The Cambridge History of the Graphic Novel
It could be argued that the most significant development in the twenty-first-century global comics emerged from the pages of a regional newspaper in the suburbs of Århus, on the Jutland Peninsula of Denmark. In September of 2005, the Jyllands-Posten - a newspaper with a circulation of 120,000 readers - solicited representations of the Prophet Mohammed from members of a Danish newspaper illustrators' union. Published in response to an author's professed inability to secure an illustrator for a children's book on the Qur'an, the resulting twelve images were amplified and disseminated digitally, setting off international protests in waves timed to republication efforts in the name of free speech. None of these was more visible than that of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. Both horrifying violence, first in protests throughout the Muslim-majority world and later directed at the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo, and the proliferation of images, on all sides of the spectrum from absolutist appeals to free speech to the aniconism of some Muslims, have emerged in the aftermath. Never have comics seemed more resonant, or more global, in their often violent impact on world events (Klausen 2009).
It is tempting to attribute this transnational fluidity to unique properties of the comics medium: its artistic genealogy in the pseudosciences of physiognomy and caricature, its powers of iconography as putative attempts toward a universal language, and its reliance on the art of condensation to deliver immediate and distinctive messages. Comics was indeed the preferred medium in responses globally, with rejoinders ranging from an initial Iranian-sponsored cartoon competition to depict the Holcaust, to near-ubiquitous expressions of the power of the satirical pen over the sword in editorial cartoons around the world in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Yet, as Art Spiegelman has reminded us in his essential essay "Drawing Blood" (itself one of the many republications of the original Jyllands-Posten images), the cultural and hermeneutic specificity of the Mohammed cartoons themselves were often lost in their international travels. One of the twelve images depicts a Muslim-Danish teenager named Mohammed, adorned in the kit of a local soccer team, pointing to a Farsi sentence in Arabic script on a chalkboard that reads "The Jyllands-Posten journalists are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs." In a reference intently local and linguistic, the comic puns on the name of a local football team, Boldklubben Frem, and the Danish word for the future, fremtid, celebrating the grade-school-age Mohammed as the future of a multicutural Denmark. Impugning the free-speech posture of the editorial staff as a naked attempt to bait an embattled religious and immigrant minority within Denmark, and ironically anticipating its own misapprehension in translation and republication, the cartoon's message was nevertheless no salve for the death threats leveled at its creator, Lars Refn (Spiegelman 2006). Whether distributed by outraged clerics first in Egypt and then globally, reprinted in the discernably Parisian context of willful outrage and militant secularism in Charlie Hebdo, or among the liberal readers of a "secular Jewish cartoonist [and] devout coward" in Spiegelman's Harper's essay, the cartoons that precipitated the crisis were (mis)read anew each time (2006, 43).
Ball, David M. "World Literature." In The Cambridge History of the Graphic Novel, edited by Jan Baetens, Hugo Frey, and Stephen E. Tabachnick, 591-608. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2018.