Sarah McIntyre (jabberworks) wrote,
Sarah McIntyre

cartoons: seeing hope in charlie hebdo

When I heard about the killings of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, I didn't know exactly what to think. I just felt sad. These were people like me, who sit by themselves at a desk most of the time and have family who probably think they work a little bit too hard, and friends who love them. I drew this picture in response and posted it on Twitter.

When I looked at other cartoons on Twitter, I saw a lot of people who were sharing the black and white 'JE SUIS CHARLIE' poster:

Created by Joachim Roncin, art director at 'Stylist' magazine

I liked that but I wanted more, I wanted drawings that would speak to me about the situation. A lot of the cartoons I saw were pictures of people brandishing pens and pencils, some bloodied and some stuck up people's backsides in an intentionally offensive way, showing people weren't afraid to exercise their freedom of speech. A few were a bit more thoughtful, but I didn't really see anything that reflected my own feelings. Almost all of them were drawn by men. Hardly any of them seemed very funny, despite the fact they were shouting for the right to be funny in an offensive way.

The first drawing I had made reminded me of Marjane Satrapi's comic book, Persepolis, about her family and experiences of the revolution in Iran, which she could only really make because she moved to France. There, she had the freedom to make it and the interest of a comics-loving population, who are willing to spend their money in support of the medium of comics.

From 'Persepolis' by Marjane Satrapi

Partly it was just the head covering that made me think of Satrapi; I don't have a lot of exposure to comics made by women who wear one, or read many comics about Muslim women. But a lot of women in my neighbourhood in London are Muslim and do wear head coverings. My first drawing met with a lot of support and thousands of retweets, but I did get some criticism for drawing a young girl in a head covering. (I hadn't even meant it to be a kid; I draw mostly children's books and I was drawing a simplified version of a person. But to be fair to the critics, it did look like a child.) Then again, a lot of children in my neighbourhood do wear headscarves. I talked to one mother about it and she said that it was too difficult to try to get a stroppy teenager to start wearing a headscarf if she wasn't already used to it, so she and her friends had their girls start wearing scarves much younger. Whether you agree about the rightness or wrongness of covering one's head, I'm sure you can see her point. (Here's a useful BBC glossary of the different kind of coverings; I often get confused about what each one is called.)

But taking a stance on head covering wasn't the point of my drawing; I wanted to show women drawing, and show at least one of them looking like a Muslim person in my neighbourhood. Just because a person has their head covered doesn't mean they can't draw excellent cartoons. And reading Persepolis opened my eyes to a whole different culture and was one of the first books that helped me understand how powerful cartoons and comics could be. I wanted to read comics written by the Muslim women in my neighbourhood. What are they experiencing in their everyday lives? What are their opinions about what's going on? What about women in Yemen and other Muslim countries? What are they thinking right now? I know they all have stories, but I don't know if they have the freedom to tell them, or are even encouraged to draw. I do have a Muslim cartoonist friend who says that it's not easy for her when she goes back to her birth country; making comics isn't seen as quite the proper thing to do. But all these people have stories inside them. I drew my second picture and tweeted it:

One thing the Charlie Hebdo murders have shown us is that drawings ARE powerful. As I saw my image and other cartoons spread across the Internet, I realised just how well adapted images are to the new world of the Internet and sharing news. My writer friends were writing impassioned articles about the situation on their blogs, but those weren't shared as quickly. This is partly because it takes time to read a blog, and partly because blogs tend to be read by people who already know about the writer and already generally like what they have to say. Also, their blogs were written in English, and couldn't transcend language barriers in the same way. Using pictures and the French hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, anyone from any language group could gather online, share images and communicate this way.

I learned a lot, looking at other people's cartoon responses. It made me think that being a political cartoonist for a newspaper is incredibly hard work; that person has to come up with something funny in a very short amount of time, when they're probably busy working on lots of other projects at the same time to pay the bills. Imagine having to come up with a joke for every political situation, when you barely have time to read enough to understand it. It's a recipe for a lot of hit-and-miss cartoons. Sometimes you just wouldn't be able to think of something funny but you'd still have to produce a cartoon. And I noticed that a lot of cartoonists, in the absence of humour, would just draw something obvious and cruel, in a playground sort of way. It's what makes me not want to be a paid regular political cartoonist, I don't like being cruel for no good reason, and if a picture isn't funny OR cruel, a lot of people find it weak and boring, which isn't an exciting option, either. Being one of these top-notch political cartoonists, with more hits than misses, is a mind-bogglingly difficult job.

But... what if you don't have to come up with regular cartoons? What if you have more time to reflect, and you can make cartoons just about the things that make you feel strongly? This is the situation most of us are in, and now we have the publishing medium of Twitter: all we need is access to the Internet and a way of getting a picture online (a camera phone will work) and with the help of a hashtag, instantly millions of people can see it. This could be the perfect time for cartoons.

Many people mentioned to me on social media that they'd dabbled in drawing and wanted to get back to it, and one person asked me directly, 'How would I even start?' Which made me write this basic introduction to making cartoons and comics, and I drew this, posted it on my blog and tweeted it:

It began to dawn on me that, for me, the most powerful way I could respond to #JeSuisCharlie wasn't to try to imitate the cartoons I'd seen online, but to encourage other people to start drawing comics, people who might not have thought about it until this situation made them realise what a valuable and powerful thing cartooning really is. What could be a better triumph of free speech than if people who have never felt they had a voice began to realise they do? What if 2015 became the year we started seeing ideas and stories pouring out of places we'd never even imagined? What a triumph for expression and a victory over people who tried to suppress cartoonists.

And it wouldn't just be a victory if these new cartoonists started making the kinds of cartoons we want to see. If we're really fighting for freedom of speech, we have to accept that some cartoons and comics will be made by people whose voices we think are weak, whom we find boring, who say things we don't agree with. But no one will be force-marching us into a comic shop to buy these comics or holding us at gunpoint to say that we like them. It's okay not to like things and it's just fine to read comics critically. Occasionally we might find things that challenge us, stretch us, make us think about things in a different light; we might even find stories that we love.

I don't know if my drawings will make any difference. I suspect this blog post won't, because it will take people too long to read. But writing it helps me to think things through more clearly. Sometimes I make comics when I'm not sure what I think about a situation. It helps.

I saw this comic today in the Guardian by comics journalist Joe Sacco. It touched my heart because he showed that he felt the same thing as me when the cartoonists were shot: just plain sadness.

Comic by Joe Sacco in today's Guardian

It's okay to feel sad. Feeling sad isn't weak. I sometimes think that British culture doesn't allow us to be sad, or it tries to make us think that being sad is something feminine. Men are encouraged to be belligerent, to channel their sadness and feelings of powerlessness right away into anger, and to push back. I don't think our society is better for this. Sometimes it's good to sit for a moment, to be sad, to feel pain. And in Joe's situation, after the pain, he created a thoughtful comic. It's telling that it was a comic and not a one-image cartoon; I think it can be hard to say complicated things in a single image. Sometimes we need more comics panels to describe what we're thinking.

Comic by Joe Sacco in today's Guardian

If you know someone who you think might be interested in picking up a pen or pencil and telling their own stories, please share with them my previous blog post about how easy it can be to start making comics. (Here's the link: I do so hope we can see something good come out of this situation.


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