Using cartooning to provoke and punish people makes cartooning an instrument of cruelty. It’s easy to say that nothing can devalue or tarnish a form of art or a medium, but it’s harder to sit down your human emotions and sense of connection and tell it that a scene isn’t souring and widely dangerous.
Headlines still say comics “aren’t just for kids,” here and there, from time to time. When else does the cartoonist’s art reach newspapers and web headlines? With death and terror, when it’s being bound up tightly with racist, anti-Islamic dialogues. Charlie Hebdo and cartooning and domestic terror; Garland, Arizona’s puerile and disgusting biker rally to draw the Prophet Mohammed—in spiteful “contradiction” of the Islamic tradition of not depicting him, and common (even, “reasonable”) preference that people outside of the faith respectfully follow suit—and deliver their doubtlessly enriching artistic output to an Islamic Community Centre. The latter, quite clearly, simply racist and exclusionary intimidation. The event’s organiser sells t-shirts that say, FUCK ISLAM. He runs on hate. His event is designed, definitively, to use cartooning to humiliate, destroy, and devalue. I don’t value his name, so I won’t use it.
After Charlie Hebdo’s offices were the scene of several murders early this year, Islamophobia was never far away from discussion of the tragedy. Hebdo’s text articles often advocated for tolerance and the affording of rights to Muslims and Middle Eastern and African migrants; the intention of many of their cartoons—go for it, argue “all” if you want to—has been the same. “Stop being such a dope and accept that people can do what they want,” is the editorial gist that I get from defenders’ description of their work. And from their cartoons, too; I didn’t keep up my 2003 B in French but I do know how to use Google translate, and I can read an image just fine. Hebdo cartoons come from a place of contempt: contempt for the stupid, contempt for the staid, contempt for the regressive or politically unhip. They make the subjects of their images ugly and repulsive, because they think that the ideas the cartoon is about are repulsive. They use the average person’s discomfort with vaginal birth, phallic imagery and cartoon cocks, people dribbling, fat bodies, explicitly careless anal penetration.
Think all of those school peers pelting Carrie with tampons. They hate the idea that Carrie knows so little about life and about her own self, they’re horrified by her bumpkinosity and her fucking naffness. She’s so backwards that she’s a black hole of reason, her classmates feel her ignorance dragging them into its orbit and making them like her. It’s a death of the ego, and they can’t bear it, so they punish her with cruelty and rejection. They make her the subject of their disgust, when it should be the fear her mother lives with, the appalling disembodied unhappiness that lurks in that household, and where it came from, that they confront. Those girls in Carrie are lazy, and they’ve got their own lives to live. They have no time to slow down, no obligation to drown themselves in compassion, making sure that Carrie gets out alive. Charlie Hebdo wants a better France, perhaps for Muslims and for black immigrants and women as well as themselves, but that doesn’t mean it can’t cut a person to ribbons when they see the curled lip that’s impossible to miss in their every image. Like Water For Chocolate suggests the emotion of a cook will flow into the eater of the meal; we know that animators look into mirrors when they create key frames, and it’s unreasonable to imagine that the mood in the creation never arrives in the knowledge of the onlooker to the final product. That’s the whole point of cartooning, almost. “Understand me.” “Hear my message.”
Maybe some people understand your work too well. Maybe they understand the world better than you?
Art Spiegelman is a very famous person, in comics. His takeaway from the murders at Charlie Hebdo, and the suddenly international conversation around Charlie Hebdo editorial cartoons, was that it was important for cartoonists and cartooning to upset people and to have “fangs.” Cartoonist lives matter, he said, co-opting a Black revolutionary slogan, and as if anybody other than literal murderers disagreed. Now he has taken to drawing racialised and religious caricature on purpose, knowing everything that the rest of us do, for no apparent reason beyond “oh yeah? Well watch this.” Because if he doesn’t… what wins, exactly? Art S is not the avatar of Art.
Did you pay attention to how much state and civilian violence there was against Muslims in France in the weeks after the Hebdo HQ attack? Did you pay attention to how many people in cartoonist circles were willing to defend the drawing of Muslims in disrespectful ways, of racial caricature, of conflation of religion with race?
Search “Draw Muhammed” or “Draw Mohammed” on twitter and you get reams of gleeful knife-sticking. People taking victory in their ability to do something that they know would cause pain to vague Others.
— cyprien (@MonsieurDream) January 7, 2015
#JeSuisCharlie centred the idea of cartooning as having been wounded by the deaths of the Hebdo employees. It did not centre upon the potential of cartooning to hurt, or wound, or weigh—even in images like this one. Look, if the killing was a direct response to the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo, then here are the options: the images contributed harm, or the killers killed for a reason entirely unrelated to imagery. Are you suggesting that the people who took guns to an office and used them to shoot bullets into and through their fellow humans were simply uppity because the world, down to the last individual, did not actively cater to their comfort and respect? No? Then focus needs to fall on the wrong that cartoons can do. For example, it’s racist to use anti-Arab severance imagery to discuss a crime that involved gunfire.
If we are to talk about comics and cartoons then we must talk about the whole of them. We must acknowledge the power that they have. We must believe that they can affect people. We must give them the respect that we otherwise demand for them. We must protect the people whom they are for (who are comics for? Did you say everybody?).
Cartooning can be a racist act. Cartooning can be the production of terror, and a human deadening. Some cartoons are far better left unillustrated.
Or to make my gist a little sexier:
Cartooning isn’t Islamophobic…
It’s just drawn that way.