IF THE MOUNTAIN can’t come to Muhammad, then “Muhammad” must go to the “mountain.”
Today’s strip is in response to the January massacre at the Paris offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, during which a dozen people, including five cartoonists, were killed by Islamic extremists. To strip away any doubt about their strip’s context, the Weingartens also reproduce the first post-attack Charlie Hebdo cover, which features an apologizing caricature of Muhammad — as the French publication confirmed of that image in January.
“As soon as the massacre happened, Dan and I knew we wanted to do something on it in ‘Barney & Clyde’ — something in solidarity with the dead, but also with a significant message for the living,” says Gene Weingarten, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and humor columnist for The Washington Post Magazine. “It had to be something we could offer not just to The Washington Post, but to our syndicated clients, as well. That meant figuring out a way to address the horror in a way newspaper editors could feel was not pointlessly provocative.”
[THE FIRESTARTER: Danish editor who commissioned Muhammad cartoons in 2005 speaks from a decade’s perspective]
Ever since the deadly Danish cartoon controversy was ignited a decade ago — after editor Flemming Rose commissioned cartoons depicting Muhammad and Islam to make a point about freedom of speech and censorship — many newspapers have been especially reluctant to run any images of Muhammad. (Many Muslims consider any depiction of the Islamic prophet to be blasphemous.) In the wake of the massacre, however, some outlets (including The Washington Post) reprinted Charlie Hebdo’s news-making cover caricature of Muhammad.
[CHARLIE HEBDO: The first post-massacre cover]
As the Weingartens weighed what creative approach to take, the very question of representational reality came to the fore.
“Ultimately, we found ourselves looking at the issue semiotically,” says Gene Weingarten, who co-writes the strip with his son. “We kept coming back to the infantile absurdity of a group of people reacting with tooth-gnashing anger and even deadly violence to something as unthreatening as lines drawn on paper — as thin and silly as a cartoon of someone the artist claimed was a certain eighth-century religious figure.
“Who is even to say for sure who or what it is?” Weingarten continues. “What if it were a stick figure labeled Muhammad? Or a cat labeled Muhammad? Would that even be Muhammad? Says who?”
Eureka! The Weingartens decided to try to mine “Muhammad’s” representational mountain for cartoon-premise gold. The writers honed their idea with their “more-than-occasional” collaborator Horace LaBadie, then gave it to the strip’s artist, David Clark.
“The idea: We’d draw a figure that was possibly Muhammad, but label it ‘Not Muhammad,’ and he’d be walking to what was definitely a mountain, but it would be labeled, ‘Not a mountain,’ ” Weingarten the Elder tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “And the painting would be signed, “Not by Rene Magritte” — which was definitely true — it was either by Cynthia Pillsbury [the strip’s 11-year-old girl], or by David Clark, depending on how you looked at it.
“So we had deliberately combined a truth, a lie and a maybe,” Weingarten continues. “And over it all was the epistemological question asked by Magritte in his famous ‘This is not a pipe [Ceci n’est pas une pipe]’ painting: Is a representation of a pipe actually a pipe? Who is to define truth? The artist? The viewer? Who is in charge of reality?”
In that way, today’s “Barney & Clyde” is evocative of Seattle artist Molly Norris’s 2010 lightning-rod illustration captioned, “Will the REAL likeness of the prophet Mohammed please stand up?!” — in which a tea cup, a domino, a spool of thread and a pasta box, among other common items, each claim to be the “real likeness” of Muhammad. (The artwork was intended as a show of support for the comedy “South Park,” which had been threatened over attempts to depict Muhammad.) Norris soon disavowed her satirical cartoon, which ignited international controversy and social-media campaigns; she was placed on a targeted “execution hit list” by the late American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and went into hiding (where she remains) at the advice of the FBI. (Upon going into hiding, Norris sent Comic Riffs a two-word message: “Fatwas suck.”)
[CARTOON RESPONSE: In their words and works, American cartoonists hail slain artists as ‘heroes’]
Today’s “Barney & Clyde” also seems to signal a shift in the editorial winds since 2010, when Wiley Miller drew his syndicated “Non Sequitur” strip in an interactive picture-book style similar to “Where’s Waldo?” The strip, captioned “…Where’s Muhammad?,” was pulled from some newspapers, including the print edition of The Post. What was clever about that strip, then-Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote, was “that the prophet does not appear in it”; Post editors at the time said the comic “seemed a deliberate provocation without a clear message.”
Compare that to today’s “Barney & Clyde,” in which a caricature said to represent Muhammad, according to Charlie Hebdo, actually appears in the strip. It is that very set-up panel, in fact, that carries so much of the deeper message of the cartoon.
“In the upper corner, the final element: A visual note of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, along with the clueless billionaire Barney confessing to his always-wise 11-year-old daughter that he doesn’t get it,” Weingarten tells Comic Riffs. “She speaks for all of us, aghast at the massacre and the absurd religious fanaticism behind it [by replying]: ‘Exactly. The whole thing makes no sense at all.’ ”
(Originally, the creators had daughter Cynthia explicitly expressing solidarity by saying, “Je suis Charlie.”)
And in a final French twist, Weingarten notes, the cartoonists appreciated “the felicity of the fact that Magritte [who was Belgian] spoke and wrote in French. It all seemed to come together.”
It all seemed to come together, too, for the Washington Post Writers Group, which distributes the strip. The syndicate “gave us zero problems with this,” Weingarten says. “They encouraged us completely, and sent it out to all our clients, who were offered a backup Sunday if they preferred it.” The Writers Group tells Comic Riffs that it received no client complaints about the Muhammad/Magritte strip.
And if any readers are troubled by the “Barney & Clyde” strip in The Post’s Sunday funnies, they might prefer to turn the page to today’s “Doonesbury,” where creator Garry Trudeau also expresses solidarity with the slain Charlie Hebdo cartoonists — except that the Islamic prophet is kept safely off-camera. No potentially offensive Muhammad caricatures lurking here — only a referential word-balloon to punch the final line.
[GENE WEINGARTEN: New cartoonist dares to attempt comic pearls before breakfast]
[BENEATH THE COVERS: The personal story behind the New Yorker’s somber Charlie Hebdo cover]
[A PERSONAL LINE: What cartoonists think about expression and extremism]