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Six writers had pulled out of hosting tables at the PEN literary gala in New York. To host a table, you sit with eight people who have bought expensive tickets to the shindig in the vague hope of mingling with real writers. Your task is to make pleasant writerly conversation and not to spill your wine. Also, not to show disappointment when you realise that the whole table has been block-booked by, say, Google, and the people next to you don’t know who you are.
The six writer hosts who pulled out from the gala did so because among the awards that would be given that night was one for courage, going to the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo. It was for having the courage to put out the magazine after the 2011 firebombing and after the 2015 murders – and the six writers did not want to be there when Charlie Hebdo got that award.
I was asked if I would host a table. I said of course. So did Art Spiegelman; so did the cartoonist Alison Bechdel.
I tell my wife. “You are doing the right thing,” she says. Then, “Will you wear a bulletproof vest?”
“No. I think the security in the natural history museum will be pretty tight.”
“Yes. But you should wear a bulletproof vest, anyway. Remember, I’m pregnant,” she points out, in case I have forgotten. “And our child will need a father more than a martyr.”
My assistant calls me regretfully on the afternoon of the gala. “With a little more time,” she says, “I could have got you a made-to-measure bulletproof vest, the kind the president wears under his shirt. But all I can find at this short notice is an oversized police flak jacket. You would have to wear it over your tuxedo . . .”
I weigh my options. On the one hand, possible death by gunfire. On the other, definite embarrassment. “That’s OK,” I tell her. “I’ll be fine.”
I wear a bow tie. Art Spiegelman wears his Nancy comic tie, to show that he is a cartoonist, and we travel uptown by subway. We reach the museum. There are police in the streets and on the steps and TV crews – mostly French TV crews. Nobody else is wearing a bulletproof vest. There is a metal detector, though, and we walk through it one by one, authors and officials and guests.
Hanging above us as we eat is a life-size fibreglass blue whale. If terrorist cells behaved like the ones in the movies, I think, they would already have packed the hollow inside of the blue whale with explosives, leading to an exciting third-act battle sequence on top of the blue whale between our hero and the people trying to set off the bomb. And if that whale explodes, I realise, even an oversized flak jacket worn over a dinner jacket could not protect me. I find this vaguely reassuring.
Tom Stoppard is given an award first. Then Charlie Hebdo’s award is given. Finally, they give an award to the arrested Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova. I wonder why the idea of being in the room while Charlie Hebdo is honoured upset the six former table hosts enough that they had to not be there and they couldn’t have turned up for the bits they liked and supported and just sloped off to the toilets for the bit they felt uncomfortable with. But then, I don’t get only supporting the freedom of the kind of speech you like. If speech needs defending, it’s probably because it’s upsetting someone.
I suspect that the reason why it seems so simple to me and to those of us from the world of comics is that we are used to having to defend our work against people who want it – and us – off the shelves.
The first comics work I was ever paid for was in the 1987 Knockabout Comics book Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament. I was one of a few writers and I retold several stories, mostly from the Book of Judges. One story immediately got us into trouble: an account of the attempted rape of a male traveller to a town, thwarted by a host who offers the rapists his virgin daughter and the traveller’s concubine. A gang rape follows and the traveller takes his concubine’s corpse home, cuts it up and sends a segment of it to each of the tribes of Israel. (It’s Judges 19 and it’s pretty noxious.)
I was 26 and soon after publication I found myself on the radio defending the book, as a Tory MP complained about the lack of prosecutions for criminal blasphemy and how both the book and those who made it should be locked up; I watched the Sun attempt to stir up popular anger against it; and then, a few years later, I watched the Swedish publisher of the book fight to stay out of prison for publishing it over there.
Outrageous Tales was, let us make no bones of it, an offensive comic (we weren’t using the phrase “graphic novel” much in 1987). Its purpose, at least as far as I was concerned, was to shock, to point out that the Bible contained material that was outrageously unpleasant and to bring that out into the open, to let it be talked about, seen, discussed. The book existed, in part, to shock and to offend, because it was a reaction to material in the Bible that we found shocking and offensive.
In retrospect, I am glad I was not sentenced to prison for blasphemous libel, like Denis Lemon a decade earlier; glad that Knockabout’s Swedish publisher got off; and doubly glad that the fundamentalist Christian extremists back then mostly reserved their murders for doctors who performed abortions and did not, to the best of my knowledge, kill people who wrote or drew comics.
Comics and cartoons can viscerally upset and offend people. Cartoons and comics get banned and cartoonists get imprisoned and killed. Some comics are hard to defend, especially if you prefer prettier drawing styles, lack cultural context, or were hoping for subtlety. But that does not mean that they should not be defended.
Back beneath the fibreglass blue whale, Gérard Biard, the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, concludes his speech. “Growing up to be a citizen,” he reminds us, “is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images can be shocking. Being shocked is part of democratic debate. Being shot is not.”
Now listen to Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer discuss censorship and creativity on the NS podcast: