June 2007

Paul Morton

nonfiction

Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression edited by David Wallis

Norman Rockwell’s best painting may very well be Blood Brothers, a grim depiction of two dead soldiers, one white and one black, laid out beside each other with their blood intermixing on a Vietnamese battlefield. The white soldier’s eyes are closed, but the black one’s are wide open in a perpetual expression of shock. Unfortunately, it was killed by Look magazine in 1968.

Why Look, which had published some of Rockwell’s stronger pieces on the civil rights movement, passed on the painting is not clear and it may not necessarily have been rooted in conservative complacency. In a letter to Rockwell they claimed a black editor at the magazine considered Blood Brothers “patronizing.” None of that matters really. The piece wasn’t published. If it had been, it may have become one of the great iconic images of the ‘60s. Now, it’s more of a curiosity from an artist best known for his eerie, uniquely American optimism.

The Blood Brothers story is an anomaly in David Wallis’s new anthology Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression. Wallis, who has previously edited an anthology of great works of journalism considered too risqué for editors, focuses most of his book on cartoons from the last 10 years. “Admittedly, the artists’ accounts of the killings are subjective in nature,” he says in a note at the beginning of the book. That’s another way of saying the book reads like a long, funny bitch fest, the kind to which anyone who has ever spent a few weeks in a troubled newsroom can relate. But aside from the fun of gossip these stories serve as an interesting if imperfect cultural barometer. The fact that an image of a white and black soldier on a Vietnamese battlefield was too strong for 1968 may say that even in that tumultuous year, the mainstream media was still a little uncomfortable about race. What do the common editors’ decisions today say about ourselves?

Paul Conrad’s 1999 submission to the Los Angeles Times of an elephant sodomizing a donkey with the caption, “Congressional Bipartisanship” was killed for obvious reasons. Editors get nervous about sex, even though as Conrad points out, no genitalia can be seen in the entire drawing. Steve Brodner’s 1993 depiction of Rush Limbaugh as a man with an ass for a face was killed by a less mainstream publication, Mother Jones, whose editor, one would assume, agreed with the point of the cartoon even if he or she was uncomfortable with the idea of a giant ass smoking a cigar. Yes, we are bizarrely puritanical about sex in America. Still the fact that we consider these cartoons a little disturbing makes them more exciting. Both pieces are a little funnier for not having passed, for only being seen in a book called Killed Cartoons.

The book becomes significantly more interesting once it looks at cartoons killed for, well, saying something meaningful. Kirk Anderson’s 2002 cartoon about a cardinal as a fireman saving a priest from a burning church while leaving a child behind was killed by St. Paul Pioneer Press. Says Anderson, “When I have done cartoons about the Catholic Church, I generally get e-mails like, ‘You’d never say this [about] Jews.’ My response is, ‘If Jews were raping small children, I’d still be against that.”

Most of Wallis’s subjects are liberals complaining from the Left. But then there’s Roman Genn who made the mistake of drawing Ariel Sharon, a little too lovingly as Winston Churchill for the Los Angeles Times in 2001, when the then new Israeli prime minister was still, for most American moderate liberals, a cross between Nixon and the devil. (This was before the Gaza pullout.) Genn reduced Sharon’s corpulent figure “because I had sympathy for what he was going through.” An editor told him, “We will not give [Sharon] any favorable light.”

Minneapolis’s City Pages killed Pete Wagner’s depiction of a Milwaukee police car with the slogan “TO PROTECT HETEROSEXUALS / TO SERVE WHITE PEOPLE” in 1991. The cartoon was in response to certain policemen’s failure to listen to a gay Asian teenager who was on the run from Jeffrey Dahmer. The alternative weeklies, in Wagner’s opinion, only want the “pretense of somehow being above mere profit motive.”

The stories in Killed Cartoons are all plausible and depressing, even from the skewed viewpoint of desperate but smart cartoonists who don’t make that much money. One wonders just how much spinelessness there must be in American media when The New Yorker loses its nerve about a cartoon depicting soldiers in a long smoky succession, being sent to Iraq like “lambs to the slaughter.” That may have been too strong in 2003. But the piece was submitted in 2005. 

Wallis’s pessimism about the state of American cartooning is intense. The political cartoon as a forum for democratic discussion, he says, “is not nearly as free as it once was or should be,” he writes in his introduction. It’s an odd statement, especially in light of the great era of information in which we live.

All the living cartoonists mentioned in the book have the advantage of the Internet, where there may be a little too much garbage and white noise. But somehow true greatness such as Nicholas Gurewitch’s “Perry Bible Fellowship” shines through. If Rockwell were painting today, he would certainly be making less money -- the financial state of print media is terrible and probably couldn’t afford any of his paintings -- but Blood Brothers would certainly have found a home on the Web and a massive, fascinated audience.

Editors, for better or worse, are becoming obsolete.

Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression edited by David Wallis
W. W. Norton
ISBN: 0393329240
224 Pages