Special to The Los Angeles Times: Political Cartooning is Almost Worth Dying For




Originally published by The Los Angeles Times:

An event like yesterday’s slaughter of at least 10 staff members, including four political cartoonists, and two policemen, at the office of Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris, elicits so many responses that it’s hard to sort them out.

If you have a personal connection, that comes first.

I do.

I met a group of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, including one of the victims, a few years ago at the annual cartoon Festival in Angoulême, France, the biggest gathering of cartoonists and their fans in the world. They had sought me out, partly as fans of my work – for whatever reason, my stuff seems to travel well overseas – and because I was an American cartoonist who speaks French. We did what cartoonists do: we got drunk, complained about our editors, exchanged trade secrets including pay rates.

If I lived in France, that’s where I’d want to work.

My French counterparts struck me as more self-confident and cockier than the average cartoonist. Unlike at the older, venerable Le Canard Enchainée, cartoons are the centerpiece of Charlie Hebdo, not prose. The paper has suffered financial troubles over the years, yet somehow the French continued to keep it afloat because they love comics.

Here’s how much France values graphic satire:

  • More full-time staff political cartoonists were killed in Paris yesterday than are employed at newspapers in the states of California, Texas and New York combined.
  • More full-time staff cartoonists were killed in Paris yesterday than work at all American magazines and websites combined.

            The Charlie Hebdo artists knew they were working at a place that not only allows them to push the envelope, but encourages it. Hell, they didn’t even tone things down after their office got bombed.

They weren’t paid much, but they were having fun. The last time that I met print journalists as punk rock as those guys, they were at the old Spy magazine.

They would definitely want that attitude to outlive them.

Next comes the “there but for the grace of God” reaction.

Every political cartoonist receives threats. After 9/11 especially, people promised to blow me up with a bomb, slit the throats of every member of my family, rape me, and deprive me of a livelihood by organizing sketchy boycott campaigns. (That last one almost worked.)

The most chilling came from a New York police officer, a sergeant, who was so careless and/or unconcerned about getting in trouble that his caller ID popped up.

Who was I going to call to complain? The cops?

As far as I know, no editorial cartoonist has been murdered in response to the content of his or her work in the United States, but there’s a first time for everything. Political cartoonists have been killed and brutally beaten in other countries. Here in the United States, the murder of an outspoken radio talkshow host reminds us that political murder isn’t something that only takes place somewhere else.

Every political cartoonist takes a risk to exercise freedom expression.

We know that our work, strident and opinionated, makes a lot of people very angry, and that we live in a country where a lot of people have a lot of guns. Whether you work in a newspaper office guarded by a minimum wage security guard or, as is increasingly the norm, in your own home, you are always one pull of a trigger away from death when you hit “send” to fire off your cartoon to your syndicate, blog or publication.

Which brings me to my big-picture reaction to yesterday’s horror:

Cartoons are incredibly powerful.

Not to denigrate writing (especially since I do a lot of it myself), but cartoons elicit far more response from readers, both positive and negative, than prose. Websites that run cartoons, especially political cartoons, are consistently amazed at how much more traffic they generate than words. I have twice been fired by newspapers because my cartoons were too widely read — editors worried that they were overshadowing their other content.

Scholars and analysts of the form have tried to articulate exactly what it is about comics that make them so effective at drawing an emotional response, but I think it’s the fact that such a deceptively simple art form can pack such a wallop. Particularly in the political cartoon format, nothing more than workaday artistic chops and a few snide sentences can be enough to cause a reader to question his long-held political beliefs, national loyalties, even his faith in God.

That drives some people nuts.

Think of the rage behind the gunmen who invaded Charlie Hebdo’s office yesterday, and that of the men who ordered them to do so. It’s too early to say for sure, but it’s a fair guess that they were radical Islamists. I’d like to ask them: how weak is your faith, how lame a Muslim must you be, to allow yourself to be reduced to the murder of innocents, over ink on paper colorized in Photoshop? In a sense, they were victims of cartoon derangement syndrome, the same affliction that led to the burning of embassies over the Danish Mohammed cartoons, the repeated outrage over The New Yorker’s insipid yet controversial covers, and that NYPD sergeant in Brooklyn who called me after he read my cartoon criticizing the invasion of Iraq.

Political cartooning in the United States gets no respect. I was thinking about that this morning when I heard NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley call Charlie Hebdo “gross” and “in poor taste.” (I should certainly hope so! If it’s in good taste, it ain’t funny.) It was a hell of a thing to say, not to mention not true, while the bodies of dead journalists were still warm. But these were cartoonists, and therefore unworthy of the same level of decorum that a similar event at, say, The Onion – which mainly runs words – would merit.

But no matter. Political cartooning may not pay well, or often at all, and media elites can ignore it all they want. (Hey book critics: graphic novels exist!) But it matters.

Almost enough to die for.


  • alex_the_tired
    January 7, 2015 12:57 PM

    Do you think Charlie Hebdo will return from this?

    I hope they do. I hope they draw a cartoon with James Risen watching Barack Obama on television railing against those who try to silence a free press.

  • *I’d like to ask them: how weak is your faith, how lame a Muslim must you be, to allow yourself to be reduced to the murder of innocents, over ink on paper colorized in Photoshop?*
    I’ve often wondered about Christians – and asked them outright – “Is your God (or Christ) so defenseless that He needs your involvement to protect Him?”


  • {quote]Every political cartoonist takes a risk to exercise freedom expression.[/quote]
    But so few do, particularly in the States!

  • Just ’cause they say Moooselums did this, don’t necessarily mean its so. At least as likely, the the CIA or Mossad did it. After all, Zionland is ALL OVER France’s ass for supporting the Palestinian cause, and the motherfuckers that did this were PROFESSIONALS, not martyrs.

    Meantime, just cause somebody claims the perps left some ID behind (shades of 9-11?) don’t mean the perps ID was left behind. Patsies? We’ve been here before too.

    Can you spell F-A-L-S-E — F-L-A-G?



  • The West has been torturing and killing Muslims by the thousands annually over the decades. I know it’s easy to forget the tragedy brought on these people, but taunting people who are already being slaughtered should never be considered a completely safe amusement. Unless you have them tied up with a gun to their heads.

    Patriotic joke here:
    Prisoner is getting a rectal feeding. Patriot asks if he would like some coffee. Prisoner nods yes. Funnel up the ass, the coffee is poured in and the prisoner screams. Patriot asks if the coffee is too hot. Prisoner says NO, TOO SWEET! TOO SWEET!

    Free speech is a scream.

    • alex_the_tired
      January 8, 2015 7:44 AM

      The issue isn’t about safety. It’s about whether you prefer actually living a life or constantly going to the Priest or the Rabbi or the Police or the Imam and, eyes averted (of course), tremblingly asking for permission to do something.

      I’ve been an atheist for a long time. This “reverence” for Mohammed is just as tiresome to me as the “reverence” for Jesus and Joseph Smith and Sai Baba and Charlie Manson. It’s all the same damned thing: “Oh, this person says he’s got godlike powers or is speaking for god. Let’s do everything he asks and kill anyone who thinks it’s silly.”

      And the counterargument is always the same tiresome one: “You just don’t understand.”

      “Then explain it.”
      “Oh, I can’t. That’s why it’s faith.”
      “So it’s like the Tooth Fairy?”
      “Oh, you’re mocking me!”
      “No, I’m pointing out that you’re out of your mind.”

      What, EXACTLY, renders Mohammed beyond the limit for mockery? What, PRECISELY, is the reason that even people who don’t believe in Islam must never doodle or take a swipe at him? I really would like to know because the whole thing is like listening to people arguing about how vanilla is better than chocolate or rocky road is the only true dairy dessert.

      • Free speech is freedom from prosecution by the dominant gang, AKA the state. It’s not freedom from consequences by non-state actors. Just go up to the baddest non-white person in his neighborhood and berate him on the basis of his race to get the full impact of my meaning.

        Safety is no issue for you. That’s fine by me. I won’t worry about your safety either. However, I don’t think you are sincere. Most Americans routinely censor themselves in their economic interests.
        And if they are not censoring themselves they have already internalized and accepted the imposed ideological straightjacket as their own, so it has become invisible to them.

        So I respect your right to say what you want and am indifferent to the consequences you want to bear.

        The Nazis made cartoons about Jews that parallel the West’s demonization and caricature of Muslims. Charlie Hebdo, to my knowledge, hasn’t been taunting the Jews for their state sanctioned murder of civilians in Palestine.

        Western religions separate religion from politics since the time of Luther, says Karen Armstrong. I agree with her. Western bias appoints itself as the highest form of civilization; it is by its own measure exceptional.

        I am atheist to this apotheosis of the imperial state.

      • P.S. How did you like my Patriot joke?

      • @ alex_the_tired –
        *This “reverence” for Mohammed is just as tiresome to me as the “reverence” for Jesus and Joseph Smith and Sai Baba and Charlie Manson.*
        I’m disappointed that you left out David Koresh.

      • alex_the_tired
        January 8, 2015 4:38 PM


        Free speech isn’t just protection from the dominant gang. Its most important function is that it sets up the expectation that when someone — anyone — doesn’t like a topic under discussion that the one person doesn’t get to order the entire group to change the topic.

        Your point about going up to someone and telling him I don’t like his racial group is tangentially related to the point here. Charlie Hebdo mocks everyone pretty much. If they were just ragging on Muslims or picking on Catholics, we could have a discussion about going up to some guy and telling him about his race.

        But that’s not what’s going on. It’s one group’s shrill hysterical sliver of a percent deciding to use terror to enforce silence.

        As to safety. Safety is always evaluated as a function of the risk involved. I could die crossing the street. Does it stop me from going to the store? No. Why? Because the odds of dying on any particular trip across the street are very low, and I can minimize them even further.

        But what if the Muslims, or the Jews, or the Shintos, or the left-handed Norwegians tell me, “HEY! YOU! Yeah, the good looking one. If you cross the street, we’re really gonna be pissed. You stay on your block.”

        I will come up with reasons to go to the store five times a day. Why? Not because I’m spoiling for a fight, not because I am looking for a beating, but because I will not live a life in which people arbitrarily tell me what to do, how to think, what I may or may not laugh at, etc.

        I have a strong dislike of pain. I have an even stronger dislike of living out the rest of my life on Planet High School.

        In the case of Charlie Hebdo, their hands are pretty much tied. Why? Pretend it was “Seinfeld.” After you get the forbiddings about loaves of rye, about masturbation contests, and about wooden legs, how do you create anything for a script?

      • But what about that one religion that NOBODY seems to too openly criticize, you know, the “grandaddy” of them all, Judaism (and I am focusing on non-Jews who do the dirty deed)?

        Oh, but wait … if you criticize a Jew for his own religiously fanatic idiocy, you could be an ANTI-SEMITE! CH did get that memo, but not completely. You see, criticizing Zionism is also treated by the Zionist state as an unforgivable religious attack.

        It’s an old lesson, anti-Semitism is criticism of ANYTHING a (powerful) Jew does, even (or especially) the crimes. Just look at Dershowitz’s own alleged practices as a pedophile, immediately, it’s “anti-Semitic” for any victim of his to allege their victimhood. All scarlet letterhood.

        While CH’s cartoons seem to have run the religious gamut, tell me, where are all CH’s “anti-Semitic” cartoons anyway?.


  • Modern wars kill 90% civilians and 10% soldiers.

    Normal war has become terrorism.

    I am outraged every day at the number of civilians targeted for killing. I am usually a somewhat isolated exception to the indifference to these murders of civilians and wonder why most people are so indifferent to the state war crime of killing civilians.

    I am not an exception in my outrage on this exceptional day. Today I have company.

    However, I expect most people to go back once again to their normal state of indifference once these “exceptionally worthy” victims are superseded by the more usual “unworthy” victims.

    You know, the normalcy of war.

  • The following link shows a sampling presumed, most infamous Hebdo cartoons and a bit of history/context (and translation) in the text between them: http://tinyurl.com/p84q7wx

    I fully ascribe to the notion that the massacre was conceived, ordered and paid for by an “interested” third party.

    • That link is viciously skewed, not letting anybody really view it. But if you stop the download just a tad early, it is almost entirely readable.


  • After WWII, in addition to hanging the surviving Nazi leadership, the Americans also hanged the leading Nazi cartoonist (with a short drop, so his death was longer and more excruciating than that of the senior members of the Nazi government).

    It’s not just Muslims who think cartoonists who satirise them must be killed.

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