Charlie Hebdo: Satire, Censorship & Free Expression

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Very many of us who make our living as visual communicators have been thinking and reading about practically nothing other than Charlie Hebdo these days. My obsession stems from firsthand experiences with cartoon images, and how they can be significantly revelatory and profoundly elevating. And wonderfully entertaining. My design career—my entire worldview, really—began with two satirical publications. The first was a Mad comic book from 60 years ago; the other was an issue of The Realist from 50 years ago. (I briefly spoke about how they both affected me in this interview.)

Daumier — Charlie Hebdo

The Artist in Front of His Work, c. 1863, Honoré Daumier

Mad’s founder-editor-artist Harvey Kurtzman became my childhood hero, starting in 1955 with issue 21. Way before I had any idea what a graphic designer was, the spot-on parodies of comic book ads began to make me aware of a mind, an eye, and a hand behind the printed page. The eight-page Poopeye!, which lampooned a certain squinty-eyed sailor I knew, provided my first insights into pop culture and mass media. Rendered with zany anarchy and obsessive detail by Will Elder, it also gave me a 20-year advance peek at Postmodernism. And Kurtzman’s own gracefully simple and organically fluid line was my introduction to Modernist design’s less-is-more aesthetic. With Harvey as writer and art director and Willie as “designer,” their early-1960s Goodman Beaver collaborations for HELP! remain brilliant masterworks of social satire. These guys taught me that words and images, when combined in just the right ways, could be an extremely effective—perhaps the ultimate—tool of communication.

And hey, they could also be hilariously funny!


If Kurtzman’s Mad, Trump, Humbug, and Help! were my undergrad life lessons, The Realist provided my masters’ education. I discovered issue 63 in 1965, while studying design at the Pratt Institute. Editor-publisher Paul Krassner had written a smart and intelligent Jules Feiffer parody for the cover, rendered with deceptively authentic flair by artist Bhob Stewart. And among the inside cartoons, Richard Guindon’s pages of one-panels – mocking the new cryonic suspension trend – were outstanding. In its original, late 1950s incarnation, it targeted religion, but by the mid-’60s it had widened into a bible for the entire counterculture movement. Once I’d caught up on the back issues (you can now read the entire run here), Paul had become my personal hero. Those texts and ‘toons of “freethought criticism and satire” – one of the magazine’s slogan – were often scathingly vulgar and uncompromisingly offensive.

And hey, hilariously funny!


Which, obviously, brings us back to Charlie Hebdo. I, along with much of the entire world, first became aware of the magazine in 2006 when it reprinted Jyllands-Posten’s controversial cartoons. Its stance was as concise and direct as cartoonist Cabu’s cover illustration: a tearful Muhammad exclaiming, “It’s hard being loved by jerks.” Perfect! More details here.

In France, graphic images appear to be much more sacred than religions. When it comes to comics, the huge Hollywood hype machine known as San Diego Comic-Con pales pathetically in contrast to January’s annual Festival International de la Bande Dessinée in Angoulême. There, comics art and its creators are given the respect and honor they deserve. Nineteenth century illustrator and political satirist Honoré Daumier is practically revered as a saint throughout the entire country, while Thomas Nast can’t even get accepted into the official New Jersey Hall of Fame. New fucking Jersey, for Chris Christie sake! And how often do cartoonists appear on American talk shows to discuss news events while they draw cartoons? Cabu was a regular guest on Paris TV… until he and other staffers were murdered last week. By a number of radically extreme jerks.


Honoré Daumier, The Sideshow (Parade de Saltimbanques) (1865-66)


Honoré Daumier, Une visite à l’atelier,” published in Le Charivari in 1864 and part of his Les Moments Difficiles De La Vie (The Difficult Moments of Life) series

Terrorists who resort to fear and intimidation – and of course, bloodshed – to kill free expression are unequivocally abhorrent. And those in the U.S. who now spread falsehoods about Charlie with their ignorance and out-of-context misinterpretations of its caricatures are disgusting. But th
e magazine’s brave and noble staff—both living and dead—are all I care about right now, with deep respect and admiration. And to say I’m hardly alone would be the biggest understatement of 2015.

Four years ago, Charlie’s offices were attacked and destroyed with a firebomb. Two years ago, editor-in-chief, Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier declared, “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.” And today, three million copies were printed. And translated into five other languages, including Arabic. With proudly offensive cartoons that deal with the killings, and many other topics. And the issue immediately sold out. Perfect!

Three million people gathered in Paris on Sunday to demonstrate their support. Meanwhile, countless more around the globe, in every walk of life, are becoming inspired to reevaluate and elevate their careers and their consciousness in unique and significant ways. And because of that, I’m looking forward to looking back—in whatever number of years—on a much more progressive world that honors—and practices—fuller free expression.

Harvey Kurtzman died in 1993; I was privileged to meet him once, at New York’s 1972 EC Fan Addict Convention. I’m fortunate enough to have maintained a loose and mostly long-distance friendship with Paul Krassner across this past half-century. And although I’ll probably never personally know any of the courageous French artists and editors being honored, I’m certain that—as with Harvey and Paul—they’ll now be with me every day, moving forward.

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On the day that the shocking news broke, Zippy said in French, “I’m not having fun.” His creator, artist Bill Griffith, added, "I feel like an oppressed minority for the first time today.”

On the day that the shocking news broke, Zippy said in French, “I’m not having fun.” His creator, artist Bill Griffith, added, “I feel like an oppressed minority for the first time today.”

As soon as Print assigned me this essay, I knew I had to contact Paul Krassner, the heretic’s heretic (one Realist motto/zen koan was “Our only sacred cow is irreverence”), to give him the last word. So here he is. And fittingly enough, his last word is LOL.

This massacre is an awesome outrage to liberals and conservatives alike, although some dinosaur Republicans might try to blame Obama. It’s a horrendous violation of semantic principles, such as “The menu is not the meal” and “The map is not the territory.” As an atheist, I perceive the irony of those assassins shouting “God is great” to justify their insane act in the name of a deity that I believe doesn’t exist.And what could happen in America? Security guards protecting the Onion offices? Treat Funny or Die as Islamic marching orders? Invade the cyberspace of NBC for broadcasting Saturday Night Live until it morphs into Saturday Night Dead, if it’s not already deceased? Will ISIS sympathizers carry placards that say “I am Charlie Manson”?Religions continue to rationalize their dogma, from birth to death. And then comes the hereafter for these Muslim murderers, where all those virgins supposedly waiting to greet them in Nirvana are busy reading “Lysistrata.” OMG has declared war on LOL.

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For further reading on censorship and controversial cartoons:

Paul Krassner on Obama, Orgies, and the Art of Offensive CartoonsNovember 30, 2012

Bhob Stewart: The Power of Negative MockeryFebruary 25, 2014

Editorial Cartoonist Thomas Nast: Anti-Irish, Anti-Catholic Bigot?January 4, 2012

An Uncensored Look at Banned Comics February 2014

True Tales of Banned Comics: Guns, V-Games, and the N-Word September 23, 2014

The Winter Brothers v. DC Comics: Parody and Monsters March 10, 2014

Hooray for Twisted, Filthy, Disgusting Comic Books! February 21, 2014

Mike Diana: Obscene Godfather of Internet Rage ArtJanuary 30, 2014

Schools and Libraries Are Giving Comic Books the Boot January 13, 2014

Ted Rall’s ‘Censored’ Obama Cartoon and Other ControversiesDecember 4, 2013

Starbucks Design: Starbung Wars and Consumer WhoresNovember 1, 2013

Cover Your Eyes: the Graphic Horrors of 1950s ComicsSeptember 25, 2013

The Comics that Corrupted Our Kids!September 23, 2013

Howard Chaykin on his lewd, depraved, banned graphic novelsJuly 1, 2013

Complete Anarchy, IllustratedJanuary 11, 2013

Breaking News and Making Money: Susie Cagle and Ted Rall on Print vs. Online PublishingJuly 30, 2012

Susie Cagle on Occupy Protests, Opinion Reporting, and the Death of Editorial Cartooning July 27, 2012

Sex! Nudity! Comix! iPhone App… Censored!August 3, 2011

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