“Cartoonist Lives Matter”: Art Spiegelman Responds to Charlie Hebdo Attack, Power of Cartoons

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Art Spiegelman is renowned American cartoonist, editor and comics advocate. In 1992 he won a Pulitzer Prize for “Maus,” considered one of the most important graphic novels ever published and one of the most influential works on the Nazi Holocaust. Spiegelman also founded the comics magazine RAW. In 2005, he was named one of the 100 Most Influential People by Time magazine. After today’s broadcast on the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, we continued our discussion with Spiegelman about his life’s work and the power of cartoons. Watch the first part of this interview, Comics Legend Art Spiegelman & Scholar Tariq Ramadan on Charlie Hebdo & the Power Dynamic of Satire.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We’re joined now by Art Spiegelman, the renowned American cartoonist, editor and comics advocate. In 1992, he won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus, considered one of the most important graphic novels ever published and one of the most influential works on the Holocaust. Spiegelman also founded the comics magazine Raw. In 2005, he was named one of the hundred most influential people by Time magazine.

AMY GOODMAN: We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Art. In part two of our conversation, the power of cartoons, of graphic novels, often in illustration—something you know well—able to express things you can’t in words. Your reaction to what’s taken place in France, and what’s happening with cartoons in the United States? I mean, is there a level of self-censorship in the United States where you wouldn’t—where, for example, after the downing of the World Trade Center, after it was taken down, people were skewered if in any way there was any parody. It was just felt that this horrific moment—yes, and then we had your book, In the Shadow of No Towers.

ART SPIEGELMAN: Well, cartooning has been very effectively and thoroughly defanged in America. It’s part of the general flow of newsprint and newspapers out of existence, but precedes that, in that the last thing a newspaper wants to do is offend. You might lose an advertiser, you might lose enough readers for it to matter, because there is an economic impulse in all this, as Mr. Ramadan was very clearly pointing out. And the result is, now most political cartoons tend to be, insofar as they exist—I think there are less political cartoonists than there are professional ballplayers in America anymore, because there’s no place for them to function.

But the result has been, over a period of time, that the political cartoon has become a variant of the gag cartoon, The New Yorker one-liner cartoon underneath, in which certain targets are present as tropes, but just to make a kind of amusing gag, certainly not to take a position that could offend, outrage or provoke thought. It’s the opposite. It’s like, “Har, har, isn’t Obama a Spock-like egghead?” or “Isn’t it amusing that Congress cant’ get anything done?” And it stays at the level of amusement without enough charge to unpack it. Like at this point I think that Jon Stewart and, until recently, Colbert have taken up the slack of what political cartooning used to be and should do.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, at its best, what do you think political cartooning should be and do? And how did you get into cartooning yourself?

ART SPIEGELMAN: OK, it should make a mess, by God. The cartoonist’s job is that—it’s why I was at a demonstration last night at Union Square in support of what happened—of Charlie Hebdo, with mostly French Americans, a few hundred of them, shouting. I felt really like in a minority, not because I’m a secular Jew, but because I’m an American in this demonstration that was mostly the French, feeling this very viscerally. And so, among all of the shouts of “Nous sommes Charlie Hebdo! Nous sommes Charlie Hebdo!” I’m there going, “Cartoonists’ lives matter! Cartoonists’ lives matter!” And this had to do specifically with that mandate to say the unsayable. It’s an important thing in order to be able to focus you on what needs to be said, if you want to be talking about the primacy of language, of verbal language.

I got into cartoons by being introduced to Mad comics in Mad magazine at a moment where it imprinted on me very, very deeply—before I could read even. And Mad, I was getting the parody versions of things way before I ever discovered what the original being parodied was. So, I just entered with a rather skewed lens to look at everything. But the main thing that Mad was doing in its earliest years especially was saying, “Look, the adult world is lying to you, and we here at Mad are adults. Don’t trust anything anybody says.” And I think it’s what allowed for an antiwar movement in America. I don’t think it’s just an interesting proximity. I think Mad asks one to analyze what information one gets from the media and respond to it, as opposed to nod to it, that in the ’50s that Norman Rockwell vision of America held primacy, and—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What was that vision?

ART SPIEGELMAN: Oh, you know, Mom’s apple pie and the harmonious small-town life in America and the four freedoms of giving thanks for Thanksgiving and so on. And ultimately, it needed a corrective, so that Mad, for example, had a parody of this in the form of a parody beer advertisement in which the family is sitting around drinking beer in the living room, with the dog drinking beer out of a dish where his water should be, Grandpa, with Junior on his knee, feeding him a big keg of beer, with the goldfish bowl filled with beer. Basically, the way we got through the ’50s was, as you know from Mad Men, if nothing else, was by anesthetizing oneself through as much alcohol as you needed to stay calm.

AMY GOODMAN: From Mad to The New Yorker, talk about the cartoons.

ART SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, well, like—

AMY GOODMAN: And what you can do and what you can’t do.

ART SPIEGELMAN: Well, you know, I found my—I was invited into Mad at—I wish. No, I had been. But let me strike that. I was invited into The New Yorker.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, what happened with Mad?

ART SPIEGELMAN: Oh, well, Mad, I had been invited in, but way after it would be an interesting thing to do. Mad had devolved enough for it not to be that great. And in terms of economic imperatives, I wanted the rights to my work, and so did Mad, so anything they ran became a subset of them. At The New Yorker, I had some more rights with my pictures when I started.

But I was invited in, not knowing that much about The New Yorker, knowing a lot more about Mad. I was asked to do covers under Tina Brown. And very quickly, I found myself channeling the Mad impulses into The New Yorker‘s impulse. And it’s a tradition that Françoise, who’s my wife, who’s the art editor of The New Yorker, has continued, I think with great magisterial presence, including the Obama cartoon that made everybody on our side of the political spectrum so freaked out when it happened—the fist bump cover with Michelle looking like Angela Davis and the Constitution being burned inside a fireplace and the fist bump between them and him wearing a head—

Read the rest of the transcript here.


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