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'Any cartoon can offend': Artist behind viral Charlie Hebdo response on the power of pictures

Michael Shaw on how cartooning has changed in the social media age.

Source: Michael Shaw via Twitter

THE ARTIST BEHIND an image that went viral as a response to the the Charlie Hebdo attacks has spoken about the power of cartoons to push boundaries – and the risks of doing so.

Michael Shaw’s drawing, below, was shared by thousands upon thousands of people after the massacre in which several controversial cartoonists were killed.

He told DailyEdge.ie that the age of social media has “turbocharged” the efforts of satirical cartoonists.

Shaw’s image – drawn in 2006 after Charlie Hebdo first caused major controversy with cartoons of Muhammad – was widely shared online as a direct response to the shootings. But the intention was different, he says.

It wasn’t about any particular subject, but more about pushing the idea that almost any cartoon can elicit a reaction – even a blank square with a disclaimer at the top. It’s taking the idea of creating a completely unoffensive cartoon to an absurd dimension.

Even this cartoon has been problematic for some.

I recall someone also telling this cartoon was racist because it was “all white”. I told them it was blank. Not white.

Shaw believes that no subject should be definitively off limits for satirical cartooning. ”I’m not a fan of prior constraint as far as content or subject,” he says.

A typically boundary-pushing Charlie Hebdo cover, published in the wake of the Haiti earthquake

However, he adds that pushing the envelope involves an inevitable balancing act. “I would hope the effort to push those kinds of boundaries is worth the risk,” he says. “A bad cartoon is a bad cartoon no matter the subject.”

Shaw believes more people saw his cartoon following the Charlie Hebdo shootings than in the previous nine years following its publication.

“With the growing reach and impact of social media, it feels like cartoonists efforts have become turbo charged,” he says.

The events in Paris do drive home an appreciation of other cartoonists’ dedication to their work and how many cartoonists do hold a mirror up to contemporary society [...] It’s like political/satirical cartoonists have taken on a “first responder” role for current events.

So what makes a good cartoon? It’s partly to do with ambiguity, he says. “As a New Yorker cartoonist, I work to achieve some level of ambiguity and humor. I don’t like to completely explain the cartoon, but make the viewer project their values into the cartoon. So the best cartoons are open to different possible explanations.”

However, he draws a distinction between magazine cartoonists such as himself, and editorial cartoonists who must respond immediately to current affairs. Shaw concludes:

My personal motto is “Time, plus tragedy equals tragedy. But who has time anymore?”

You can see more of Michael Shaw’s cartoons here>

More: Thousands are sharing this New Yorker cartoon after the Charlie Hebdo shootings>

About the author:

Michael Freeman

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