I’m Not Charlie, But I’m Glad He’s There

Terry LaBan, I Am Charlie, Edge City, Je Suis Charlie, cartoons, comics, Charlie HebdoIf anyone doubted the power of cartoons before January 7th, they surely don’t anymore. I’ve watched the news unfold with horror, of course, but also with a desire to understand what it all means. I’m always wary of narratives that emerge in the immediate aftermath of events like this—was the murder of the French cartoonists inspired by a desire to squelch free speech and satire, which has been the popular assumption, or a strictly a response to the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in ANY form? I think there’s a difference, if only because unless your notion of free speech boils down being able to draw the founder of Islam—and apparently for the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists it did—you still don’t have much to fear, at least if you live in a Western democracy.

When I first saw the Hebdo cartoons, my immediate thought was “What were they thinking?” I never doubted there was a right to publish them, but what was the point of drawing Mohammed on all fours, naked and with his butt facing the viewer, even if it was really well done? I’ve been convinced in the time since that these images, regarded in context, were intended not as an expression of prejudice but of principal. Charlie Hebdo regards religion in any form as an instrument of oppression, an institution to be debunked. That’s not an opinion I share, but it’s one I can accept and understand, with a long history in France.

That said, while I’m someone who has both drawn political cartoons and transgressive “alternative” comics, I’m not and never was Charlie.Though I’ve offended plenty of folks in my day and fielded my share of angry emails and creepy phone calls, I’ve never had any impulse to denigrate people’s religious beliefs or ethnicities, even to make a larger point. In the last few days, I’ve read some criticism of American cartoonists and satirists for being more timid than their French counterparts, but I don’t think at least my personal aversion to that material is based on any fears of not being “politically correct”. In American society the boundaries of acceptable discourse are just different. And freely chosen since, unlike in France, the American right of free speech is legally absolute.

There are as many kinds of cartoonists as there are writers and musicians. Some draw funny stories about family life for the newspapers and do comics and cartoons for business and education. Some hurl brickbats at the powers that be, thumbing their noses at what they feel are the forces of oppression. What we all have in common is the impulse to project ourselves into the world through a combination of words and drawn images and perhaps a tendency to not take completely seriously even the things we actually do take pretty seriously, to constantly question both the world around us and our deepest selves. I don’t do the sort of work the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists did, but I admire them. They stood up bravely for what they felt was the truth and were, not incidentally, incredibly good at their art. It goes without saying that they didn’t deserve what happened to them, but that would be true even if they had been mere hatemongers who sucked. Cartoons, even bad ones, can have incredible power. All we as cartoonists can do is try to employ that power in a way that’s true to ourselves and our view of the world, and hope for the best. An aspiration we must unfortunately share with those looking to shop at kosher markets.


The Ice Storm

Terry and Patty LaBan, Edge City, newspaper comics, funny cartoons

Our neighborhood, February, 2014

It’s always a little dicey when you write about the weather 2 months in advance, which is our when our deadline for daily strips is set (for some reason people always want to know this). As it happens, early January where we live has been fairly mild; as of this writing, we haven’t even had any significant snow yet, unusual for this area. Nonetheless, it was almost a year ago that a major ice storm shut down entire Northeast and we lost power for 5 days, a trauma still fresh in our memory and one we know, with several months of winter left to go, that we could relive any time.  This storyline is sort of a commemoration of that event, one that saw us, like the Ardins, wandering through the township trying to find warm places to stay and active plugs and modems to charge our phones and check our email. It’s distressing how fragile our society actually is. Generally, we try not to think about it, but when massive trees have fallen on your power lines and there’s no way to make the house warmer than 40 degrees, it does tend to weigh on your mind.

A Jew at Christmas

Happy Hanukkah from Edge City!, Terry LaBan, Jewish comics, comics, funny cartoonsI was watching South Park the other day. The episode was on where Kyle sings about how sad it is to be a Jew at Christmas, and it got me thinking. I’m a huge fan of South Park, which I regard as, among other things, probably the best exploration of what it’s like to be Jewish in America since Philip Roth, and I understand where the sentiment comes from. Of course, South Park isn’t the only place I’ve seen Jews portrayed as feeling left out at Christmastime, consoling themselves with the lesser pleasures of Hanukkah candles and presents for 8 days–it’s a pretty common pop culture meme. Of course, a good deal of this stuff is written by Jews, and though one never knows whether it reflects a writer’s true feelings or what they think their audiences want to hear, I’m sure for a lot of Jewish people, it’s true.

But not for me. Listen, I like Christmas time. It’s great that we fight the onset of seasonal affective disorder with glittering lights, gingerbread houses and office parties. I love to drive around and see the houses all lit up, to go downtown and see the the store windows filled with animatronic Dickens people. Invite me to your holiday party and I’ll be there, hopefully not getting too sloppy around the egg nog. Watch The Christmas Carol or A Charlie Brown Christmas for the millionth time? No problem.  But a Christmas tree in my living room or a wreath on my door? That’s OK–no thanks.

See, one of the joys of being Jewish at Christmas is that it affirms that fact that I can share my neighbor’s happiness without having to be part of it. I can be different, and it’s all right. Celebrating diversity doesn’t just mean not minding when people of a different ethnicity move next door–it means honoring the diversity within yourself as well. Yes, Christmas is a wonderful holiday. But I have wonderful holidays of my own that, important as they are, the larger culture barely notices. I’ve never, after all, seen a show where a non-Jew is depicted feeling left out during Sukkot. In that sense, my not celebrating Christmas isn’t a lack–it’s a positive.

So, however Kyle Kozlowski feels, I won’t be sad this Christmas, let alone this Hanukkah(you’ve gotta love a holiday that celebrates fried food). Go ahead and deck your halls and I’ll hope your Christmas is white (6 inches or less, please). And whatever your tradition, I hope this holiday season and this coming year brings you happiness, prosperity and peace.