PRINT April 2015


IT SEEMS BOTH LONG AGO and only yesterday. The terrible attack on the Parisian journal Charlie Hebdo took place in January, but it both followed and has been followed by many all-too-similar events: The violence around and against speech shows no signs of stopping. All the more reason, then, to parse the complexity of polemical words and images, of the forms of discourse that are the toughest, the most incisive and the most puerile, the funniest and the worst—at the forefront of which lies Charlie Hebdo’s extreme political and cultural satire. Because Charlie remains one of the knottiest and most misunderstood of outlets, Artforum asked renowned French art historian YVE-ALAIN BOIS to reflect on the publication’s unstinting critical eye—its relentless interrogation of any and all figures of authority, its singular advancement of comics as an artistic and literary genre, and its implacable challenge to the silencing and censure that ceaselessly threaten our freedom.

Cover of Charlie Hebdo, September 3, 1973. Jean-Marc Reiser.

THE THING I FOUND perhaps most absurd in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre was to see comments, particularly in the American press, presenting the journal as racist and Islamophobic. Charlie Hebdo, racist? Only people who had never even leafed through the publication, much less read it, could possibly have had such an idea, unless the journal had dramatically changed since the years of my youth. Indeed, it is rather for its militant, absolutely constant anti-racism that I remember Charlie best. One of the most notorious characters invented by the cartoonist Cabu (Jean Cabut) was the repulsive beauf, a racist, xenophobic, misogynist, intolerant, and ignorant moron whose politics were closer to those of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front (one of Charlie’s pet targets from its inception) than to any other. As for the specific charge of Islamophobia, it didn’t square any better with my memory of the journal. Thankfully, other doubters equipped with better tallying skills than I decided to look into this: A statistical analysis of Charlie Hebdo’s content over the past ten years, particularly that of its front page, was published in Le Monde on February 25. It reveals not only that the publication was actually less obsessed with religion than is generally supposed, with only 7 percent of its front pages devoted to the subject, but also that the topic of Islam makes up less than a fifth of even these covers. When Charlie attacks religion—its contributors are particularly exercised by fundamentalism (of all stripes) and the hypocrisy of the clergy—Catholicism is most often the butt of its satire. I still remember the back page of the issue from June 24, 1974, following the death of Cardinal Daniélou, one of the most conservative and extreme opponents of contraception and the legalization of abortion, who suffered a fatal heart attack in the lodgings of a prostitute: twenty-four merciless cartoons, in grid formation, by the journal’s star draftsmen—notably Georges Wolinski and Cabu, the two most famous victims of the lunatic jihadists in January’s murderous raid.

CHARLIE HEBDO was the journal of my student years, a banner of the French left (together with Libération, whose golden age was the 1970s). I only realized later, after I emigrated to the US in 1983, how indebted I was to Charlie’s team, not only for its political progressiveness but for my knowledge of the history of cartoons and comic strips. A little background is needed here: In February 1969, the editors of the satiric publication Hara-Kiri launched a monthly journal, Charlie Mensuel, which would be exclusively devoted to comic strips, publishing not only recent works by young authors but also great classics, particularly American ones, as well as serious articles on the history of the medium. The cover of the first issue featured Snoopy on the roof of his doghouse, even though Charles M. Schulz’s creatures were far better behaved than most of those welcomed in the journal. (If Calvin and Hobbes had then existed, its anarchism would surely have secured it a place of honor in Charlie’s pages.) Year after year, Charlie Mensuel presented Krazy Kat, Dick Tracy, Popeye—but also Little Nemo and many other characters—to a French audience, elevating the whole tradition of the medium to the status of a serious art and literary form and transforming its readers into seasoned connoisseurs. The directorship of the journal, which rotated often, was always taken up by one or another cartoonist from Hara-Kiri (Wolinski became editor in chief within a year, followed by Willem [Bernard Willem Holtrop] and Nikita Mandryka), and all the regular contributors to that magazine (Jean-Marc Reiser and Cabu in particular) also published their work in Charlie Mensuel. (I particularly remember a great satiric story by Willem on the art market.) In November 1970, a little more than a year after the creation of Charlie Mensuel, Hara-Kiri was, in effect, closed down by the French government (for a stinging mockery of Charles de Gaulle’s death that was, apparently, too hard to swallow).

Charlie Hebdo’s inaugural issue would appear a week later, produced by the same team of editorialists and cartoonists, with the motto “L’Hebdo Hara-Kiri is dead. Read Charlie Hebdo, the journal that profits from the misfortune of others!” Needless to say, between the two Charlies, the monthly and the weekly, the traffic was constant (and when an important dossier about a classic cartoonist was published in Charlie Mensuel, its little brother made sure to properly advertise it). In short: It would have been nearly impossible for a young French leftist of my generation to have ignored the existence of George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), or Winsor McCay (Little Nemo), whose works were, thanks to the efforts of Wolinksi and his pals, picked up by Ph.D. students of semiotics or sociology for the topics of their dissertations. I was utterly dumbfounded when, after moving to the States and arriving at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, I found out that no one there had ever heard of any of these brilliant inventors (just as no one had ever heard of the 1941 film Hellzapoppin’, a cult classic in France ever since it was first shown after the Liberation). Things have obviously changed a lot on that score during the past thirty years, but thanks to Charlie (both Mensuel and Hebdo), the French public was, for once, ahead of the curve.

I continued, for a while, to pick up Charlie occasionally when traveling back to France, but more and more jokes were lost on me. Indeed, this was another question that Le Monde’s statistics helped me to answer, a question I had pondered after hearing the horrific news—namely, why had I gradually stopped reading Charlie Hebdo after arriving in the US? The fact is: If the journal’s cartoonists and editorialists are obsessed with anything, it is with French politics, the day-to-day material provided to them by the lies and tribulations of French politicians, of which it is hard to keep abreast from afar (not to mention the fact that American politicians provide us with more than our fair share of idiotic pronouncements and ludicrous behavior). Political satire is local as well as time-bound—it rings flat with expats, and it quickly fades.

Furthermore, the death in 1983 of Reiser, the cartoonist I most enjoyed and whom I think a graphic genius, had coincided with my departure for America. All in all, the journal no longer felt so relevant to me, and eventually I let it go by the wayside. Had my taste changed? Was the cultural stuffiness of the US (the “political correctness” and the rampant puritanism) having a subliminal impact on me? Perhaps. I remember having two distinct thoughts about Charlie Hebdo on arriving here. The first was that such a journal could not exist in the US, which I see as a nation of fundamentalists. (To wit: It is the sheer placement of a comma in the Second Amendment that guarantees the right of the people to bear arms—and ensures that, as the writer David Vann recently declared in Le Monde, America is the greatest nursery of killers; “Les États-Unis fabriquent des tueurs” [The United States Manufactures Killers] was the title given to his interview, which was illustrated with a large color photograph of a young boy seen from the front, closing one eye and aiming his gun, with his father right behind, guiding his kid’s insecure hand.) Following President Georges Pompidou’s death from a rare cancer, Charlie Hebdo’s cover presented a cartoon representing his face bloated by his cortisone treatment, barred by a red X and bearing the caption “Plus jamais ça” (Never Again). When de Gaulle died, the offending cover of Hara-Kiri Hebdo, from whose ashes Charlie was born, was entirely filled by a black-bordered notice stating “Bal tragique à Colombey—1 mort” (Tragic Ball in Colombey—1 Casualty), which referred both to the horrendous fire in a nightclub the week before, in which many people had died, and to the tiny village where de Gaulle had been spending his retirement years. Can one possibly imagine an American journal, not an underground zine with a confidential readership, producing something similar the week after Reagan died, let alone after Kennedy was shot? The only thing that comes close is John Waters’s forty-five minute film Eat Your Makeup, in which Divine plays Jackie Kennedy for a scene reenacting the assassination—but the film dates from 1968, five years after the event, and furthermore, it remains among the few works by Waters that have not been commercially distributed.

At the “Je suis Charlie” mass demonstration in Paris on January 11, there was something grotesque about the spectacle of international heads of state, many of them authoritarian rulers who imprison political opponents and journalists at home, joining arms with French politicians whom Charlie had relentlessly lampooned over the years. This so repulsed several friends of mine that, though fully supporting the cause, they stayed home. I probably would still have gone, for my visceral revulsion over the murders eclipsed my distaste for the gross political manipulation. I would have gone as a matter of principle, as almost two million people did, even though I have not read Charlie Hebdo in years and am by no means certain that I would still identify with it as a reader. The principle in question was, of course, freedom of expression and a defense of the long tradition of satire that goes with it; but in the particular circumstances of the butchery, marching in support of this principle included a paean to the journal’s formidable endurance in the face of continuing threats (countless lawsuits, a firebombing in 2011 in response to one issue’s mock renaming of the publication as “Charia Hebdo,” on whose front cover the prophet is caricatured as warning: “100 coups de fouet, si vous n’êtes pas morts de rire” [A hundred lashes if you are not laughing your head off]). There was a plea in this paean: Never again!

Yve-Alain Bois is a professor of art history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.