Sunday, 11 January 2015

Yet another internet opinion about blasphemy, freedom of speech and comics

I've been catching up on some of the comics that came out last year that have been recommended to me.

On Wednesday afternoon I was reading the first collected volume of Ms Marvel by G Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona.
Trumpeted by Marvel as their first Muslim character to headline a comic, I was truly surprised by how fresh and interesting it was. Page one introduced us to at least two Muslim characters with distinctly different attitudes to their faith plus one ignorant white girl asking insensitive questions.
This set off alarm bells with me, thinking the whole thing might get a bit too "worthy", making points about prejudice or force-feeding us with Islamic facts, nudging non-Muslims and going "See?"

Fortunately that was not the case at all and the book is a delightfully-handled teen superhero romp with well-rounded and believable characters who happen to be (for the most part) from a different background from almost all other "heroes". The family interaction all felt very real and I can only see good things coming from it.
It also has a realistic female lead character, something that even a few years ago seemed unachievable. In fact 2014 was a great year for Strong Female Characters (tm). As well as ongoing stories in the likes of Captain Marvel, Saga and Chloe Noonan, we got Gotham Academy, Lumberjanes, a great new creative team on Batgirl and more.
I put the book down and planned to write a piece about this welcome new trend in the previously blokes-only world of comics. Then I saw the news.
Then the other important aspect of Kamala Khan's identity seemed more relevant.
I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that twelve people, including five cartoonists were killed
in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a Paris-based satirical magazine, in apparent vengeance over cartoons that were seen as mocking Islam.
In the four days that followed I have read so many editorial pieces and blogs on this event that I'm having trouble keeping all the opinions in my head. It's taken me till now to swim through the quagmire of information, misinformation and disinformation.

You have probably read quite a few of them too if you are the kind of person who has read this far. So here's another one. From a bloke who mainly does snarky commentary on 1970s girls' comics as a hobby.

All parts of the debates seem to have very strong valid points on either side. First off there is the issue of free speech. More people have quoted Voltaire since Wednesday than there are people who have ever actually read Voltaire. (I own a really nice Penguin Deluxe edition of Candide with Chris Ware comic strips all over the cover. I have still not read it.)

Of course it is an important part of a free society that people should be allowed to say or write whatever we want. But even that statement comes with many caveats. We should not be allowed to verbally harass people or print malicious lies, for example. So there are reasonable limits to "free speech" even in the greatest fantasy liberal society.

But we don't want to be like Iran or Saudi Arabia, for example. This is a cartoon by Mahmoud Shokraye, of a politician (Ahmad Lofti Ashtiani ) who had been accused of interfering in Iranian sports, published in Nameye Amir in 2012:
It might seem pretty tame but offended the target enough to take Shokraye to court over it. The result: A cartoonist got a sentence of 25 lashes. Which seems more than a little harsh.

Even today, in the good ol', freedom lovin' USofA enough comics creators are taken to court to require a charitable foundation to help them. The CBLDF (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund) are a great organisation who do very valid work keeping artistic expression free in a land where you'd expect it never to be needed.

The best recent example of a European publication stretching the boundaries of acceptable "free speech" was, of course, the Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper which, in September 2005, published a similar extremist-baiting set of cartoons of The Prophet. Outrage, stirred up by some irresponsible Imams, lead to mass rioting across the Middle-East and parts of Europe.

The worst offender, arguably, was this one:
Now, one can read at least two different meanings from that and, not knowing the cartoonist in question, I wouldn't want to guess his intentions. However it still makes me wince even eight years later. Which may have been the point.

Other cartoons went a more interesting route around the paper's brief to "draw Muhammed".
See? That's a joke about the sensitivity of the cartoon itself.
And that's a joke whose target is the Jyllands-Posten, calling the whole affair a "PR stunt".

In September 2005 I was running the magazine section in the bookshop in which I worked. I remember being disappointed that no British magazine was daring to show the cartoons, even in a news context. I just wanted to see them for myself to make my own mind up on whether I thought they were offensive. Even Private Eye, a bastion of free speech, known for publishing that which others dare not, made an excuse not to.

In the end, they were published in one magazine that we carried (I cannot remember the name of it now and Google is proving unhelpful). A magazine that the bookshop's head office decided we were no longer stocking. A decision I found miserably cowardly at the time.

However, as with so much, context is appropriate. At the time it was hard to find accurate opinions on the agenda of the Danish daily (I did not have regular internet access waaaaaay back then and our chief entertainment was a hoop and a stick) but I now know it was (indeed is) a sort-of equivalent to The Daily Mail. It is frequently accused of being anti-immigrant and pro-Israeli, for example. You may draw from that according to your own politics. Its regular comic strips are Ziggy and Fred Bassett, which would definitely make me avoid it.
Charlie Hebdo, it seems, is much more of a left-leaning, anti-establishment magazine but on my first perusal of their cartoon style I was particularly struck by the front-page of heavily-pregnant Muslim women demanding benefits:
Seems pretty offensive, right? Well, probably not. According to some people who're actually readers of the magazine the context was more about satirising the Western attitude towards African Muslims, specifically the lack of concern over the kidnappings by Boko Haram last year.

As an experiment: go to Google. Type in "Charlie Hebdo racist" and that is the first image that comes up. Type in "Charlie Hebdo raciste" and it does not appear. It seems French-speakers get the point.

While we're on the subject of Boko Haram, it's worth reminding ourselves that a reported 2,000 people were killed in Nigeria on Friday. Which gives us an overwhelming perspective problem.

Charlie Hebdo, according to those defending it, was an equal-opportunity offender. Nothing was sacred and all sides were attacked. It's easy to find images of cartoons they published mocking Christianity and Judaism, for example. And these cartoons were specifically commissioned because they were threatened not too. Sort of like that image of Andrew Neil that has appeared in almost every issue of Private Eye for over twenty years now after Neil told them not to print it.
The problem, for me, comes with the target of satire. Satire should only be punching up. It's not funny to attack those less powerful than you. If you disagree then you are probably a really unpleasant person. Like the guy I saw encouraging his daughter to shout at a homeless man a few weeks back.
Recently we have heard Nigel Farage complaining that no comedians are on telly making jokes in favour of UKIP. He doesn't understand that that would not be funny. Imagine a medieval peasant complaining "Why can't we have a jester who supports the king?"
It can be argued that the terrorist organisations supporting these appalling acts are powerful and need to be mocked. Or indeed the extremist nation states like Iran, Saudi and Qatar. Wait, not Qatar. We support them. For some reason.
The problem is that when we mock Islam, the Prophet himself or Muslims as a group we not only offend all, the high and the low, but we perpetuate the idea that it's okay to do that. And in many people's minds that just creates an equivalence.
See, some folks still only see the world like a 1950s cowboy film where we can tell the goodies from the baddies by the colour of their hats. So for many Islam=terrorism. And most Muslims are brown. Therefore brown people are terrorists.
At the same time, a young Muslim growing up with a mass media telling them that their religion is for terrorists may end up thinking that. When George W Bush said in 2001 "You're either with us or against us" it had the unintended consequence of making lots of otherwise ambivalent young Muslims say "I guess I'm against you then."
That's why I liked this image:
Love: Stronger Than Hate. After the first firebomb attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices (you can see the symbolic smoking remains) they came back with this cover showing the magazine's mascot (the equivalent of Alfred E Newman, I guess) embracing a nondescript Muslim. Simultaneously showing a message of love and support while also deliberately annoying the more hardline fundamentalist types. A double whammy.

So, I guess I'd like to see the media lay off Islam for a while. The extremists are doing a fine job of bringing bad publicity all by themselves. And anyway, how much are we really supporting free speech?
We seem free to mock the people that those in power are okay with us mocking, but where are we stopped? Sony pulled the movie The Interview because they were scared of reprisals from North Korea and no one supported them or told them not to back down when threatened.
They weren't even threatened with bombs or guns. They just caved after a cyber-attack. No #JeSuisSeth.

You could argue that no one really cares about another comedy from the people who brought you The Green Hornet but, in the words of comics legend and free speech advocate Neil Gaiman, "if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost."

Ms Marvel, we could do with someone to knock some sense into the world.
Bonus: Lots of cartoonists have produced works in sympathy for the cause of cartoon freedom and for the lives of their fellow artists. Among those I admire have been Martin Rowson and Steve Bell. The more remarkable ones I've seen are:
Robert Crumb:
Albert Uderzo, coming out of retirement:
...Not sure who Asterix is meant to be hitting there (those aren't Roman sandals) but I'll take it.

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