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  • Is the Cartoonal Violent?
  • Michael Chaney (bio)

Articulated through words within a week of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, January 14, 2015; through pictures, two months thereafter.

There are no words to describe my horror upon learning of the gruesome assassinations of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. In the rupture of time and logic that such violence created, I found myself numbly trawling the feeds for unfolding news. The event still hasn’t evolved for me into anything more comprehensible. Even now, as I participate in the necessary oxymoron of making sense of violence, whether perpetrated in France or by Boko Haram, through serious reflection or the cruel but critical absurdities that all such atrocities arouse—I recognize any “rescue mission of meaning” I might undertake to be futile. Nevertheless, I keep returning as though in post-traumatic loop to the relation between violence and the form of drawing that supposedly provoked it in this case— call it comics, caricature, or funny sketches.

I prefer the term “cartoonal” for casting a net wide enough to catch a larder full of cultural fish, from political editorial tuna to Looney Tuney mackerels. They don’t have to sport white puffy gloves on their fintips to be cartoonal, but legible signs of citizenship can’t hurt either, especially when it comes to granting “those” guppies their visas.

Before allowing any more semiotic traffic to pass through our nets, are we not compelled to ask, is the cartoonal violent?

Is there something in it as a mode or style that is somehow to blame? Naturally, my knee-jerk response was no. Luckily, it was so strong that I kicked my own head off. Momentarily headless (and thus in need of some [End Page 33] warmth for my now-exposed windpipe), I put on a different head and came to the following conclusions.

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To think of the comic structure in terms of violence is not easy. That’s not just because the idea appears to be little more than the absurd wind-chiming of my own metaphorical decapitation as opposed to those real ones in Paris. Life always falls short of death, ridiculously so.

Death doesn’t fall. It draws. And cartoons seem to know this. Death draws boundaries around itself. On one side, the sacred; the profane is on the other.

Death is a song we sing in personal, religious, and familial keys. Many of the tunes were already written for us. Our parents and grandparents, our regions and religions and nations all have customs we inevitably [End Page 34] lip-sync to, hoping for a four-chair turn → as Death → the Death of discourse → at the library disco → blind like Old Pew → that Death → wire bombs in tight leisure suits, wide lapels, the taller the heel the better, so long as it matches the greasy bouffant curling the forehead, just now slicked back thanks to a comb from the pocket of that sonic white blazer, so white it makes your ears ring.

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The visuals are a detour. Our eyes sparkle at the disco ball he keeps pointing to— quite dramatically, in fact. We do not notice the explosions. They happen along discursive pathways (one mustn’t speak ill of the dead) and actual ones (one must bury the dead) as rules, superstition, protocol, religion.

Life does not seem to be the origin of these death-delivered interdictions and bedevilments. Visually, life plays another role in the crosshatched, hand-drawn cartoonal. Life is the reluctant hero of every panel, there to carry out the same action every time: to overstep boundaries. Life literally transgresses in the cartoonal; its toes outstretch, eager to do it. [End Page 35]

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Instead of the white puffy glove, should not the cartoonal’s icon be the puffy shoe? Overstepping a line to pinwhistles and jaunty percussion?

Now that we’ve got music going, why don’t we take this shindig to the next level? Are we ready to concede that the cartoonal is violent in its very form?

To wonder about the viability of violence at this time, so soon...


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pp. 33-43
Launched on MUSE
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