Drawn Blood 

Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression
Edited by David Wallis
W.W. Norton
$15.95, 282 pages
The Journalist (capitalized when archetypal) knows that a writer hasn’t truly “arrived” until the day his writing is so controversial, so edgy, so contrary to the political interests of the powers that be or the moral standards of advertisers, that the article dies a silent, censored death. Much in the same way the Journalist anticipates the opportunity to sit zipper-lipped in a jail cell rather than betray an anonymous source, the Journalist anxiously waits for censorship. He has his reaction planned: He will stomp with righteous indignation into the editor’s office, throw job security to the wind, extend the one long finger representing the First Amendment, and slam the door behind him on the way out.

At least, that’s the Journalist’s fantasy. The sad reality is that censorship is far less dramatic, as the first installment of Featurewell.com editor David Wallis’s “Killed” series proved. The front cover promised “Great Journalism Too Hot to Print,” but the stories were lukewarm at best — where were the Hunter S. essays? — proving that censorship is more about wimpy and beholden editors than courageous writers.

The same criticism apples to the second in the series, Killed Cartoons. With editorial cartoons, the illustrator is freer to opine and lampoon, because as opposed to “news,” parody is protected from libel law. At the same time, commissioning editors are also more mindful of shocking imagery. The squeamish browser can choose not to read articles, but images imprint themselves in the mind with even the briefest glimpse. Still, the large bulk of the book’s cartoons are surprisingly tame: A parody on the teenage saggy-pants style, killed because it shows ass-cracks; an obituary for Orville Redenbacher in which he pops out of his coffin, killed presumably for its irreverence; a pot-shot at Ronald Reagan’s attorney general Edwin Meese, killed because it would piss off the Justice Department, whose approval the Detroit Free Press needed for a merger with the Detroit News. The most shocking the cartoons get is a passing reference to anal sex in a 12-panel San Francisco Examiner cartoon and, ironically, Norman Rockwell’s post-Saturday Evening Post art, specifically a 1968 image of two marines, one black and one white, lying in a pool of blood.

The book’s strength is in the cartoonists’ testimonies about editor-wrestling. Terry Mosher (Aislin) of the Montreal Gazette kept his editor in check by faxing his censored cartoons to local drive-time DJs. R.J. Matson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch describes his internal conflict between respecting cultural taboos and fulfilling his responsibility to comment on the Danish Mohammed cartoon controversy. There are also the obligatory dialogues about using poop, penises, and crack-smoking as visual metaphors. But the book is also heavy on editors’ post-9/11 hesistance to publish anything that could be interpreted as un-patriotic, a dead horse beat by countless other critiques.

One would like to believe in the cartoonist as Free Speech Crusader, as the Denver Post’s Mike Keefe portrays himself, continously drawing cartoons that he knows will be axed. But it’s Marin Independent Journal cartoonist Steve Greenberg who summarizes Killed Cartoons best: “The most innocuous cartoons get editors riled up.”

More by Dave Maass



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