Washington Post

Comics Intimidate Syrian President

Ali Ferzat: down but not out

It may seem like a cushy job to draw cartoon characters all day long, but in some places it’s dangerous.

In Syria last Thursday, popular political cartoonist Ali Ferzat was kidnapped and beaten by four or five men believed to be from President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces, according to The Guardian. Two of Ferzat’s fingers on his left hand and his right arm were broken and his left eye was damaged in the early morning encounter. The attackers specifically told Ferzat “this is just a warning” and that he shouldn’t satirize Syria’s leaders. He was left on the side of a road bloodied and bruised with a bag over his head. According to AFP and Al Jazeera, Syrian police forces are currently searching for the suspects.

Assad has been the subject of increasing international pressure due to his handling of heightened protests against his increasingly oppressive regime. Over 2,500 Syrian citizens have been killed by Assad’s security forces. Ferzat, who once considered Assad a friend and supported his election in 2000, has become an outspoken critic. He has focused his work on covering the uprising that began in earnest this past March.

Ferzat, now 60 years old, began his career in the ’70s and has gained international acclaim, particularly in Germany, France and the Netherlands, as well as throughout the Middle East, where he is considered one of the most famous cultural figures of the Arab world. No stranger to controversy, Ferzat received a death threat from none other than Saddam Hussein, then president of Iraq, because of a 1989 exhibition of his work in Paris. Ferzat has also won recognition for his years as a human rights activist.

Ferzat is not the first Syrian celebrity to get such treatment. In July, the composer Ibrahim al-Qashoush, who wrote a popular song against Assad’s regime, was found dead with his vocal chords forcibly removed. Several other Syrian writers and actors have been arrested in recent weeks. But Ferzat’s international reputation helped increase the reach of the story, which was specifically referenced in a statement from the US State Department criticizing Assad’s regime:

“The regime’s thugs focused their attention on Ferzat’s hands, beating them furiously and breaking one of them, a clear message that he should stop drawing.”

“We demand that the Assad regime immediately stop its campaign of terror through torture, illegal imprisonment and murder.”

Ferzat’s fans as well as the political cartoon community and the larger comics community have come together in support of Ferzat. A Facebook event page called We Are All Ali Ferzat was quickly set up soon after the incident. It currently has over 8,000 supporters. The Washington Post‘s Michael Cavna issued a call to arms to all cartoonists, and one of the responses was the One Thousand Ferzats Tumblr page, a growing collection of political cartoons in support of Ferzat and criticizing Assad. The above image quickly circulated with the belief that it was a self-portrait by Ferzat. That has mostly been dismissed as a rumor but the actual artist is unknown. Below is thought to be Ali Ferzat’s last published cartoon before he was attacked. At this time, it is unknown whether Ferzat will be able to draw again.

While the incident is a shocking and disgusting display of abused power, it’s also a reminder that comics and art are still powerful and inspiring. The editorial cartoons Ferzat has been publishing on his website (naturally, Syria has been banning his work in their state run newspapers for a while now) have been like a rallying cry to the protesters in Syria. And that power is a huge threat to a ruling force facing calls for resignation both domestically and internationally.

So to summarize: comics are hardcore.

Ali Ferzat's last cartoon before the attack

Someone make this: Searchable database of comic strips in major newspapers throughout history

I was hoping to find something like this but for the Boston Globe instead of The Oregonian (scan from Jonathan Shipley's Writer's Desk blog)

I was trying to figure out what comic strips were running in The Boston Globe when I started reading the comics section as a young lad. I know there was Garfield, probably the Amazing Spider-Man strip, Peanuts most likely, For Better or For Worse probably, but I can’t really remember what else. I think I started regularly reading the comics pages just before Calvin and Hobbes started, as I remember that being “the new strip”. So probably around 1984? I would love to have that information.

I was hoping I could find a scan of a random page from the ’80s to help refresh my memory. You can find everything online, so I figured this might take some clever Googling but should be doable. Well, apparently not. (Or I’m just not a very good Googler.) I did an image search at “the Google” for said random scan but no such luck. Then I did a search of all the internets, every single one of them, hoping for some ugly GeoCities fan site created by an obsessive-compulsive Globe reader who had cataloged every comics page, preferably using HTML tables and yellow font on a gaudy background. Maybe a dancing Calvin & Hobbes gif to really seal the deal? Well, GeoCities is gone, so maybe it took this hypothetical site with it. Once again, no such luck.

So this got me thinking. This is something that should be out there. All of the major newspapers with comics sections: The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune – it would be a great historical resource to know which strips ran in which papers when and for how long. (Last night on Twitter, I mistakenly included the New York Times in my initial wish list, but they don’t have a comics section.) Getting smaller papers would be great too but at least the major papers initially. And this information undoubtedly exists. The syndicates surely have extensive records of this information and more, although they probably have little motivation to provide it. So it will likely fall to the people to collect this information. So come on, everyone, let’s head to our local library‘s microfiche and get this going!

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: (more…)