Professor defends Charlie Hebdo cartoons

Professor Daniel Yezbick talks to students and staff in Cafe West on the importance of artistic freedom for cartoonists. (Photo by DeJuan Baskin)

By Chris Cunningham
The Scene staff

Some people look at a Charlie Hebdo magazine cover and see prejudice, but not English professor Dan Yezbick.

“It’s a common mode of satire,” he said. “It is meant to be very ironic. You show people how others appear idiotic because they are so out of touch.”

Yezbick,41, gave a talk titled, “What’s So Funny About Racial Profiling? Art, Terror and Identity in the Charlie Hebdo Killings” in Café West at Forest Park last month.

Yezbick examined the complex nature of the French magazine’s cartoons, which commonly mock religious extremists.

Controversial covers have included a Muslim man and a male Charlie Hebdo cartoonist kissing; former Pope Benedict holding a condom like a wafer for a Catholic Mass; and a Muslim extremist beheading a seemingly peaceful Muslim.

Humanities secretary Mary Kearney, 64, attended the talk because everything Yezbick does “lands” to her.

“I learned another perspective about foreign cartoons,” she said. “I didn’t realize how complicated the messages can be and how easily they can be misinterpreted.

“I like the French. They are strong in their opinions and beliefs about freedom.”

In January, two Muslim extremists shot and killed 11 people and injured 11 more at the Charlie Hebdo office building in Paris, protesting the magazine’s drawings of Prophet Muhammad and other negative depictions of Muslims.


Yezbick said people who write off the magazine’s staff as bigots don’t understand the nuance of the cartoons.

“You have to assume your audience is smart enough to understand you are showing someone else’s perspective, but not your own,” he said.

“It doesn’t always work, because it assumes an intelligence of an audience that sometimes isn’t there, which is why when you take Hebdo out of context, it makes them look conservative when they are quite liberal.”

Last year, Yezbick wrote a book called “Perfect Nonsense: The Chaotic Comics and Goofy Games of George Carlson,” published by Fantagraphics.

He also teaches a comics class at Forest Park. It’s being offered in the fall under the title “Studies in Literature” (ENG 228).

The French have a long history of challenging authority and extremism by defiling, debasing or assaulting the sacred and privileged. Yezbick said French satire is so shocking that people in France view “The Simpsons” as mild.

Biology secretary Cathy Reitz, 64, attended Yezbick’s talk. It made her think of French culture differently.

“You think of the French as romantics,” she said. “(But) it looks like they are very into stirring the pot.”

While Yezbick defends Charlie Hebdo, he isn’t a big fan of the magazine.

“It doesn’t gain any ground,” he said. “It is very risky and volatile. But if you are trying to aim for cultural change, it probably isn’t the most responsible way to go about it.

“There are other ways to show people that not all Muslims are terrorists that aren’t quite as shocking.”