Share story

The killing of a dozen people in Wednesday’s attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has prompted an outpouring of tributes from cartoonists around the world, who have flooded the Internet with images ranging from the elegiac to the scabrously rude.

But amid all the “I Am Charlie” marches and declarations on social media, some in the cartooning world are also debating a delicate question: Were the victims free-speech martyrs, full stop, or provocateurs whose aggressive mockery of Islam sometimes amounted to xenophobia and racism?

Such debates unfold differently in different countries. But the conversation may be especially acute in the United States, where sensitivities to racially tinged caricatures may run higher than in places such as France, where historically tighter restrictions on speech have given rise to a strong desire to flout the rules.

Charlie Hebdo has had “a much more savage, unforgiving, doing-it-for-the-sake-of-doing-it” spirit than any U.S. publication, said Tom Spurgeon, author of The Comics Reporter, a website that tracks comics news from around the world.

“That’s not so much an American impulse,” he said. Especially today, “There’s a sophisticated dialogue about what privilege means, and a feeling that you don’t need to insult people, especially downtrodden people, to make your points.”

Political cartooning’s emphasis on “kicking up” against authority goes back to its origins in the 17th century, when the end of Europe’s religious wars opened up political space where irreverence could flourish, historian Simon Schama, a professor at Columbia University, said in an interview.

“No one had a monopoly of authority, particularly any kind that could be exercised through reverence to images,” Schama said, adding that political parties “agreed to fight their battles with words and images rather than swords and guns.”

The powerful tried to rein in the mockery, as when the French King Louis-Philippe’s censors banned disrespectful images of his plump physique, only to see one of his most dogged antagonists, Honoré Daumier, evoke him with an actual pear.

But it wasn’t just the powerful who felt the sting of cartoonist’s pens. In 19th-century Europe and America, minority groups that felt maligned, such as the Jews or Irish-Americans, also lodged frequent complaints against what they saw as stereotypes, only to be largely ignored.

“There have always been interest groups that have protested against political cartoons, but there was nothing they could do about it,” said Richard Samuel West, a scholar of political cartoons. In conflicts with whatever opponent, “You always saw the art form emerging triumphant.”

Continuing censorship battles in the 20th century gave rise to underground comics, with their nothing-is-sacred sensibility. Charlie Hebdo, which arose in the wake of the 1960s battles over France’s then-restrictive speech laws, did outré political satire better than just about anyone, cartoonist Art Spiegelman said.

When it reprinted the Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad in 2006, “they were the only magazine to do it for absolutely the right reasons,” Spiegelman said. “The others that published the cartoons were baiting Muslims, but for them it was part of their self-perceived mission to be provocative, to provoke thought.”

The Iranian-French graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, author of “Persepolis,” praised Charlie Hebdo’s willingness to “give the finger to all kinds of authority,” whether religious or political. “I wasn’t always in love with what they did,” she said in a telephone interview from Paris, where she lives. “But I was in love with the idea we had one magazine that was this subversive.”

Not everyone in the comics world has taken such an admiring view. Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter said that when he posted some of what he called Charlie Hebdo’s “ugly, racist” covers in a show of solidarity Wednesday, he got a number of emails from cartoonists challenging the decision.

“Some people questioned such work as simply cruelty hiding behind the idea of free speech,” Spurgeon said.

“But when it comes down to killing people,” he said, republishing them was an easy call: “For me, that’s black and white.”

Spurgeon attributed that response to a generational divide between American cartoonists who came of age in the anything-goes, do-it-because-you-can underground comics scene of the 1960s and ’70s, and younger cartoonists who are alert to what they consider the position of white male privilege from which such work often comes.

In an essay from the website The Hooded Utilitarian that circulated widely on social media, Jacob Canfield, 24, a cartoonist in Ann Arbor, Mich., argued that Charlie Hebdo’s “white editorial staff” members were not simply free-speech martyrs but frequent, deliberate peddlers of “a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia.”

“In the face of a really horrible attack on free speech, it’s important that we don’t blindly disseminate super-racist material,” he said in an interview, referring to some colleagues’ decisions to repost some of Charlie Hebdo’s particularly extreme cartoons.

The disagreements over the offensiveness of the cartoons, Canfield said, agreeing with Spurgeon, stemmed in part from differences between older cartoonists who remembered the censorship battles that gave rise to the underground comics movement, and younger ones more attuned to the sensitivities of identity politics.

“In the comics world, one of the worst things you can do is accuse someone of censorship,” he said. “But the idea that putting the grossest, most offensive things you can on paper is itself a brave, patriotic act isn’t enough anymore.”

Joe Sacco, a veteran author of long-form journalistic comics such as “Footnotes in Gaza” and “Safe Area Gorazde,” said he preferred to take aim at people in power, rather than attacking ethnic or racial groups or religious beliefs, particularly those of people who might feel themselves marginalized or persecuted.

“I’m really disgusted by what happened, which is really contemptible,” said Sacco, whose most recent book, “Bumf,” a surreal satire of U.S. foreign policy, depicts Barack Obama waking up in the White House in the body of Richard Nixon, and later visiting a planet populated by naked people in Abu Ghraib-style hoods.

“But I also come from a position of trying to understand why people are affected by images, and not just say ‘Why can’t you take a joke?’ An image of Muhammad in some compromising position isn’t meant to be just a joke.”

Satrapi, the graphic novelist, said that she worried about the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment, but that questioning the scathing satire of Charlie Hebdo was “the wrong conversation” to be having in the wake of the killings.

“People have the right to have a different point of view, and to provoke,” she said. “If we allow acts like this to create a climate of fear, we will have lost our freedom.”