To tweak an Einstein quote, cartoons should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. Charlie Hebdo cartoons are looking increasingly simpler in a world that is getting thoroughly complicated. Since the simplest solution on offer these days is simpler than the simplest of cartoons — single-minded terror — cartoonists must wonder how they got themselves into this mess. And rethink not in terms of pulling punches but in terms of a new perspective.
The Hebdo cartoon was a ready excuse, a trigger for the killings, not the cause. Provocation could have come from cinema, writing, music, fashion or food. Organised terror waits for a context and the cartoon could easily provide it because it is the cartoonist’s job to provoke, ridicule and offend. But is that all a cartoon can do?
The French weekly that sees itself as politically left should have nothing against immigrants, but it has hurt them with the cartoon as a blunt instrument. France has a significant Muslim population, most of them immigrants. A good many are believers and new to the host culture, which is used to handling such excesses in a cartoon with a shrug of the shoulder, a pungent letter to the editor or a searing counter-cartoon. The settlers would take a while to acquire such skills. Meanwhile, the art form would get sufficiently demonised in their eyes. Historically, this is a sad betrayal of the abiding bond between the immigrant and cartoon art. The Hebdo cartoonist is antagonising a willing natural readership.
At the close of 19th century, the advent of the comics coincided with the rise of the big American cities built by waves of immigration. Distinguished cartoon historians like Judith O’Sullivan have dwelt at length on this. Those who came in were struggling to pick up American English and they found the easiest learning device — the comics in the newspapers, printed big and in colour. The very first comic character, Yellow Kid, created by Richard Outcault, was a sensation and got pricey enough to set off a legendary media war between two newspaper barons — Joseph Pulitzer, who pioneered its publication in 1895 in his New York World, and his rival, William Randolph Hearst, who acquired it after three years for his New York Journal. The bulk of the comics readership was the growing migrant population.
The expats took to the comics, then called funnies, where hand-drawn cartoon characters spoke pithy colloquial English, handwritten into speech balloons. The look and feel was informal and non-intimidating, altogether inviting. Kids mimicked, parents read out and families started speaking imperfect English. The newspaper’s comics page became an early facilitator of the migrant’s journey in the Land of Opportunity.
True, these are sequential comics and not political cartoons of the kind Charlie Hebdo features. Get closer home and you’ll find that the political cartoon works for the migrant no less. India’s core cartooning has been political and our cartoons have grown in and around cities backed by job-seeking migrants, including the cartoonists themselves. Most of our prominent practitioners from Shankar to RK Laxman and Abu Abraham to Sudhir Dar were expats. And they handled a bigger, more uncertain democracy than the post-war European ones in France or West Germany. It wouldn’t have been easy to cartoon through the Partition of the subcontinent that came with the birth of the nation. And, when finally the polity looked like settling down, came the Emergency and press censorship. At the best of times, cartoonists and their editors dealt with a much-layered, multi-ethnic, often touchy readership. In neighbouring Sri Lanka, cartoonists have faced tougher times. To cut the story short, outside the structured democracies of the West, the art practice has coped.
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This is not to suggest that cartoonists must function under a Damocles’ sword and turn out suitably evasive and safe stuff, which the reader somehow figures out. This is not the way our predecessors functioned. The best of them neither trimmed the picture nor minced words. The way things are going, it won’t be long before many parts of Europe have considerable migrant populations. The cartoon readerships there would increasingly begin to look like India’s or Sri Lanka’s — mixed, varied, young. Even then, Charlie Hebdo might merrily carry on but not many will look up to it, just because it is European.
Younger cartoonists the world over would look elsewhere. They face the predicament of having to make impossible choices and sharp distinctions — say between a compassionate religion and those who wield the sword in its name. They would love Mike Luckovich for his classic on the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre. Luckovich drew the Holy Quran standing like a tower and showed a tiny airplane labelled “Islamic Terrorists” about to crash into it
Amidst the soaring Islamophobia that followed the terror strike, the message came across, anything but loud but crystal clear, on how untrue these bigots were to the religion they swore by. In the same vein, Art Spiegelman did In the Shadow of No Towers (2004), a graphic novel that treats al Qaeda and the Pentagon with equal scorn. The master refused to make a choice between terror and a state that exploited it to undermine its own proclaimed democracy.
Charlie Hebdo has no such hesitation. It takes sides without a second thought. It has a legacy advantage: The mood of Western Europe that breathed easy after the defeat of the Nazis. Founded in 1970, Charlie Hebdo’s art practice celebrates that World War II moment which chose unbridled freedom over all else. The choice is no longer that simple — between an evil Hitler and liberating armies. Right now, the world’s most powerful electorate isn’t making half as clear a choice — between a Trump and his challenger. And no World War III is in sight to sort out matters and bring the much-needed clarity to the cartoonist.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 3, 2020 under the title ‘After Charlie Hebdo’. firstname.lastname@example.org
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