On Charlie Hebdo (A Mash-Up of Two Unpublished, Unedited Op Eds)

What follows is my own mash-up of two Op-Ed drafts I wrote on Wednesday January 7th 2015 by simultaneous request of one major American newspaper and one up-and-coming UK online journalism platform. In the end the pieces were not published on the publications that solicited them. I have to confess I was somewhat relieved, as the topic is so complex and sensitive and the pressure to come up with urgent yet responsible commentary so high.

However, since I spent some time working on this under considerable pressure, as an editor and as long-time reader of cartoon art I thought it was important to not let these words rot away in my drive. I have to thank Peter Wilkins once again for his hospitality, patience and help proofing my writing. Had I written these words today I would have perhaps said things differently; the text is the expression of the conditions and time of its production. After I wrote this I have read truly excellent commentaries. (Please do not miss Teju Cole’s, with whom I agree wholeheartedly). This version should include more hyperlinks, but I lack the time right now and the reader should be able to find the paths to mentioned sources.

Verba volant; scripta manent. At the same time all writing is context-dependent, nothing except death is truly fixed, and meaning is fluid. It is not without serious apprehension that I share these words with you.


Vancouver, British Columbia. January 7th 2015.

The history of cartooning is the history of controversy. As a form of graphic satire, caricatures or cartoons, like comic strips, are deeply embedded in a long tradition of revolutionary literature, pushing the limits of social acceptability and political correctness. The tragic attack to the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris has put back editorial cartooning in the international mainstream, and has provoked global actions of condemnation of the killers and support for the cartoonists.

In France, comics and cartooning are considered artistic and literary practices that many see as essentially “French”, themselves a consequence and expression of liberal values. Historians Roger Chartier and Robert Darnton have taught us that Voltaire was a master of the defamatory libelle and anti-religious satire. French 19th century satirical prints had reverberations around the world, eventually making such images an essential ingredient for the birth of newspaper journalism.

The power of cartooning lies in its ability to emphasize a person’s or a thing’s recognizable features through exaggeration, therefore recurring to stereotypical representation. Cartooning is about simplification and directness, and the reactions this provokes are two-fold. It also depends on context, which is often assumed to be shared amongst authors, publications and readers. In the 20th century, Harvey Kurtzman’s seminal work for MAD magazine and William Gaines’s EC Comics of the 1950s, now recognized as some of the most important developments in the history of American popular culture, caused widespread moral scandal and institutional censorship at the time of their publication. Cartoons and comics have therefore been at the center of cultural anxieties about freedom of speech and political correctness for decades if not centuries.

When Doug Marlette (1949–2007, winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning) addressed the first East-West Journalism Conference in Prague in July 1990, he talked about “the incendiary role” of the cartoonist. “The best political cartoons,” Mr Marlette told the conference delegates, “are always created in the spirit of the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution… If the editorial cartoons are doing their job, efforts will be made to suppress them.”

Twelve years later, in the context of the Iraq war in 2002, Mr Marlette published a cartoon titled “What Would Mohammed Drive?” depicting a character dressed in Arab clothes driving a Ryder Moving Services truck loaded with a nuclear bomb. Mr Marlette was denounced by the secretary general of the Muslim World League on the front page of the Saudi Arab News, and, as he put it in an article, his “newspaper, syndicate and home computer were flamed with tens of thousands of e-mails, viruses and death threats.”

The reaction to Mr Marlette’s cartoon seems now mild in comparison to the condemnation that followed the September 2005 publication of twelve cartoons of Mohammad on the Jyllands Posten. A couple of weeks later, there were protests outside the Danish newspaper in Copenhagen and two of the newspaper’s cartoonists received death threats. The cartoons were published on other newspapers around the world, spawning even more controversy. Charlie Hebdo republished the Jyllands Posten cartoons in February 2006, in act of further defiance of what at the time was unavoidable widespread condemnation.

Unlike the Jyllands Posten, Charlie Hebdo is a satirical publication fully devoted to sociopolitical critique. The French publication inherited the rebellious spirit gestated in the aftermath of May 1968. The periodical has been surrounded by controversy, particularly in relation to cartoons of Mohammad, at least since 2006, and though the horrific gravity of the 7 January attack is unparalleled, this was not the first time the building of the 20th arrondissement had been the target of reprisals. The death of the cartoonists Jean Cabut, Georges Wolinski, Philippe Honoré, Bernard Verlhac and editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier is a massive blow to the practice of French editorial cartooning and comic journalism; their CVs including some of the most important post-war comics publications (Pilote, Hara-Kiri, Fluide Glacial).

Readers develop close relationships with the cartoonists they read every week. To those who read the magazine periodically and to most lovers of comic and cartoon art their deaths feel like a personal loss. The type of graphic journalism they practiced was appreciated around the world and had echoes in the work of international cartoonists that shared their irreverence and admired their ability for graphic synthesis. Georges Wolinski was a personal favorite of mine. Born in 1934 in Tunisia, his family moved to France in 1946. His series of comic strips on the satirical monthly Hara-Kiri, like ‘Histoires Inventées‘ (‘Invented Stories’) and Hit Parade (started in 1967) defined a fearless style that did not shy away from politics, religion and sex and that would be adopted by a whole new generation of cartoonists in the following decades.

Most coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attack has referred to the work of Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, whose rapid and evidently ‘cartoony’ style could be fearlessly aggressive and direct. Under his mandate as editorial director, Charlie Hebdo became an icon of political satire. The essence of Charlie Hebdo was to be controversial, and to say, with words and images, what could not be said anywhere else.

The work of the murdered cartoonists was distinctive and touched on current affairs in a artistic, yet direct, accessible and poingnat manner. They dealt with very difficult and sensitive subjects: politics, religion, sex, pornography, gender. Their work relied on the possibility of public critique and dissent and the freedom to express unpopular opinions. Freedom of speech is a minefield, and opinions on how Charlie Hebdo’s dealt with subjects like Islam do of course differ, often ferociously. Defending the right of Charlie Hebdo to be intentionally offensive does not mean one embraces or endorses everything (or even anything) they published. Defending the right of cartoonists to be offensive and provocative means defending the right of other cartoonists and publications to do things differently.

One of the most painful contradictions I encounter when assessing the work of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists is that their finest was also their most provocative and most crass. A cartoon’s effectiveness is often measured by its ability to provoke immediate strong emotion, and this unavoidably will include emotions like visceral disgust and deep offense. Take for example the cover of the November 9th 2011, issue number 1012. The cover by cartoonist Luz depicts a generic bespectacled white male character with a pencil behind his ear wearing a Charlie Hebdo t-shirt kissing a generic Muslim man; in the background we see the smoldering ashes that readers would have identified as belonging to the Charlie Hebdo office after their attack. The kiss is not just a simple kiss, it is a passionate kiss on the mouth, a homosexual kiss, white saliva dripping from both characters’ chins. The caption on top of the illustration reads “L’amour plus fort que l’haine” (“love is stronger than hate”). The commentary is multi-fold here and decidedly contextual; it relies on the juxtaposition of written caption and visual image and its distribution amongst a specific readership. The cartoon’s potential to deeply offend particular groups (not only Muslims) is calculated. And because cartooning often requires the rhetorical mechanics of irony and contradiction, the cartoon offends with what seems to be a message of love, not hate.

The attack on the magazine tragically emphasized the power of cartooning and comics to quickly communicate messages widely and to provoke public reactions in starkly opposed directions. ProCartoonists, the UK’s Cartoonists Professional Association quickly reacted to the attack, sharing news from the incident on their blog and issuing their official point of view one day later. In the United States, both the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund have issued statements condemning the attack and cartoonists around the world have also united in mourning what is seen not only as an attack on freedom of expression but as an attack on cartooning itself.

Opinions about the political pertinence (not to say correctness) of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial line have dominated the public discussion. The debate must be able to accommodate nuances and avoid the all-too-common tendency to divide into two clear camps. Socio-political polarisation and expressions of Islamophobia and other types of xenophobia in France and around the world are clear tragic consequences of the attack. Opportunists from all political camps, with less than impeccable humanitarian records themselves, will take the opportunity to become new champions of freedom of expression. As always, there will be solidarity for the victims of Islamic terrorism, but we still have to see similar expressions of solidarity for the innocent victims of Western State-sponsored drone-led attacks.

But political commentary already abounds and will continue to proliferate in the following days. From the point of view of cartooning the question is whether such an art form can exist at all without relying to distortion, exaggeration and provocation, and therefore without doing what it has always done best: push the limits of acceptability. In doing so political or editorial cartooning has been by definition an on-going experiment in democracy since it tests a society’s ability to tolerate, or even simply ignore, dissenting, critical or offensive views. This has historically been at the heart of enlightened political values. This requires an interpretive maturity that the 21st century is tragically failing to achieve.