5 Artists Killed for Comics Beyond 'Charlie Hebdo'
This January, the words "Charlie Hebdo" suddenly went from, "Probably some Italian guy who works in a massage parlor, or something?" to a tragic symbol of the fight for freedom of expression. The reason the world was so shocked at the murder of those cartoonists is that this just doesn't happen -- we're used to people being bombed due to their religion, political inclination, or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but because they made some silly cartoons? There's no precedent for that in human history. Right?
Actually, yeah, there's a shitload of precedent. Strap on, motherflippers, and let me tell you about the comic writers and artists who "were Charlie" long before it became a hashtag ...
The Argentinian Government Made H.G. Oesterheld "Disappear" for Making Sci-Fi Comics
Imagine The Walking Dead meets War of the Worlds, with some time travel, interdimensional fuckery, and scuba suits thrown in for good measure. If you have always wished someone would make a comic like that, good news: Someone totally did! The bad news: The author's life was even more unbelievable than the comic -- and not in a good way.
The series I'm talking about is El Eternauta, created in 1957 by Hector German Oesterheld (writer) and Francisco Solano Lopez (artist) in Argentina, where no one has less than seven syllables in their name. The story starts with Oesterheld himself, chilling in his studio one night, when a time traveler materializes in his chair and tells him the most insane alien invasion story ever -- it involves eldritch atrocities, a snowfall that killed half the world, humanoids with 11 fingers in each hand, and giant bugs that try to hump you.
Not recommended if you're afraid of bugs. Or super-recommended, if you like seeing them machine gunned to death.
Oesterheld finished the series in 1959 and moved on to do other things, such as a comic book biography of Che Guevara, a horror/sci-fi/mystery series called Mort Cinder, and his wife. (Just saying -- dude had four daughters.) By the time Argentina fell into one of those pesky CIA-backed dictatorships in 1976, Oesterheld was 57 years old and had every excuse to wind down his career and spend the rest of his days making cameos in telenovelas, like a Latino Stan Lee. Instead, he brought back El Eternauta, only with a few changes: The setting moved to a totalitarian future, and the protagonist became a revolutionary leader who urged the people to rise up against the dicta- uhh, alien invaders. The Argentinian military wasn't fooled by this subtle symbolism, though, and they started asking around for Oesterheld, so they could have a little chat with him (the kind that involves pliers and your testicles). Oesterheld went into hiding, but kept writing the comic.
Aaaand, this is where our story turns soul-crushingly sad. Oesterheld's daughters (25, 21, 19, and 18), like countless other college-age kids associated with the Montoneros guerrilla movement, were taken one by one by the military and never seen again. Their husbands were picked off, too. Their infant children were temporarily "relocated" -- a thing the military did back then. Oesterheld kept writing. In the comic, the "Hector Oesterheld" character watches in horror as everyone he knows is murdered by the aliens.
At some point in 1977, Oesterheld himself was caught and became one of the between 10,000 and 30,000 people the dictatorship made "disappear" for political reasons ... but not before turning in the script to the last chapter of El Eternauta II, which was published when he was probably enjoying the hospitality of some clandestine detention center. They killed Oesterheld, but his message lives on through the endless reprints, translations, and crappy pirated editions of his comics. Still, good thing Argentina's government doesn't murder people who disagree with them anymore, huh?
Naji Al-Ali's Murder Mystery: Starring Mossad Double Agents and a Pissed-Off Margaret Thatcher
Naji Al-Ali pissed off so many people with his cartoons that, 28 years after his murder, we're still not sure who killed him. He was the Tupac of cartooning. He brutally criticized pretty much every Arab nation, which made him hated by governments and popular with citizens; The Guardian called him "the nearest thing there is to an Arab public opinion." He was so famous that he didn't even have to sign his work. People just knew it was him from his character Handala, a little kid with no shoes and no fucks to give.
Turns out those "Kilroy was here" drawings look super depressing from the other side.
Al-Ali and his family were among the people displaced from Palestine when Israel came about in 1948. They ended up in Lebanon, where young Al-Ali began his career as an artist by drawing on prison walls. He went into political cartooning and spent the next few decades having to move back and forth between Lebanon and Kuwait whenever the death threats got too heavy -- for his co-workers. He didn't give a shit about himself. In 1975, Yasser Arafat said he'd "melt fingers in acid" if Al-Ali didn't stop making cartoons (he was strongly against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but also Arafat's shady means), to which the cartoonist replied that he'd just keep drawing with his toes. You know, like the lady who does Cathy.
Speaking of horrible disfigurements, those cartoons I put up there are about as lighthearted as his work got ...
HOLY SHIT, DUDE.
Al-Ali eventually settled in London, where he worked for a Kuwaiti newspaper from the safety of a first-world country. Or so everyone thought, until someone shot him in the face while walking in the street in 1987, shortly after he published a cartoon making fun of Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. So, it was the PLO that killed him, right? That's what Scotland Yard figured, until they caught two PLO suspects connected with his death, and they turned out to be double agents from Israel's Mossad. At the very least, Israel knew Al-Ali was about to get got and didn't warn anyone, which made Margaret Thatcher so furious that she closed Mossad's base in London and kicked three Israeli diplomats out of England. In person, I'm assuming.
It was a huge international clusterfuck ... over some dude who did cartoons.
Al-Ali didn't survive the bullet to the face, but his character Handala did -- the little bald kid is still seen spray-painted all over places such as Palestine and Iran, serving as both as symbol of defiance and their version of the "Calvin taking a piss" decal. Not a bad legacy, I think.
The 18th-Century Manga Precursors Got Shackled, Exiled, and Possibly "Suicided"
Turns out, this sort of bullshit goes way back. To most people, the words "ancient Japanese comics" probably bring forth images of Astro Boy and his butt machine guns, but the first use of the word "manga" (originally meaning "comic sketches") actually dates back to freaking 1798. Back then, Japanese artists would put out picture books called kibyoshi, which included all of the things modern manga fans love so much. Gore and violence? Check.
All of those words are just one long, sustained scream of pain.
Bizarre, inexplicable crap? Got it.
Also, giant eyes.
Horny dudes getting freaky with anthropomorphic animals? You know it! In fact, there was a whole subgenre of "guy has sex with a prostitute, then finds out she's a cat" stories.
"Hey, how much do I- AW, NO! I FUCKED A CAT AGAIN! HOW DOES THIS KEEP HAPPENING?!"
It wasn't all dismemberment, monsters, and sex with monsters, though -- during this period of civil unrest, the kibyoshi artists were known for subtly satirizing the Japanese establishment through their silly-ass parables. The book called Unseamly Silverpiped Swingers, for example, only looked like an insane story about the romantic misadventures of two twins with only one body -- in reality, it was about the "government's inability to provide food for its people."
"It's the two-headed creature on the window again! That makes me so mad about the food shortages."
The establishment, as usual, didn't appreciate being mocked and came down hard on these crazy proto-manga bastards. Starting in 1791, satire in kibyoshi books was forbidden by law, and the artists were exiled, had half their shit taken away, or worse. The guy who did the Swingers protest piece above, Santo Kyoden, was shackled for 50 days for his scathing political satire. Others mysteriously dropped off the face of the Earth. The most influential kibyoshi artist was Koikawa Harumachi, who pretty much invented the whole genre -- hell, he even used thought balloons. He was straight-up doing comic books.
Or Wes Anderson storyboards, judging from the name Master Flashgold's Splendiferous Dream.
Well, when the censorship started, Harumachi was summoned to the tribunal and died under strange circumstances -- the rumor being that he committed court-ordered suicide. Another artist called Shikitei Sanba did a story criticizing the fire brigades for being too violent, to which the brigades said, "No we're not!" and proceeded to trash both his place and his editor's. Don't worry, the government took action: They arrested the firefighters, fined the publisher, and shackled Sanba for 50 days. That'll teach him to get terrorized.
So, if you think being a manga enthusiast today is hard because you have to put up with high import prices and shitty fan translations, be thankful that at least your favorite authors don't have to draw with manacles around their wrists (unless they want to). Yeah, being a kibyoshi fan probably sucked big time.
"They're called illustrated woodblocks, Mom! God!"
Utah Executed a (Probably) Innocent Cartoonist 100 Years Ago
Listen, I'm sort of cheating with this entry because it's highly possible that Joe Hill would have been executed even if he wasn't a cartoonist (he was also a folk songwriter, labor activist, and, oh yeah, accused murderer), but his story is so interesting that I'm telling it to you, anyway.
Hill (short for Hillstrom, pseudonym for Hagglund) was a Swedish immigrant who farted around the U.S. during the early 1900s, doing odd jobs and slowly making a name for himself by publishing satirical songs and cartoons in workers' publications. His favorite characters were comically out-of-touch people in fancy hats:
I mean, if your name is Highbrow, what the hell kind of hat are you supposed to buy?
And disorganized workers who have got to get their shit together:
How many young men have wasted their potential in pursuit of the elusive unicycle?
Hill's biggest influence was in songwriting (he was the first to put the words "pie in the sky" in that order), but that part of his career was still connected to comics: He wrote a song about Ernest Riebe's Mr. Block, who was basically an underground comix character 50 years before underground comix existed.
Today, doing silly anti-system songs and cartoons gets you 300 fans on Facebook; back then, the only thing Hill got was shot. Repeatedly. One day in 1914, he showed up at a doctor's office with a bullet hole in his body, saying something about a fight over a woman. Utah's authorities decided one hole wasn't enough and arrested this rabble-rouser for a murder that happened the same day, despite the lack of conclusive evidence incriminating him (and the abundance of evidence pointing toward another guy).
Hill was sentenced to death by firing squad -- everyone from Helen Keller to President Woodrow Wilson called bullshit, but the governor of Utah didn't seem to care much. Of course, it didn't help that Hill refused to name the woman he was apparently dueling for (her identity wasn't known until 2011) and declined to tell his side of the story during his own trial -- on the basis that he goddamn shouldn't have to.
"Can't a guy take a bullet for his lady friend without everyone demanding explanations? Geez."
Hill was executed on November 19, 1915, which sucked for him and all, but did wonders for his career. His songs are still covered, and his supposed last message to his fellow workers ("Don't mourn, organize!") was turned into a call for action and was immortalized across thousands of pamphlets and cartoons. And that's why every labor union in the United States has worked flawlessly since then.
They're currently getting organized to destroy the planets in Hill's memory. He fucking hated planets.
Making Cartoons in the Eastern World Requires Balls of Steel
In the West, the biggest risk you run drawing jokes for a living is having some turd-eater crop out your signature and get 2,000 upvotes on Reddit by posting your stolen work. In the Middle and Far East, on the other hand, cartooning is ... well, I was gonna say "one of the most dangerous jobs ever," but over there, even gynecologists have to deal with explosions. Still, the mortality rate is way higher than you'd expect for a job that involves sitting in front of a drawing table all day. No, not because of the lumbar problems.
In 1993, for instance, a group of progressive artists was holding a festival in Sivas, Turkey, when an angry mob of radical Islamists interrupted the festivities by burning 35 people alive. The reason for the festival? Honoring a poet who got hanged for his work in that same region, about 443 years earlier. Cartoonist Asaf Kocak probably didn't have time to appreciate the irony before becoming one of the casualties.
He always thought he would die by ostrich firing squad.
This site has a good rundown of this sort of thing: Joseph Nasr (Palestine) was kidnapped and murdered in 1973 for publishing a cartoon of the West Bank's mayor with a shoe in his mouth. Guerrovi Brahim (Algeria) was also kidnapped and murdered ... for being pro-government, for a change. Even the blandest comic strips you can think of can get you in trouble in this part of the world -- in 1996, five Muslim fundamentalists in Kuwait chased a newspaper editor out of his office at gunpoint because of a Hagar the Horrible strip, co-starring God's voice. Since no one died in that case, let's admit that this is the most hilarious thing that has ever happened involving Hagar the Horrible.
A running theme of the strip is "even God thinks Hagar sucks."
And if you just sorta assumed that corrupt governments have stopped forcibly "disappearing" artists -- nope, sorry, that's still happening. Right now. In 2010, popular Sri Lankan cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda went missing two days before his country's election. And, what do you know, the main theme of his work was criticizing the current administration and supporting the opposition. Or, at least, that's what people smarter than me say these cartoons are about -- because I have no idea what's going on here:
All I know is I'm suddenly filled with an inexplicable desire to vote for Sarath Fonseka in '10.
Prageeth is still missing, but Amnesty International believes the government has him (or knows where they buried him, anyway). Meanwhile, Akram Raslan of Syria was arrested in 2012 for "offending the state's prestige" by drawing President Al-Assad as a warmonger or, worse yet, a clown -- a crime that had already gotten his colleague Ali Ferzat beaten by police and left with broken hands.
Here he is, flipping you off with one of them.
Akram hasn't been heard of since then, so he's either rotting in jail or executed ... which, hey, means he's got better odds than most people in this entry. Here's a petition to free him, and here's how to write to the Sri Lankan authorities about Prageeth, while you're at it. Don't tell them Cracked sent you, though. Say we're, uh, National Geographic. Yeah.
Maxwell Yezpitelok has a free robot-action webcomic. Please don't kill him.
For more from Maxwell, check out 4 Famous Debates Solved at Last (in Super Smash Bros.) and 4 Things I Learned About Teenage Trolls (From Being One) .
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