Having met them at French and Irish cartoon festivals, I knew two of the cartoonists assassinated in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, not well but enough to feel the pain. Any encounter with the French cartoonists was invariably a roller coaster of sharp wit and rollicking humour, but I had a particular affinity with them because of my passion for cycling (Le Tour) and rugby (Six Nations), neither of which the Scottish had made much of an impression on at that time, something my French colleagues persistently rubbed in… in the nicest possible way.
I followed the unfolding horror in real time, acutely aware that Cabu and Wolinski knew they were marked men and tempting fate with every issue of a paper that wore it’s origins in the revolt of May ’68 with uncompromising pride. Unlike British cartoonists, they talked about their public role as fools of court with a passion and commitment that maybe could only come from individuals whose nation had been through a real Revolution, in 1789, and Terror, four years later. Unlike Private Eye or Punch, Charlie Hebdo was vehemently left wing and totally unapologetic for being blatantly so. In part, it was also incredibly silly, thoroughly juvenile and hilariously irresponsible, with now tragic consequences.
The assassination of political cartoonists is nothing new. Arab cartoonist Naji al-Ali, famous for including the ‘little man’ Handala in all his work, was shot in London in July 1987 and died five weeks later. Though he was probably rubbed out by Mossad, Naji was even-handed, equally vociferous at ripping into the Palestinian authorities as the Zionists. Kenya, Russia (then the USSR), Malaysia, Rwanda, Iran and many other less than democratic countries have sacrificed truth-sayers, and many many more wielders of the mighty pen in democratic states have and continue to receive death threats for their work. During the Second World War, Hitler effectively took out a contract on David Low, editorial cartoonist for the Evening Standard, and Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard will be living in fear for a lot longer than Salman Rushdie, if indeed he makes it to a natural death.
The response to events in Paris from cartoonists around the world has been strident but, as with most atrocities, variable in the extreme. It is difficult to know what to say about any outrage that everybody of sound mind unreservedly condemns. This was well illustrated by many of the post-9/11 cartoons that either drowned in their own sentimentality or said nothing beyond metaphorically laying a wreath. Martyn Turner of the Irish Times depicted the Twin Towers as a bar chart, comparing the thousands killed on American soil by terrorists with the much larger towers of the hundreds of thousands American Forces have killed on foreign soil, and received threats for pointing out that truth.
Some of the ‘toons that succeeded for me are illustrated. They fall into either the ‘fuck off’ gut response from the likes of Dave Brown of The Independent and Gado in Kenya, or ones that took analysis of the situation further, like Latuff’s in the Middle East Monitor. (In fact, during the so-called War on Terror, Arab cartoonists have often been far more perceptive and searing than those in the West, and Al Jazeera has been forthright in collecting and publishing them without editorialising.) The least successful have been either the ones that attempted to make fools of the terrorists, as with Steve Bell’s offering in The Guardian, or pulled out the ol’ sword v pen cliché to manipulate; a sure sign of cartoonist’s block.
When they are about to bury friends of yours, it is emotionally hard to believe the pen is mightier though, of course, the intellect understands that the ideas etched in ink are far more powerful and potentially fatal than the bullets lodged in blood.