Controversy in cartoon form- from ‘Crumb’ to ‘Charlie Hebdo’

The recent Charlie Hebdo tragedy- which saw Islamic gunmen open fire at the headquarters of a major French magazine in apparent retaliation to its cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad- has raised renewed fears around freedom of speech, and asked: how safely are we to freely express ourselves in popular media?

Charlie Hebdo is a weekly French satirical magazine, comprising polemics, cartoons, reports and jokes. From its inception in the 70’s, it has long adopted a non-conformist tone in its approach politics and religion, and along the way been met with controversy, condemnation, and more recently tragedy.

In 1996 for example lead Editors/ Contributors François Cavanna, Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier and Philippe Val made steps to overthrow political party, Front National, for its violation to The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen; in 2007 meanwhile the Grand Mosque of Paris commenced criminal proceedings against Val for publically abusing a group on the basis of their religion.

More recently in 2011, the newspaper’s office was firebombed and its website hacked after it published an edition titled, “Charia Hebdo”, in satire of sharia law. This edition featured a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad saying,“100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing”. In other editions he’s been depicted as nude and carrying a bomb in his turban. Yet despite repeated bashing from the Grand Mosque of Paris, the Muslim World League and the Union of French Islamic Organisations, the magazine maintains that its religious cartoons are not an attack on Islam, but rather on Muslim terrorists.











A rare title to tackle controversial depiction in cartoon form head-on is Crumb– a documentary film from 1994 which follows Underground Cartoonist Robert Crumb in his journey to becoming a cult hero.

First rising to fame in the late 60’s, Crumb was a bug eyed, goofy outsider with a deep rooted disgust and pity for contemporary America: for him, a land devoid of intellectual curiosity, where people have become walking advertisements. To capture this, his cartoons replaced the prevailing post war ideal of the perfect family with psychedelic visions debauchery and moral decay.

Drawing upon his own upbringing, vices and aberrant sexuality as sources of inspiration, he penned bulging bosoms, gargantuan phalluses and eerily nightmarish cityscapes to visually express what he saw as a surreal horror show laid bare. These amassed to comics tackling themes of sex, drugs, politics and religion, with a tone that was altogether racist, scatological and sexist.

Adopting the role of self-conscious narrator in his documentary, Crumb attributes his social misfit identity, transgressive sexuality and love of graphic art to a mixture of molly coddling and unconsummated high school crushes, wherein he confesses unapologetically to humping his mother’s cowboy boots as a child and developing a perverse sexual obsession with Bugs Bunny.

In recalling his childhood, we are introduced to his brothers Charles and Maxon– like Robert, both awkward weirdos with Freudian hang ups and creative flair. Described as “three primordial monkeys”, the siblings combined to draw their own comics, taking inspiration from animators Walt Kelly and the Fleischer Brothers.

Crumb’s first major solo break, as we learn, came with Zap Comix (1967- 1979)- a series of LSD fuelled, counterculture cartoons oozing with uncensored self-expression. It’s here that he tackled some of his darkest themes: explicit drug use, sexuality, violence. Notable characters from the collection include, Joe Blow- a incestuous father who sleeps with and receives fellatio; Mr Natural- a wandering exhibitionist, themed on an older version of Crumb himself; The Checkered Demon- a red skinned vigilante called upon to kill bikers, pirates and rapists, and sleep with voracious women; Ignatz Mouse- an aggressive brick throwing rodent; and Mara, Mistress of the Void- a larger than life, space hopping, sadomasochistic super woman.

checkered demonJoe Blow










Crumb too crossed racial and religious boundaries- through character Angelfood McSpade for example he stereotypes a black African woman as busty, bare breasted and tribal, while in The Book of Genesis, he brings the bible up to date with an illustrated, comic book rehash of the classic story of creation.







What unites the cartoons of Crumb with Charlie Hebdo is their shared sense of rebellion; their ability to satire those sensitive topics which seem bring so much conflict into the world. And while I’ve never been massively into comic books, I’ve found in Crumb an inspiring voice of innovation- a want to act out and do something ground breaking.



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