When I first heard the news about the massacre of cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, naturally I was shocked and appalled – but not so surprised. They ran some very cutting edge cartoons, more than any American political cartoonist has done or satirical publication has published. This is coming from someone who worked for MAD Magazine as well as some rabid political ‘zines and newspapers in New York.
When I was a child, I found a book my parents had on a high shelf in their den. It was “The Best Cartoons From France” and I was fascinated by the difference between those included in the book and the comics and newspaper strips I read daily. They were free, daring and most I didn’t understand. When my father saw me reading the book, he smiled and gently removed it from my hands and hid it somewhere. It wasn’t that they were adult, per se. I was able to see adult cartoons in his Playboys that I would sneak into my room when he was at work. They were brilliant and cutting edge. Perhaps it was the culture of the French. It was something America didn’t have, nor has it caught up with that freedom of creativity and self-expression.
Sure, MAD was hated by parents in the 1950s and was right into the 1970s, but, as with many shocking books, comics and other satire, eventually public acceptance grew beyond the editorial aims of many edgy publications. Even National Lampoon became a bore towards the end of their first decade and the early work of Robert Crumb and his underground comics peers is passé today – almost children’s books.
One might think that MAD would have plenty of radical fanatics ready to wipe out the entire staff – aptly referred to as The Usual Gang of Idiots. It was, oddly, upper management that did the most damage to that venerable icon of humor and parody. The fans were just over-aged nuts who clung to the nostalgia of the publication as the original contributors died off or retired. The most danger ever faced in their editorial office was anonymous deliveries of cookies and donuts, or fans begging for a tour. In one case, a cartoonist took the tour just so he could jump into my office as the group passed by to show me his portfolio. Of course, there was the occasional anti-Semitic letter, stuffed with printouts from Aryan Nation websites, accusing the magazine of being “kosher” or some twelve year-old telling us that Cracked magazine was funnier and we should go f#&% ourselves.
Had anyone wanted to walk in with guns blazing, certainly the elderly lady who sat at the front desk for many decades wouldn’t have stopped them. She once called me to tell me “Alex Coogan” was in the lobby waiting to see me. It was actually Alice Cooper and entourage. Their visit blew us away, but not in the sense of the recent Charlie Hebdo tragedy. It was a good thing “Alex” wasn’t an armed nutcase, or Ted Nugent.
MAD was just silly. At its height, it was more dangerous for its sexual drawings of busty women and pokes at the establishment. It never made fun of religion the way Charlie Hebdo did.
There was one article that made fun of the song, “What if God Was One of Us?” and the artist drew God as William M. Gaines, but that only brought a couple of letters telling us we would be punished by God – and those letters were from brainwashed ten year-olds who read MAD after Sunday school. We were never targeted by religious fanatics like the ones who blew up abortion clinics, or shot doctors while they walked to their car.
Over my career, I was the President of the Cartoonists Guild, Chairperson of the New York Chapter of The National Cartoonists Society and being the art director at MAD certainly had me knowing my overly fair share of cartoonists around the world. To the average person, one might think cartoonists are pleasant, jolly, gnomes who have fun all day. Cartoonists are actually the meanest, sickest, psychotic and unbalanced people one would ever meet. That’s what makes their work so great. The sicker the better! It’s political cartoonist who are the really angry, dangerous sons of bitches.
It was the legendary political cartoonist, Pat Oliphant who really rocked the world and one would think that he would be gunned down by armed radicals… or the CIA on the orders of one of many presidents he mocked. In one of his biographies, it was put simply:
Issues, turmoil, and villains were the ingredients which brought Oliphant to a boil every day. Oliphant thought this agitated condition was necessary for producing strong editorial cartoons. “You’ve got to be angry,” he explained. “The sense of outrage, bringing yourself to a boil once a day, is good for you.” Oliphant transformed his anger and outrage into political cartoons that used caricature and satire to deliver their punch. He said, “Without a certain amount of savagery, the cartoonist is really not doing his job.”
And that’s what the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo did… and did well. Too well for some. The boiling point didn’t just make people think outside their belief systems, as a great political cartoon would do better than any verbal debate. Personally, I believe one shouldn’t discuss politics or religion to those with opposing viewpoints as both are faith based and no amount of debate can change someone’s mind. Political cartoons have always made people doubt their own views, even if just for a second or two. THAT is a power no gun or bomb can match.
The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were the mighty pen attacking religion and often it was the Muslims who bore the brunt of those attacks. While the entire Muslim population didn’t rise up in jihad against the staff of Charlie Hebdo, several fanatics took it upon themselves to “punish” those who insulted Islam – the religion of peace and love. Just as the aforementioned Christian extremists had assassinated doctors from abortion clinics.
There will always be those who take matters into their own hands. A minority of the populace who take things too seriously and way too far. I’m reminded of my corporate experience and being dragged into Human Resources after giving a talk in front of the entire creative staff. It seemed someone complained about a joke I made. One complaint out of hundreds of people (and thunderous laughter and applause). That one complaint and I was supposed to feel ashamed and change my whole persona. That is what occurred with the Charlie Hebdo massacre. A few nuts wanted to silence the voice of some brilliant cartoonists, whose work was enjoyed by millions.
As creatives, be we cartoonists, illustrators, designers, photographers, painters or poets, we put ourselves out there to enlighten, entertain, enthrall and ensnare the thoughts, emotions, hopes and dreams of those who cannot imagine without our love, passion and yes, even anger. We choose to put our passions into our work and that is what makes what we create memorable and important. If we are to be ruled by the minority of naysayers and those offended by what we create, then our creativity will become watered down into a bland, thoughtless body of work not worth publishing for others to see. If we cease to create because of the fear these fanatics and self-involved people try to instill in us, then they win and everyone else loses.
Mourn the victims at Charlie Hebdo and others fallen to violence in the name of quelling voices that reach out, but honor them for their ultimate sacrifice in bringing the world brilliant work that came from within them. Keep getting angry and keep creating. That is how we honor the brave dead, and best serve the living.
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