Georges Wolinski, the 80-year-old cartoonist shot dead on January 7, would have been well up on the oeuvre of 19th century Parisian satirist Honore Daumier — over 4,000 lithographs and a thousand drawings, some not even sparing the law courts. Wolinski would have grown up on stories of British cartoonist David Low’s fiercely anti-Nazi World War II cartoons that travelled across the continent. He would surely have been wowed by the defining Vietnam-era cartoon in Paris Match by his peer Louis Mitelberg, who signed his gagless panel as Tim: A Vietnamese woman wearing the conical leaf hat holding a child; the mother’s eyes two bomber jets dropping bombs. Paris has been very much part of a wider tradition of the cartoon as protest art.
Our own Abu Abraham sat across and sketched Che Guevara in Havana in 1962. The good doctor merrily autographed the drawing. Protesters in the decolonising days, from a non-violent Gandhi to the gun-wielding Che, saw the cartoon as a fraternal practice. No longer. Protest politics has changed, and so has this protest art.
Low could make simple choices — Hitler and Mussolini must go. Democracy, however flawed, must win. It alone affords the space to address the flaws. His World War II cartoons became a bilateral issue between Germany and Britain. A failed artist who knew the raw power of the visual, the Fuehrer complained to an appeasing Neville Chamberlain about Low. Closer to our times, the cartoonist has begun to nuance and, ironically, offend even more. Mike Luckovich, among the best syndicated American cartoonists, sees Bible-thumping politics and Christianity as two different pursuits and has consistently shown up terror as essentially anti-religious. This would doubly anger the terrorist who swears by a cause monumental enough to extend to your afterlife as well.
Art Spiegelman, the graphic novelist who created Maus, refuses to take sides altogether. To be precise, he takes sides against both contending parties. Far from a Low, he saw no unalloyed merit in the state fighting terror. He tore into the Bush administration that manipulated terror trauma even as he condemned terror outright. On 9/11, when the World Trade Centre was hit, Spiegelman, a resident of Lower Manhattan, rushed out to look for his two kids, who had gone to school. The kids were safe and eventually coped better than the dad, who incidentally grew up on childhood stories from a father who was a Holocaust survivor. The impression of the northern tower that vaporised right in front of his eyes stayed on like phantom pain. Three years later, Spiegelman worked this into a masterly unconventional graphic narrative, In the Shadow of No Towers.
The tale of the towers, apart from being unkind to all parties, marks a new phase in the cartoon art. It firms up a genre pioneered by Will Eisner in 1978, the graphic novel, where the cartoon began to tell a story. The cartoon has always had a way with words. Tim’s wordless cartoon is a rarity. The news cartoon as well as the comic strip almost always have a caption or speech balloons. What is new is that in the graphic story, images work with extended text, a mix that is picking up new readers, including a significant segment of women. Unlike the newspaper cartoon, book-length graphic stories have prominent women creators as well, like Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and Raina Telgemeir (Smile). You don’t have to be a terrorist; a regular bully from a khap panchayat won’t tolerate a woman satirist writing, sketching and often revealing personal stuff.
Worse, the cartoon is spreading far and wide across genres and right into everyday texting. If the graphic narrative is an extension of the cartoon to the literary longform, you find a measure of cartoonishness in music videos as well. Text, image and voice seem to be coming together with a comic flair. The mobile phone is proving to be a handy platform for all three. The device by itself has potential to mobilise fun-loving crowds, as was seen in the Jasmine Revolution and the Arab Spring. Now look at the texting that goes into it — a free mix of alphabets, numerals and the emoticon, which is nothing but a rudimentary comic form. The comic element is becoming part of language itself. There is nothing particularly difficult or heroic about gunning down a grandfatherly cartoonist bent over his drawing board. How will you stop a million fingers tweeting and texting with a lightness of touch?
The writer is chief political cartoonist of ‘The Indian Express’