Art Spieigleman, by Art Spiegleman

Much Ado About Art, Satire and Terrorism

As the debate rages over Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons, Art Spiegelman offers sage advice on cartoons and free speech.

“I never wanted to be a political cartoonist,” said Art Spiegelman. “I just wanted to understand what had happened.”

Spiegelman is first and best known to the world for his Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel, Maus. But he’s also the creator of a range of other provocative and pioneering comics, as well as co-creator with his wife Francoise Mouly of the acclaimed RAW comics series of anthologies which helped re-shape American comics. When he spoke the words above he was speaking about 9/11. That was the traumatizing terrorist attack — he lived not far from the Twin Towers, and witnessed the attack first-hand — that affected him for, he says, at least a year after. It inspired the pieces that were later collected in his acclaimed 2004 collection, In The Shadow of No Towers.

He made the above comments while speaking at an event in Toronto on 26 January, shortly after another devastating terrorist attack: the massacre at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo‘s offices in Paris, France. Spiegelman, whose work is featured in an ongoing retrospective exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, had been scheduled to speak on the topic of “What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?” Following the attacks, which have affected him profoundly, he re-named his talk: “Do !*@%! Cartoonists’ Lives Matter?” Outspoken and creative as he was following 9/11, he’s spoken out just as powerfully in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, launching a scathing critique on the refusal of many North American papers to publish the French magazine’s controversial cartoons. His comments also offered insight into the particularly potent power of cartoons to provoke, and to change public perceptions.

Canada Divided

His comments couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time in the raging debate over free speech. Canada’s Minister for Public Safety, Steven Blaney, had recently returned from laying a wreath at Charlie Hebdo’s office and representing the Canadian government at memorial events in Paris. A mere two weeks later he and his government opened debate on a sweeping new anti-terrorism bill that’s been criticized as seriously eroding the very freedoms of speech Charlie Hebdo so strongly advocated. (“CSIS powers to be expanded under Harper’s ‘Anti-Terrorism Act“, by Karl Nerenberg,, 30 January 2015)

The irony hasn’t been lost on free speech and civil rights advocates, many of whom have criticized the bill. The bill has been in the works for months, but the recent Charlie Hebdo attack has certainly shaped the public debate. Among other things, the new legislation gives Canada’s spy agency increased powers to circumvent constitutional and civil rights, lowers the bar for allowing police to invoke certain measures such as holding suspected terrorist planners without charge, and gives the police extra powers to control and remove online material that it deems could help to incite, promote or glorify terrorism, as well as greater abilities to pursue and prosecute those who produce such material—from ‘signs’ to blog comments. (“Four reasons Harper’s new anti-terrorist legislation will alarm you“, by Karl Nerenberg,, 2 February 2015)

Even Edward Snowden emerged from his ongoing exile in Russia to speak out against the new Canadian terror laws. He spoke by videolink to students at Upper Canada College to warn Canadians against the new legislation. (“Edward Snowden Warns Canadians To Be ‘Extraordinarily Cautious’ Over Anti-Terror Bill“, by Zi-Ann Lum, Huffington Post, 3 February 2015)

As the federal government moved forward with its new legislation, the country’s media also struggled with how to respond to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The big question, while covering the story, was whether or not to reprint the controversial cartoons—particularly those depicting the Prophet Muhammad (this has been the source of much of the controversy, since some conservative forms of Islam denounce visual depictions of the Prophet).

Responses varied. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (the national public broadcaster) opted not to reproduce the controversial ones. Jennifer McGuire, General Manager and Editor-in-Chief of the CBC, wrote in her Editor’s Blog about the decision not to run the cartoons. “You can be a fierce devotee of freedom of expression who feels outrage against extremists and solidarity with French journalists, yet still decide that you can cover the story clearly and thoroughly without publishing material that could offend Muslims or even incite hatred toward them,” she wrote, “And it is the journalism — the story — that matters most. If we had felt that showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons was imperative to telling yesterday’s story properly, we would have included them. Each time, we have to weigh the competing “goods”.” (“To Publish or not to Publish“, 8 January 2015)

Notably, the CBC’s French-language service, Radio-Canada, did choose to run the cartoons, albeit “sparingly”. This represented a broader split on the issue between English and French-language media in the country. Eleven of Quebec’s leading French-language newspapers collectively ran the cartoons, along with a joint statement of solidarity. Yet the English-language daily in Quebec, The Montreal Gazette, refused to participate, and did not print the cartoons. (“Prophet Muhammad cartoon in Quebec papers after Charlie Hebdo shooting“, CBC News, 8 January 2015)

The country’s two largest national newspapers also differed in their approach. The Globe and Mail refused to run the controversial cartoons, and explained the decision in its Public Editor’s blog. According to Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead, “any story about killings must keep the focus on the victims. In this case, the Globe stories did focus on the journalists, the police and the other victims… do the readers need to see actual cartoons or do they need a description? One problem is that we don’t know if it was one particular cartoon or several that was the focus of the killers’ anger. If that comes to light, perhaps The Globe should review its decision.” (“Public editor: Why The Globe didn’t publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons“,8 January 2015)

She also quoted Globe and Mail editor-in-chief David Walmsley as saying “One doesn’t need to show a cartoon to show the story. The story is the killings, not any cartoon. As our editorial said, we support the right to publish material that provokes. Throughout the media landscape across the world, there is a wide range of material that is published. Charlie Hebdo has its voice, for example. The Globe and Mail has its. We hadn’t published the cartoons before the slaughter and our editorial position remains the same today.”

Chris Selley, writer and columnist with the National Post – the Globe and Mail’s principal competition, and the most prominent English-language paper that did choose to print the controversial comics — didn’t mince words in his column criticizing those papers that refused to run the cartoons: “Snivelling cowards, the lot of them.” (“Chris Selley: Why Canada’s media won’t show the Charlie Hebdo pictures“, 13 January 2015) He singles out the CBC in particular. “If you ask me, the public broadcaster shouldn’t be filtering news according to religious sensibilities. It shouldn’t be in the theology game at all.”

Concluding with a claim that the paper’s Letters to the Editor hadn’t reported a single letter that was critical of its decision to run the cartoons, Selley suggests another reason for Canadian papers’ failure to print them:

I suspect it’s more a matter of Canadian politeness — a desire not to cause offence when it can be avoided; a preference not to make a fuss. And in this case it was very easy to avoid. That’s a problematic instinct for a news organization to have. Just as problematic, based on some of the explanations on offer, is that some outlets don’t actually seem to know why they didn’t publish the Charlie Hebdo covers. From no perspective is that encouraging.

Other writers were equally livid. The National Post‘s editorial board published a lengthy statement (featuring the controversial cartoons) wherein it argued “Our response to the atrocity in Paris should be to emulate those who lost their lives defending their freedom to speak out as they please.” (ibid)

In a lengthy column (featuring full-colour reproductions of the controversial cartoons) the National Post’s Calgary Correspondent, Jen Gerson, criticized the “weasely assertion” and “cringeworthy line” of papers that tried towing a middle line by saying that neither terrorism nor racist cartooning were acceptable. The goal of the murderers had been to deter people from publishing cartoons like those in Charlie Hebdo, she wrote, “and when Canadian news outlets avoid running the cartoons, the effort succeeds… We owe it to the people who died to stop cringing.” (“Jen Gerson: Canada’s media talks tough, treads carefully over Hebdo cartoons“, 9 January 2015)

Is It 1984? Or Animal Farm?

Other prominent writers and media commentators also weighed in. Hana Shafi, a Toronto-based journalist writing in the Huffington Post, says that while the writers should not have been murdered, “we can also call out the elephant in the room: Charlie Hebdo was a notoriously racist publication, one that made its fame and capital through Islamophobia, among forms of bigotry.” (“Charlie Hebdo’s Cartoons Were Racist, Not Satirical“, 15 January 2015)

Shafi goes on to draw an interesting line when it comes to acceptable satire. “People scream in unison “it’s just satire!” But to me, and others, satire is something like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, not racist caricatures of minorities with elongated noses and frightening eyes reminiscent of early Nazi propaganda with anti-Semitic illustrations of Jewish people.”

What’s interesting here is that Shafi’s comments suggest a distinction – intentional or not – between literary and visual satire. In fact, Animal Farm does rely on stereotypes and caricatures. The animals are all quite obvious caricatures of individuals and groups in the former Soviet Union. The difference is that Charlie Hebdo’s satire, the controversial cartoons, was visual. This seems to reinforce Spiegelman’s observation, made at his talk in Toronto, that the visual nature of comics allows them to operate at a different and more direct level than the written word. “It gets in your brain before you have a chance to fight it,” he said.

Shafi’s Animal Farm reference is in fact particularly appropriate, though perhaps not for the reasons she intended. Animal Farm was criticized upon publication in 1945 precisely because of the political satire it engaged in. Orwell even had difficulty getting it published. He began shopping it around toward the end of the Second World War when the Soviet Union, his satirical target in the book, was still a heroic and celebrated ally of England and America in the war. Publishers were hesitant to print the book. So frustrated was Orwell with his inability to find a publisher brave enough to publish it, that his original intended preface to the book (titled ‘Freedom of the Press‘) became a powerful critique of media self-censorship.

Orwell’s reflection on how hard it was to get his political satire published is a prescient one for our times. In that prefatory essay, he observes a phenomenon that Charlie Hebdo must have known all too well: “If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face… The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.”

Orwell breaks down the issue in a way that renders it just as relevant for our time, if we were to replace the word ‘Stalin’ with ‘Muhammad’: “The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular — however foolish, even — entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say ‘Yes’. But give it a concrete shape, and ask, ‘How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?’, and the answer more often than not will be ‘No’, In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses… It is only, or at any rate it is chiefly, the literary and scientific intelligentsia, the very people who ought to be the guardians of liberty, who are beginning to despise it, in theory as well as in practice.”

He concludes on a scathing note: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. The common people still vaguely subscribe to that doctrine and act on it… it is the liberals who fear liberty and the intellectuals who want to do dirt on the intellect…”

Orwell was a literary satirist, and not a visual one, so it’s hard to say whether he would have endorsed Charlie Hebdo’s satire. His words certainly speak to that spirit, though.

Just Lines?

What is it about cartoons that lend them such power? Spiegelman addressed this in an interview with CBC earlier on the day of his talk. “Cartoons are built of very simple size, they go very deep, and they’re born of graffiti.”

“If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face.” – George Orwell

He elaborated on this, with the help of visual aids, during his talk in Toronto that evening. Cartoons, he said, are “little abstract symbols that take on meaning because you invest them with meaning.” Yet they have a potent power, he said, because they’re visual. They speak at a very primeval level to something in our lizard brain, he said. Words require elaborate processing, but visual symbols produce a direct affect almost instantaneously, and before our brain is able to filter the visual symbol through other interpretive frameworks we might have learned. “It gets in your brain before you have a chance to fight it.”

This lends the comic artist a great deal of power. And responsibility. “The nature of the comic artist’s role is to make things clarified… to make it so once you’ve seen it, you can never not see it.” He quotes Robert Crumb’s famous comment that “It’s only lines on paper, folks!” “No!” he counters. “These are dangerous! Those things have an effect.”

Honouring Charlie Hebdo’s Legacy

Spiegelman was deeply affected by the Charlie Hebdo murders. He had met some of the artists, visited their office in Paris and even sat in on an editorial meeting with them some years earlier. He recounted the dynamic and creative spirit he’d felt in their presence. One of the great contributions Spiegelman and his wife Francoise Mouly have made to comics has been their efforts to put European and American comics artists into dialogue with each other. RAW Comics often did that, as have other subsequent projects.

“Political cartoons have lost their sting in America in a way they haven’t in other countries,” he laments. When asked by a member of the audience why this might be, and whether it had to do with fear of the government, he shook his head. “No,” he replied. “It’s economic fear. You have to take a chance people won’t like it.”

During his talk, Spiegelman—like the National Post, when it defended its reprinting of the controversial comics—walked the audience through the history of Charlie Hebdo, and of French political satire more broadly. He traced the influence of turn-of-the-century 1900s French satirical magazine L’Assiette au Beurre, which also shocked and scandalized with its powerful, non-partisan art in the broad spirit of social reform, and then the rise of French satirical magazine Hara-Kiri which appeared in 1960. Periodically targeted by the French government for its fiercely critical satire, it was finally banned in 1970 after making satirical commentary about the death of former French President Charles de Gaulle. It promptly popped up under a new (and deliberately ironic) name: Charlie Hebdo.

Why do defenders of Charlie Hebdo always invoke this lengthy lineage? Perhaps it’s intended to confer legitimacy by demonstrating that it’s not simply a one-off magazine trying to be outrageous, but in fact is part of a deeply rooted cultural and literary tradition of satirical dialogue that stretches back over a century. Satire, this argument seems to say, assumes the form of a particular conversation, and needs to be considered within its particular cultural and historical context.

Reviewing its broader legacy, Charlie Hebdo does indeed choose its targets widely—it includes all religions, all political affiliations, all identities. The message seems to be: nothing is sacred, and it’s important that nothing be considered sacred. “They make fun of everybody,” Spiegelman explained. And why? “Because: no gods, no masters.”

From Paris to New York

Spiegelman’s wife shares credit for their joint accomplishments such as the acclaimed comics magazine RAW. Moulym is currently art editor for the New Yorker, and responsible for some of the profound and provocative covers that magazine has featured in recent years. Her commitment to the power and diversity of visual interpretation, which she shares with Spiegelman, is apparent in this work.

Spiegelman produced a famous 1993 Valentine’s Day cover for the New Yorker (before Mouly was hired by the magazine) featuring a Hasidic Jew kissing a black woman. He discussed the cover at his talk in Toronto, noting that as much as the visual depiction of racial stereotypes is criticized, reliance on the ability to clearly and visually represent something is what a cover like that relied upon.

Even so, not all readers got the message Spiegelman intended. He recounted one letter from a reader congratulating him on honouring Lincoln’s birthday with a picture of Abraham Lincoln kissing a slave. The reader had obviously misread the visual cues, but importantly it demonstrates that when it comes to politically potent messages – satirical or otherwise – we often choose to see what we want to see. The bias, in such cases, is on our part, not that of the artist.

Precisely what different cultures and countries find offensive can sometimes be strangely unpredictable. Spiegelman recounted the story of the June 2006 issue of Harper’s magazine. At the time, it was Danish cartoonists who were under fire for their cartoons of the Prophet. Harper’s chose to reprint the Danish cartoons, and Spiegelman provided both an interpretive essay as well as a cover featuring various controversial images, including that of the Prophet.

The one the magazine had an issue with, however, was not the Prophet, nor blackface, nor Native American, but rather the image of a naked woman, because they’d been warned that would be banned in Canada. The solution was the use of two black bars to cover parts of the woman’s body. Even so, the Chapters Indigo book chain in Canada banned the issue from its shelves. Spiegelman noted wryly that this put him in a narrow category with Adolf Hitler, whose book, Mein Kampf, is also banned by the chain. (“The Art of Outrage“, Harper’s, 8 January 2015, and “Indigo pulls controversial Harper’s off the shelves“, by James Adams, Globe and Mail, 27 May 2006)

Book: In Love with Art: Françoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman

Author: Jeet Heer

Publisher: Coach House

Publication date: 2013-08

Image: Jeet Heer’s excellent study of Mouly’s life and work, In Love With Art, he discusses the famous and infamous New Yorker ‘fist bump’ cover (21 July 2008) depicting Barack Obama and his wife just prior to Obama’s election as president. The cover, by artist Barry Blitt, also provoked controversy, displaying as it did Obama and his wife caricatured in a way that expressed all the conspiratorial slurs opponents had made against them. Obama was attired in Islamic dress, his wife as a Black Panther. A portrait of Osama bin Laden hung on a wall, and an American flag burned in a corner.

Other stereotypes were also featured. Yet the point was pure satire; demonstrating the ridiculousness of the accusations the Obamas had faced. As Heer explains, “Mouly maintains that its power came from the fact that it invented no new calumny but rather gave visible form to widely circulated innuendo—which became absurd in the very act of being depicted… The vilification of the Obamas that Blitt visually articulated already existed in the broader culture, but putting it on the cover of the New Yorker made it inescapably tangible, and the onus fell on the viewer to figure out that the lies were being presented as risible and not truthful.” (“”, by Gwen Ifill, PBS New Hour, 14 July 2008)

Afflicting the Afflicted?

Much of the Charlie Hebdo critique, of course, comes from the fact that Muslims in France (and other western countries), unlike these countries’ white majorities, are often disempowered, marginalized, stigmatized and discriminated against in many ways. It’s one thing to satirize somebody in power. But why satirize a group that’s already disenfranchised?

Spiegelman doesn’t disagree with the general sentiment. As one would guess from his own cartoons, he doesn’t like anti-Semitic work. Nor does he consider it praiseworthy to target other disempowered groups. But he draws a distinction between his own taste in these matters, and what should be permitted in public discourse. “It’s classier—more elegant—to speak truth to power, than to afflict the afflicted,” he said. “But there’s no right not to be insulted. There can’t be… You have to allow insults as well. Otherwise you’re cutting off too much thought. The only alternative is to be smothered out of existence.”

He rejects the idea that there is or even should be absolute freedom of speech. “There’s no such thing,” he says. But, he says, “The thing is to push it as far as you can. As long as it stays in the realm of thought and ideas, that’s the laboratory that will produce better ideas.” His argument echoes the classic free speech formulations of Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, who argued that no matter how ignorant, immature or disagreeable somebody’s speech might be, it must still be permitted, for that is the only way that intelligent people will be able to determine what ideas and views are best from among all those on offer.

Spiegelman presented this perspective more fully in a recent interview on Democracy Now!, where he also railed against the tendency of American media to not print the controversial comics. He rejected the rationale that although media has the right to publish comics of that nature, they should self-censor themselves. (“‘Cartoonist Lives Matter’: Art Spiegelman Responds to Charlie Hebdo Attack, Power of Cartoons” (Democracy Now! 8 January 2015) “The imperative of ‘we must be mature adults’ and therefore we have the right to do it but we mustn’t do it is a dangerous one. I believe the best response to stupid speech is more speech until you find your way through this. Hopefully without machine guns entering the picture…”

Spiegelman was incensed about what he felt was a double-standard – “an abomination”, as he described it during his Toronto talk—by the New York Times, which refused to print the Charlie Hebdo comics, yet published a full op-ed by Marine Le Pen. Le Pen is head of the Front National, a far-right anti-immigrant political party in France. In an interview Spiegelman gave to CBC earlier on the day of his Toronto talk, he also criticized this decision.

“To give her that big a forum where she was able to say ‘foreigners out!’ but in a much more sophisticated French accent than you might expect, and without you being warned this is the National Front that’s speaking here, you know? This was an absolute insult of a much bigger kind than anything Charlie Hebdo did about the Prophet.” (“Acclaimed cartoonist Art Spiegelman on keeping comics daring“, CBC Radio, 26 January 2015)

He repeated the critique for his audience that evening in Toronto, noting with a sense of tragic irony that Le Pen–whose National Front was as much a target for the anti-fascist Charlie Hebdo as organized religion ever was—is now poised to benefit from the murders, and the ensuing wave of nationalism that has swept the country. Giving her electoral campaign prominent coverage, he pointed out, will do far more damage to Muslims in France than a few cartoons ever did.

The talk clearly demonstrated there are no easy answers. But Spiegelman’s determined advocacy for expansive free speech rights as the best way to counter oppressive political forces, and his faith in the power of comics and comics artists to change the way we perceive the world around us, left a sense of hope lingering in the air. His message was that cartoonists’ lives matter. But the raging debate Charlie Hebdo’s work has produced—a legacy now writ larger than ever before, in spite of the murderous and futile efforts of those who sought to silence them—demonstrates that their work does matter. And whether right or wrong, the impact and power of their lines-on-paper is undeniable.

As Spiegelman concluded: “You have to have the right to get it all wrong. Otherwise you’ll never get it right.”