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Seriously Funny Business:

The Art Of Cartooning & Its Curious Power

Comica ‘09 sees the launch of Ctrl.Alt.Shift Unmasks Corruption, a comics anthology I have co-edited together with John Dunning and Emma Pettit. VV Brown, Dan Goldman, Aleksandar Zograf, Bryan Talbot, Pat Mills, Asia Alfasi and Dylan Horrocks are a few of the high profile individuals who will create original bespoke comic strips inspired by stories of corruption.

Additionally there will be an exhibition throughout November at the Lazarides Gallery in Soho, London, which takes a retrospective look at how comics have been employed throughout history to debate and highlight political issues and will include content from previously unseen archives as well as highlights from the Ctrl.Alt.Shift Unmasks Corruption comic.

Below is an introduction I have written to the Ctrl.Alt.Shift blog highlighting the immense power of comics in shaping public opinion and imagination.

Comics are surprisingly powerful packages. They appear to be such ephemeral things, sources of momentary smiles and thrills, easily read and quickly forgotten in yesterday’s paper or the previous discarded issue. Yet they have proved unusually effective at seizing and imprinting on the imagination, at transmitting information and ideas. Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer-prize-winning author of the Holocaust graphic novel Maus, suggests that this is because their unique visual and verbal blendings enable them to approximate “a mental language” - one that comes closer to our real human thought processes than either words or pictures alone. This may explain why the best have a way of sticking in our minds.

The pen, especially of a cartoonist, can be mighty and sometimes lethally poisoned. Before World War Two, David Low was rumoured to be high on Adolf Hitler’s hit list because of his stinging political cartoons, among the first in Britain to criticize the Nazi leader. Back in the 1870s, crooked New York boss William Tweed is alleged to have complained about Thomas Nast‘s constant exposes of his corruption, saying: “I don’t care what the papers write about me… but stop them damned pictures.” Earlier still, British monarch George IV’s bribe to George Cruikshank to “show him no more in immoral situations” was not enough to restrain the cartoonist’s barbs for long. Despite freedom of the press, to this day cartoonists face being imprisoned under certain regimes, even assassinated, for the criticisms, intended or misread, in their drawings.

When it comes to populist persuasion and instruction, governments, state institutions, corporations, activist groups, lobbyists and individuals of all persuasions have long known that comics and cartoons can get their messages across more efficiently and entertainingly than columns of text. Benjamin Franklin, America’s first political newspaper cartoonist, understood this when in 1754 he sketched, carved and published an image of a snake, curved to suggest the coastline and dissected into eight parts representing the individual colonies. With the caption ‘Join Or Die!’ the cartoon brilliantly encapsulated his urgent plea for unity. It was reprinted or copied in dozens of colonial papers as a founding symbol of the new nation’s shared identity.

Don’t underestimate comics’ explosive alchemy in mixing clear artwork and concise words. Reading their text and characters is a ‘show-and-tell’ double-act akin to deciphering diagrams or maps, ideal for hooking people with little time to read. The danger is that the medium can be exploited equally for good and for evil, for propaganda and indoctrination as well as for more positive, enlightening purposes. There’s no better way to dehumanize and demonize ‘the other’ and instil hatred against them than through brutal, distorted cartooning. From the early 20th century, antisemitism has been spread and ‘justified’ in Germany and beyond with the help of caricatures vilifying Jewish people. Similarly, ethnic hatred was in the 1990s, stoked in Britain by the fascist Stormer magazine and in Rwanda by an explosion of periodicals full of inflammatory anti-Tutsi cartoons.

In this respect, comics are open to the same misuse and abuse as any other powerful communications medium, except that they have long been misunderstood by many as appealing solely to the young, poorly educated and impressionable. Their very graphic impact, fixed on the page for all to see, arouses controversy whenever cartoonists dare to deal with more adult subject matter. Old prejudices persist, but over the past 20 years or so comics in the form of graphic novels have acquired a degree of respectability in literary and art circles. In 2005 British cartoonists Posy Simmonds and Raymond Briggs were elected fellows of the Royal Society of Literature, the first ‘graphic novelists’ to join those hallowed wordsmiths.

Comics have played important roles in wartime, for better or for worse. They have been a medium for vital health and safety warnings, for operational training and for boosting morale. But they have also been used for CIA bomb manuals and xenophobic hate-mongering propaganda. For over 20 years Will Eisner, US pioneer of the graphic novel, worked for the Pentagon on a monthly guide in which buxom Connie Rodd shows dumb Joe Dope the benefits of ‘preventive maintenance’. (Will Eisner’s Preventative Maintenance is available online at Virginia Commonwealth University) Asked if he had qualms about crafting comics for the military, Eisner replied: “I felt that as long as we have a situation where somebody has to learn how to operate this kind of equipment… and men are being killed as a result of poor training or faulty equipment, then I was performing a service by teaching them how to survive.” A recent surreal photocall of Donald Rumsfeld, side by side with superheroes Captain America and Spider-Man to launch a free Marvel comic for US troops, underlines how entwined America’s geopolitics and comic fantasies can become.

Thankfully, there are plenty of thinking, questioning mavericks, rebels and critics working on their own terms as cartoonists. Some cut deep to the bone, like Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz, whose Brought To Light uncovered the 30 years of CIA complicity in drug-smuggling, covert operations and gun-running which were lurking behind the Iran-Contra fiasco of the 1980s. Following a campaign that included a car bombing and burglary with aggravated menace, their publishers, the Christic Institute, were pretty much stamped out of existence by serial CIA lawsuits.

In Britain, Raymond Briggs took his title, When The Wind Blows, from a lullaby but his message was a wake-up call about nuclear warfare that stirred debate in the House of Commons. Japan’s Keiji Nakazawa went further and transcribed his boyhood survival of Hiroshima into Barefoot Gen. Behind today’s headlines, Belgium’s Jean-Philippe Stassen in Deogratias was one of the first Western authors to denounce the genocide in Rwanda, and in his In The Shadow Of No Towers Art Spiegelman grapples with 9/11’s personal and political aftershocks, although only one paper, New York’s Jewish Forward, ran his outspoken pages. As more proof that satire is still alive in the ‘Land of the Free’, Aaron McGruder, Reginald Hudlin and Kyle Baker respond to the Bush-Gore election fiasco in the graphic novel Birth Of A Nation, in which disenfranchised black voters secede from the Union to found their own state of Blackland. Whatever would Ben Franklin have made of this?

The power of autobiographical comics is that their perspective is unapologetically subjective. Joe Sacco’s Palestine, more or less a cartoon version of Gonzo journalism, immersed readers in the politically volatile situation in an almost tactile way, while Marjane Satrapi‘s Persepolis was a heartfelt testimony to a childhood in Iran that was poignant, shocking and funny - but never predictable. We are thrilled that both Sacco and Satrapi are involved in this project as their work has been such an inspiration for comics creators working in this arena.

Subverting the globalized, media-saturated age, the amazing array of individual, perceptive cartoonists, writers and artists gathered into this new comics anthology Ctrl.Alt.Shift Unmasks Corruption provoke us with their deceptively simple means, their ‘lines on paper’, that we bring to life in our minds and hearts.

Posted: October 11, 2009


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Featured Books

by Art Spiegelman

Brought To Light
by Alan Moore
& Bill Sienkiewicz

by Joe Sacco

by Marjane Satrapi

When The Wind Blows
by Raymond Briggs

Barefoot Gen
by Keiji Nakazawa

by Jean-Philippe Stassen

In The Shadow
Of No Towers

by Art Spiegelman

Birth Of A Nation,
by Aaron McGruder
Reginald Hudlin
& Kyle Baker

Will Eisner
& PS Magazine

by Paul Fitzgerald