Graphic Violence

Casualties from the War on Cartoons.

Graphic Violence

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.

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