Comics can still be controversial – hot button issues rile up readers

This week, two comics are making national news due to some readers being offended by the comics’ content.

The Washington Post blog Comic Riffs by Michael Cavna takes a look at reactions from an op-ed article in the Press & Sun-Bulletin to a week’s worth of the comic strip Mother Goose & Grimm by Mike Peters. The comic satirized the hypothetical Chernobyl Amusement Park with a series of radiation jokes. The historic meltdown of the Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 resulted in the destruction of a community and its local environment, and thousands either dying or being diagnosed with life-altering illnesses in the fallout.

Meanwhile, MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell is shocked and dismayed at the perceived racism of a recent installment of the political comic strip Obama Nation by James Hudnall and Batton Lash. First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiative Let’s Move is the target. O’Donnell takes issue with how Lash portrayed the First Family.

My first thought is that these are reminders that comic strips, comic books, graphic novels – the sequential art form that these all use – can still stir a passionate response in people. Not that it’s even debatable, but the medium is still as vital as ever. So that’s great news.

Specifically though, do these comics go too far?

Your miles will vary. We all have varying levels of sensitivity to different topics. And if someone is genuinely upset or offended by something, that shouldn’t be dismissed. Having said that, artistic expression is still a freedom and a right we enjoy, as long as another’s freedoms, rights or safety aren’t limited as a result.

I’ll look at these one at a time after the clickie-jump:

Here’s the Chernobyl Amusement Park storyline from Mike Peters’ Mother Goose and Grimm, which ran in newspapers on Monday, February 7th to Saturday, February 12th:

Most of the comments under each comic seemed to be enjoying the story, but a few voiced concern. Under the second strip, a poster named Lark stated, “After everybody in the US actually knows what happened in the Ukraine in 1986, THEN might be a good time to draw a cartoon about it. Not that I’m “uber-offended”, but I do wonder if people know that there are hospitals in the Ukraine that have not had a “non-anomalous” birth since 1986.”

In response, Peters posted the following on Wednesday, February 9th: “Lark, the Ukraine is starting to allow to tourists to visit the Chernobyl site. The place is still dangerous. I think it’s a bad idea and I’m trying to bring people’s attention to this in my own humorous little way.”

On the same day, under Wednesday’s strip, he also posted, “For those who wonder what I’m doing, the Ukraine is encouraging tourists to come and visit the Chernobyl nuclear power site for vacation. I think this is nuts. Enjoy the series.”

Despite this, the Press & Sun-Bulletin daily newspaper of Binghamton, New York, published an op-ed by Daniel Jan Walikis criticizing the strip for making light of the Chernobyl tragedy. The letter was printed Thursday, February 10th.

During the past few days, the “Mother Goose & Grimm” comic strip by Mike Peters has exponentially exceeded the boundaries of what is acceptable to all persons of Ukrainian and Ukrainian-American origin.

To poke fun at and make light of the victims and the continuous suffering as a result of the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986, is entirely unacceptable and goes far beyond the pale.

He goes on to talk about his annual tribute to the victims of the disaster on his radio show The European Ethnic Melodies Show, which airs Tuesday nights 7 PM to 10 PM on Binghamton University‘s WHRW. He ends demanding an apology for the comic strip and equating it to discrimination. “Would the cartoon comic strip have been pulled if any other members of the community were exploited and discriminated against because of their race, creed, color, sex or ethnic origin?”

This topic is somewhat closer to me, as I helped produce a video demo of Voices From Chornobyl, a theatrical adaptation of the book of interviews Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich. Director Cindy Marie Jenkins continues to work hard to raise awareness about this issue. We did a lot of research during the making of the demo, and the continuing effects of the disaster are downright scary. So when CNN reported last December that the Ukrainian government is lifting tourism restrictions to the effected area this year, it seemed like a really bad idea to me. Especially considering radiation in the area is still abnormally high. Officials say precautions are taken to make sure that visitors are only taken to the safer areas but it still seems really risky to me.

Apparently Grimm‘s Peters agreed, which inspired him to comment on the issue in his internationally syndicated comic strip. He’s also a political cartoonist, so it’s not terribly unusual that he’s aware of current events and wants to comment on them.

So in principal, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the issue being addressed. But was it insensitive and/or discriminatory? Really the only one that gives me pause is the crying baby one due to the problems with child birth in the region, especially since the cartoon hand-waving kind of looks like the kid has 6 arms. But within the context of the rest, which are pretty silly and standard cartoon exaggerations of the effects of radiation – mutated animals and acid rain – I don’t think there’s any kind of bad intent beyond criticizing the Ukraine’s decision.

 

Here’s the Obama Nation comic by James Hudnall and Batton Lash, first posted at BigGovernment.com on February 12th:

I hate to admit it but the ears got a little chuckle out of me. I mean, they’re just so ridiculously exaggerated. But that’s the biggest strength of the comic. Otherwise, the joke isn’t executed well and Michelle isn’t caricatured well at all. I guess she maybe looks closer to Oprah Winfrey? Normally this would just be dismissed and the world would move on.

But MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell thought the comic was much worse than that. His response, titled “Racist caricature of first lady on website,” aired on The Last Word Tuesday night. Again the execution is pretty poor here – a sedate outrage filled with boring pauses and a ridiculous solution to guilt strangers and the creators’ loved ones into arranging an intervention. The new Keith Olbermann, he’s not. O’Donnell is also immensely irresponsible by essentially sicking his followers on the comics’ creators. Apparently Batton Lash and his wife, who O’Donnell names multiple times by name, have been getting phone calls and letters because he also mentioned their city of residence.

To be clear, I am not the target audience of Obama Nation. Looking at other installments of the strip, you can find better evidence to support some of O’Donnell’s claims. But even so, there’s no reason why society as a whole needs to intervene on the personal career choices of two comic creators and how they depict two public figures. It’s trumped up outrage as an effort to stir up conspiracy, and it falls flat on its face. It’s no wonder he didn’t show the comic on his show or website, because viewers would immediately see that there’s no animalistic depiction. Obama simply has silly gigantic ears because he has mildly pronounced ears in real life. And Michelle… looks like some other woman. It just doesn’t hold water for me.

Of course, I say this as a white male. Maybe it’s more damaging than I realize. After all, O’Donnell wasn’t the only one outraged. The New York Daily News and Media Matters both posted articles with similar concerns, before O’Donnell’s segment aired. However, their ire was due to how heavy artist Batton Lash made Michelle look. And I think it’s hard to say she doesn’t look over-weight. But in a statement defending their comic, Hudnall and Lash disagreed with the criticisms. Lash simply ends his response with “By the way, I didn’t depict the First Lady as fat—just a hearty eater!” A strange and unfortunate choice considering how fit and slim Michelle always looks.

 

Despite all of this silliness, I still love that these strips are getting people talking. It shows that there is a lot of power in comics. Next goal: Let’s get this kind of talk about the truly excellent works in comics instead of just the OK or less-than-OK ones that happen to hit on a controversial topic.

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3 comments

  1. It’s kind of extraordinary how comics are often treated as “just comics,” “silly pictures,” and not taken seriously until people don’t agree with them. I am with you, Corey, that the only part of the Chernobyl comic that could be mildly offensive is the picture of the baby, but honestly, if that means that people gain an understanding of how many Cheronbyl children are born into poverty, ill health, often not being able to walk – well, it accomplished the creator’s intention as I see it. I sincerely doubt he’s “making fun” of the children born into ill-equipped hospitals and needing surgery only possibly overseas. More people are likely to read about the conditions as portrayed in his comic than a medical article.

    The idea that Chernobyl will become a tourist destination deserves attention. Mike Peters’ illustrations are not far from the truth, and I thank him for even putting the name Chernobyl in his comic for a week, thus raising the consciousness as we approach the 25th anniversary.

    On the topic of the Obama comic, there are many more offensive comics of the First Family out there, and this portrayal of The First Lady is hardly the worst, probably because the image of her eating hamburgers is a complete invention, whereas the Chernobyl images are only slight exaggerations of the truth.

    Thank you for your insight, as always!

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