drop the Israeli company Sodastream as a sponsor.

Darling Sleeper, a new site devoted to comics and analysis, has launched on Medium, and looks to be of potential interest to many TCJ readers.

—Interviews & Profiles. Georgia Webber talks to Aisha Franz. Hillary Brown speaks to Michael DeForge. Laura Hudson profiles Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin on the release of the second volume of March.

—Reviews & Commentary. Brian Nicholson offers his top ten print comics of 2014. Phoebe Salzman-Cohen has a long review of Farel Dalrymple’s The Wrenchies. Paul Karasik has a late but welcome CAB report.

 

Interior Spaces

I goofed and forgot to blog yesterday, but here I am now. So, today pretend it’s, uh, earlier! Yesterday Joe McCulloch bestowed upon you his week in comics. Today we bring to you George Elkind’s interview with Dash Shaw, who is responsible for about 75% of the best comics of 2014.  Cosplayers 2 and 3, along with Doctors, were stunning achievements and yet casual and unflashy in their brilliance. No other cartoonist in the world published this much strong work last year. Here’s a bit of the interview:

I want to ask a little about Cosplayers in terms of structure. I see each issue of Cosplayersas (among other things) a chance for you to play with the structure of a comics issue in different ways—with “pin-ups,” interstitial materials, and different kinds of story structures. So I see a connection to that notion of comics as collage there, but can you talk more about how that idea or premise plays out within those stories? I think of page design most immediately, but I really mean on any level.

It’ll be most explicit in the next issue, which has cut-up comic collages inside of it, but, I can try to come up with an answer, sure. One way to answer is that I drew the first story and kept adding stories, without a plan. I didn’t envision a pamphlet at the beginning. First I had one story, then those characters asked for a second story, then I drew pin-ups of cosplayers. I came up with some one-panel gags and collaged them over the pin-ups. The content/subject matter asked to take the form of a pamphlet comic. Then, the idea of doing a second issue that takes place entirely at an anime convention was a no-brainer. It grew organically, piece by piece.

Drawing a cosplayer is interesting because you’re drawing Wolverine and you’re inking him with a brush and it’s computer-colored like how real Wolverine comics are, but we know it’s a cosplayer. It doesn’t look like Jim Lee’s Wolverine. I wanted them to look like real cosplayers. A guy will dress up like Batman but he won’t look like Christian Bale’s Batman, you know? Maybe he got the bat sign a bit wonky, or he doesn’t have Batman’s body type. That’s part of what I love about cosplay. Fandom is wider and more inclusive and humanistic than most of the stories/characters that the fans are fans of.

Different people like cosplay for different reasons, so these decisions obviously just reflect what I personally like about it.

I’m cosplaying too, in a way, by dressing in this format and inking and coloring in a way that I’m not natural at. I’m like the guy wearing the Batman suit realizing he’s not the real thing, but embracing who he is, play-acting, and strutting out there. So it’s sort of like I’m collaging myself onto the spinner rack next to the real Batman. It’s a merging of the unreal with the real which, also, is part of what cosplay means to me.

Of course there are a lot of cosplayers now who combine different characters to make their own, like the Boba Fett/Snow White creation, but that isn’t in my comic.

And conventions are collage-like environments, in that you have Link from Legend of Zelda talking to Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead and all of these pop culture characters are occupying the same physical space. It’s like the Werner Herzog quote that I put on the back of the Tezukon issue: “the collective dreams all in one place.” It’s similar to the Philip José Farmer series Riverworld, where everyone who has ever lived is resurrected alongside the same river and they’re all the same age. It’s an excuse to have all of these people he’s interested in interacting with each other, like the girl who inspiredAlice in Wonderland talking to Jack London. Gary Panter’s Dal Tokyo is another story where characters/things that the author is interested in are all put together in the same sandbox. I reference those creators not to compare myself to them, but to illustrate a way of looking at comic conventions. A person’s mind is filled with these things… It’s natural to throw a party and invite them all to meet each other.

Elsewhere:

Charlie Hebdo: An app has been launched by the magazine. The Hooded Utilitarian has a year’s worth of covers.

Gil Roth interviews the great Jim Woodring.

I’ve haven’t anything like this in a while: A partially completed set of Landon Course of Cartooning.

Not Comics: Finely decorated Grateful Dead mailorder ticket envelopes.

 

Pall Bearers

Today on the site we have Greg Hunter’s review of Mana Neyestani’s graphic memoir, An Iranian Metamorphosis. Neyestani was sent to prison in Tehran after publishing deemed offensive. Here’s a bit of Greg’s review:

In 2006, protests broke out among Iran’s Azeri peoples based on a perceived slight in one of Mana Neyestani’s newspaper cartoons. The Iranian government’s response to the situation involved a series of interrogations and imprisonments for Neyestani. An Iranian Metamorphosis (Une Métamorphose Iranienne in its original, overseas edition) is Neyestani’s first book-length comics narrative and a memoir of his time as a captive and later a refugee. The work reads like that of a cartoonist unsure which tools to use in the reconstruction of his story but willing to try all sorts of things. It is eclectic and sometimes frustrating.

An Iranian Metamorphosis features many plot-level details that bring to life the prison experience: a guard consenting to pass along soccer scores; the onset of psychological isolation even while sharing a cell; the workings of an intra-prison black market. Neyestani even gambles with his readers’ sympathies to portray the range of his ordeals: A particularly uncomfortable scene shows him becoming a sort-of informant, as he provides benign information about fellow cartoonists that (we understand) Iranian intelligence officials could still distort for their purposes.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

—Charlie Hebdo. Articles and editorials worth reading continue. One of the murdered cartoonists, Tignous, was buried in a coffin covered in cartoons and graffiti.

Sigolène Vinson, a writer who survived the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, describes what happened.

I know I’ve linked to a lot of people defending or attacking the tenor of Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons, but here are two more worth reading, and two of the best so far. Taking the defense is Leigh Phillips at Ricochet, and on the prosecution is ex-staff-member Olivier Cyran. The Turkish Muslim cartoonist M.K. Perker also defends CH.

And two longer articles about the political angle of these cartoons come Farhang Jahanpour and Jonathan Guyer.

—Profiles & Interviews. Jeet Heer writes a piece for The Paris Review about the late John Updike’s relationship to cartooning.

The New Yorker interviews Adrian Tomine about his just announced upcoming book, Killing and Dying.

—News. Star Clipper, a great comics store in St. Louis (and my own favorite local comics store back in my college days) is going out of business.

Somehow we missed this Montreal Gazette story celebrating Drawn & Quarterly.

—Reviews & Commentary. The novelist Neel Mukherjee includes Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth, and Bryan Talbot’s Sally Heathcote, Suffragette in a list of the ten best books about revolutionaries.

For Dissent, Paul Buhle reviews Richard McGuire’s Here.

 

Building Math

Today on the site, Paul Tumey looks at the use of the racial caricatures in early cartooning.

I didn’t know the Charlie cartoonists personally. I was barely familiar with their work – but, when I saw their screwball caricatures and wacky cartoons that, as far as I can tell, spare no one, I immediately recognized in them the very same impulse that had driven my sensitive and intelligent English teacher friend to satirize the people in his own world with cartoons. It seems to me that this sort of thing is a basic part of our humanity. It’s not kind, pleasant or comfortable, but that may be the point.

The impulse to satirize with cartoons may well be a part of our birthright as humans, and an essential way that we work out our differences – in a grand, glorious, unfair, unbalanced, unhinged mess. There’s something about a cartoon image that cuts to the quick, bypassing filters and nuances, and injecting an electric jolt into the mind. Given the visceral and immediate nature of this form of communication, it’s not surprising that a strong reaction will sometimes occur:  a guffaw, a spark of righteous anger, or a violent outrage, one that is sometimes planned for years and coldly executed, in all senses of the word.

In 1988, a defiant and sharply satirical Palestinian cartoonist named Naji al-Ali was shot in the face and killed by an unknown assailant. In 2005, Kurt Westergaard, another teacher-cartoonist, made a now infamous cartoon of a Muslim with a bomb in his turban and has been on the run ever since. It was part of a group of 12 cartoons published in a Danish newspaper.  The cartoons, and in particular Westergaard’s prompted a huge reaction from some hardline Muslims, who saw the cartoon as blasphemy and declared their intention to murder Westergaard in revenge. In 2010, men broke into the 75-year old man’s home. Westergaard hid in his reinforced bathroom. The attackers attempted to break into the bathroom with axes, failed, and left. During this time, Westergaard’s granddaughter was in the house, unprotected and, thankfully, unharmed – but nonetheless, a shocked witness to men attempting to slay her grandfather for drawing cartoons.

In 2012, The Onion made fun of the situation in a story as news about an absurd cartoon showing Jesus, Buddha, Ganesh, and Moses having a casual four-way. The headline read: “No One Murdered Because of This Image.”

I am the first to admit my understanding of politics is poor. I couldn’t begin to offer any incisive political commentary on anything, including the Charlie attacks. But as a historian, I can tell you this with confidence: outraged retaliation towards satirical cartoonists is not a new thing; it’s been going on for centuries.

Elsewhere:

Charlie Hebdo:

A collection of tribute covers at The Nib.

And a good piece about the cultural differences in our understanding of the Charlie cartoons.

Finally, Michael Dooley has a personal-historical take on the matter.

And in just plain funnybook news:

I liked this piece by Jason Miles on an odd Steve Gerber comic.

And this is the first review I’ve see of Scott McCloud’s upcoming book.

 

Big Day

Today on the site, Robert Kirby gives his overview of the past year in LGBTQ comics. That he is able to do so at length without even mentioning Alison Bechdel’s MacArthur “genius” grant shows just how strong a year it’s been. Here is how Rob begins:

No doubt about it, 2014 was a banner year for queer alternative/art comics. In this sub-scene of a sub-scene a wildly varied, thematically rich range of subject matter issued forth from alt-presses, micro-presses, and self-publishers. There was something for everyone, or at least a good number of everyones, queers and non-queers alike.

One hallmark of the year was the continued so-called Queering of the Mainstream (or Mainstreaming of the Queer), a phenomenon increasingly noted since the breakthrough of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home in 2007. Justin Hall, in 2011’s No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics , asserted that queer comics had traditionally “existed in a parallel universe alongside the rest of comics,” but that just as queer culture in general had begun to leave the gay ghettos and spread into the larger culture, queer comics were beginning their own infiltration into the larger comics arena. I’d initially maintained a healthy skepticism to this notion; not questioning its veracity, but wary of the trend’s ability to make any but the smallest cracks in the glass ceiling against which so many of us queer cartoonists have bumped our heads over the years. I’ve since concluded that yes, this movement—this big amorphous queer thing—is having an impact as it continues to grow and spread itself around; to what degree remains to be seen.

We also have Sean T. Collins with a review of Annie Mok’s multimedia online memoir, “Worst Behavior”:

How do you take something as complex and confounding as the most tumultuous time in a person’s adult life and make a concise and compelling short story out of it? Annie Mok’s solution: Echo the tumult. In as-below-so-above fashion, Worst Behavior, an illustrated memoir for the “Dedication”-themed January issue of the online magazine Rookie, utilizes a hybrid format to describe and analyze a three-year period during which a host of issues that by rights would be overwhelming individually pulled Mok’s life in a dizzying number of directions. She uses prose, comics, illustration, hand lettering, sampled/disassembled/reassembled passages from her previous work, and quotes from the artists who’ve inspired her along the way to harness that onslaught in an act of creative judo, simultaneously communicating its power and demonstrating her artistic, emotional, and intellectual ability to best it.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Charlie Hebdo. Today marks the release of the first issue of Charlie Hebdo since the attack on its offices last week. The print run was reportedly raised to three million copies. The Wall Street Journal has a report from the magazine’s press conference yesterday about the new issue.

A helpful website called Understanding Charlie Hebdo has been launched, which goes through some of the more controversial cartoons from the magazine one by one, explaining the symbolism and satiric intent.

Scott Sayare at The Atlantic has written one of the more convincing negative assessments of Charlie Hebdo‘s use of satire.

Jeet Heer wrote a 45-part Twitter essay tracing the connections between Charlie Hebdo and the American underground comics tradition.

Dennis Perrin, who wrote the biography of Michael O’Donoghue, one of last century’s most brilliant and influential satirists, writes about American antipathy to satire. Caro writes about her own discomfort with the sometimes cruelty of satire.

—Interviews & Profiles. Tom Spurgeon speaks to comics scholar Susan Kirtley. Paul Gravett talks to Dylan Horrocks.

—Reviews & Commentary. Philip Nel looks at how the legacy of racism manifests itself in children’s literature.

Ben Towle picks his favorite comics of 2014.

Dirty Fractals has a review of Lala Albert’s Janus.

Abhay Khosla reviews Bitch Planet #1 and Rumble #1.

David Brothers has a moving piece on how minority voices can be marginalized in comics culture. He’s always worth reading on this issue (among others). I have to say it disturbs me that he implicitly links that marginalization to Ken Parille’s column on this site from last Thursday, especially since he doesn’t explain why he’s doing so; I don’t think a fair reading of the piece supports that link. But I could be wrong, and because he’s a smart thoughtful guy whose views I respect, I invited David last week to write an essay about Ken’s column for TCJ, explaining where he thinks Ken went wrong. That offer is still open. I’d be interested to read it whenever and wherever he publishes it, even if it’s just my email inbox.

—Misc. Michael Kupperman writes about clashes with the New York Times over the strip he and David Rees contributed to the paper last year, which he chalks up to editorial cowardice and stupidity.

Here is correspondence between R. Crumb and Woody Gelman.

If you’re in New York, tonight there is an opening reception at the Society of Illustrators for a Gary Groth-curated exhibit on the work of Jonah Kinigstein.

 

New Productions

Today on the site: Joe McCulloch on the week in comics, with a side dish.

And Tim Hanley reviews Noah Berlatsky’s book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism.

Noah Berlatsky loves Golden Age Wonder Woman comic books, to the exclusion of all others. His new book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, is a detailed and often fascinating look at this era, and his appreciation for the work of William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter is evident throughout. Many historians see early Wonder Woman comics as an oddity, an interesting but bizarre run laden with mixed messages about feminism and fetishism. Berlatsky sees them as brilliant works of art.

More on Charlie Hebdo today (and I’m keeping these links limited because we’re still in the quick reactions phase and Tim did such a great job of tracking the various strands of thought yesterday):

The remaining editorial staff is preparing a new issue, and this is the cover.

Tim Kreider writes eloquently about the power of cartooning for the New York Times.

Ruben Bolling contributes more thoughts on the matter.

In other news, a few pleasant diversions:

Here’s a nice local paper story on D&Q’s Moomin publishing initiative.

A couple episodes of the very bizarre 1970s Japanese Spider-Man television show are now online.

The longtime cartoonist Jack Katz is trying out a fundraiser for his new comic.

 

Imperfect Tenderness

Satire, n. An obsolete kind of literary composition in which the vices and follies of the author’s enemies were expounded with imperfect tenderness.” —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

First, go here, and watch a short five-minute documentary. It captures the February 2006 editorial meeting at which the editors of Charlie Hebdo decided whether or not to put an image of Muhammad on their next issue’s cover. Some of the people you will see in that video were murdered last week.

They are remembered in this interview by their friend Nicolas Demorand, the former editor of Libération, the leftist French newspaper who lent the Charlie Hebdo staff office space after the magazine was fire-bombed in 2011. (Libération is lending CH office space again right now, in order to allow the magazine to release a new issue on January 14. They reportedly plan to print one million copies.) Here is Demorand, remembering 2011:

Charb [Charlie Hebdo editorial director Stéphane Charbonnier], who was killed today, was under police protection. It was a really strange moment. A newspaper isn’t a military place. We had policemen in the newsroom during that time. In the first few hours we were quite scared. But after that it was really normal life. Everybody was laughing. These guys were the kindest guys. They were really teenagers. Even if they were 70 or 80 years old. They were teens. They were happy to live. They were just doing funny stuff. And it’s horrible to think that they have all been killed today. You know, I’m 43. I cried like a child all day long. It was a horrible day. A horrible day in Paris. Horrible day.

Now read this interview with surviving Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Luz, who is also very good at expressing the human side of this tragedy: “The media made a mountain out of our cartoons, when on a worldwide scale, we are merely a damn teenage fanzine. This fanzine has become a national and international symbol, but it was people that were assassinated, not the freedom of speech! People who sat in an office and drew cartoons.”

Many cartoonists have reacted to the attack, too many to gather here. Some of the more notable responses come in the form of an ambivalent strip on Charlie‘s satire created by Joe Sacco, a short video interview with the British political cartoonist Steve Bell, and this drawing by Robert Crumb. Crumb explained the reasoning behind his cartoon in an interview with the New York Observer:

I showed it to [my wife Aline], and she said, “Oh, my God, we’re going to have to go into hiding.” [Laughs.] So, then Aline had this idea for another cartoon, which we also sent to Libération, a collaboration, that’s showing her looking at the drawing saying, “Oh, my God, they’re going to come after us! This is terrible…I want to live to see my grandchildren!” And then she has me saying, “Well, it’s not that bad. And, besides, they’ve killed enough cartoonists, maybe they’ve gotten it out of their system.”

Matt Madden, who currently lives in Angoulême, wrote a moving blog post.

Less impressive and less subtle was this drawing released by Asterix co-creator Albert Uderzo.

So why did the attack happen? Much important historical context can be found in this magazine’s 2006 article, “Cartoons of Mass Destruction”, an in-depth report written by Michael Dean and R.C. Harvey on the Danish cartoon controversy of that year, which not only fills in many of the historical blanks, but also provides a multitude of perspectives worth considering. It is fascinating to see how much has changed in just nine years, and how much remains the same. (Note that Jyllands-Posten, the Danish paper at the height of the original controversy, and Charlie Hebdo are very different in terms of editorial approach.)

[Matthias] Wivel was not impressed with the [Danish] cartoons. “With the exception of three or four of them, I think they are rather inferior cartoons,” he said. “The take on Islamism is pretty hackneyed, the jokes are largely quite stupid, and most of them are badly and uninspiringly drawn.”

“I think Jyllands-Posten were inconsiderate and boorish in publishing these cartoons as a single, unified, insulting statement, but am not sure the cartoonists themselves can be accused of anything else than trying their best to exercise their métier within the often rather limited scope of their talent.”

Wivel saw the cartoons as an attempt to inflame the anti-immigration sentiments simmering in Danish politics. “It should be stressed here that the decision by Jyllands-Posten to publish these cartoons more than likely was motivated by the political climate of Denmark, where Muslims are constantly the object of negative discourse, where immigration laws have developed to become the most draconian of the [European Union] and where there’s a lot of popular support for the kind of hard-line thinking that has prompted this development. It was an asinine, cheap shot at an already marginalized minority. Preaching to the choir, in other words. What no one could have foreseen was the extent to which globalization has changed the way these things work.”

Also back in 2011, The Nation interviewed Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco about the Danish cartoons. These are two highly intelligent artists sophisticated in both politics and satire, and they don’t quite see eye to eye on these issues. It too is worth returning to. (As Dan mentioned last week, Art Spiegelman also recently discussed satire and Charlie Hebdo on Democracy Now.)

As almost all readers surely know, in the wake of last week’s attack a widespread campaign was launched, promoting unified mourning and identification with Charlie Hebdo, and according to reports, #JeSuisCharlie quickly became one of the most popular global Twitter hashtags ever. Some, uneasy with the offensive imagery used in many CH cartoons, have been keen to distance themselves from the magazine. Satire presents some of the thorniest political issues it is possible for an artist to depict or confront, which is both its attraction and its danger. It is almost impossible to evaluate satire outside of the very specific context of the events or figures it is targeting, especially by those who share neither the language nor the cultural background of the artists. And so for those who lack that language and/or background, it may be helpful to try to get a fix on what the CH artists were attempting to do, and how they were attempting to do it, before one ultimately decides to celebrate or condemn their work.

Now, before I go on, let me add that I myself am not an expert on the political culture of France, and do not myself claim that the cartoons were well-executed satire. I am going to link to a few people below who do make that claim, but I myself know very little of the contexts in question. In fact, I have only ever read one issue of Charlie Hebdo, over a decade ago. My French is so rudimentary that saying I “read” it is probably overstating things. This took place before 2006, so I had no preconceptions. I thought some of the cartoons were funny, and some crude and vulgar. There were no racial caricatures that I can recall, but it’s been a long time. I didn’t get most of the jokes in any case. In its informality and personal nature, it reminded me somewhat of a zine, an alternative weekly from back before the alternative press was neutered, or a group blog. In any case, I say all this to make it clear that I am only going to make claims about satire in general, as I believe myself unqualified to judge the Charlie Hebdo cartoons myself at this time. And none of this is meant to imply that the cartoons should not be criticized. If anything, satire, which when accomplished trades in quite subtle ideas, benefits from and requires criticism more than most kinds of art.

Satire is an unusual art form, in that it is designed to be misunderstood. If you respond to it with horror or disgust, that was likely the artist’s goal. The satirist attempts to mimic the view of his or her enemy, often using the same kind of language and imagery as that opponent would, but doing so ironically, and taking it so far into the absurd that the entire moral basis for the enemy’s position collapses. I think the way the philosopher Robert Paul Wolff explains irony may be helpful:

Irony is a mode of discourse that presupposes a double audience — an apparent audience and a real audience. […] When a statement is uttered ironically, the speaker intends to convey two meanings that are related as appearance to reality. The apparent meaning is heard by the first, or apparent, audience, which mistakenly thinks that it has understood everything that the speaker means to communicate. The deeper, real, meaning is heard by the real audience, which also hears and understands the apparent meaning. The real audience also knows that the apparent audience exists, and has heard only the apparent meaning, which it has mistaken for the real meaning. Thus, one might say, the ironic utterance is a private joke between the speaker and the real audience at the expense of the apparent audience. It is this complex structure of the communicative situation that distinguishes irony from ambiguity or mere confusion. [All emphases Wolff’s.]

The classic example of satire, the one everybody knows, is Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal”, in which the English social engineer’s faith in mechanistic solutions to Irish poverty are ultimately shown to be monstrously anti-human. Swift eventually takes the premises so far that the essay’s apparent meaning (that the children of the poor should be served as food to relieve hunger and suffering) eventually gives way to its real meaning. When an Anglophone reader unfamiliar with the original French political context reads the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, only their apparent meaning can be seen.

The odd thing about satire is that, in one sense, it sometimes works even when it is not understood. If a reader never understands that the narrator of Swift’s essay is not serious, she will still ultimately be horrified by the “modest” proposal, and will from then on associate Swift’s opponents, who use the same blandly reassured language and argumentative style as the narrator of his essay, with the cannibalism implicitly hidden beneath their rhetoric. But it takes thick skin to be a satirist, to know that one will be misunderstood as a monster. There’s a reason Swift published anonymously.

Jeet Heer, in an updated version of his Globe & Mail story from last week, presents the history and complexity of French satire in a manner that those on both sides of the debate over Charlie Hebdo‘s alleged racism should be able to appreciate. The self-described “Frenchman and militant leftist” Olivier Tonneau full-throatedly defends the magazine in an open letter to British critics, explaining what he believes they misunderstand about CH. Tonneau claims that CH is not only not racist, but “the very newspaper that did the most to fight racism.” Ruben Bolling, the cartoonist behind Tom the Dancing Bug, also claims that the CH cartoons have been misunderstood. Chad Parkhill explains some of the specific images in question. Here is a small collection of some of Cabu’s explicitly anti-racist, anti-colonialist cartoons from Charlie.

Regardless of whether or not one is convinced by these defenses, one shouldn’t lose sight of the wider political implications and background of the attack. Cartoons aren’t going anywhere, but this is a dangerous moment for Europe. This is not the site to go to for political analysis, but it is impossible to avoid altogether. The following views I am linking to are incompatible with each other in some ways, but not in all. There are many other essays, some of them undoubtedly better, but this is a start. Juan Cole had one of the most cogent early responses, and is still worth reading if you missed it. At The New Yorker, the novelist Teju Cole notes that while the outpouring of grief for those killed in Paris is noble and encouraging, many other people around the world die every day, just as shockingly, and go unmourned. Kenan Malik writes about the implications for free speech. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Javaria Akbar and Aurelien Mondon explain why it would be a mistake to conflate the attackers with Muslims at large, and why it is foolish and wrong to hold the Muslim community as a whole responsible. (And for those of you who do Slavoj Žižek, here’s Žižek.)

To go back to comics for a moment, some are upset that people they considered allies or friends are unwilling to fully stand behind the murdered cartoonists and their work. This should be kept in perspective. Satirists are always unpopular. The murdered cartoonists and staff knew that many believed their views to be racist, and if they were here to weigh in, I imagine that while they would undoubtedly be upset about their bodies being torn apart by bullets, they probably wouldn’t care too much about a little negative verbal feedback. Politicians from across the spectrum, including many who were among the magazine’s most frequent targets, are now attempting to use public outrage over last week’s attack for their own purposes, which is far more important than the immediate reputation of a few cartoonists on Twitter.

This is one reason it was so refreshing to hear the response of Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Willem over the weekend: “We have a lot of new friends, like the pope, Queen Elizabeth, and Putin. It really makes me laugh. Marine Le Pen is delighted when the Islamists start shooting all over the place. […] We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends,” Willem said. “They’ve never seen Charlie Hebdo.”

For those who believe in the power of cartooning, it will be interesting to see the response to the contents of Charlie Hebdo‘s next issue.

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And on the site today, we have a new piece by our frequent legal correspondent Jeffrey Trexler, who is taking a short break from his work on an upcoming piece on the Kirby/Marvel case to discuss an American precedent to Charlie Hebdo.

Free speech is a topic that isn’t exactly new to the comics world. The subject is perhaps most familiar from discussions of obscenity and the 1950s comics scare, with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund being the best known institutional expression of the ideal. However, if we go back further in our history, we can find an equally robust debate over comics as a satirical form. The early years of the medium in the U.S. brought forth a number of cases in which people argued that cartoons went too far, and their creators or publishers did not always win.

The fundamental parameters of the debate were established in the very first reported court opinion to use the word “cartoon,” the Supreme Court of Louisiana’s ruling in State ex re. Liversey et al. v. Judge of Civil District Court, 34 La.Ann. 741 (1882). The newspaper that gave rise to this landmark case a New Orleans satirical broadsheet called The Mascot.

A local writer and photographer named Sally Asher has recently provided some fascinating historical background about The Mascot, which as it turns out has other tangential connections to l’affaire Charlie Hebdo. For one thing, like its French counterpart The Mascot was a recurring target for violence by those it offended, such that at one point a newspaper artist was attacked because a mob mistakenly suspected that he drew cartoons for The Mascot. In what is perhaps the most outrageous Charlie Hebdo analogue, a few years after the lawsuit in question two local officials went to the paper’s office and attempted to murder both its publisher and its engraver. In the ensuing scuffle, one of the officials was himself shot to death in self-defense. The intended Mascot victims were acquitted in their murder trial, but so too was the surviving state official ostensibly compelled to kill by their offensive publication.