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Don’t Pray for Paris: Drawing in Post-Charlie Hebdo Graphic Novels

By Bart Beaty

On January 8, 2015, one day after Saïd and Chérif Kouachi forced their way into an editorial meeting of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, killing eleven staff members and wounding eleven others, the French cartoonist Obion (Erwan Lucas) posted a six-panel comic strip on his webpage that was widely shared across social media. Obion depicts himself at his computer, reading the cartoons in honor of Charlie Hebdo that were flowering across the internet. “A pencil versus a kalashnikov…,” he writes, “A kalaschnikov firing upon a pencil…”1 Noting the monotonous repetition of what he deems a puerile theme, he asks himself: “But where are our best caricaturists?” before it dawns on him that they lay dead in a Paris morgue (Olbion).

Olbion’s bitter contribution to the rapidly emerging comics-based discourse about the Charlie Hebdo massacre in the immediate wake of the event is notable for its self-awareness and use of dark irony, hallmarks of the Charlie Hebdo style. While hundreds of cartoons poured in from comics artists around the globe, few of them contained the kind of acerbic humor that was a regular feature of the magazine itself.2 As Obion slyly notes, anodyne cartoons seemed to be the norm in the wake of the assassinations, but there were notable exceptions. Virginie Augustin depicted a gun-wielding jihadist before the body of a bullet-riddled cartoonist while noting that “jihadists had resolved the issue of retirement pensions for cartoonists;” Lisa Mandel offered the image of the cleaning woman charged with undoing the carnage who suggests “it’s really a travail d’arabe;” Johan de Moor’s contribution depicted a wild-eyed jihadist wishing the reader “Happy New Year!” under a title “Something promised, something done!”3 For readers unfamiliar with Charlie Hebdo, with the state of the French comics industry in 2015, or both, these cartoons might seem unfathomable. Augustin, for example, conflates the two most significant issues involving French cartooning in January 2015—the Charlie Hebdo massacre and a dispute over mandatory retirement pension contributions by self-employed cartoonists—into a single gag that is strikingly consistent with the editorial policy of the magazine. Mandel puns off a derogatory and pejorative French idiomatic phrase with blunt irony. De Moor’s cartoon visually recreates the final cartoon published by Charlie Hebdo editorial director Charb; Charb’s cartoon had depicted the same jihadist reminding readers that in France one has until the end of January to extend New Year’s wishes, which De Moor cannily points out were delivered in this instance on January 7th. In contradistinction to the “guns and pencils” cartoons decried by Obion, the cartoons I have described here, and, of course, many others, can be difficult to decipher absent several specific codes of reading, including, at the very least, an awareness of the debates surrounding precarity unfolding within the French comics industry; a fluency with French colloquialisms; a working knowledge of the history of French political cartooning and caricature; and the ability to recognize intertextual references to cartoons published previously by the victims of the attack.

These cultural competencies were often lacking in the commentaries that cast Charlie Hebdo as representative of French nativist racism, naively equating them with the National Front rather than the hard-left anti-racist politics the magazine embodied. English-language news media were particularly pernicious in their criticisms of Charlie Hebdo‘s cultural insensitivity, blissfully ignorant that such critiques depended upon the erasure of a long history of French political cartooning and leftist art activism. To take but one example, Jeet Heer described Charlie Hebdo as embodying an “aesthetic failure,” suggesting that the anti-racist intent of Charlie Hebdo was irrelevant “when images can be transmitted instantly around the world to societies unfamiliar with the particulars of French visual satire” (Heer). It’s not entirely clear what Heer might intend with a critique along these lines. Should regional/national styles be abandoned? If geography is irrelevant in an era of instant communication, are art and cultural history as well? Is there such a thing as a universal style that’s immediately translatable around the world and familiar to all readers? From where would this cartoon hegemony emanate, and whose standards would it use? The implications for an Esperanto of comics that cannot be read out of context are vague, to say the least.

Issues pertaining to the relationship between caricature, satire, and stereotype (particularly racial stereotypes) have existed since the very emergence of comics. In his “Essai de physiognomonie” (1845), Rodolphe Töpffer stressed the importance of caricatural shorthand in the development of comics as a distinct art form. This is an issue to which Joe Sacco turned in the immediate aftermath of the massacre in “On Satire,” a single-page strip originally published in The Guardian on January 9, 2015 and shared on social media more than 145,000 times. “On Satire” was one of the first sustained commentaries published as a comic in the week following the attack and it too necessitates a high degree of interpretation. Sacco presents his thoughts in a scatter-shot fashion; he notes that his first reaction was sadness that cartoonists (“my tribe”) had been killed, but he quickly moves to indicate that he found the magazine’s approach to satire “vapid.” Sacco continues by presenting four images intended to offend his readers, affirming one widely held belief that this was also Charlie Hebdo‘s approach. Yet there is enough contradiction between words and images in the cartoon to also argue the opposite. So, where then, should artists of conscience stand, on the Charlie Hebdo massacre?

One of the much-discussed ironies of the response to the attacks was the widespread contention, most notably, but by no means exclusively, coming from American media, that Charlie Hebdo was at least partially culpable for the attack on their offices. Notably, certain cross-cultural incongruities entered the discussion in the days following the attack. American authors pointed to an anti-Front National cartoon drawn by Charb as an attack on French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira and evidence that the magazine trucked in racist imagery (Cole). Yet, even as they pronounced these judgements, it was Taubira herself who gave the eulogy at Tignous’ funeral, in which she praised the deceased cartoonists as “sentinels … watching over democracy to prevent it from drowning.” Similarly, when the PEN American Center, arguably the most prestigious organization for literary human rights, gave the award for “freedom of expression and courage” to Charlie Hebdo, the action prompted a boycott of the event by authors such as Michael Ondaatje, Junot Díaz, and Joyce Carol Oates who insisted that the magazine “intensifies anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world” (Schuessler). Yet, the award itself was introduced by Dominque Sopo, the president of France’s largest anti-racist NGO, SOS Racisme, and by Congolese author Alain Mabanckou. In the media, Sopo vehemently defended Charlie Hebdo as “the most anti-racist weekly magazine in this country” and referred to charges that it promoted anti-Islamic sentiments as “an absolutely incredible pack of lies” (Zuckerman).

In a climate in which even Pope Francis severely misquoted Matthew 5:39 when he suggested that Charlie Hebdo deserved “a punch in the nose” (Dias), the magazine’s style became the focal point of contention. One of the most challenging issues to deal with in regard to Charlie Hebdo is the way that comics (and perhaps political cartoons especially) have developed specific shortcuts in order to communicate complex ideas with efficiency. While others have discussed the ramifications of post-Charlie cartooning, I want to explore another genre that arguably should be best able to avoid the pitfalls of what Scott McCloud has termed “amplification through simplification” in its explorations of the massacre (30). Long-form graphic novels work to unfix the connection of iconicity, whether through serialization (which allows for the development of empathy) or sequentiality (which introduces ambiguity and irony). In the two years since the massacre, books about Charlie Hebdo have become their own mini-genre, but here I will limit my attention only to those produced by survivors of the attack and their close colleagues. Specifically, I will attend to three graphic memoirs produced by cartoonists who worked for Charlie Hebdo: Catharsis by Luz (Rénald Luzier), La Légèreté (Lightness) by Catherine Meurisse, and Si Dieu existe (If God Exists) by Joann Sfar.4 In so doing I hope to broaden the understanding of the way that the attack has been the subject of sophisticated graphic interpretation, moving beyond the platitudes of rifles and pencils or the predictably facile debates about the ethics of free speech (Iacobucci and Toope; Todd; Charb). While the single panel and single-page comics that I discuss above were created in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the works that are my primary focus here were created over a period of months and years. They operate according to very different principles of amplification and simplification, striving for narrative complexity, nuance, and reflection, and they illuminate some of the most common issues facing comics studies.


Both Luz’s Catharsis and Meurisse’s La Légèreté can be easily slotted into the genre of autobiographical comics, and, specifically, the trauma memoir. In one of the first works of “trauma theory,” Unclaimed Experience (1996), Cathy Caruth, builds upon the work of Sigmund Freud, particularly his work on the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and Moses and Monotheism (1939). Caruth defines trauma as “an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena” (11). As Ruth Leys notes, this conception aligns with a shift in the psychiatric field away from the concept of “traumatic neurosis” and towards an understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder as “a disorder of memory… the experience of the trauma, fixed or frozen in time, refuses to be represented as past, but it is perpetually re-experienced in a painful, dissociated, traumatic present” (2). In classical trauma theory, as Richard McNally observes, “recollection is always reconstruction” because trauma survivors do not record events as if on videotape (818).

As I argue in my recent book with Benjamin Woo, comics studies has been somewhat disproportionately concerned with autobiographical works when one considers their relative representation in comics catalogues (33). In comics studies, the key work, of course, is Art Spiegelman’s memoir Maus, which not only ushered the study of the graphic novel into universities, but also established trauma theory as one of the most powerful analytic tools in comics studies over the past two decades (recall Gillian Whitlock’s conflation of autobiography and comics as “boxes of grief” when she coined the phrase “autographics” in 2006) (968). The influence of trauma theory on comics studies cannot be overstated. Indeed, even the most cursory search of the Bonner Online-Bibliographie zur comicforschung shows that 179 different entries have been indexed using the word “trauma,” and of those an incredible sixty-eight use the term in their titles.5 Besides Maus, the works most frequently subjected to trauma-based analysis include the extensive corpus of Batman titles, the Alias series written by Brian Michael Bendis, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, David Small’s Stitches, and, of course, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. As any review of this extensive literature will show, it is the potential alinearity of comics storytelling, as well as the potential tensions between text and image, that make comics an attractive form for theorizing trauma, and one reason that the genre is disproportionately found in comics studies.

Rénald Luzier, who cartoons under the pen-name Luz, has been a staple of French cultural magazines for three decades. In addition to his work for Charlie Hebdo, he has been a regular contributor to Les InrockuptiblesMagicFluide Glacial, and L’Écho des Savanes. Prior to Catharsis, his work had been collected in book form by a wide range of publishers, including most notably L’Association (Cambouis (2003) and Rouge Cardinal (2010)). His work has tended to focus primarily on cultural and musical themes, although he notably published an acidly anti-Front National comic, Les Megret gèrent la ville (1998), collecting material previously serialized in Charlie Hebdo.

Catharsis is something of a radical break with Luz’s previous published work. A collection of 30 short comics (ranging from a single page to seven pages), Catharsis is not properly a “graphic novel” except to the degree that virtually all long-form comics are now marketed as graphic novels. The book is structured around a through-line of recovery. It opens late on January 7, 2015 with Luz recounting his conversations with police before flashing back to earlier in the day. Roughly the first third of the book recounts events from the day of the massacre before edging forward through the funerals and into a period of psychic recovery for the artist. While the book reflects widely on Luz’s life post-attack under the watchful gaze of bodyguards, as well as on the support that he received from his partner, I want to draw attention to a number of sequences which take processes of drawing and sketching as their subject.

If Caruth needs corroboration for her observation that “to be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or an event,” she need look no further than the opening pages of Catharsis. In the immediate aftermath of the slaughter of his friends and colleagues, Luz has testified in interviews—and he reiterates in his book—that he lost the power of speech. Speaking to the police about what he witnessed, he could only produce doodles of figures with enormous, staring eyes. As Dori Laub notes of trauma: “there are never enough words or the right words, there is never enough time or the right time, and never enough listening or the right listening to articulate the story that cannot be fully captured in thoughtmemory, and speech” (78). On the first page of Catharsis, Luz echoes this observation: “One day, drawing left me. The same day that my friends left. The only difference is that drawing came back.”

Drawn over a span of ten weeks from the beginning of January to the end of March 2015 (and printed only one month later), Catharsis opens with an image that was widely reported and shared in the immediate aftermath of the attacks: Luz’s wide-eyed little stick figures interrogating him from a distance; the images that he produced in lieu of testimony to the police.

Figure 1: Catharsis.

The wide-eyed stick figure can also be found on the cover of the book, and, in a way tragically, it appears as the penultimate image in the book—indicating an absence of closure that is probably to be expected but also challenges the popular therapeutic notion of catharsis as healing. Caruth writes: “the survival of trauma is not the fortunate passage beyond a violent event, a passage that is accidentally interrupted by reminders of it, but rather the endless inherent necessity of repetition, which ultimately may lead to destruction” (62). Throughout Catharsis, Luz signals the act of drawing as a substitute for speaking, a different mode of thinking through powerful emotions. When Caruth writes of the “oscillation between a crisis of death and the correlative crisis of life” we can find something of that logic in a powerful image from the story “Rouge à lèvres.” Here, on page twenty-five, Luz presents a page-sized splotch of deep red. This is at once both the image of the blood that Luz tracks with his feet as he moves through the Charlie Hebdo offices on January 7 as well as an extreme close-up of the lipsticked lips of his partner as she prepares to embrace him on that same day.6 Luz notes, in a moment of clarity, that she had not been wearing the lipstick when he had left their home that morning—and he wonders why she has chosen to put it on before visiting the scene of a slaughter.

Luz draws several of the chapters in visual styles that strongly depart from that for which he is best known and in which he produced most of his previous works. As the author of more than a dozen books, and as an artist whose work was published weekly for decades in Charlie Hebdo, Luz has a style that is easily attributable to him, although in these pages he puts that aside in several instances. If we take seriously his claim that drawing left him following the attack, these chapters can productively be read as an effort to bring it back. Take, for instance, “Eros and Thanatos” in which Luz’s caricatural figures disappear and are replaced by more fluid and sketchy renderings akin to rapidly produced life drawings. The distance between the real and its caricatural representation is here highlighted by the break from the artist’s well-known forms of rendering. Similarly, “Tak Tak Tak” opens with a slight return to the artist’s traditional representations before morphing into highly gestural depictions of dancing armed gunmen, the passage recalls Jules Feiffer’s famous dancer who performs each year for the coming of spring. The slipping into an entirely different style of rendering here occurs rapidly, indeed on the same page. Finally, in “Le Loup-Garou” (the werewolf: the book is filled with references to classical horror, including werewolves and vampires, and it takes an epigraph from Stephen King’s The Shining), one of the longest pieces in the book, finds the artist in a series of full-page portraits, locked in the dark of his apartment. Each of these pieces, and others, sees Luz trying on different visual forms than those for which he is best known. Hiding in the dark, the cartoonist sketches potential new identities by adopting an entirely new way of drawing, of expressing his fragmentary and fragmented self.

Drawing as a means of escape is, not surprisingly, a recurrent motif in Catharsis. In one chapter the artist, guarded by vigilant bodyguards and consequently unable to work, draws himself escaping from one of his own drawings into the forest. Luz’s shifted relationship to drawing—to his self—is a frequent topic of the book. In one of the most moving chapters Luz, facing a creative block, recalls an earlier version of himself from 1992, the year he debuted in the pages of Charlie Hebdo. He is then visited by two young boys who ask him what he is doing, and he invites them to join him in the pure pleasure of drawing. “It is very pretty, your drawing of a dog” the young Luz tells the boy when he has completed his drawing. “What are your names?” “Me, I’m Chérif,” says the first, “and I’m Saïd,” says the second, each transforming into a Kalashnikov wielding masked man. A similar transformation of joy into terror occurs in “Tache,” one of the chapters that most directly addresses the argument that Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were complicit in their own assassination. At the drawing table, seized with a newfound sense of joy and optimism, Luz imagines drawing a cartoon savaging the Front National. Laughing at his own joke, he spills his bottle of ink on his cartoon, staining the page. Immediately, a man appears behind him, yelling “He is drawing Muhammad again!” When Luz explains, no “it’s not the prophet, it’s a stain,” he is informed “I forbid you to compare Muhammad to a stain!” For Luz, who publicly announced his decision in October 2015 to no longer render the figure of the prophet, every drawing is a potential Rorschach test.7 That which has defined his life’s work becomes that which threatens to spur his own death. From Catharis, we might not only amend Laub’s observation through the addition of drawing, but take it further still: there are never enough styles to articulate the story that cannot be fully captured in drawing.

Charles Hatfield contends that “The cartoon self-image […] seems to offer a unique way for the artist to recognize and externalize his or her subjectivity […] the cartoonist projects and objectifies his or her inward sense of self, achieving at once a sense of intimacy and a critical distance” (118). In the context of post-Charlie Hebdo graphic novels, a question that Hatfield posed more than a decade prior to the attacks seems especially pertinent: “what happens when this external self-image, this visual persona, becomes unfixed? What if it warps or mutates, and thus betrays the artist’s shaping hand?” (117). This is precisely the type of question answered by Catharsis, as well as by Meurisse’s La Légèreté.

La Légèreté

Thierry Groensteen contends that “cartooning can be read as a metaphor for the subjectivity of perception. The artist does not say ‘this is what I have seen,’ but rather, ‘this is what this has meant to me,’ namely how I have seen it” (4). La Légèreté is very much akin to Luz’s Catharsis, insofar as both focus on ways of seeing and drawing. Both Meurisse and Luz were current employees of Charlie Hebdo who were expected to be at the editorial meeting when it was attacked. Both detail in their books the mundane reasons for their absence, and therefore their escape from the slaughter, and piece together their efforts to rebuild their lives in the wake of the loss of their friends and the survivor’s guilt that haunts them. Notably, each book is extremely precise about the circumstances of its production. In the endnotes for La Légèreté, the reader is informed that pages 7 to 71 were composed between June and August 2015, while pages 72 to 133 were drawn in January and February 2016. This indicates that Meurisse began working on her memoir after the publication of Luz’s book, and the second half of the book incorporates the experience of the attack on the Bataclan of 13 November 2015 that killed eighty-nine people in the music venue and another forty-one at other locations around Paris.

Meurisse’s book opens with the dissolution of her relationship with a married man, establishing a depressive beginning to the year before seguing into the story of how she arrived late to the editorial meeting after missing her bus, meeting Luz and Coco (Corinne Rey, also a member of the collective, who was the one forced at gunpoint to open the door for the assassins) outside the building in the moments of the attack. In many ways, La Légèreté is a more straightforward autobiographical work than is Catharsis. The rest of the book unfolds mostly in linear fashion (although there are several flashbacks), recounting the funerals, efforts to produce the “survivor’s issue” of Charlie Hebdo, the 11 January mass manifestation in Paris, as well as vacations that the artist takes to Cabourg in Normandy and to Rome (a trip that occupies the second-half of the book). While Catharsis is largely about Luz’s personal relationships with occasional forays into thoughts on drawing, Meurisse’s book is generally the inverse. Absent a personal romantic relationship, she relies on the recuperative powers of art. Significantly, the book begins with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “We have art in order not to die of the truth.”

More than most cartoonists, and certainly more than anyone else at Charlie Hebdo, Meurisse is fascinated by the trappings of so-called “legitimate culture.” Books like Moderne Olympia (2014), with its reference to Édouard Manet’s 1865 painting on its cover, Le pont des arts (2012), with its stories about Charles Baudelaire, Denis Diderot, and Émile Zola, and Mes hommes des lettres: Petit précis de littérature française (2008) provide the foundation for understanding her approach to comics. La Légèreté circulates within a similar milieu, although without the parodic elements that characterize her earlier works. The book opens with a three-page sequence, painted in watercolor upon which she has inked her autobiographical comics avatar, depicting the artist on a beach in winter. While Meurisse has regularly deployed spot colors in her work, as well as grey washes, this approach is a striking departure from her norm, particularly the page depicting the setting of the sun as an explosion of red and gold color that recalls the paintings of Mark Rothko with a Meurisse drawing placed atop it. During the immediacy of the attack itself, which is drawn in Meurisse’s best-known cartooning style, she depicts herself in a series of wordless pages fleeing the scene through a series of empty rooms painted in greyish watercolors. Literally passing through walls, she passes through a version of Edward Munch’s The Scream, disappearing inside a wall. Elsewhere in the book, Meurisse relies on watercolors to depict a recurring post-traumatic nightmare, a cryptic three-page scene in which she sits on a beach while a pterodactyl flies overhead, and the final three pages of the books, where she again finds herself on the beach. Throughout, the use of full-color imagery is used to signal shifts in personal psychology and moments beyond textual description.

Meurisse transitions from her version of The Scream with a simple self-portrait below a caption: “The next day: It’s over. I’ve stopped drawing.” Initially trapped by her new reality, it is through the process of drawing that she begins the process of pulling herself out of her traumatic state, texting a defiant cover idea to Luz. Rereading a collection of Charlie Hebdo covers from the 1970s, she fills her pages with potential ideas, though without much success (“I am as dead as my friends, or they are just as alive as I am”). Among the ideas that are scribbled on the page are gag prompts involving Fidel Castro, Hergé’s Dupond and Dupont, “Miss Freedom of Speech,” and “the Kalashnikov Brothers.” Meurisse writes: “The ideas return with difficulty, the drawings even more laboriously.” Over a period of several pages, Meurisse recounts the process whereby the “survivor’s issue” of Charlie Hebdo was assembled in the offices of Libération, the French socialist daily, and her contribution to it. Addressing her trauma in direct terms, Meurisse visits a psychiatrist who diagnoses her as suffering from post-traumatic shock and disassociation; he informs her that she will know that it has been overcome when she is able to recount the events in the form of comic. Among the most striking pages in La Légèreté is one depicting the ubiquity of the Je Suis Charlie logo: on bottles of bleach in a supermarket, on posters at the press conference, in churches, and on the streets. Amidst all of this clamor sit Luz and Meurisse at a drawing table, protected by armed police officers; each thinks the same thought: “Who am I?” Both Catharsis and La Légèreté answer that question through destabilizing and restabilizing their respective approach to drawing. By unsettling the fixity of visual style, each cartoonist troubles the presumed connection of the hand and the self in cartooning.

As Meurisse slowly recovers from the tragedy, she notes a growing presence of so-called “terror-tourists” visiting the environs of the Charlie Hebdo offices. One night in November that same year, she and two friends, one of whom is the daughter of one of the victims (Honoré), decide to take back the memory of their friends by stenciling images of them on the side of the building. Standing in front of the Bataclan later that same night, Hélène, Honoré’s daughter, ironically declares, “I am very happy and very touched by our important expedition.” Two days later eighty-three people would die at that very spot. Traumatized anew, Meurisse seeks emotional and spiritual refuge at an artist residency at the Villa Medici in Rome. The final half of the book depicts Meurisse’s rebirth as an artist. Carrying a copy of Stendhal’s Promenades dans Rome (1829), she depicts herself visiting the ruins with him, and guiding her stay through his eyes. Exposed to the museums of the Italian capital, she is particularly taken by the Caravaggio paintings in Roman churches; “Beauty,” she writes, “is a mystery and Caravaggio is its prophet.” That Caravaggio, a painter known for his violence (he killed a man in 1608 and fled Rome with a price on his head), should restore the cartoonist’s faith after such an avowedly anti-art attack is, of course, the great irony of La Légèreté. Moreover, Meurisse’s focus on the techniques employed by Renaissance painters, particularly the tenebrism of Caravaggio, and, centrally, her recreations of those paintings serves to recall Philippe Marion’s well-known comments on graphiation. For Marion, the trace of the authorial hand plays an important role in terms of categorizing different styles of drawing, but he also argues that most types of drawing in comics retain the openness of the sketched line (in contrast to the closed, “transcendent” forms dominant in painting). A single line is often sufficient to produce a variation in mood. In what he calls an “effect de brièveté” (an impression of brevity) the comics image acquires an immediacy and incompleteness akin to graffiti. For Marion, it is in the sketch, and in simple caricatural drawings, that the image is at its most vibrant (355). For Meurisse, disassociated after the events of 7 January 2015, it is a journey through the closed styles of Renaissance painting that ultimately free her to return to the concision offered by comics.

Fluctuat nec mergitur

On 13 November 2015, ten months after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a new series of terrorist attacks at six locations in Paris killed 130 people, including 83 at the Bataclan theatre (a short walk from the offices of Charlie Hebdo on rue Nicolas Appert). Responsibility for the attacks, which were planned in Syria and executed by a terrorist cell based in Belgium, was claimed by The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). As responses flooded social media, Joann Sfar published a single-page comic strip as a series of a dozen individual panel photos on Instagram (Doiezie). Written in French, with a single panel in English, Sfar pictured himself speaking directly to the reader. He defiantly insisted that the values embodied by the city of Paris included a love of music, of drink, and of joy, all of which had been opposed on that evening by “lovers of death” (amoureux de la mort). The single English-language panel, shared more than 21,000 times on social media, rejected the emerging hashtag, “#prayforParis,” arguing that “we don’t need more religion!” Sfar concluded his short comics essay with a recreation of part of the city’s coat of arms, a ship on the waves above the motto “Fluctuat nec mergitur,” Latin for “She is tossed by the waves but does not sink.” In this single strip, Sfar ranges between insider and outsider readings. Certainly, the final panel, with the coat of arms, has a certain ambiguity for readers who do not recognize it for what it is, yet, at the same time, the cartoonist takes a panel to address – in English – non-French readers, seeking, perhaps, to obviate the kinds of transcultural misreadings that proliferated around the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Sfar himself is a former contributor to Charlie Hebdo, for whom he created the full-page strip Mon cahier d’éveil in the 2000s. While he achieved tremendous fame in the world of comics as the author of The Rabbi’s Cat and the co-creator (with Lewis Trondheim) of the parodic Dungeon series (among many others), he is also well-known for his autobiographical comics, which are essentially published versions of his sketchbooks and journals. Since 2002 Sfar has published twelve collections of his sketchbooks as Les Carnets de Joann Sfar (originally published by L’Association through 2005, then by Delcourt through 2015, and most recently by Marabout). The sixth volume in this series, Greffier (Delcourt, 2007), is something of a precursor to the post-Charlie Hebdo comics insofar as it is concerned with recording the events of the February 2007 Mosque of Paris vs. Val trial.8 Briefly, in 2007, the Grand Mosque of Paris initiated criminal proceedings against Charlie Hebdo executive editor Philipe Val under French hate speech legislation following the magazine’s publication, in February 2006, of the Jyllands Posten Mohammad cartoons from September 2005. Greffier is Sfar’s record of that trial. After the events of January 2015, Sfar returned to the subject of Charlie Hebdo in his tenth published Carnets volume, Si Dieu existe (Delcourt, 2015). Unlike the examples of Luz or Meurisse, Sfar’s comics about Charlie Hebdo do not mark an acute crisis in his personal approach to his drawing style; there is no apparent crisis of faith. Sfar’s journals have, since their debut, been wide-ranging in their themes and styles, manifesting a certain graphomaniacal mode of address with long pages of handwritten text sitting side-by-side with sketchbook comics composed in bars and restaurants. To this end, Greffier and Si Dieu existe are of a piece with the other ten (to date) books in the series. As Eric Aeschimann noted in a review of Si Dieu existe in La Nouvelle Observateur, “Sfar being Sfar, he talks mostly about himself.” So too with the cartoon for the Bataclan: Sfar addresses his reader directly, giving voice to his religious skepticism (his book, Si Dieu existe, insists “If God exists, he wouldn’t kill over a drawing”), his personal anxieties, and his ethos. Fabrice Leroy has convincingly argued that the aniconism found in the fifth of Sfar’s Rabbi’s Cat volumes, Africa’s Jerusalem (Delcourt, 2006), was strongly influenced by the backlash he witnessed against Charlie Hebdo‘s Muhammad cartoons, and his admonition against prayers for Paris demonstrates a high degree of psychic continuity with his past works, whereas Luz and Meurisse—each more directly involved in the attacks and their aftermath—show a higher degree of traumatic disruption (41). In this way, Sfar, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist who, by virtue of the fact that he no longer actively works for the paper, was not intended to be at the editorial meeting, and did not himself narrowly avert death on 7 January 2015, suffers a trauma of a different kind. It is perhaps not coincidental, therefore, that his cartoons are more defiant and more straightforwardly political than are those of his former colleagues.

Tout est pardonné

Arguably the most famous cartoon of the twenty-first-century, young as it is, was published on the cover of Charlie Hebdo #1178. Drawn by Luz, it depicts a tearful Prophet Muhammad holding a sign reading “Je Suis Charlie” under a caption that declares “All is forgiven.”

Figure 2: Charlie Hebdo #1178 cover

The “survivor’s issue” of Charlie Hebdo sold nearly eight million copies making it is the best-selling single issue of a newspaper in the history of France. The image is rife with a poignant ambiguity: who is forgiven? Who is doing the forgiving? Yet, not surprisingly, it is also rife with controversy. Major news outlets across the Western world refused to publish the cover image because of the image that it carried, and the magazine itself continued to be banned in many parts of the world. It is interesting that the connection between comics, trauma, and autobiography has been so closely tied to the cartoons published by Jyllands Posten and Charlie Hebdo. Recall, for instance, that Gillian Whitlock, in the very essay in which she coined the influential term “autographics” discusses the “cartoon wars” of 2005 at length (970) and that Hillary Chute, who was written extensively on trauma and autobiography in comics, discusses Joe Sacco’s thoughts on Charlie Hebdo in her book Disaster Drawn (Disaster Drawn 256-261). To a large extent, the connection between trauma, comics, and politics has been foregrounded in comics studies, while at the same time, modes of address have tended to be obscured. Writing elsewhere about Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Chute contends: “The fact of style as a narrative choice… is fundamental to understanding graphic narrative” (“The Texture of Retracing” 99). As the example of post-Charlie Hebdo graphic novels demonstrates, the strong equation of visual style with an author’s personality that has been taken as a commonplace in comics studies rests at least in part on a Freudian notion of the “essential inner self” that is highly problematic (Miller 103-124). As the cases of Luz, Meurisse, and Sfar demonstrate, there may be commonalities across post-traumatic cartooning, but the works that are created by survivors are far from uniform even within the context of the published oeuvres of the survivors themselves: some speak indirectly, others speak plainly; some evince a retreat into the self, others an outward defiance; some generate new forms of address, others reinforce existent tendencies. A more nuanced theory of graphic expression, particularly one that foregrounds minute differences in visual style, is the necessary next step in the evolution of thinking about the relationship of comics to trauma.


[1] Translations from French-language comics in this essay are my own.

[2] Hundreds of cartoons produced in the immediate aftermath of 7 January 2015 are collected in the book La BD est Charlie.

[3] All three of these cartoons are collected in La BD est Charlie.

[4] As of this writing, none of these three books has been translated into English. I will refer to them throughout this essay by their French titles. “Catharsis”, the title of Luz’s book, means precisely the same thing in French that it does in English.

[5] There are more entries in the comics database for “trauma” than there are for Charles Schulz, and more than for Harvey Kurtzman and Richard Outcault combined.

[6] Of course, this page also recalls Gustave Doré’s red splotch in L’histoire dramatique, pittoresque et caricaturale de la sainte Russie (The Dramatic, Picturesque, and Caricatural History of Holy Russia). For a discussion of Doré’s image in the context of comics studies, see Smolderen.

[7] Luz renounced drawing the prophet in April 2015.

[8] The book also reprints some of Sfar’s work for Charlie Hebdo as a sort of appendix.

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