Sunday Services

Celia Farber: Have journalists been calling you today to talk about the assassinations at Charlie Hebdo? Are you willing to talk about it?

Robert Crumb: Liberation wanted me to draw a cartoon, so I did this cartoon for Liberation about it. So far, you are the crumbhebdo 1first American journalist that’s asked me to talk about it. I’ll talk about it, yeah.

No other journalists have called you? Really?

No, you’re the only one. You don’t have journalists over there anymore, what they have is public relations people. That’s what they have over in America now. Two-hundred and fifty thousand people in public relations. And a dwindling number of actual reporters and journalists . . . .

Charlie Hebdo, they print so many insulting cartoons about Muslim extremists, you know, geez, they just kept at it, you know . . . but that wasn’t the only people they insulted, they insulted everybody. The Pope, the President of the country, everybody! They were merciless, to everybody. It was a really funny magazine. They just didn’t hold back towards anybody. You know, they didn’t let anybody off the hook, which was good.

I don’t think there’s anything like that now in the US. The thing about Charlie Hebdo is that it started in 1969. The gang of guys that worked for that magazine, they just kept at that for decades. Those guys are fairly old, you know, older guys most of them. There wasn’t a whole lot of, you know, 20-somethings or 30-somethings in that group. The cartoonists are mostly older guys. There is lots of critique of the left also. They say the left is hypocritical, bullshitters and opportunists, and all that. But generally I would say there’s a leftish sympathy in Charlie Hebdo. But they just came out with that every week. Every week. And people would just look at it and laugh, “Oh, you know those guys, those crazy guys. They’re outrageous.”

Liberation called me and said, “Crumb, can you do a cartoon for us? About what you think about this, you know, you are a major cartoonist, and you live in France.” So I thought about it. I spent a lot of time thinking about it. I’m doing the dishes, or whatever, I was thinking, “What should I do for that cartoon . . . ” I had a lot of ideas. Other people come up with these, you know, clever cartoons that comment on it, like . . . This one guy did a cartoon showing a bloody dead body laying there, and a radical Muslim standing over him with a Kalashnikov, saying, “He drew first!” Stuff like that. That’s good, that’s clever, you know, I like that. But, me? I gotta like, you know, when I do something, it has to be more personal. I said, first: “I don’t have the courage to make an insulting cartoon of Muhammed.”

Then I thought, “OK, I’m the Cowardly Cartoonist…As a Cowardly Cartoonist, I can’t make some glib comment like that, you know? I have to, like, make fun of myself. So instead of drawing the face of Muhammed [laughs], I drew the ass of Muhammed. But then I had myself saying, in small crumb2lettering, “Actually, this is the ass of my friend of Mohamid Bakshi, who’s a film director in Los Angeles, California.” So if they come at me, I’m gonna say, “No, look, it’s not Muhammed the Prophet, it’s this guy, Mohamid Bakshi.” So, you know.

But there was never a moment when you thought about not doing it?

No. I thought, I gotta do it. They asked me. I gotta do it . . . Otherwise, everybody’s going to think: “Where’s Crumb? Why doesn’t he come forward? What the hell’s the matter with him?” Then I would get calls saying, “How come you didn’t do a cartoon about this?” Every other cartoonist in the country has done something about it. What are you, scared? What’s the matter with you? You’re too, like, comfortable in your, you know . . . your success and your blah blah blah . . . ” So, I thought, I gotta do it. You know? [Laughs.] And I didn’t want to do anything glib or, sorrow for the dead heroes and all that. Everybody else has got that covered.

Was it a relief when you were done and turned it in?

No, it felt like, “Jesus, what am I doing? Am I crazy?” Aline said, “Oh, my God, we have to go into hiding.” So we’ll see if we get any death threats. I think, maybe, they got it out of their system. They killed four cartoonists. And I didn’t actually draw Muhammed’s face, so . . . and it’s actually the ass of Mohamid Bakshi, so . . . [laughs].

We need to bear in mind that Charlie Hebdo, the target of the murders in Paris, is a satirical magazine. Its raison d’être was to make people laugh. You may disagree, saying that its more substantial mission was to provoke, to outrage, and to scold unreason and prejudice, bringing institutions to account or into disrepute—but many publications do that with an air of frowning solemnity. If Charlie Hebdo sought the truth, it did so by treading the path of the grotesque, littering the ground with jokes, often cheap and silly ones, as it passed along. That path led to catastrophe. Members of staff were exterminated for making fun.

Were they sometimes irresponsible? Yes. Is there not something juvenile, or at least eternally adolescent, about men and women who continue to sneer at power and to snicker at the dignified proceedings of high office long after the rest of us, not without jesterregret, have accepted the rites of dullness as the way of the world? Of course. Freedom of speech, that noblest of abstractions, can easily coarsen and shrink into freedom of snort. None-theless, a certain rakish splendor hangs over those who refuse to calm down, shut up, or grow up. To claim, as Tony Barber, the Europe editor of the Financial Times, did in an opinion piece yesterday, that “some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, is to grasp the wrong end of the stick. One of the joys—more often than not, a joyful embarrassment—of a democracy is that it allows time and room for people who find the whole lark of maturing, whether in politics or in personal conduct, to be overrated. Common nonsense has its place and purpose, too. Try sitting children down in front of the scene in Duck Soup in which Harpo amputates the tailcoat of an ambassador with large scissors, or the one where he rolls up his pants to paddle in lemonade, and observe the kids’ amazement and their pangs of fellow-feeling at realizing that one adult, at least, has chosen to remain in their camp. It’s not enough, as the folks at Charlie Hebdo knew, to break the rules of the game; you have to pick another game and play it to the hilt.

To find that loose and ludic habit offensive is, needless to say, itself a basic right. The Catholic Church was quite justified in abhorring the magazine’s irregular lampoons—a cartoon of the previous Pope, for instance, holding a condom over his head as though it were a Communion wafer. What the Vatican did not do, however, was dispatch or inspire a couple of deluded souls to enter the offices of its detractors and assassinate them, and Rome’s condemnation of Wednesday’s events was notably swift and severe. To disagree is not to destroy: that is a pact of understanding, brought to birth by the Enlightenment, to which all sides in this terrible saga, bar the assailants, feel honor-bound to subscribe. Only rarely, nowadays, are books banned; more seldom still are they burned, and the sight of flaming pages, as with The Satanic Verses, means trouble flaring ahead.

That was the view of its editor, Stephane Charbonnier, who was one of the people executed yesterday. In 2011, when the magazine was firebombed in the wake of an edition that was named “Charia Hebdo” (a play on the French word for “Sharia”), Charbonnier told a television interviewer: “I’d rather die than live like a rat.” To scurry out of sight and take shelter underground, or under cover of trash, is no life at all, especially if your most heinous crime is to commit comedy.

Anthony Lane

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