Gaiman, Art Spiegelman and Alison Bechdel on why comics are so controversial — and why they must be defended
Tuesday, May 5, 2015
When six writers withdrew in protest from PEN American Center’s annual fundraising gala last week, they set off a long and lively discussion of free expression and its limits. At issue is the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award that PEN is tonight bestowing on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, eight of whose staff members were killed, along with four other people, when gunmen sent by the militant Islamist group al-Qaida in Yemen assaulted their offices earlier this year. The dissenting six were soon joined by more than 200 other PEN members, who signed a letter objecting to “enthusiastically rewarding” the magazine because they consider its cartoons of the prophet Mohammed to be offensive to Muslims.
The other three are all celebrated comics artists: Art Spiegelman, Neil Gaiman and Alison Bechdel. Spiegelman, author of the legendary graphic novel “Maus,” had read that some PEN members had floated the idea of standing up and turning their backs when the award was presented, or hissing. “I thought, that’s obscene,” he said on the telephone yesterday. “I talked to a few friends, and Alison and Neil Gaiman were able and willing to come. Matt Groening [creator of “The Simpsons”] tried to come but he was in production this week. I thought it would be great to have someone to shout out, ‘Cartoonists’ lives matter!’ when the award is being given if anybody dared hiss it.”
Cartoonists tend to stick together because they have to; as Gaiman points out, their work is disproportionately singled out for suppression both abroad and in the U.S., while at the same time often regarded as not “serious” enough to deserve a full-throttle defense. “I spent 12 years on the board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund,” Gaiman told me, “for which I was fighting on a daily basis to keep people who had written, drawn, published, sold or owned comics out of prison and from losing their livelihood for having drawn something that upset somebody.”
Cartoonists are particularly vulnerable when addressing Islam, as some (but not all) Muslims believe that it is sacrilegious to depict their prophet visually in any way. This is not a threat limited to Europe. Earlier this year, CNN reported that the Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris is still in hiding, four years after she attracted death threats for drawing non-satirical images of Mohammed on a teacup and thimble and domino. Her name recently appeared on the most-wanted list of the al-Qaida magazine Inspire.