Comics / Comics News

The Role of the Cartoonist in Society: A Twitter Monologue


By Hervé St-Louis
September 1, 2017 - 18:16

This is a monologue that I started on Twitter on August 28, 2017 after having exchanged with another Twitter user with different views on the role of cartoonists in society. I’ have corrected the typos and added proper punctuation, which is often impossible in Twitter due to space limits.

A simple question about the nature of the artist (in my case, the cartoonist) in society turned into a cultural war vs left & right.

No one can dictate to artists (& cartoonists) what they can or cannot do. But I agree that once the work is out, anyone can criticize it.

The cartoonist should only be absolute when it concerns his practice but the interpretation of the work left behind can be disseminated.

So, if I decide to not create comics with mostly racialized characters like me, I think it's fair to criticize my work. Good compromise.

Many early black cartoonists fought hard to be able to create comics not intended just for blacks. Still an industry struggle today.

But if some cartoonists want to create comics mostly about representation, I say hell yeah, & I support this. Just don't make it a rule.

Could hate material be an artistic creativity limit? As Popper argued "is the defence of intolerance for tolerance, a threat to tolerance?

Should hateful material created by an artist/cartoonist be censored? Chaykin, the Confederate TV series?

First, some material, is not hateful but really unpleasant. Chaykin was probably hateful while the Confederate TV show producers bold.

Intolerance and unpleasantness are not the same thing. Yet both confront people with the discomfort of art. Art may not be beautiful.

And of course, I end up with the old philosophical debate about whether art is about beauty & perfection or about visceral emotions?

What is interesting in the current debate are the wants made by many people over art for the sake of politics. The cartoonists is at core.

The cartoonist started as the king's fool, mocking power. Her first act was a political one against her sponsor, the ruler.

Today the cartoonist's work & practice nominally encompasses more than politics but at the core, the king’s fool mocked power.

Many king's fools lost their lives when losing their support from their victims, the mocked with power. Being a cartoonist can be dire...

People often make demands of cartoonists "Oh, I have a joke for you." "Draw this story, it's very funny."

But the cartoonist is often told what they cannot draw. "Don't make a joke out of this." "You can't draw that, it's disrespectful."

When criticizing other cartoonists' work, I have made demands too. When I create, I value my absolute freedom. Am I a hypocrite?

On one hand, I argued that the practice of the cartoonist be absolute & that only the work be disseminated.

But readily make demands before work has been completed, sometimes for the sake of diversity & representation, sometimes not.

Here is one age-old example where the autonomy of the cartoonist & the artist is not absolute; commissions.

In commissioned work, the cartoonist becomes the hand of the client who dictates wants. Wants performed with the idiosyncrasies of a creator.

This asks an interesting question about hermeneutics. Is the work more important than its creator? Post-modern art history values the latter.

The context surrounding the artist's life and how others speak to this work becomes more important than the analysis of the work itself.

So what the Confederate TV show & the values of its directors & producers is more important than the aesthetic values of the series itself.

What the potential shame generated by the work means to racialized audiences is more important than than the unscripted series.

No one cares about the photography and cinematography of the Confederate TV show. The artist doesn't even own the absolute right of practice.

This proves that art does not exist only in a universe concerned with aesthetics. It exists in a community and is disseminated by many.

The current trigger is obviously Trump & his exaggeration of the existing cultural wars in tbe US. But these issues exist regardless of him.

Trump created an inflammation but the underlying condition that we observe so easily was present. The Confederate was done prior in comics.

Captain Confederacy & The America Way have the same premise. DC Comics is quiet about the American Way. Everyone forgot Captain Confederacy.

Fictional variants like the island of Genosha & mutant Apartheid, concentration camps for mutants at Marvel Comics aren't brought up at all.

Is eliminating the Confederate TV show & Chaykin's comics more about getting back at Trumpland & the visible inflammation than the works?

I want to continue to create a comic about Johnny Bullet, originally modelled after Steve McQueen but doing so feels treasonous as a black.

The irritation is so strong that my value as a cartoonist is based in some quarters on some fool allegiance against the inflammation.

"A black cartoonist should create comics primarily with black characters because representation is lacking." Enrolled in a greater quest.

As hermeneutics goes, it is no longer about the work, its author, but about the greater meaning & interpretation by others who didn't create.

I shouldn't entertain creating stories based on Steve McQueen that transcend him & produced an original character called Johnny Bullet.

Let's question my motivations further. Why the hell is a black guy glorifying Steve McQueen in the first place? What's wrong with that?

Aren't cars, NASCAR, drag racing white people's culture anyway. Why glorify that? Why not a comic about a jazz player?

(A crime noir comic about a black jazz player is totally rad by the way but I'm sure it's been done - Valiant's Shadowman).

I answered my own question. I am a cartoonist. I play with ideas. I stumble on an idea, I find it radical & worth exploring. So, I commit.

Had I stumbled on the idea of a black jazz player in a crime noir comic first, that would have Johnny Bullet today.

Instead, I got to watch a couple of cool Steve McQueen movies, and that stayed with me long enough to make me try my hand at Johnny Bullet.

When the time was ripe for me to finally commit to a project, it was Johnny Bullet that was there. It coincided with personal grief too.

Working on the comic let me to balance my life. It had nothing to do with politics. It was an escape from reality.

For years I had tried to commit to creating a comic series. It took a personal setback to finally muster the courage.

I am obsessed with Johnny Bullet because it is part of my personal comeback story. I almost quit my PhD. Isn't this enough stress?

Since Johnny Bullet started, my PhD work has been excellent. I have grown as a scholar. But also as a cartoonist.

I am fighting for my own comeback story, not trying to fight cultural wars. I am a cartoonist. I have to draw stuff or I'm in pain.

Growing up, if I didn't draw for a week, I would have phantom pain in my guts. As if there was a black hole swallowing me from inside.

It's almost the kind of pain you have when heartbroken or in love. Musicians have that too when they don't play music for a while.

Doing animation on the computer allowed me to stop drawing with pencils and have tactile interaction with the medium. Pains were over.

But since I started drawing Johnny Bullet, the old pain has come back. It's the same. I don't draw for a week, my guts are in pain.

I understand a few things now. I'm supposed to draw comics. I'm a cartoonist. If I don't, I 'll be in pain. It's phantom pain but it's real.

One reason I always loved animation was because you always put something out there. People's eyes glitter when you create animation for them.

While the cartoonist can criticize power, he can also make people dream of new worlds, new people. Marvel them & entrance them.

It's tougher to create something negative in animation than in comics because it's much more labour intensive. You can't hate.

I'm not much of a political cartoonist. It's easier to hate with words, verbal, or written, than with drawings. When I draw there is purpose.

There's more room in comics for social commentary, more so than the pure art of animation which is happiness. But I don't have room for hate.

When I draw comics, I am immersed in a world where hate is distilled out of me while I draw. The conflicts are between characters.

Except for my academic work, perhaps I should write less & draw more. There would be less anguish about Trumpland & other societal ills.

I asked a simple question about the role of the artist & creativity & I got both left & right wingers criticizing me brutally.

It's not abdication to shut up and draw more. I did set myself up by asking a harrowing question about the role of the cartoonist.

I understand what I need to do. Make drawings, not war! Goodnight & apologies for the long thought process.

Check out the original tweet exchange that encouraged me to write this monologue, below.

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Last Updated: August 31, 2023 - 08:12

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