DEATH, to paraphrase the old saying, concentrates the mind. And since January, it has intensely focused, too, the line.
Ever since the Charlie Hebdo massacre near the turn of the year, there have been subsets of the publishing population that have wrestled daily with the aftermath of the Paris attack by Islamic extremists that left 12 dead, including five Hebdo cartoonists. These smaller circles have included reporters and editors, authors and, often most vocally, fellow cartoonists — practitioners of the pen who understand firsthand the power of the pointed image.
As the debate has been stoked daily — occasionally raging higher when a globally known comic satirist offers comment, or a Muhammad cartoon contest sees fatality on its front stoop — so many creators of word and picture have found themselves pulled and polarized on opposite sides of a kinetic dividing line.
If this intellectual tug-of-war were a reductive editorial cartoon, the strongman on one side might be “free-speech absolutism,” while the muscle-bound mouthpiece on the other side might be “hate speech stipulation.”
And tied to that middle rope today, hours before the PEN American Center gala in New York, would be a big red flag that says simply, “Courage.” Because in recent days, each of two PEN factions seems to have become convinced that the opponent now has enough philosophical rope to hang himself.
Time then, amid some of this month’s intellectual mud-slinging, to wade into the center muck.
In the middle of this glorious mess is PEN’s decision to present its Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo First came word last month that six PEN members — table hosts all — would not attend tonight’s ceremony, in protest of the Hebdo honor. Then, 145 members signed a petition to oppose the courage award, contending that such a laurel necessarily endorses the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. (Update: According to some reports, that number has now topped 200.)
Amid those scores of petitioning authors, though, it’s interesting to note: Not one as of midday Tuesday (unless I’ve overlooked someone’s doodling dossier) is a true cartoonist.
Now, the Charlie Hebdo debate has raged particularly passionately in cartooning circles, partly because it’s a somewhat tight community, and partly because image-makers — given the potent concision of the art form — are so accustomed to slings, threats and blowback.
Yet it’s worth pointing out: The number of cartooning-industry figures within PEN membership is a fairly small number — certainly within the low double-digits, at most. So “PEN cartoonist” is a fairly rare breed — one who might have a differing striation of allegiances.
So it’s significant that into that vacuum of scores of newly empty chairs steps Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and author (“Maus,” “In the Shadow of No Towers”), who has invited some comics pals to represent tonight, at a table hosted by himself and his wife, New Yorker art director Francoise Mouly.
“I called a few friends,” Spiegelman tells The Post’s Comic Riffs, of inviting such fellow A-list comics figures as Neil Gaiman (“The Sandman”) and Alison Bechdel (“Fun Home”). “Neil was game to change his plans and come along. And Alison, who is now so involved in the world of a Tony Awards whirlwind [‘Fun Home’ just received 12 nominations], said she’d come and be at the table.”
“I thought that it was just important to be here for the cartoonists,” Bechdel tells The Post. “And I hope the good that comes out of this [controversy] is that it prompts more discussion.”
“It seems irrational to me not to attend,” Gaiman tells Comic Riffs. “I spent 12 years working with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, chiefly defending the indefensible and literally defending the indefensible — cartoonists, publishers, writers and all — on behalf of free speech”
Some Charlie Hebdo critics have insisted that this debate is chock full of subtle distinctions and interpretations.
” ‘You don’t understand the nuances,’ some people say,” Gaiman notes. “I don’t give a f— about the nuances. Charlie Hebdo showed up to work in 2011 after they were firebombed, and kept working to put out an issue. And they continued and put out an issue after 12 murders. As far as I’m concerned, this is the [precise] award for courage for cartoonists.”
In signing their April 26 petition, the anti-Hebdo members have acknowledged, of course, that the Jan. 7 attack was “sickening and tragic.” But the signees said: “What is neither clear nor inarguable is the decision to confer an award for courageous freedom of expression on Charlie Hebdo, or what criteria, exactly were used to make that decision.”
“We do not believe in censoring expression. An expression of views, however disagreeable, is certainly not to be answered by violence or murder,” the petition continues. “However, there is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression. … [By bestowing this award] PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material; material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”
Some of the comics-industry figures attending tonight emphasize, however, that the award is expressly about courage and freedom — not a referendum on the quality of the cartooning.
“This organization, Charlie Hebdo, was being brave …,” Spiegelman tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “And political correctness by intense shaming is as bad as baiting poor Islam with a picture of the prophet on a red flag.”
“What this really is about,” he emphasizes, “is that cartoonist lives matter.”
Gaiman echoes the sense of solidarity among many cartoonists — a camaraderie and understanding that other PEN members might not be able to fully appreciate.
“I think cartoonists think a lot about this, and we are used to images being taken out of context,” Gaiman tells The Post. “We’re used to having to defend each other, even when we don’t like each other.”
The New Yorker’s Mouly, who is co-hosting a table, emphasizes this difference, in suggesting that some writers and editors don’t fully appreciate the cartoonist’s art, and so might judge Charlie Hebdo with less perception. “Some people’s intelligence is narrow, within their own ‘language’ and mode of communication,” Mouly tells The Post. “Cartoonists are canny because they work on both fronts. They can do a mental dance. And there is a concision that cartoonists bring. They speak in symbols — that’s what they’ve trained their mind to do.”
As a PEN member, Mouly is in an especially uncommon position because, as a French native, she brings a deep and personal understanding of the cultural context of Charlie Hebdo.
“When I was young, I read Charlie Hebdo for the cartoons. I was shaped by their courage, and they had influence on me when I was a teenager — it was attached to history,” says Mouly, noting how important it was to her “1968 generation” amid protests in Paris.
Mouly points out that just because she read the satirical weekly didn’t mean she liked a lot of it, let alone agree with it.
“When I was a kid, it made me terribly uncomfortable to read Charlie Hebdo,” she tells Comic Riffs. “When I was a young woman, in the ’70s, they were taking on feminism. … Women were their main target. It was uncomfortable, not funny, raunchy and sexist stuff,” says Mouly, who in January was about to embark on a trip to China, with fellow members of PEN, when she got word of the attack. “But it was an important part of France – the dynamic of the satire. That is something that I relate to.”
As for the ongoing controversy over tonight’s award for Hebdo, Mouly says: “I hope this fuels an ongoing conversation about freedom of expression for cartoonists. Because unwittingly, this controversy has served as a kind of coronation for the importance of cartooning.”
Jules Feiffer, the Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist, screenwriter and graphic novelist, says he cannot strongly enough underscore the word courage in the award’s very name.
“I think the Charlie Hebdo courage award is really a symbolic act,” Feiffer tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “It’s not about the quality of their work, but about carrying on in the face of mass murder. That’s probably more courage than any others who signed the petition are likely to have exhibited in a lifetime. I’ve certainly never been challenged that way. … To pick up and continue after mass murder is deserving of any courage award.
“I might have my reservations” about Hebdo’s work, notes the curmudgeonly cartoonist, “but I have reservations about nine out of every 10 cartoons I see.”
Gene Luen Yang, the cartoonist, educator and two-time National Book Award finalist (“American Born Chinese” and “Boxers & Saints”), echoes the sentiments of fellow PEN members Feiffer and Mouly in registering his reservations about Charlie Hebdo’s work — even as he defends the magazine’s right to free speech.
“As someone who cares deeply about the representation of minorities in cartooning, and as someone who is a practicing Roman Catholic, I find many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons downright horrific,” Yang tells The Post. “But that’s the whole point of free speech, isn’t it? People get to speak — and draw and write — things that are downright horrific, and the way we’re supposed to fight it is by speaking ourselves. Free speech is a radical condemnation of violence.
“I see Charlie Hebdo’s PEN Award through that prism: PEN isn’t condoning all, or any, their cartoons — PEN is honoring them as a symbol of that radical condemnation of violence.”
Even with PEN’s membership, however, some creators are more in line with the words of “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau, who in his George Polk career award speech last month emphasized the need for “responsible” satire. Acclaimed New Yorker cartoonist and author Liza Donnelly (“Women on Men”) says she cannot salute PEN’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo with an honor.
“I believe in the right of cartoonists around the world to draw freely without fear,” Donnelly tells The Post. “As a political cartoonist and supportive member of PEN, I am in solidarity with the signers of the PEN letter.”
Although Donnelly, a PEN member for nearly a decade, was scheduled to attend tonight’s gala — she curated a slide show of cartoons by international colleagues for another award recipient tonight, Azerbijanii journalist Khadija Ismayilova, and planned to be on hand in support — she will skip the event because she believes in the petition.
“I believe in absolute freedom of speech. We need all voices at the table,” says Donnelly, who is also a political cartoonist at Medium.com, as well as a cartoon editor and creator of WorldInk.org. “Yet as I wrote in my editorial for the New York Times, I believe that cartoonists have a responsibility to use their pens carefully. Because cartoons are visual and thus uniquely universal, they are extremely powerful.
“In a world that is increasingly interconnected, I believe it’s important to consider the possible global ramifications when wielding such power.”