Graphic Violence

Casualties from the War on Cartoons.

Cartoon  Conrad
Copyright © 1999 Paul Conrad. Used by Permission.

Adolf Hitler understood the power of cartoons. They made him crazy ... crazier. Long before World War II, David Low of Britain's Evening Standard routinely depicted Hitler as a dolt, which infuriated the Führer so much that the Gestapo put the British cartoonist on a hit list.

The CIA also appreciated the influence of little drawings. Declassified documents detailing the 1953 U.S. overthrow of Iran's Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq reveal that the “CIA Art Group” produced cartoons to turn public opinion against the democratically elected leader.

Meanwhile, over at the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover placed Alfred E. Neuman under surveillance. According to Britain's Independent newspaper, after a 1957 spoof in Mad magazine mocked Hoover, two FBI agents turned up at the magazine's office to “insist that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director's name.” More than a decade later, in a memo titled “Disruption of the New Left,” Hoover proposed commissioning cartoons. “Consider the use of cartoons,” he wrote. “Ridicule is one of the most potent weapons which we can use.”

As the humorist Art Buchwald observed, “Dictators of the right and the left fear the political cartoonist more than they do the atomic bomb.” The political cartoon acts as a democracy barometer, and when despots rule, cartoonists die. In the 1970s, during Argentina's “Dirty War,” Hector Oesterheld enraged leaders of the military junta that ruled his country by depicting them as space aliens. He and his four daughters disappeared in 1976. 

In 1987, unknown assailants murdered Palestinian cartoonist Naji Salim al-Ali on the streets of London. More recently, the Danish cartoonists who created the infamous Muhammad cartoons were forced into hiding because of death threats from the likes of Osama bin Laden. Incidents of cartoonists being intimidated, imprisoned and exiled are too numerous to mention.

In North America, cartoonists don't face banishment, jail cells or assassinations. Suffering for art here means killed cartoons, not killed cartoonists. Still, just like their colleagues in more repressive parts of the world, our editorial artists frequently struggle with censorship. Except here it's newspapers and magazines that do most of the censoring. Work deemed controversial, sacrilegious, risqué, politically incorrect or simply bad for business often gets killed before publication.

It merits mention that understandable motives can drive editors to kill. The world changes so fast that a political cartoon drawn today can become dated tomorrow, and sometimes a promising idea just doesn't work on paper. Editors also keep their creative types from breaking libel laws, flouting industry ethics and gratuitously offending people. Insult should be a byproduct of a reasoned argument rather than a goal in itself.

Too often, editors fail to make that critical distinction. They squelch compelling cartoons out of fear of angering advertisers, not to mention blacks, Asians, Hispanics, gays, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Midwest grannies. They even fear getting noticed. Cartoonist Milt Priggee remembers what an editor told him soon after he joined The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington: “If you want to survive at this paper, you've got to stay under management's radar. Don't do anything good. Don't do anything bad.”

Internal politics dooms many compelling cartoons. Consider Kirk Anderson's 2002 cartoon on the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal, which portrays a Vatican “fireman” rescuing a priest from a burning church while ignoring a screaming child trapped in the flames. Anderson's paper, The St. Paul Pioneer Press had irked the local diocese for several years. But it repaired relations with the church by publishing an essay by the city's new archbishop. Anderson, who was later downsized, believes his editor spiked his cartoon rather than risk “rocking the boat” even though that is arguably the cartoonist's job. 

Admittedly, religion and cartoons can make for a volatile cocktail. In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten unleashed an unimaginable fury by publishing 12 cartoons featuring the prophet Muhammad. Flemming Rose, the editor who conceived the project, intended to bring attention to increasing intimidation of the free press by Islamic extremists. He never imagined what would follow. 

The Muhammad cartoons sparked riots that caused more than 100 deaths worldwide. Mobs torched the Danish embassies in Lebanon and Syria. Protesters in Nigeria destroyed more than a dozen churches. Palestinian gunmen chased Danish aid workers from Gaza. And Saudis boycotted Danish cheese.

Meanwhile, Islamic extremists in Denmark fanned the flames by taking the cartoons on what amounted to an outrage tour of the Middle East. But these bad-will ambassadors did something else that has not been widely reported. They not only circulated the 12 controversial Danish cartoons but also three appalling drawings that had nothing to do with Jyllands-Posten. One portrayed Muhammad as a pedophile; another placed a pig snout on the Prophet's face; the third cartoon depicted a dog raping a praying Muslim. By reproducing the three foul images, one blogger noted that the Muslim activists “have managed to out-blaspheme the infidel Danes.”

Most American publications, including The Phoenix (Boston), refused to reprint any of the 12 Danish cartoons to accompany their news stories about the riots. The Phoenix editors forthrightly revealed to readers that they feared “retaliation from the international brotherhood of radical and bloodthirsty Islamists.” 

By publicly proclaiming its fear, The Phoenix showed a measure of courage. Most other major publications played down any concerns about violent protests or costly boycotts, and denounced the Danish cartoons as anti-Muslim, juvenile or badly drawn. 

Some of the Muhammad cartoons certainly could have been stronger; others fulfilled the journalist's mission: confronting insanity with honesty. One clever cartoon showed Muhammad in heaven, warning a long line of suicide bombers “Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins,” an allusion to the sales pitch given to potential “martyrs.”

Unquestionably, the so-called “intoonfadah” prompted many publications to soften coverage of Islamic extremism. Several cartoons about the controversy—that in no way depicted Muhammad—were nevertheless killed. 

At the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the paper's publisher took the unprecedented step of vetting all work about the controversy by staff cartoonist R.J. Matson. His first cartoon on the topic was a send-up of art schools that advertise on the back of matchbooks. The “Fatwa Art Instruction School”—which tested prospective “infidel cartoonists” by having them not draw Muhammad—failed to make the grade at his paper despite its lack of jihad-worthy images. 

As the violence overseas intensified, Matson started receiving angry letters from readers demanding that he draw Muhammad to “stick it to the Muslims.” While Matson personally deplored the attack on free speech by extremists, he didn't approve of the Danish cartoons, viewing them as an unnecessary provocation. To express his ambivalence, Matson drew a self-portrait of himself straddling a pen-shaped missile. 

Initially, a cartoon entitled “Suicide Cartoonists” was also spiked. But Matson persuaded his publisher to reconsider. He argued that he had a duty to address the biggest story about cartooning since Thomas Nast took down Tammany Hall. 

Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Marlette felt less conflicted about the Muhammad cartoons. He likens cartoonists to “canaries in the coal mine.” Once mob rule silences cartoonists, who's next?

“Those who have attacked my work,” Marlette told Jylland-Posten, “whether ... Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim, all experience comic or satirical irreverence as hostility and hate, when all it is, really, is irreverence. Ink on paper is only a thought, an idea. Such people fear ideas. Those who mistake themselves for the God they claim to worship tend to mistake irreverence for blasphemy.” 

The response to the Muhammad cartoons has, to date, been loud rather than enlightening. One somewhat hopeful sign: a group of prominent French Muslims recently sued a satiric magazine that re-printed the Danish cartoons. While the Muslim activists will certainly lose their case, a court of law is a surely a better place to battle about ideas than the streets. Of course, in a society that truly cherishes a free press, a more appropriate action would have been a letter to the editor. 

Not that editors love to get letters. Though the Internet provides cartoonists with a way to distribute censored cartoons, it also makes it easy for activists to register protests. 

Perhaps the specter of full in-boxes factored into the Los Angeles Times' decision to quash Paul Conrad's 1999 cartoon of an angry elephant mounting a startled donkey, a drawing designed to symbolize the reality of “Congressional bipartisanship.” To slip the “Wild Kingdom” humping past his paper's decency patrol, Conrad omitted any hint of genitalia. His editor—who called the cartoon “thigh-slapping fun” in an interview with a local alternative weekly—killed it anyway. In doing so, the prudish paper deprived readers of a vintage Conrad spanking of Republicans, who were bellowing about bipartisanship while impeaching Bill Clinton over a sex scandal.

Also instructive is the 2004 decision by Continental Features—a consortium that produces a Sunday comics section for a few dozen U.S. newspapers—to drop Doonesbury. The company's president, Van Wilkerson, asked clients to vote on whether to keep or cancel the controversial strip. In a letter to Continental Features' clients, Wilkerson made his position clear: “I have fielded numerous complaints about Doonesbury,” he wrote “and feel it is time to drop this feature and add another in its place.” Papers voted 21 to 15 to replace Garry Trudeau's award-winning political strip, replacing it with Get Fuzzy, which chronicles the misadventures of an advertising executive and his pets Bucky Katt and Satchel Pooch.

The silencing of editorial artists—historically a progressive voice in the press—comes at a time when the American media is bending over backward to appease conservatives. The rightward shift became apparent after Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994. The boot-licking increased after George W. Bush took office, and in the upsurge of flag-waving after 9/11, some editorial artists lost their jobs because of their progressive politics. In North Carolina, a daily newspaper told its cartoonist that he could dissent from the paper's conservative policies only on Sundays. That once-a-week autonomy did not last long; the cartoonist was soon fired. In Pennsylvania, a paper punished its cartoonist by ordering a moratorium on Bush cartoons. Before long, that cartoonist was also out of a job. 

J.D. Crowe of the Mobile Press-Register, a conservative paper in Alabama, admits he treads lightly when taking on the White House. “Any time I do a cartoon that questions the administration ... it's almost [viewed] like blasphemy,” said Crowe. In 2003, amid the BALCO revelations, Crowe pitched a cartoon representing Halliburton as a bulked up baseball player shooting up from a syringe labeled “no-bid government contracts.” Crowe's jab at Dick Cheney's former employer proved too sharp for the Press-Register.

When war flares, the media tends to cover the military (and even its contractors) with extreme caution. “And it stays that way for a good long time,” says political cartoonist and illustrator Steve Brodner, “until there's such overwhelming evidence ... that the war was a mistake and based on lies. Then people can be critical.”

Mike Luckovich, cartoonist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, had to wait awhile before expressing doubts about the Bush administration's honesty. In 2003, he was blocked from publishing a sketch spelling out “W LIED” with military coffins. Luckovich's editor told a trade magazine that she thought “it was too early in the war to lay these deaths firmly at the president's feet.” 

By 2005, as public support for the war plummeted, Luckovich's paper approved a heart-wrenching cartoon to mark the loss of the 2,000th U.S. soldier in Iraq. Luckovich hand-wrote the names of every dead soldier to craft the word: “WHY.” 

The “Why” cartoon, which helped Luckovich win his second Pulitzer Prize, reminds us that when freed to deploy the potent weapon of ridicule, cartoonists matter. Powerful editorial art reaches out from the pages of newspapers and magazines to poke readers in the eyes. Cartoons sting us in a primitive place, forcing us to question our leaders, our neighbors and our values.

David Wallis contributes to the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post. He is the editor of "Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression” (W.W. Norton).