CSotD: AAEC Day Three: “If you can’t beat them, laugh at them”

Wrapping up the conference with a day of good panels and bad lighting. Which is better than the reverse, but an unphotogenic meeting of people sitting around tables was brightened by a visit from the Middle Eastern cartoonists visiting the US.

And, with Nawaff Almulla‘s cartoon as an example, a theme that emerged is one that has been heard several times this weekend: The power of social media and its dubious effect on society and politics, in this case, as he noted, the tiny Tweetbird leading the large camel and all the riches it carries.


Sameh Samir Gaid was more pointed in his criticism of how brutal leaders can use social media to improve their image and their standing with the public.


While Marwa Elsisi offered a more general comment on how extremist groups offer disenfranchised young people a toxic, violent alternative.

The meeting itself was primarily inside baseball of little interest beyond the AAEC itself, except that it should be noted that the next gathering will be next May in Ottawa, along with the Canadians and, they promised, cartoonists from New Zealand and Australia.

Stay tuned, since the open panels will be fascinating and it’s not a bad place to be in May anyway.


Meanwhile, there was the CXC convention going on, and AAEC had a strong booth presence. Here Nick Anderson staffs the booth and highlights his wares while Matt Wuerker does something or other in the background. The nice thing about this setup was that it had all the cartoonists’ books available throughout, not just when they were present, making it a nice way to reach out to CXC participants who might not be familiar with the form.


And it was a two-way street, as Detroit Free Press cartoonist Mike Thompson chats with MK Czerweic, one of the leading figures in graphic medicine cartooning (and a close buddy of friend-of-the-blog Brian Fies).


Beyond commerce, you could find all sorts of cartoonists just hanging out, including Patrick Chappatte, largely famous for having lost his NYTimes gig over a cartoon someone else drew, and Zunar, the recently freed cartoonist who has been in and out of jail for years in Malaysia but may have a new lease on free expression under a new government there.


And there were panels, with Kal Kallaugher explaining his work the way your favorite-ever teacher did it: With some humor and warmth to disguise the astonishing amount of information you’re processing.

Here he shows a piece he did at six, an age where all of us picked up our Crayons and drew.

“Everyone was an artist at six,” he said. “We’re just professional six-year-olds.”

And then he went on to demonstrate how that technique can be honed over the years, without losing the puckish sense of wonder and outrage that comes with being six.


One aspect is recognizing that faces change, he said, and that the cheerful, upward gazing Obama who took office may not be the same fellow eight years later.


He also insisted that basic symbols have to be used thoughtfully, that Uncle Sam is a tired symbol of the United States if you just throw it into a cartoon. It was a point he demonstrated with a 9/11 cartoon that stunned me, since I used to use the glut of “weeping Statues of Liberty” 9/11 cartoons with high school students to make a point about laziness.

I wish I’d seen this one then, because it’s the perfect example of using the same symbol with considered thought.


The next panel was on the topic of censorship and repression, highlighting the Cartoonists Rights Network International, with their executive director Terry Anderson moderating, along with board members Ritu Gairola Khanduri and Ann Telnaes, Charles Brownstein of the Comic Books Legal Defense Fund and cartoonists Zunar (Malaysia) and Pedro Molina (Nicaragua), both of whom have come into conflict with repressive regimes.

There has been an odd flood of good news lately, with the freeing of Turkish cartoonist Musa Kart and the resettling of “Eaten Fish” in Norway, as well as the dropping of charges against Zunar.


But repression comes in many forms and the panel certainly demonstrated that, with Molina talking about protesters being shot down in the streets in Nicaragua, newspaper offices and TV stations being plundered and closed and the offices of the on-line news source he had been working for likewise being shuttered

However, though he was been extracted and resettled as a visiting professor at Ithaca College, Molina continues his on-line work, together with other staff scattered around the world. In a conversation later, he explained that, while the Nicaraguan government could shut down Internet access in the country, they need it as well (see Arab cartoons above).


And Zunar, who is famous in these circles for photographs of him smiling in handcuffs as he is carted off yet again, brought that same puckish humor to the panel, explaining that his approach is “If you can’t beat them, laugh at them.”

And he demonstrated with an example of how, after he was arrested yet again for insulting the Prime Minister with a cartoon, a journalist asked the Prime Minister how a cartoonist could do his job under those circumstances and what Zunar was supposed to draw, in his mind.

“Let him draw Donald Duck,” the irritated politician snapped and not only did Zunar follow orders, but added the fellow’s equally corrupt wife as Mickey Mouse.


But the laughter disappeared as Ann Telnaes, herself the victim of organized social media attacks, spoke of the pain of this unreasoning, violent, vulgar misogynism, then offered a video in which two women sportscasters had men read, to their faces, the tweets they had been receiving.

Click on it if you have a strong stomach.

Still, the panel agreed, the solution is to keep cartooning, to keep working, to fight for free expression in the face of prisons and violence and threats.


As for my own panel on editorial cartooning in the age of Trump, I could have handed my camera to someone, I suppose, but I was too tightly focused on the fact that we were basically winging it, with no graphic backup and only a few moments of casual set-up: Each of us made an opening statement and then I went into interviewer mode.

The panelists, as seen in their work above, were Patrick Chappatte, Nick Anderson and Nancy Ohanian, and we opened with statements in which I described the current state of newspapers, Chappatte spoke of pressures on cartoonists, Anderson offered hope in the story of Counterpoint and Ohanian observed that, whatever happens in the next elections, Pandora’s Box has been opened and there’s no returning to our previous status.

Beyond that, I can only see it as a director rather than from the audience POV, but people seemed pleased. (Here’s a pic after all!)


The convention ended with a reception and awards, the first being a thank you to Cartoonists Rights Network International Director Robert Russell, the Burl Ivesish looking fellow seen here surrounded by board members, cartoonists impacted by CNRI and his wife.

It included the announcement that the Courage in Cartooning Award will now be the Robert Russell Courage in Cartooning Award, and, while that may seem at first glance like small potatoes, there are people for whom the award focused enough international attention that it has meant the difference between freedom and prison.


Next up was the Rex Babin Award for local cartooning, presented here by Jack Ohman with help from previous winner JD Crowe, which went to a surprised, touched and unusually inarticulate Kal Kallaugher. You can read their release here.

For the first time, a finalist was also named for the award, Nate Beeler.


And the last award and formal moment of the evening was the Ink Bottle Award, given to outstanding overall service to the profession and to the organization , which went to Ann Telnaes, seen here with AAEC President Kevin Siers.

Since I’ve got a plane to catch tomorrow morning, I’ll be posting a final AAEC-oriented piece, with samples of the First Amendment cartoons in the Billy Ireland’s exhibition which Telnaes co-curated with Lucy Shelton Caswell.

If you want an early peek, it will likely be up by 10 tonight.


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