Amongst the many cartoons produced in response to the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, the one which has stuck most powerfully in my memory is one produced by Joe Sacco, the comics journalist whose book, Palestine, sought to tell another side of the story of the occupied territory, one less often heard in the United States. Sacco saw himself as having certain responsibilities in this incident to challenge the dominant frame, and the result was a searing mediation on the power of images. Like others, he defended the right of cartoonists to use whatever images they wanted, but he also wanted people to reflect on the impact such images had, depicting “a black man falling out of a tree with a banana in his hand,” “a Jew counting his money,” and images inspired by Abu Girab, among other controversial icons. Sacco writes, “When we draw a line, we are often crossing one too. Because lines on paper are a weapon and satire is meant to cut to the bone. But whose bone? What exactly is the target? And why?”
As I encountered Sacco’s cartoon, I was reminded of Warning! Graphic Content, a rich and provocative e-book, published by USC’s Annenberg Press last fall. The author, Dwayne Booth, the cartoonist who publishes his work under the name, Mr. Fish, at such publications as Harper’s Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, the LA Weekly, the Atlantic, The Nation, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, the Advocate, Z Magazine, Slate.com, MSNBC.com and on Truthdig.com.
Fish reflects on the art and craft of political image-making via a long, sprawling, image-rich, multimedia essay. This book is impossible to describe … or to forget. Every page includes images that are designed to cut to the quick, images that have been some of the most controversial ever produced, images that force us to think about what they have to say, yes, but also about their power (and a right) to say it. There is something here that is sure to disturb you, but what that is, where we draw the line, is going to differ from reader to reader, and that’s the core of the book’s argument.
Mr. Fish is a cartoonist who doesn’t know his place, quickly abandoning a focus on editorial and political cartoons, and taking us through the full range of artistic expression, as he seeks to encourage us to think more deeply about how art can serve as a provocation or challenge to conventional ways of thinking, about how art can disrupt (or reinforce) the power of the status quo. So, here you will find ideas about propaganda, stereotypes, and a range of phobias, but also ideas about transgression and liberation.
If you want to download a copy of this multimedia experience, you can do so here.
The moment I saw this book, I reached out to Mr. Fish to see if we could do an interview for my blog. So, in what follows, you will be able to learn more about his thinking and his work.
You begin the book with a note describing the dramatic decline of the number of editorial cartoonists working in American Journalism today, compared to the way this function thrived at the start of the 20th century. What factors do you think have contributed to this decline and what do you see as its consequences, especially given the many examples you offer across the book who distributed their art through channels other than established publication?
Broadly speaking, I think there are two major factors that have contributed to the demise of the editorial cartoonist as a viable and sought after contributor to the national debate regarding news, politics and culture over the last hundred years. The first and most obvious is the concentration of media ownership and the elimination of independent voices by the formation of publishing and broadcast oligopolies whose power and influence derive from their disdain for creative competition and dissent. Through corporate mergers and outright acquisition of media outlets by companies motivated by the procurement of profit above all else, the very mission of the free press to inform, enlighten, agitate and educate has, over time, become less about serving the public good and more about catering to the demands and expectations of multinational corporations who have an active contempt for a diversity of viewpoints, in particular those that undermine the revenue-centric values of advertisers, shareholders and, by proxy, the consumers who revere and respect the absolute power of the marketplace. As a result, the propagation of any idea deemed inappropriate by the business and political elite for which the publishing industry serves and advocates for is prohibited, hence, the power and purpose of the editorial cartoonist as an agitator and outspoken critic of partisanship and complacency is recognized as a liability rather than an asset when it comes to servicing the ways and means of the revised version of the Fourth Estate.
The second reason why cartoonists can no longer earn a living wage is, of course, due to the total collapse of the print media industry and the inability of online publishers to pay contributors for content, having not yet figured out a financial model that is self-sustaining. And while the aforementioned consequences to the profession of editorial cartooning are certainly devastating, they have no effect whatsoever on the drive and instinct of the visual artist for whom graphic radicalism and pictorial civil disobedience are his or her best weapon against systemic injustice and institutionalized dogmatism made harmless by the status quo.
As it’s always been, the best and most insightful visual art has never appeared in newspapers, nor has it been produced by cartoonists for mainstream publication if only because the very definition of the mainstream insists on pulled punches and language that has been compromised for taste and easy digestion.
Some have seen web comics as an important new space where young artists are expressing their visions without needing to go through traditional gatekeepers. Do you see the web as offering opportunities for the kinds of subversive visions you are seeking across the book?
I tend to see the internet as being roughly equivalent to the old party lines offered by the telephone company through the middle of the last century, where multiple parties had equal access to the same phone line and could speak communally or eavesdrop on conversations without reveling themselves. Of course, where there were merely dozens of voices involved with telephone party lines, there are billions involved with the Internet, although I’d argue that there is likely an identical breakdown of meaningful vs. meaningless conversation associated with both.
That said, I do believe that while there are no more subversive visionaries eager to share their genius with the online world than there were deep thinkers to blow the minds of party line listeners, I do believe that the illusion of privacy inherent with online interactions might be inspiring more contemplative listeners and viewers, which is significant.
Previous to the invention of the Internet, radical art drew very few spectators as it was necessary for the viewer to either travel to the location of the actual painting or drawing, or to be seen purchasing a facsimile of it from a store or checking it out from a library, all of which was as a very public proclamation of interest in the controversial subject matter with which the work was associated, something that was ferociously discouraged by the dominant culture and decent society.
Does having access to a larger audience than ever before allow an artist to influence either members of a society or the architects of power any more than previous artists who were known to fewer people in the past? I’ve seen no real evidence of that. If anything, in fact, I’d say that the Internet has neutered political protest and dissent by isolating and individualizing the experience of ‘revolution’ and making the likeminded community of fist-raising comrades virtual and not publically demonstrated.
The same is true for television: there are likely more well-informed critics of the federal government nowadays than there was 20 years ago, given the work of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, yet the likelihood of genuine political revolt or organized protest is no greater than it ever was because the experience of outrage aimed at buffoonish and corrupt leaders is isolated and practiced in private as mere entertainment consumption.
Dwayne Booth has been a freelance writer and cartoonist for twenty-five years, publishing under both his real name and the pen name of Mr. Fish with many of the nation’s most reputable and prestigious magazines, journals and newspapers. His work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, the LA Weekly, the Atlantic, The Nation, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, the Advocate, Z Magazine, Slate.com, MSNBC.com and on Truthdig.com. In May 2008 he was presented with a first place award by the Los Angeles Press Club for editorial cartooning. In 2010 and 2011 he was awarded the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Editorial Cartooning from the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2012 he was awarded the Grambs Aronson Award for Cartooning with a Conscience. His most recent books are Go Fish: How to Win Contempt and Influence People, Akashic Books 2011, and WARNING! Graphic Content, Annenberg Press 2014. He is currently teaching at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.