Cartooning Is No Job for Cowards

The terrorist murders in Paris this week are only the latest instance in which satirical imagery has inspired violent retaliation. Cartoonists are no strangers to jail and death.

01.10.15 11:50 AM ET

The murder of five cartoonists, five magazine staffers, and two police officers in and just outside the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on the morning of January 7 dismays in part because of its signature event status. Paris now joins London, Mumbai, and Madrid as major world cities that have suffered terrorist attacks in the post 9/11-era.

France—and by association modern Western culture—will surely be scrutinized for its forced arrival at the center of a growing clash between traditional free speech and the idea of satire as an oppressive cultural tool.

Cartoonists in every corner of the world have found themselves and their art at the heart of political controversy for hundreds of years. The presence of Philippe Honoré among the dead at Hebdo recalles Honoré Daumier, the great caricaturist who in 1832 spent six months in prison for his depiction of Emperor Louis-Philippe in a weekly journal. Daumier used the time in prison to learn to paint, and when the magazine that published his cartoons folded he moved to a publication called Le Charivari and devoted a significant portion of his artistic life to social satire.

The Daumier model of a controversial cartoonist, criticized but then ultimately lauded or even celebrated for his insight into societal mores, buoyed strident cartoon makers during the first half of the 20th Century.

Bill Mauldin, an American hero for his GI-level (and Pulitzer-prize winning) view of World War II, clashed with brass, including Gen. George Patton, over his Willie and Joe cartoons, which the general thought were disrespectful of the model U.S. soldier. Mauldin’s enormous popularity and stubbornness won the day, but he subsequently incited controversy stateside when his much anticipated postwar cartoons focused on the anguish and material concerns felt by returning U.S. soldiers rather than on patriotic homilies. Losing the strip, he later reinvented himself as a combative newspaper editorial cartoonist.

Two groups of U.S. cartoonists caused signficant controversy in the postwar era and suffered career setbacks as a result. The bullpen of EC Comics gave the ’50s some of the best-looking and culturally enduring horror and crime stories in any medium. They also spawned dozens of less talented, more lurid copycats. Congressional inquiry drove a self-policing movement in comics that shoved titles like “Tales From The Crypt” off the stands but legitimized the previously published works as collectibles and a rallying point for off-color expression. EC Comics rallied behind its remaining title, Mad magazine, and addressed controversial issues more directly, with great sales success.

While Mad’s circulation surged, the Air Pirates, a group of underground comix artists led by former newspaper strip wunderkind Dan O’Neill, released their own version of Mickey Mouse comics. Disney objected all the way to court, effectively driving the material off of the stands but right into the annals of folk legend: the Dirty Disney comics whispered about through the ’70s and into the ‘80s. Meanwhile, Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herblock was making the Nixon enemies list, and Garry Trudeau’s early days with publishing sensation Doonesbury saw the Yale graduate suspended from multiple newspapers, usually only until his enthusiastic fanbase complained.

Many of the most egregious cartoon controversies in the last 40 years have involved freelance artists or those unaffiliated with any one major media institution. As the American underground comix movement surged and faded along with ’60s counterculture in general, Starting in the ’60s, Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali forged a reputation in Middle Eastern newspapers as a critic of both Israel and Arabic regimes. His Handela, a silent child-like witness to notorious events, became a symbol of oppressed people throughout that region. Al-Ali was shot outside the London offices of a Kuwaiti newspaper in 1987, and died a few weeks later. Conspiracy theories concerning his assassination have covered the political spectrum, left to right, and involved multiple nations.

In 1994, the cartoonist Mike Diana became the first artist in the United States convicted of obscenity for comics he had created. Diana worked in the mutilation and horror tradition of the underground; the worlds he depicted were chaotic, unfair, unpleasant, and violent. Among the prescriptives in his sentencing was that he would have to submit to search and seizure concerning any additional drawings he might make. Still a working artist with many of the same thematic concerns, Diana has avoided comparable legal trouble since his conviction. 

In the Danish Cartoon Controversy of 2005 and 2006, Muslim outrage over the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad at Copenhagen’s Jyllands-Posten grew into an international firestorm of threats, boycotts, riots, arrests, and deaths—139 by the fifth anniversary of the original publication. One of the cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard, moved multiple times with government assistance and had an intruder in his home. Today’s announced decision by Jylland-Posten not to run the Charlie Hebdo images reflects its desire to avoid any Paris-style violence in its offices. There have been numerous plots to bring the violence there, some of which led to convictions of the individuals involved.

The Danish Cartoons opened the door of the Western press to cartoonists engaged with controversies in countries around the world. Some of it was based on religion. The Bangladeshi cartoonist Arifur Rahman spent more than six months in jail and went without working for years because of protests over his naming a cat “Muhammad” in one of his strips. Mana Neyestani and his editor were placed in solitary confinement at Iran’s notorious Evin Prison for a 2006 cartoon where a cockroach spoke Azerbaijani. He later escaped to France.

The spotlight has also been thrown on a specific class of international cartoonists, professionals who seem to routinely engage with government and personal suppression of their work. Much of this breaks down to the ability of the sitting politician to sue the cartoonist for insult to the office they hold. The Algerian Ali Dilem was sentenced to a year in jail in 2006 for a 2003 cartoon that satirized President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The German cartoonist Gerhard Haderer was convicted of blasphemy in Greece in 2005 for a series of albums satirizing, in part, the miracles of Jesus. Musa Kart has defeated multiple charges of this type in his native Turkey over the last decade, including a pending suit brought against him by President Recep Erdogan. Scant days after celebrating a 2014 win in a suit against Malaysian police authorities who had detained him and confiscated books of his editiorial cartoons in 2010, the cartoonist Zunar found himself at the beginning of another round of police investigation into his latest works. The cartoonist Wang Liming chose exile abroad in 2014 rather than fly back to China, where he would have faced the continued risk of harassment and jail.

Perhaps the most notorious incident facing a cartoonist before this week’s tragic events occurred in 2011 when Syrian Ali Ferzat was taken from his home and savagely beaten over his coverage of the still-nascent Syrian civil conflict. This included injuries specifically inflicted to his drawing hand. Ferzat has since relocated and in 2011 became the first cartoonist to win the Sakharov Prize. He remains a passionate advocate for issues facing his homeland.

One difference between the Charlie Hebdo killings and Farzat’s situation is that Farzat not only survived but was transformed from a regional favorite into an international advocate for free expression and against violence towards artists and journalists.

The murdered Parisian editorial cartoonists, in contrast, have been silenced forever. But while the specific legacy of Hebdo in the cartooning world and in terms of free expression is still undecided, there is no question that there will be a legacy. If history teaches anything, it is that this side of the grave editorial cartoonists will not be silenced.

Tom Spurgeon has written about comic strips, comic books, and editorial cartoons for various publications since 1982, including The Comics Journal, The Stranger, and the late satirical web ‘zine As an editor, he helped assemble volumes in The Collected Pogo series and books such as Bob Levin’s The Pirates and the Mouse. As a writer, he is the co-author of The Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book and wrote for the King Features Syndicate strip Wildwood from 1999 to 2002. He runs the website The Comics Reporter.