There are certain events so horrific that the only decent response seems to be
Last Tuesday’s atrocity in New York was for me, as a cartoonist, one of those
events - and yet I had to produce a cartoon for the next day’s "Scotsman",
which was fantastically difficult.
It’s because of how cartoons work and how people perceive them as working.
The problem wasn’t that I was obliged to produce a visual reaction to the
bombings - in fact, the media coverage has been mostly visual, from the
footage of the planes striking and the towers collapsing repeated over and over
again to the pages and pages and pages of pictures of the tragedy unfolding
that filled Wednesday’s papers. Nor, in journalistic terms, should one remain
silent: these events demanded explanation, and have reaped thousands of
column inches of opinion, analysis and speculaion. My problem as a
cartoonist is that I fall somewhere between those commentless photographs
bearing witness and the babel arising from the pundits: indeed, I often
describe myself as a visual journalist, producing editorialising illustration
because I have strong opinions on many subjects. Moreover, the singular trick
of the newspaper cartoon is that it gains its power in saying what it does
through using humour. My problem, in the immediate aftermath of the
Manhattan bombings, was that I had nothing to say and none of what was
happening was funny.
The rational and emotional response to the mixture of ideas, words and images
that constitute a cartoon is different from the response to either the written
word or a straight illustration or photograph. This is because of the immediacy
with which a cartoon is "read", and the frequently visceral nature of the image
and the reader’s response to what they see. As a result of all that I was
extremely sensitive to the heightened sensitivities of the readers, let alone the
heightened sensitivity of editors to their readers’ heightened sensitivity.
Although there was a great deal to be said - about Star Wars, about Bush’s
inadequate response, about the festering sore of the Palestinian/Israeli stand-
off, about the kulturkampf between Islam and the rest of the Modern World - I
just knew that, for a couple of days, at least, a cartoon was too blunt an
instrument to say these things adequately without causing huge offense and
also making me feel like an insensitive schmuck.
So, I did what I usually deplore, and drew a "Why oh why" cartoon of the
Statue of Liberty being engulfed by a monstrous cloud rising up from Lower
Manhattan. Since then, to my embarrassment, I’ve drawn a weeping Statue of
Liberty, and been soundly told off by Steve Bell for my hackneyed cowardice.
When I filed the cartoon to the Scotsman, I ‘phoned the comment editor and
told him that the cartoon was completely meaningless and said nothing.
"That’s about the right tone for the moment", he replied, and he was right.
Inevitably several readers complained.