Rod Emmerson: Risks cartooning carries well worth the effort

A vigil was held in remembrance of the 12 people who died in the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris. File photo / AP
A vigil was held in remembrance of the 12 people who died in the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris. File photo / AP

If you could prise open a cartoon, at its centre you would find the beating heart of satire. A very large piece in the humour puzzle that creates that cognitive experience we call laughter.

It's a trait that's been around since neanderthal man first slipped on a banana peel, while his whanau pointed and laughed. It knows no boundaries and speaks in hundreds of tongues. Every culture, from the most primitive to the most advanced, practises it in some form. But humour is mostly at the expense of someone else. We all love it - until we are in it.

So satire is a powerful tool, and submerged in a cartoon, it becomes a potent messenger. It's this that tests the maturity of an individual, a community, a government, a religion or a state.

For the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, everything was and still is fair game. Provoking for the sake of provoking. It's been their mantra since conception and, for the most part, flew well under the radar outside of France, and played to a small audience within.

The 2006 publishing of the Muhammad cartoons may well have raised their profile internationally, but the lessons learned from the 2005 Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoon controversy hadn't sunk in. For the number of mastheads that rushed in solidarity to publish the Danish cartoons, just as many chose not to fall into the Hebdo vortex. Prior to the January 7, 2015 attack, its flagging circulation was just short of 30,000, in a country with a population of over 66 million and on a slippery slope to the publishing graveyard.

Post attack, the "survivors' issue" had an eventual print run of a staggering 7.5 million, with 200,000 signing up for subscription, while the French Government threw in 1 million ($1.62 million) to support the magazine. Twelve months on, today's Charlie Hebdo commemorative issue "The Assassin is still out there" will be just over a million.

The immediate response to the horrific 2015 attack from the global cartooning community (including those from Muslim countries) was to mercilessly club the barbaric ideology behind the killings with thousands of razor-sharp cartoons. Half a world away, my editor, Shayne Currie, offered me the entire front page to send a united message. The cartoonists, and their publishers would not be intimidated, silenced or dictated to by gun-wielding fanatics.

Over the course of the past year, some cartoonists have since earned a fatwa issued by affronted far-flung and short-fused radical clerics. A badge of honour for any cartoonist, as we are a community well used to looking over our shoulder.

After all, the killing of the Hebdo journalists sits alongside a long list of cartoonists who have been harassed, threatened, imprisoned, beaten or vanished without trace, all for the sake of challenging authority in a simple drawing. It goes with the territory.

New Zealand's David Low found himself on Hitler's top 10 list. Pakistan's Zabir Nazir had military protection for several months after the Siege of Lal Masjid cartoons. I have fond memories of vacuous threats of severe beatings through Australia's gun debate, so the menace can come in any shape or form, in any country.

As observers of the human condition, cartoonists are duty-bound to create and stimulate debate, while underlining the follies of our leaders. The risk it carries is worth the effort.

Malaysian editorial cartoonist Zunar (who is currently facing charges of sedition from the Malaysian Government) sums up our profession well. "Cartooning for me is not a gift, but a responsibility." I agree. We all agree. As for acknowledging the anniversary of Charlie Hebdo, I'll be gratefully going about my daily routine of cartooning as my editors, and Hebdo editor-in-chief Stphane Charbonnier, would expect me to.


Rod Emerson is a cartoonist for the New Zealand Herald.

- NZ Herald

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