When showing our appreciation of comics and cartoon illustrations, social media has become the new kitchen refrigerator. From at least as far back as J.R. Williams’ single-panel Out Our Way on to Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County strip, newspaper comics were clipped and magnetically stuck to our metal doors, alongside the grocery shopping lists. Since Facebook has replaced that Frigidaire function, not only can we invite our “friends” over to our house on a global scale, but we can also get their feedback, instantaneously. Such was the case with the illustrated commentary that immediately followed Friday night’s vile and barbaric attacks in Paris.
From at least as early as Bill Mauldin’s rendering of the Lincoln Memorial’s statue with head in hands following JFK’s death, and through the American responses after 9/11, tears have been editorial cartoonists’ immediate go-to depiction. And this time, online personal profiles worldwide quickly adopted Jean Jullien’s “Peace for Paris” Twitter brush drawing that fused of the Eiffel Tower with the iconic universal peace sign. The popularity of both were clear, concise expressions of solidarity as well as sympathy. But there was also an Instagram sketch by one of France’s most well known and widely respected artists that quickly became a lightning rod for media controversy.
Among his professional accomplishments over the past quarter-century, Joann Sfar has directed feature films, including Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, a documentary on the popular French entertainer who grew up in Paris during the 1940s Nazi occupation. Sfar also wrote and co-directed The Rabbi’s Cat, an animated version of his acclaimed graphic novel series. It’s the story of a feisty feline in 1920s Algeria who wishes to convert to Judaism, and follows the noble tradition begun by Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman in its visual exploration of Jewish culture. The book was published by Pantheon in 2007 and remains in print today. His Chagall en Russie volumes one and two is another of his innumerably remarkable graphic achievements. And it’s also worth noting that Sfar contributed weekly single-panel news commentary to Charlie Hebdo, back in 2005.
Soon after the weekend’s news broke, Sfar posted a dozen illustrations with an informal narrative structure, responding not only to the tragedy but also to the public’s response. Above you can see the only one lettered in English. Direct eye contact registers that he’s perturbed while the cartoon-balloon caption voices unqualified objection to a now-ubiquitous hashtag sentiment. And, predictably, right wing and religious zealots instantly launched a self-righteous, self-serving internet retaliation against Sfar.
Here is a translation of the rest of Sfar’s Instagram texts…• France is an old country where lovers kiss freely.• Paris is our capital. We love music, drunkenness, joy.• For centuries, lovers of death have tried to make us lose the taste of life.• They have never done so.• Those who love. Those who love life. At the end, it is always they who win.• The motto of Paris is so beautiful.• “It is tossed by the waves but it doesn’t sink.”• Terrorism is not an enemy. Terrorrism is a way of acting. Repeating “We are at war” without finding the courage to name our enemies gets us nowhere. Our enemies are those who love death. Under various guises, they have always been there. History forgets them quickly. And Paris remains. And tells them to fuck off.• The people who are dead this evening were outside living, drinking, singing. They did not know that they had declared war.• Instead of dividing us, you remind us of what is precious: Our way of life.• Lovers of death, if God exists, he hates you. And you have already lost, on earth as in heaven.
Cartoons that provide support, comfort, and consolation certainly have their benefits. But Sfar was going for a deeper level of communication, one that sought empathy, understanding, hope. France is a secular society with its own priorities, which is an extremely complex and difficult concept for those outside the country to comprehend. Fourteen years ago, icons of the United States’s military-industrial complex were savagely assaulted and devastated; this year, starting in early January with Charlie Hebdo‘s offices — you’ll find my initial commentary here — France’s targets were venues that sought to claim the lives of artists, sports fans, diners, drinkers, and concert-goers. Beauty is the currency of Paris.
For those who prefer viewing beautiful art to wearing ideological blinders, I want to share a few samples of Joann Sfar’s joyous drawings with you (and, incidentally, to also attach his Instagram photos to my own digital fridge).