On Cartoons, published in the Times Literary Supplement / by Rich Hobbs

In Beirut in March this year I witnessed one of the most truly joyous things

I’ve ever seen. Off Hamra, the main drag running deep into West Beirut, in a

bar run by a Communist Saudi hipster at around one in the morning, I watched

a bunch of young Arab comic creators dancing to another bunch of young

Arab comic creators singing The Clash’s "Rock The Casbah", in Arabic.

Earlier that evening, several of the singers and dancers had received prizes,

along with a handsome number of US dollars, at the third annual Mahmoud

Kahil Award for Comics, Illustration and Editorial Cartoons from across the

Arab World. I was there as I’d been on the jury judging the entrants last

September, when I’d had the chance to savour the enormous wealth of

cartooning talent from a region it’s easier and lazier, in the "West", to dismiss

as universally antithetical to the whole idea of cartoons.

One reason for the continuing valency of that cheap prejudice was personified,

tragically, by the recipient of the Mahmoud Kahil Lifetime Achievement

Award. Naji Al Ali was a Palestinian political cartoonist whose most famous

creation is Handala, a Palestinian refugee child, always drawn as seen from

behind and standing in mute witness to the unending unfolding horrors Al Ali

portrayed and satirised in his cartoons. Al Ali was assassinated in London, in

exile, in the summer of 1987. The fact that the identity of his murderers

remains unknown points not just to the foul intricacy of the hatreds cross-

hatching the Middle East, but also to the breadth of targets it seems he’d

offended so deeply that they felt they had no option except to kill him.

The global attention paid to the row about cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed

published in the Danish newspaper Jylands Posten 13 years ago, or the deadly

attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in

January 2015 might fool you into thinking that this kind of response is unique

to Muslims and their allegedly heightened sensitivities. But it’s not just a

Muslim thing. It’s a human one.

It’s woven into the matrices of human power, its pomposity, its atrocities and

its built-in fragility when you dare to laugh at it. Worse, as a refinement of the

maelstrom of mockery, taunts, insults and traded aggression lying at the dark

heart of all humour, and particularly satire, cartoons’ capacity for triggering

offence and over-reaction is compounded by the simple fact of their visibility.

In effect, cartoons have less in common with either journalism or illustration,

in whose shadowy intersection they now tend to lurk, than with sympathetic


All art - artifice - results from humans’ need to wrangle perceived and

received reality into a manageable state by recreating it in what we now call

safe mode. But there’s something clearly transgressive about the way you

appear being filtered through someone else’s consciousness into a new

visualisation, made much worse when the original is distorted through

caricature to make other people laugh at your expense. That’s the real point:

the intended response to a visible cartoon is invisible, triggering a mocking

chortle from its unseen viewers ("readers"? "consumers"? Interestingly, there

isn’s a precise English word for what you do with a cartoon) or, just as likely,

a howl of fury that the cartoon has enabled the mockery.

Cartoons are just a small subset of all visual representation, which has been

treated with suspicion for millennia, from the smashers of graven images via

Savonarola to the heavily armed men who burst into Charlie Hebdo’s offices

and started gunning down cartoonists, and many others, with assault weapons

while shouting "God is Great!"

I don’t doubt that those men were genuinely offended by Charlie Hebdo’s

persistent cartoons mocking their prophet. I also, for the record, believe that

nothing is ever as offensive as killing someone else, though I may be in a

minority on that one. But Muslims are certainly in a minority in the capacity

of some members of their faith for allowing themselves to get so furiously

offended. And while generally the adherents of many faiths seem especially

fragile and sensitive on behalf of the omnipotent beings they worship, it’s

invariably secular power which reacts with greater ferocity, just as most

terrorism is carried out by states and not against them.

The Turkish cartoonist Musa Kart is currently on trial for the third time in

Istanbul, this time caught up in the general dragnet as part of the repression

following 2016's failed coup against Recep Tayyim Erdogan. Musa’s first

prosecution, and conviction, in 2005 was down to him drawing Erdogan as a

cat. (His second trial was abandoned after a group of international cartoonists

all drew Erdogan in the worst ways they could imagine and posted the results

on social media.) In the last twelve months alone cartoonists from Equatorial

Guinea, Malaysia, India, Iran, Spain and seeking asylum in Australia have

been imprisoned, fined or persecuted by their respective states for the high

crime of mocking the power or, allegedly, giving someone, somewhere the

gift of offence.

None of this, of course, is new. The Gestapo infamously drew up a list of

British cartoonists due for immediate summary execution following a

successful Nazi invasion of Britain. It included David Low, Leslie Illingworth

and even William Heath-Robinson. This was despite a friend of David Low’s

having visited Germany fifteen years earlier and met Hitler, who expressed his

huge admiration for Low’s cartoons (he may have mistaken Low’s satires on

democratic politicians as satirising Democracy itself). So Low sent Hitler a

piece of original artwork, personally inscribed "from one artist to another."

That, of course, was before the Gestapo drew up its hit list, but after Low had

spent years depicting Hitler and the rest of the Nazi leadership as "bloody

fools", to quote a Tory MP during a wartime debate on the effectiveness of

Allied propaganda, arguing that Low’s cartoons making Hitler look stupid

were worth all the official stuff put together.

120 years earlier and brooding in exile, Napoleon Bonaparte said the great

Regency cartoonist James Gillray’s caricatures of him did him more harm

than a dozen generals. In Gillray’s "The Plumb Pudding in Danger", more or

less the type specimen of a political cartoon in its interplay of bathos,

caricature, allegory, image and text, Bonaparte’s portrayed as a hyperactive

shortarse, fighting over a steaming pudding with a po-faced, beanpolish Pitt.

As a belittling, humiliating allegory for the vanity and vacuity of global

geopolitics reduced to a food fight, the image has never been bettered. That’s

why British cartoonists keep on stealing it.

Gillray also exemplifies the confused complexities of cartoonists’ relationship

with their victims. In Gillray’s case, these were often also his biggest

customers. In spite of always drawing the Whig leader Charles James Fox as a

spherically obese unshaven traitor forever whoring himself to Revolutionary

France, Fox was a regular and frequent patron of Hannah Humphrey’s print

shop in St James’, which had exclusive rights to sell Gillray’s works (and

exclusive rights on Gillray too: he spent his declining years, blind, drunk and

mad, in the attic, before dying allegedly by defenestrating himself a fortnight

before the Battle of Waterloo). Future Prime Minister George Canning went

further, getting his friends and agents ceaselessly to badger Gillray into

putting Canning in a print, just to show he was worthy of notice. Gillray

naturally refused, until he published a print in 1795, subtitled "The Wise

Men’s Offering", showing Fox, among others, kissing the infant Princess

Charlotte’s royal bottom. Gillray was arrested for Criminal Blasphemy - a

serious rap when merely stocking Paine’s "The Rights of Man" could get you

transported to Australia - but Canning got him off, got himself in a cartoon,

got Gillray to illustrate "The Anti-Jacobin", and Gillray got a government

pension. Which rolls up in a neat bundle the minefield of dangers and

betrayals awaiting any satirist.

Those dangers remain constant, and have done for centuries. The form

remains the same too, and is almost as stylised as Japanese No theatre: it’s

bathetic allegorical painting, intended to damage but flying under the False

Flag of Good Humour, which is by and large how most cartoonists just about

get away most of the time with what is essentially assassination without the


Nor is the current climate of hair-trigger offence-taking anything new. Back in

1958, a familiar kind of warped self-righteousness compelled a GP from

Harrow to write to the London Evening Standard complaining about a cartoon

attacking the death penalty by Vicky (a Jewish refugee from the Nazis) and

regretting that Vicky and his family had escaped the Holocaust. But however

offensive its outcome, taking offence has always been used as an aggressive

weapon. Moreover, it’s wielded in many ways, though often as often as not on

behalf of someone, or something, else. One reader objected to a cartoon I

drew in June 2016 of "Lone Wolves", after the murder of Jo Cox, for its

negative depiction of wolves and other canid species. Another, clearly anxious

keep the pressure up, denounced another cartoon of mine, hung on the 100th

anniversary of the start of the Battle of Passchendaele, as "the most offensive

cartoon of all time." Actually, it wasn’t even the most offensive cartoon that


Inevitably, social media - which seems more and more like humanity’s

external collective Id - acts as both an accelerant and amplifier in this Offence

culture. A few years ago, when the late Stephen Hawking was rushed into

Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge with pneumonia, Metro’s pocket

cartoonist Rick Brookes drew Hawking, slumped in his wheelchair, between a

doctor and nurse, one saying to the other, "Have we tried switching him off

and switching him back on again?" You could see the digital lynch mob,

transformed through the enzyme of offence into a swarm of vengeful furies,

start massing like a tropical storm to destroy poor Rick for his joke. Until, that

is, Hawking ruined everyone’s fun by buying the original artwork.

That’s just another example of the seething, twisting currents that flow round

what I do: ploys and counterploys, from getting the joke to disarm it, to not

getting the joke to destroy it, or just getting your own joke in first. Even self-

consciously and therefore supposedly unsatirisably ridiculous things like

Donald Trump or Boris Johnson to a large extent are just trying to ward off

the mockery by making you laugh with rather than at them. But an American

President who spends his early mornings whining on Twitter about how he’s

impersonated on Saturday Night Live is, believe me, not a man impervious to


The point, always, is that satire in general and cartoons in particular exist

because we need them to, to contextualise the greater hideous, often horrific

absurdities of reality into a manageable and therefore controllable format

which then might also make us laugh and thus feel better. Consequently, all

announcements of the death of Satire - after 9/11, after the death of Diana,

after Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize - are always premature and

always will be. I happen to think that’s also true of newspapers, but even if the

main medium through which cartoons are currently consumed finally succeeds

in blowing out what’s left of its brains, since daily political cartoons only

began appearing in British newspapers in 1900, like any sensible parasite

we’ll simply jump off our dead host and find another one. Whether that will

be online, or selling individual prints like Gillray and the rest of them did for a

century and a half, or far in the future, magically inhabiting your dreams, we’ll

eventually find out.

Back in Beirut, I was talking to Sherif Arafa, the Egyptian winner of the

Editorial Cartoonist category at the Mahmoud Kahil awards. Among his

submitted work is one of the best cartoons I’ve seen for a long time, perfectly

fulfilling the purpose of the medium. It depicted two visions of the Middle

East as jigsaw puzzles, one urban with small, fiddly, complicated pieces, the

other the desert, made up of big, clunking chunks. A member of Isis is

furiously trying to fit one of the big pieces into small gaps left in the jigsaw of

the city. And it’s perfect. It reprises terrifying events as both risible and yet

instantly explicable. It also made me laugh, for a compost of reasons far far

too complex easily to delve into. Though a lot of it, I suspect, is about

wresting back control and therefore sense from the people and forces who, in

their different ways, eternally seek to enslave and immiserate us. That’s why

we have jokes. Anyway, I asked Sherif what the climate was like now for

cartoonists in Egypt, but he told me he’d left the country while Mubarak was

still in power and moved to the Emirates. "It’s great there," he told me. "I can

draw whatever I like about anyone." I asked him if that included cartoons

about the various absolute monarchs who rule the UAE. We exchanged


wagging satirical glances, and then we laughed and laughed and laughed.