Toon Musings: Charlie and Aylan

Charlie Hebdo was in the news again recently. They published a couple of cartoons about the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, one featuring the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying dead on the Turkish beach.

Predictably, certain segments of the Internet erupted with outrage. “Why is Aylan Kurdi’s tragic death satire worthy, Charlie Hebdo?” went one headline. “No, I was never, and will never be Charlie Hebdo the author writes, and links to an article that objects to the assumption that to “be” Charlie, one must agree with everything Charlie says and help them disseminate their views by reprinting them.

So what is Charlie saying this time?

Kurdi cartoons

These are the two cartoons cited in the present kerfuffle. On the left is the cover of the issue, depicting a child’s (presumably Aylan’s) body overlooked by a billboard that proclaims, “Promo! Two Happy Meals for the price of one!” The caption reads, “So close to his goal….” On the right is a cartoon of a Jesus-like figure suspended above the waves with the rubric “Christians walk on water.” Next to him is a drowning child with the rubric “Muslim children sink.” The caption reads “Proof that Europe is Christian.”

Pretty rough stuff. More than a few people have taken these cartoons to mean that Charlie is mocking the refugees in general and Aylan in particular. But I don’t think it’s either Aylan or the refugees who are Charlie’s target.

Charlie Hebdo is, in the words of one academic an antifascist magazine. It is, furthermore, anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, anti-clerical, and generally anti-establishment. In brief, Charlie Hebdo is a vehicle for radical left-wing thought of a distinctively French kind, one with antecedents at least as far back as the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.” Mocking dead little kids doesn’t really fit their M.O., certainly not when there are so many fat, deserving targets just begging for a caning. I’m thinking of targets like the apathy of the governments of the European Union, the smug xenophobia of the Church, and rampant consumerism in general. Now there are some bugaboos that a satirical cartoonist can really sink some fangs into!

As I wrote in an earlier piece, I am Charlie… sort of. I agree with a lot of what they claim to be saying, but I just don’t think they do it very well. Maybe it’s a problem of translation between cultures. Maybe the French are just too subtle for this stoopid American.

There’s a school of satire in which the satirist advocates a monstrous idea in the expectation that the consumer of the satire will recognize said advocacy as satire. An example of this is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, wherein he proposes solving the problem of a surplus of poor people by eating their children. The problem with this type of satire is that, especially in the internet era, one runs a risk of falling afoul of Poe’s Law : “Without a clear indication of the author’s intent, it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism.” Someone’s always gonna take your ravings seriously. Whoopsie!

So what’s with these Charlie Hebdo cartoons?

It’s often said that asking a humorist to explain a joke is pretty much declaring that the joke never really landed. Sounds about right. But I believe we just might be able to salvage one good cartoon from these two not-so-good ones. So let’s see if we can’t punch this puppy up!

Take the cover cartoon, the one with the McDonald’s billboard. What exactly is the satirist saying here? Defenders claim it’s a criticism of crass, materialistic European culture. Critics say, with a good deal of justification, that it blasts the refugees, and with them poor little Aylan, for having stupid goals. I suspect that Charlie Hebdo’s intent was more the former than the latter. But my question is, what does crass commercialism have to do with this crisis? It was my impression that the refugees were risking and losing their lives fleeing Syria not to get Happy Meals, but to escape being bombed, or gassed, or starved to death. This cartoon is a mess. That picture of Aylan does pack a punch, though. Let’s put a pin in that.

The second cartoon has its own problems. Lots of us fans of editorial cartoons hate, hate, HATE it when the cartoonist labels things: unsubtle and inelegant. Ugh. Also, the target of this cartoon needs some focus; why is the cartoonist slagging Jesus? By all accounts his teachings were pretty unobjectionable, and you risk alienating some potential allies. Isn’t Charlie’s real target here organized religion, and the sanctimonious assholes who mouth platitudes while ignoring Christian charity: folks like dictatorial Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban? Instead of a picture of Jesus walking on water, let’s do a caricature of this jagoff. Put him in a bishop’s outfit, floating above the waves and swinging a stinky thurible. Orban recently said, “Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims. …Europe’s Christian culture is barely in a position to uphold Europe’s own Christian values.” Sign his name to it, and there’s your caption. Maybe give him a word balloon saying, “Tough luck, kid. Wrong religion.” And instead of some anonymous flailing legs, let’s put in that picture of poor dead little Aylan.

There’s your cartoon. You’re welcome.

TooCoolHeadshotPhil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring untrammeled wildernesses, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures. 

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