Contentious cartoons

Where should college cartoonists draw the line?

Picture a Jesus Christ who is blunt, sarcastic and anything but conventional. He plays poker with other deities and the devil, finds himself in a sexual situation and gets stabbed by Santa Claus. Are you offended yet?

Christian Keesee, a sophomore at Radford University in Virginia, has been drawing the controversial comic strip “Christ on Campus” since October of last year for an online student magazine called Whim. 

The strip sparked debate on the message boards of the magazine’s Web site and university officials have received complaints from offended students, faculty and alumni. The controversy concerning the cartoon prompted administrators to meet with the magazine’s executive director, Andrew Lent.

Keesee, who is a big fan of the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip, has been drawing cartoons since elementary school and often got into trouble for drawing on the back of his tests, he said. 

While Keesee was not surprised that the cartoon had gotten a rise out of some people, he felt that his strip was no different from the political and editorial cartoons that run in professional papers. 

The meeting between Lent and administrators made Keesee wonder if the outrage toward the strip was because it featured a religious icon and if censorship by the university loomed ahead.

“I don’t think anyone would even consider having a meeting with anyone who drew a political cartoon bashing George Bush,” Keesee said. “I think it’s a [cartoonist’s job] to try to make a point or say something while also getting a laugh or a smile out of someone. I thought colleges tended to be more laid-back about things and ask questions.”

The incident and the commotion that came with it brought up questions of freedom of speech and press responsibility.

In the end, university administrators simply had “a dialogue” with Lent and encouraged him and Whim staff “to consider others tastes and sensibilities,” according to a statement issued by the university after the meeting. Administrators did not threaten to censor the publication or the cartoon.

Across the United States, college cartoonists like Keesee are dealing with offended readers, protests and scolding administrators over the content of cartoons.

Cartoons tend to push people’s buttons more often than a column or written editorial, Keesee said.

“With a cartoon, you can look at it in a few seconds, and also you can be offended within a matter of a few seconds,” he said. “That’s why people who don’t normally like to read the newspaper will pick up the paper, read the comics, and put the paper down.”

Clay Bennett, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, understands the power of the image over the written word. Bennett is also a cartoonist for The Christian Science Monitor, an international daily newspaper.

“Cartoons don’t get a chance to nuance an issue, cartoons don’t have a chance to explain degree,” he said. “A columnist has a thousand little stones, a cartoon is like a big brick. If you hit with it, you hit it hard.”

The power of political cartoons to offend and spark debate is not a new one, and is in fact an American tradition, said Chris Lamb, an associate professor of communication at the College of Charleston.

“As citizens, [cartoonists] play an instrumental role in reaching up and grabbing us by the shirt collars and shaking us out of our indifference,” Lamb said. “I think you can say more with a picture.”

And sometimes having that large voice can lead a cartoonist and his or her publication into hot water.

In 2003, a cartoon appearing in the student newspaper at Southwest Missouri State University offended some American Indian students who complained to the school’s Office of Equal Opportunity.

The cartoon, drawn by student cartoonist Zachary Hamby, depicted two American Indians in traditional dress and one Pilgrim gathering for Thanksgiving dinner. One of the Pilgrims, speaking to another, said, “Gladys, the Indians are here and it looks like they brought corn…again.” The cartoon, which was published Nov. 21, 2003, was labeled “The 2nd Thanksgiving.”

“What I was going for was the old clichéd cattiness of relatives around Thanksgiving,” Hamby said. “Every year, in most families, certain relatives bring certain things. There’s always some animosity between the Aunt who slaved over a hot stove fixing a turkey and the Aunt who dumped some corn in a bowl and heated it up.”

Some American Indian tribal members who were visiting the campus when the cartoon was published were upset and offended, Hamby said. Members of a Native American student group filed a complaint with the Office of Equal Opportunity, which contacted The Standard’s editor and adviser following the cartoon’s publication.

The group wanted the adviser and editor fired, the staff to go through diversity training, the paper to devote one page periodically to multicultural or American Indian issues and the paper to issue an apology.

“I believe the people who were offended felt that they were being made fun of, and that is not a good feeling,” Hamby said. “I was very sorry that they felt that way, but that wasn’t the point of the joke.”

Cartoonists sometimes can find themselves caught in the middle of a political firestorm because of what they draw. The fact that people disagree with the cartoonist or that the cartoon might be viewed as offensive does not mean the cartoonist should be censored, said Lamb, the communication professor.

“I’m a great believer in that when someone makes a racist comment…not to censor it,” he said. 

Trying to censor racist or prejudiced thought is not a good way to combat racism or prejudice, he said. Anything that is baseless and racist should be exposed to the light and be diffused by public discourse, not censorship, he said.

Using cartoons as discourse is a longstanding tradition and one that one of America’s forefathers used: Benjamin Franklin drew one of the first American political cartoons. It depicted a snake divided into 13 pieces, with each piece representing one of the colonies, and at the bottom of the cartoon it said “Join, or Die”. 

Cartooning has thrived throughout history, even under dictatorships and authoritarian governments, Lamb said. Controversies or no controversies, the freedom of the press to draw cartoons that offend or inspire is here to say, he said.

 “There will always be people who don’t want to hear certain things—but they need to,” Hamby said.

reports, Spring 2006