Thursday, September 29, 2016

On the Perils of Maturity

I used to be of the belief that everyone should get a pass on whatever embarrassing, awful stuff they did before they turned 18. Did you put on blackface when you were 14 for a school talent show and then get suspended for it? You were a jerk. But if you're 34 now and you know better and teach your kids about the horrors of racism, no one needs to know about that story. The same goes for your verbal bullying of the gay kid, the misogynist jokes you cracked about the fat girl, and of that time you humiliated the autistic kid of the janitor who took a job at the school because it was the only way he was able to find services for his son. As long as you've grown up and have given up on your sociopathy, you are allowed to live a long adulthood in which these incidents do not haunt you, or at least only haunt you late at night, because hopefully you have developed a capacity for guilt and introspection.

After seeing how much I and many of my friends have changed since college, I now extend the age up to 22. I'm sure when I'm 50, I will bring it up to 35, and when I'm 80, to 70.

This will be a gutless post, in which I will discuss a 30-something cartoonist of some prominence without naming him. I don't know him personally, although, the world of comics being what it is, I'm sure we have at least 15 mutual friends.

This cartoonist began his career at my college paper, which published his early "South Park"-esque stabs at comedy. I remember one that ran on Yom Kippur about a Jew who gleefully breaks all the rules of the Day of Atonement. In one panel, the kid chows down on pork with a shit-eating grin. In the final panel, the cartoon announces that it was drawn by a Jew and therefore not offensive. The school's Jewish chaplain begged to differ.

After he graduated, a god-, god-, oh-my-god, was it a godawful campus humor mag published what may be his most infamous cartoon. This was the magazine that advertised itself with a cartoon of a man representing Columbia fucking a student up the ass. (Get it...Right...I mean...Get it. Hahahahhahaha. Taking it up the ass. Hahahahahhaha) I remember meeting the editor and she struck me as inhumane.

The cartoon in question made fun of the lame, shallow story taught during African-American History Month. As someone who has long grown weary of any discussion that privileges heritage over history, I actually agreed with the sentiment of the cartoon. But it's not a cartoon I would have written or, at least today, have published. It was very easy to read the strip as indulging cartooning's long history of blackface. Its irony did not save it. Campus protests followed.

I thought his work was funny. I thought he walked a line he often tripped over. I thought it was okay to trip over lines in comedy. If he was doing this work today, he would risk expulsion in at least a few schools. And no, I don't think it's good that such work risks that kind of punishment.

This cartoonist had a natural understanding of how to develop narrative in a few short panels, and the mischievous grin of the protagonist who is so ready to say the socially unacceptable would be familiar to any college kid. But the sloppiness was evident. He grew up to become an expert draftsman. He's an innovator in one field of professional cartooning that has gained more interest in recent years. He also draws toothless, dad-humor-esque political cartoons for one of the most prestigious popular publications in the U.S. If I placed any of his college work next to any of his current work, you would find the two artistic temperaments irreconcilable. A lot of comics have said that Jay Leno was a badass in the 1980s.

I have no idea what changed. We all grow up. Part of me is glad that his current work doesn't "punch down." Part of me is glad to see him focus more of his intelligence in his line-drawing. Part of me wonders if a humorist who can only survive on at least a certain level of offensiveness in regards to race may lack moral intelligence. Part of me thinks that there is and has been a lot of worth, wisdom, and intelligence in racist/anti-Semitic/misogynist/homophobic/xenophobic art, and that there is something valuable that can be revealed when we let an artist indulge his id.

Most of his college work is unavailable online. My college newspaper did not post our cartoons on the internet during his run. I wish that material was more readily available online. And I wish this cartoonist would go back and look at his early work and see if there's anything worth reviving.

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