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By Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson

If I had my druthers I would mostly live in a Jane Austen world. I say mostly because of course it would be necessary to be wealthy and male, from a proper upper class family with good social standing and white goes without saying. I prefer gentility, good manners and pleasant behavior. I don’t like crass, vulgar, adolescent immature anything. So what am I doing in the world of comics?

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Here’s my true confession—I can’t stand most of the overdrawn huge busted female protagonists or female tag alongs with their scanty clothing and overly sexual stances in mainstream and some indy comics. I’m not too thrilled with the pervasive violence and the adolescent need to blow up everything in sight including entire universes. It not only bores me to stone but as a woman, much of it, I find offensive. I worry that it helps to maintain a pervasive anti-woman and violent atmosphere not just in comics but also in the world at large.

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However, I rarely take a stand on these issues because I also worry a great deal about censorship. Freedom of the press and the right to express oneself is not just an intellectual ideal for me but a passion. I don’t want my worldview censored and therefore I don’t get involved with censoring others. I just don’t look. I click it off, turn off the device and don’t pay my money. Because I do have somewhat of a platform I also don’t promote or encourage things I find offensive but I don’t say anything against them either. If you can’t say something nice…

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However, once something moves into hatred and the stated need to physically harm, rape and kill those with whom one disagrees we’re not in Kansas anymore Dorothy. And that goes for both the right and the left. Physical violence whether it is destruction of property or going to the very limit of humane behavior by harming anyone you disagree with is insane. Attacking people who draw cartoons and killing them with automatic weapons is a show of extreme barbarity. If you cannot use your intelligence to counteract those things with which you disagree and must resort to physical violence then you have already lost.

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On January 8, Art Spiegelman spoke on Democracy Now about the recent horrific events in Paris and one of the things he said struck me profoundly. He talked about the visceral comprehension we have when we see a cartoon or visual image. A cartoon tells a story with such immediacy that it crosses all borders and if done well goes to the heart of the matter in a split second. And that is one of the main reasons why yours truly, mostly Mz Jane Austenite, finds herself in the world of comics. I love that sense of the immediate moment of truth whether I agree with it or not.

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Honestly, many of the images from Charlie Hebdo are gross and not to my taste. At the same time as much as I try to keep an open mind about different cultural norms I cannot quell the sick feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I am near a woman in full purdah. As much as I wish I could rip the veil off and kick the guy’s behind who’s ambling along in shirtsleeves paces in front of the poor creature sweating under layers of clothing, I don’t. I have no right to impose my belief. It would be intrusive, violent and a little nuts.

Whatever defamation these cartoons represent to some there is no way in any sane world that these images require the horrible and unthinkable sadness of the death of those who drew them. Time for us all to drop our swords and kalashnikovs and find our pens! Je suis Charlie.images-3

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12 COMMENTS

  1. I can’t support the Je Suis Charlie movement, as to me it ignores the larger problem. What happened in Paris, is horrific, but less than a few months ago almost the exact same artists were condemning Charlie for it’s biased and crass presentation of issues in illustration. I support free speech, I support non-violent dissent, I do not support violent attacks over disagreements in opinion, but where are the voices of equality, understanding, and brotherly community. I fear the Je Suis Charlie movement is only another break-neck, knee-jerk reaction without full consideration. The pen is a mighty weapon, I use it often, but I ‘d give my left hand to start seeing some pens used to build a community instead of these constant attacks. We just keep getting deeper in the negative, without doing anything to stabalize and rebuilt. Here’s hoping the coming months don’t see more attacks on character, person, religion, belief, and a new trend of those attempting to use the pen to heal wounds and rebuild a world to be proud in.

  2. Its true that freedom of expression usually seems to demand we support the publication of stuff we don’t even like! but I guess thats the reason to support it. This means that at any time there are lots of things that we can object to and denounce, even if we reluctantly agreee that it should be published, performed, broadcast filmed or whatever. As for comics that build community, there’s never been a better time. just off the top of my head: Womanthology, Secret Identities, Occupy Comics, Colonial Comics, Big Feminist Butt, Stanford Graphic novel project, The Graphic Canon, any random CBLDF anthology, the Flight and Explorer anthologies, Hip Hop Family Tree, Second Avenue Caper. If by community you mean comics that either bring together a group of artists around a theme or a single work that affirms, identifies or illuminates a community, then we’re living in the best of all comic book worlds right now and its only going to get better. Said mr. optimistic.

  3. Free speech also means (especially means) supporting the expression of ideas you don’t agree with. It would be great to have a society based on community and the positive, but a free society means taking the bad with the good. Condemning, boycotting, ignoring, and even hating speech you disagree with is all fine and everyone’s right. But seeking to stifle it through violence and, by extension, fear and threats is the issue. One can support this even if you don’t agree with Charlie Hebdo was doing.

  4. I can’t tell you how sad articles like yours make me. It’s heartbreaking.

    Because you’re obviously a good person with strong ethics, and you share what seems to be the consensus in the US articles I read : we have to support Charlie DESPITE what they do.
    I’ve been reading Charlie for the last 20 years and please, please, believe me : they are good guys, fighting the good fight.

    All people know about them is what you can see in the press today : trash cartoons, almost exclusively about Islam. With no elements of context or even translation, some of them even completely loose their meaning, with horrific results.

    And we end up with the world seeing Charlie Hebdo as a xenophobe newspaper…
    Heartbreaking.

    Yes, Charlie publishes gross, punk, childish, offensive cartoons. It also publishes smart articles about economy, politics, ecology, literature, movies… And don’t believe that Islam is the only topic they mock : they joke mainly about politics, ridiculous personalities, and yes, yes, religions too. I completely understand if it’s shocking to some of us. I’m an atheist and I think it’s quite okay to mock religions (and to be honest it makes me laugh). But I know religion is off limits for a lot of people .

    But here’s the important point : no media in France has done more to fight racism. Yes they do offensive jokes about Islam (and catholics -mostly ! they sued them 14 times these last years- and jews and buddhists and whatever), but they do it with a 22 years history of fighting the french far right and the oh so scary Front national party.
    When you’re a Charlie reader, you know all that, and you trust the guys. You look at a cartoon featuring Mahomet and you know they’re targeting extremists. It doesn’t even cross your mind that they could despise a whole community.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to rant this long. I certainly don’t mean to sound aggressive or angry because your article sounds to me sensible and wise (and you didn’t go as far as saying that Charlie is racist like I read in a lot of places !) . It’s just very disappointing to see well-intentioned people slightly loathing Charlie… and to think I would do just the same in your place.
    I’ve been reading Charlie Hebdo all my adult life has only made me a smarter, more generous, positive and tolerant man. We lost precious people. As one of their former journalist said, they were just happy people trying to make people happy. We need the surviving team to go on and make us think and laugh.

  5. “I cannot quell the sick feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I am near a woman in full purdah.”

    Welcome to white feminism, 101. That whole paragraph is gross, like really really gross. But it’s especially gross considering that Muslim women can’t wear headscarves in France.

    Saying that something grosses you out isn’t censorship, by the way. That’s an important distinction.

  6. One important precision Kim.
    Religious signs (like muslim headscarves, having a crucifix around your neck, wearing a kippa or a I love Jesus t-shirt) are forbidden in precise situations : when you’re in school or when you’re a civil servant doing your job in contact with the public.
    For instance I’m a librarian and none of my colleagues wear such signs at work.

    I’m not gonna start a long and boring french history lesson, but we ended deciding that it’s important that France as a state, as an institution, stays non-religious. We’re just all equal citizens and no belief is above another.
    Is it smart ? Is it dumb ? Does it favor tolerance and equality or just the opposite ? That’s a big debate and I understand if you disagree with that law. I’m not so sure myself about the school ban.

    But of course everybody is allowed to live and show his faith in any other situation !
    My colleague Fatiha doesn’t wear her scarf at work but of course we welcome any muslims women who do.
    Sorry it’s a very sensitive subject and it’s very hard for me to explain it properly in english. I hope I wasn’t to clumsy.

  7. A lot of the material in Charlie Hebdo was intentionally offensive. The hook-nosed caricatures of Muslims are pretty close to the racist depictions of Jews and blacks that were common in the U.S. media a century ago. (It wasn’t surprising to read they had an all-white staff.) Charlie also had a history of running homophobic cartoons.

    But that’s the thing about free speech/censorship battles: they rarely involve great works of art or literature. They’re usually about vulgar, lowbrow junk like “Deep Throat” or Hustler magazine or 2 Live Crew albums … or “The Interview” and Charlie Hebdo.

    Sure, we would feel more comfortable defending the free-speech rights of Martin Luther King than those of Larry Flynt. But free-speech martyrs are rarely that pure. It’s possible to defend these rights without endorsing the material under attack. Here in the U.S., Robert Crumb’s cartoons are offensive to many people (especially to women) but I don’t want to see Crumb censored or shot.

    As Seb said: We have to support Charlie DESPITE what they do.

  8. My English must be terrible because I was trying to say the exact opposite… :)
    They were fighting for everybody’s rights and I understand if religious cartoons offend some but they were really great people.

    George, please let me correct some of your statements:
    – The staff is not all-white. I was really happy to hear that Zineb El Rhazaoui was on vacation that day because as a Moroccan Charlie journalist she was certainly on their list of people to kill. She’s a human rights activist, and her writing in Charlie is mostly about religion, like condemning shariah related horrors.
    – the hook-nosed caricatures : I checked and I found only one of the cartoonist drawing Mahomet with a long nose. None of the others did that. I understand if you found that to be in bad taste, but again, these are guys who have been fighting racism for 20 years while all the others were watching the national front party getting bigger and did nothing. Still, good point.
    – the homophobic cartoons : this is simply NOT TRUE. I was very surprised to read you because there never was the beginning of a controversy on that topic. I googled it : it indeed comes back again and again in a lot of english newspapers that Charlie is homophobic and misogynistic (without any justification). If you know a little French I encourage you to search in my language: there’s absolutely nothing. Last year an ultra-conservative organization tried to oppose same-sex marriage. Charlie made fun of them by often depicting them as gay. Not very subtle but efficient! I think your journalists saw them and misread them.
    There are sadly a lot of misunderstandings about some Charlie cartoons on the web. I can understand the controversy over religion and I’ve tried my best to explain Charlie’s point of view. But I assure you the other topics are just misunderstandings.
    You’re right about “free speech/censorship battles”. CH is hardly poetry (even if they reccomend some in there literary section !)

    Sorry I’ll stop ranting here.
    I highly recommend to anyone trying to understand Charlie Hebdo is to read this Robert Crumb interview :
    http://observer.com/2015/01/legendary-cartoonist-robert-crumb-on-the-massacre-in-paris
    As an American cartoonist living in France, he has an unique point of view.

  9. “At the same time as much as I try to keep an open mind about different cultural norms I cannot quell the sick feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I am near a woman in full purdah. As much as I wish I could rip the veil off and kick the guy’s behind who’s ambling along in shirtsleeves paces in front of the poor creature sweating under layers of clothing, I don’t.”

    You get sick when you see a woman in a headscarf? Also, what about Hasidic women? Or Christian women who always wear a lot of clothing? Amish? Mennonites? I’m just curious whether your POV is anti-Muslim or anti-religion. I’m guessing anti-Muslim based on where you go in the next sentence. (It should go without saying that the picture you paint is NOT how the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world live…)

    The fact that you cannot condemn these attacks without attacking Muslims makes me sick to my stomach.

  10. Seb: You’ve really drunk the Kool-Aid, haven’t you? (That’s an American expression.) I think Sight & Sound film critic Michael Pattison put it best, when he wrote:

    “I can’t think of anything less progressive than championing ‘offensive art,’ especially the sort frequently perpetuated by the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. … Consider the absurdity, for instance, of defending an art that deliberately offends or ‘crosses the line’ on the black community, the working class community, the disabled community, the homosexual community and so on; there’s good reason why we call bullshit on such works. But two bampots kill 12 people one afternoon and suddenly we’ve got a hashtag claiming solidarity with satirists who, let’s be frank, weren’t very good or progressive or important to begin with (regardless of how ‘free’ they ought to be to ‘offend’ or ‘cross lines’).

    “Implying that hornet’s-nest-kicking, lowest common denominator-appealing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad by white middle-class satirists was somehow important in its line-crossing is itself offensive, and the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ march that happened today in Paris is hypocritical horse-shit, featuring none other than a representative of the Saudi Arabian government, which two days ago dished out the first of its 50 lashings a week for 20 weeks, sentenced to a blogger for ‘insulting Islam.’ Ha!”

  11. didn’t knew that one. I had to look it up :) Sorry if I appear that way.
    To aggravate my case (!) :
    I fully realize they went full power on Mahomet jokes when it wasn’t necessary. But they are atheist (as I am) and consider religions are nefast to society and should be mocked. All of them.
    It’s important to mention that they don’t depict muslims, catholics, jews, whatever… they draw gods, prophets, priests… They’re attacking ideology, not communities.
    And again THEY FIGHT RACISM. They support minorities whatever their religion is. There’s even a weekly column where they spotlight the story of illegal immigrants who are in trouble with french authorities in hope it will get help them get papers. Almost always muslims. It doesn’t matter to them. I would probably react like you but come on ! Don’t tell me all my arguments are completely dumb and I’ m braindead when it comes to CH. Things aren’t really this black and white.

    We have a stand-up comedian in France called Dieudonné, who makes anti-semitic jokes. He’s full of hate and hides behind comedy and free speech. Authorities sued him and he had to stop making his propaganda show. I sincerely hope he won’t get shot but if it happened you won’t see millions of people rallying for him. He’s everything you think CH is. He would totally deserve Pattison anger.

    The beat linked to this article by a french guy who’s much more eloquent (and erudite) than me.
    It probably won’t convince you but I really recommend it too:
    http://blogs.mediapart.fr/blog/olivier-tonneau/110115/charlie-hebdo-letter-my-british-friends

    I hope you’ll take a look at their new issue (it’s gonna be translated in english).
    Totally agree with you on the Saudi Arabian representative invitation. Major fuck-up ! I guess they need them to fight terrorism but it’s really not worth it.

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