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Illustrator Koren Shadmi on 'Charlie Hebdo' and the State of French Cartoons

The French have a special relationship with comics, and Charlie Hebdo is part of a long tradition of satirical cartoons in that country dating back to at least the early 1800s.

Illustration courtesy of the author

I've always fantasized about moving to France. I've visited often and even lived at times with friends in Paris and various towns around the country. Most of my books have been published there, and the comics community in France is a family. Everyone knows everyone. At the many comic shops and festivals I've been to over the years I have consistently received warm welcomes. I suppose you could say I'm a Francophile when it comes to comics.


One month ago I was having a signing at a little comic-book shop in the 11th arrondissement in Paris. It was rainy out and not a lot of people showed up, but the mood was good, and the shop owner was more than hospitable. There was another American author there, cosplaying as "unemployed man." We were both signing, drawing, and chatting with the shop's clients. After the signing we all headed to a little Korean restaurant nearby to talk comics and drink Korean beer. It was a good time, something that seems to happen often when I'm in that city in the company of other comic-book lovers.

The following day I met up with my friend Nicolas in the same neighborhood. We walked down the little boulevards and sleepy alleyways talking comics. During the stroll we passed through the narrow Rue Nicolas Appert. A month later, terrorists would come to that same street, shouting praise to Allah and executing their victims. I had no idea at the time that we were walking right below the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo. My friend told me all that later.

The methodical, horrific murder of the Charlie Hebdo team is a bigger deal for the French than most of us realize. The French live and breath comics; they have a special relationship with them, a relationship that goes back to childhood, when they were reading Asterix and Tintin—Franco-Belgian staples of the medium. This massacre, for some, was like seeing a beloved part of their childhood assassinated.


Cabu, one of the slain cartoonists, was part of a popular 80s TV show for kids called Récrée A2, where he would do live drawings on air about daily topics. Almost everyone in France who grew up during that time watched it. Cabu also created the popular comic book series Le Grand Duduche, which many in that country read in their youth. George Wolinski had a popular weekly cartoon in the magazine Paris Match, and created the famous erotic comic series Paulette. And Charb, the magazine editor, had his own popular cartoon strip Maurice et Patapon. This is not just a random group of people who were killed, but beloved celebrities. Yes, in France cartoonists are celebrities!

In addition to being comics lovers, there's one other thing that the French are—opinionated. The general PC attitude that turns a lot of conversations in the US stale doesn't really exist over there. Charlie Hebdo was part of that no PC bullshit French attitude—we have opinions and we are going to state them—with humor! In fact, their main agenda was to mock every sacred cow they could set their sights on.

But the tides are changing, even in the old country; certain subjects are becoming taboo, and all things Muslim are falling into that category. You can discuss some political subjects, but others are out of bounds. People are afraid of stepping on some big religious toes, or sometimes they prefer to look the other way. But the Charlie Hebdo team wasn't afraid.

My friend, who has been working in the French comics industry for more than 12 years, helped explain to me the scope of this event. According to him, everyone in France knew Charlie Hebdo. Some loved it and some hated it, but it was a permanent part of the landscape, like a giant steel hand giving the Eiffel tower the middle finger from the other side of the Seine. The magazine's editorial team was fearless; there was no subject they dared not tackle, often in graphic and hilarious ways. The magazine's editor explained in 2011: "We are against all religious fundamentalism but we are not against practicing Muslims. We are for the Arab Spring, and against the winter of fanatics."

But Charlie Hebdo is hardly a pioneer. It is part of a long tradition of satirical cartoons in France—Honoré Daumier contributed timeless satirical illustrations to the magazine La Caricature in the early 1800s, but even his relentless attacks of King Louis Philippe did not lead to his assassination. Is humanity regressing?

In 2011 a firebomb was thrown into the Charlie Hebdo offices in retaliation for an issue they had printed earlier that year featuring Muhammad on the cover as the "guest editor" and promising "100 lashes if you don't die laughing." Even after this terrifying attack the magazine team kept on producing sharp satire, undeterred by the threat. Four years later, they ended up paying a dire price for their bravery. As a cartoonist, I truly hope that their deaths will resonate in the proliferation of daring, opinionated cartoons and not lead to more fear and silence. As for Charlie Hebdo, the magazine will once again lead that charge when it publishes 3 million copies of its latest issue on Wednesday.

Koren Shadmi is an illustrator and cartoonist whose graphic novels have been published in France, Italy, Spain, Israel, and the US. His illustrations have won several awards from the Society of Illustrators, and his book, MIKE'S PLACE: A True Story of Love, Blues, and Terror in Tel Aviv, will be released this spring with First Second Comics.