Charlie Hebdo and Killed Cartoons
by Travis Hedge Coke
“The tendency to condemn Charlie Hebdo outright for some of their shortcomings not only does a disservice to the memory of those who died for their ideals but also, perhaps more importantly, casts aside vital allies in what is sure to be a long struggle ahead.”
– Jacob Hamburger, Los Angeles Review of Books
“Doubtless I would not have had the patience or the stoutness of heart to follow, week after week, the distressing transformation which took over your team after the events of September 11, 2001. I was no longer part of Charlie Hebdo when the suicide planes made their impact on your editorial line, but the Islamophobic neurosis which bit by bit took over your pages from that day on affected me personally, as it ruined the memory of the good moments I spent on the magazine during the 1990s.”
– open letter to the editors from former Charlie Hebdo staff member, Olivier Cyran
“To the pseudo-left defenders of Charlie Hebdo we say: Replace the traditional Muslim clothes of the figures in the Charlie Hebdo cartoons with traditional Jewish clothes and you will find only very little difference between them and the cartoons of Julius Streicher’s Nazi journal Der Stürmer!”
– Michael Pröbsting of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency
When the offices of Charlie Hebdo were assaulted in 2015, leaving twelve murdered and eleven injured, part of a wave of terrorism in France that lasted several days, comics people around the world felt united. Some of our own had been attacked, had been killed, for making comics, for drawing or writing or publishing cartoons. Very quickly, “Je suis Charlie,” swept the Earth.
Nothing in a comic can justify murderer, or shooting someone. On that, I hope, we were all in agreement, but was I, Charlie?
Charlie Hebdo was, and remains, a frequently racist, xenophobic, sexist publication. Called “subversive” and “satirical,” it may at times be, but mostly those words seem to be obfuscations when the bigoted nature is brought to too much light. Charlie Hebdo describes itself as “irresponsible” and “stupid and nasty.” This is, of course, in jest, but is it untrue?
It is David Wallis’ Killed Cartoons that helps me make the most sense of my Charlie Hebdo feelings. A collection of short comics that were rejected by various publications, including The Detroit Free Press, Miami Herald, Time, and the Montreal Gazette, contextualized by prose and thematic organizing by Wallis.
David Wallis, Washington Post and New York Times journalist, uses these rejected comics to explore unconsidered bigotries, hate mongering, caricature, failure to read the room, and everything from Esquire chickening out on an oral sex joke to the Nazis deliberately weaponizing the cartoon in Der Stürmer, the antisemitic newspaper which ran for twenty-two years.
Among the comics turned down is Bob Englehart’s Schindler’s Other List, a drawing of a simple grocery list reading: eggs, milk, coffee, bread. Another, by Herbert Block, is a 1952 illustration of Dwight Eisenhower smilingly pretending to chastise child-sized Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy for having defaced a poster of Eisenhower’s presidential opponent, Adlai Stevenson.
Norman Rockwell’s 1968 Blood Brothers, was killed when, as Rockwell put it, “Look lost its nerve.” What they told him was that the painting was, “patronizing.” Showing two men, one white, one Black, lying dead, their blood commingled on the street, the piece was modeled on a Manet painting and a serious piece for Rockwell, who long felt restrained by the editors and editorial visions of the magazines he worked for.
What makes the exaggerated nose of a banker an ethnic slur and the exaggerated small ear and huge ear on a photo collage George W. Bush not racial at all? It is not hard to figure out. But, if someone wants to play devil’s advocate they will. As my grandfather used to say, “When someone tells you, ‘You can’t tell me,’ you can’t.”
And, that may have been what the comics people who claimed they were Charlie meant. Not that they were identifying 1:1 with a racist, sexist magazine, but that as comics people, as cartoonists and writers and letterers, editors and pencilers and mixed media geniuses, even as fans and critics and journalists, we are in this because comics doesn’t tell you, “You can’t.” There is a reason parody is a bigger chunk of comics than other media, and piece for piece, it is, might be because in comics you can. Even under regulations, American comics had unmarried couples in the same home before television would. Three of the biggest Batman writers have been queer and infused their comics with queer sensibility and queer content. How much movie and TV Batman has swung that?
They can refuse to publish you, but they can’t stop you drawing. They can’t stop you plotting.
We do not all necessarily agree with Mike Diana, either, but everyone in comics bridled at his trial and sentence. American Mike Diana was held in (United States) jail for four days with no bail because he drew some comics. He was sentenced to three years probation, three thousand dollars in fines, over one thousand hours of community service, mandated to take journalism ethics courses and visit a licensed therapist, prevented from contact with children, for drawing some comics.
They told him he couldn’t make the comics he wanted to make, but comics didn’t. Comics, like sin, is in the mind before it is anywhere else, and there it will live. Or, so are the excuses we tell ourselves.
And, there we have our energy. Our unified sense. But, what of clear and present danger? What of the violence and oppression that even “satire” can foster and reiterate?
Poe’s Law, developed via a cartoonist, was never only about internet free speech, it is about all speech and especially the weakness of satire, especially “edgy” satire. The drive to be obnoxious, like the drive to be a mocking mimic, can overrun one’s good intentions easily.
Did Diana have good goals? Did Charlie Hebdo? Did some artist at Der Sturmer or The New Yorker? Possibly. Have three out of four, at minimum, likely contributed to reifying societal violence? Irrefutably. Murder, prison, in some of these cases, are steps too far, but the lesson of the story about killing the messenger, is not that we should not, but that the trumpeter calling others to battle is also a combatant.
The cartoon and the cartoonist cannot be judged or condemned as one. Ultimately, intent, execution, and effect are separate and should be appraised separately. We can condemn a comic utterly, while not utterly condemning the maker, but we must sometimes also criticize both for different reasons. It is a much smaller crime, and smaller action for us to kill a comic than to kill an artist, a writer, an editor. To conflate those is as dangerous to us as it is to the creatives and staff who make and release comics.
The bugler of hate is still a voice and hand of hate. The call of rage is rage, but the call of rage can also be played by a trumpeter who is simply playing the notes in the order they are written to evoke. An angry-seeming cartoon does not need to come from an actually angry person. Light, caring comics do not have to come from a genuinely caring human being. A Charlie cartoonist, a Nazi, and Mike Diana are not by necessity the same as one another. We are not the same. We are not, collectively, any one of them, nor should we seek to limit ourselves championing any of them as the height of our achievement or being. We must approach with a sense of scale, a sense of fairness, but not a sense of apologism or worship.
Charlie Hebdo and Killed Cartoons
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