This cartoon is based on actual events. (Yes, even that coat.)
(click to embiggen)
This cartoon is based on actual events. (Yes, even that coat.)
(click to embiggen)
Bele Chere, the street festival that began in Asheville during a time of Detroit-level urban blight and downtown deterioration (otherwise known as the 70s) is now coming to an end, due to the city ceasing funding the increasingly revenue-neutral and somewhat now-superfluous event.
It began during my still-under-driving-age year of turning 15 in 1979. Therefore, without a way to get to the big city, and later a lack of desire to drive anywhere at all, I don’t think I ever saw much of Bele Chere during its 35 year existence. I may have gone a few times as a semi-local when the kids were small, but other than participating in a few event-themed 5K races, the one real involvement with the festival circa 1989 when I was a paid vendor.
Back then, the booth fee was around $500 and I sold caricatures. Unfortunately, unlike having an inventory of goods that can sell as fast as customers demand, I could only draw so many people at one time, no matter how many (or few) showed up to partake in this service/art form. At $6 each, I would need to convince about 83.333333333 people to have one done before breaking even on the booth fee alone. Therefore, I split the cost of the booth (I only needed room for an easel and two chairs anyway) with my friend Don, who enterprisingly sought to capture the zeitgeist and had several current pop culture phrases (what future generations would refer to as “memes”) printed up on T-shirts to peddle on his half of the booth. I believe he did a pretty good business selling the “I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up!” white on black designs.
After the three (very long and hot) days, I think I had made a pretty good profit, surpassing the booth fee and markers, pad and tent, etc. costs and then some. There was some hassle with not being able to park anywhere near my booth space and having to drag all that stuff up a bunch of winding stairs and steep mountain roads every day by foot (or leaving it behind to be upturned and vandalized at night) that kind of stuck in my craw and prevented me from working with the festival again. So, I never did become a Bele Chere vendor at any other time after that one experience. I believe the booth fees went up so dramatically over the years, that there would have been no way to make a profit with such a business model anyway.
Once I started doing a weekly cartoon about Asheville and Asheville-related things, I kind of had to address the Bele Chere festival each year. By this time, the festival had outlived the original need for it. The downtown of Asheville had now become a vibrant, booming and hip place to be. The boarded-up, seedy city center that once needed an injection of life was long gone. Eateries, pubs, coffee houses, art galleries, touristy shops and performance spaces were doing a booming business downtown all year round now. Except for when Bele Chere would happen. Now that influx of out-of-town vendors and unruly, sometimes inebriated crowds (along with an influx of professional street-preaching instigators to mock them) would turn up and crowd out the market and space to the downtown business owners who now felt the festival was something to endure, rather than embrace each year.
There were also now a number of festivals that proliferated all year long, that were much more inclusive of and embraced by the locals than Bele Chere. B.C. was now seen as an outsider festival for outsider vendors to sell to outsider participants. Even local bands were being booked less often for the musical acts and local brewers (which were also proliferating) were often overlooked for larger, corporate sponsors.
So, the focus of the cartoons took on a more adversarial tone, to reflect the feelings of most of the Asheville (and surrounding) community towards the fest. Making fun of both the crowds and the local business reaction to it, as well as the apocalyptic aftermath of the yearly tempest, was the gist of many of the cartoons.
In the end, the “Beautiful Living” festival accomplished (or at least became irrelevant because of) what it set out to do and for that, the community should look fondly on its 3.5 decade run, even if the last few legs of the race were like running in a sweater in July.
No need to go into too much detail on this one. The topless protests that have been held in Asheville the past two years or so, have provided much fodder for cartoon and juvenile humor (which I am not above engaging in, hey I like me some juvenile humor!) but the reactionary voices against the horrors of public display of human female breasts made themselves another easy target. Therefore, though I don’t like to repeat subject matter, particularly not close together, I did two cartoons on both subjects within a few weeks of each other. One was just a bunch of boob joke puns:
The other was a second iteration of the first Calvin and Hobbes style parody about the two protest opponents:
… and then another, the next year, this time focusing on the Raelian cult that is alleged to be behind the organization that initiates these protests, along with a caricature of a local opponent of the protests tied with the then-current Chik Fil-A controversy:
It was the third cartoon that was not appreciated by one particular “conservative portal.” In the words of the webmaster:
Asheville’s Mountain Xpress found that women and some teens taking off their bras in the town square was simply an issue of humor of course, dissing people who were offended such as in this cartoon the pub posted on page eight of its September 4, 2012, issue and drawn by artist Brent Brown. The artist, of course to be politically correct, left out any drawing of the events where strangers were actually photographed fondling the breasts of women while young children were videotaped with their naked moms on the street.
Now, I would like to just point out that although the puritanical opponent is probably being dissed here, the people he is protesting are not exactly exalted either. The fact that many “supporters” were present only to ogle and catcall them some nekkid women parts is clearly manifested in the cartoon with the non-committal signs and the leering, lecherous dudes taking photos and otherwise showing “support” for more nudity, not whatever their actual message was supposed to be. The crazy-looking, glassy-eyed cult members are not faring well either, so deriding the cartoon as some kind of partisan exercise in blind political correctness is logical incorrectness as far as I can see. They are correct in that I consider the whole thing to be simply an issue of humor. Both the protest and the reactions to it. Everyone in it, however is being made fun of and what could be more egalitarian than that?
Ideally, a good local cartoon can cover several themes at once. In this case, I thought I had come up with a good way to cover something both topical and fun to draw (the upcoming annual Asheville “Zombiewalk” and the ongoing complaints of downtown panhandlers.
The Zombiewalk, which reached its zenith locally on 10/10/10, had now been relegated to an ordered pub crawl rather than the former large-scale (and apparently unwelcome) city-wide parade through the streets that said city leaders put an end to by way of imposing an unreasonably expensive permit fee upon the walk organizers, forcing them to downscale to a walk the previous year held at a “dead” mall on the outskirts of town, and this particular year within the confines of various downtown drinking establishments.
Combining this sight with the often-complainted-about gauntlet of downtown panhandlers (of which I had just read several gripes in the comments at the bottom of many online newspaper stories regarding downtown) that many have to pass by, seemed to me to be a pretty good joke. Especially since “braiiiiins” sounds so much like “chaaaaange” amongst the other similarities of hapless pedestrians being the recipients of the unwanted attention of large groups wanting something from them.
The cartoon ran as follows:
Zombies printed in Mountain Xpress circa 10/16/2012
About nine days later, the following article shows up on the Mountain Xpress site:
“Dignity and respect” parade for homeless planned for Oct. 26
Members of the Asheville Homeless Network plan a parade to “promote dignity and respect for the homeless,” tomorrow, Oct. 26 at 2 p.m.By Bill Rhodes on 10/25/2012 11:47 AMThe event starts with a rally at Pritchard Park and a walk to City Hall, says organizer Raven Al’Rashid. She notes the hope of making “a more public voice for the issues of the homeless and homelessness here in Asheville.”Al-Rashid explains that a recent cartoon in Xpress by Brent Brown was a particular concern to the group. “It is hard enough out on the street without people thinking you are monsters,” she says.In the cartoon, Brown compared homeless people to the Zombie pub crawl held downtown. “We are not monsters, and we invite Mr. Brown to join the parade and educate himself on the real issues,” said Al’Rashid.”Another of the parades’ organizers, Noah Harbin points out “Yes, homelessness is a problem. Homeless people are not the problem, only the symptom.”
So here we go with the homeless advocates complaining about a cartoon again. Even though I have done many cartoons in the past that are sympathetic to the plight of the homeless and even though this cartoon is specifically addressing panhandlers, not homeless people (not every panhandler is homeless and not all homeless are panhandlers, maybe some people should look at the type of broad generalizations they themselves employ). Also, the “monsters” in the comic are people pretending to be zombies, no one in the comic or real life thinks they are actual monsters.
As a reflection of how different groups can see the same cartoon, the folks over at Ashtoberfest, who sponsor the Zombiewalk, were apparently unaware of the cartoon’s role as a malevolent attack on human dignity and saw it as (gasp!) a funny cartoon!
In my experience, most complaints about cartoons seem to be due to a misunderstanding of the premise or punchline of the joke. Or sometimes an understanding of, but objection to the joke, its intent or execution (or even subject) or, in the event of political or social commentary, just a disagreement of opposing ideology.
However, the “outraged” party du jour of this particular comic from 2011 had a complaint that was a new one on me altogether! The cartoon in question was a series of jokes featuring a recurring character, “Ironey The Iron” who was a de facto narrator for Asheville happenings, as he was an anthropomorphic version of the well-known urban art piece (sculpture) on Wall St. and Battery Park Ave. appropriately facing the Flat Iron Building outside the Mountain Xpress offices.
As I had done in previous incarnations of the Ironey strips (here and here), I addressed a number of recent local issues that seemed ironic in some way. One of them, was that a local photographer, though coming off a recent win as Best Local Photographer in the paper, had nevertheless made public his concern about being able to make a living here, or indeed, to even continue to pay to live anywhere. This was stated on his Facebook page and repeated on an Ashvegas blog post about the photog in question, Micah MacKenzie. I thought it nicely pointed out the irony of being “successful” in the arts here and still not actually making enough money to even pay your (inflated) local rent. The cartoon ran as follows:
Ironey the Iron III printed in Mountain Xpress circa 11/15/2011.
The next week, I hear from an editor that they had received this letter to the Editor by a Patty Cooper which, bizarrely recounted how “offended” she was about the cartoon because… well, just read it yourself:
“I am highly offended by your cartoon that shows someone in a green hat, and brown pants, and who is a photographer [“Brent Brown: Ironey the Iron,” Nov. 16 Xpress]. I walk these streets all day wearing about the same outfit, taking pictures. I would hate to assume that this is supposed to be a caricature of me.
Yes, I sit with homeless, and many others as I spend my days here. I can assure you though, as a land and homeowner in Vermont, and having an apartment to stay in while here, that I am not homeless. I also have viewers of my work all over the world. I do not see any homeless persons walking these streets with photography equipment or handing out cards about the video and photo work I do. Yes, I was offended.
I could not figure out why persons were walking up to me today telling me all about services that the homeless have here. When I told them I do not need those services they seemed shocked. Now I know why. I am sure that you would not have posted a caricature of some better-known local artist like that. I consider this defamation of character.”
— Patty Cooper
So, I was tasked with penning a response to this person’s, shall we say, colorful view of the world, before I was told who even wrote the letter. I first wrote Micah to make sure he didn’t write it, as it was about him, but he had not even seen the cartoon, or got the connection that it was about him, until I pointed it out. Assured the letter writer was indeed not the subject of this comic, I replied:
“No, the cartoon was not about you, whoever you are, (the Xpress edited that part out) The cartoon of the photographer who’s forced into homelessness despite, ironically, being the best in his profession, was not based on you. Rather, the cartoon alludes to a Nov. 2 entry on the Ashvegas blog about local photographer Micah Mackenzie, who posted on Facebook of his struggle to survive in Asheville (ironically after just having won the title of Best Photographer in the annual Mountain Xpress Best of WNC issue). Even then, it was not a literal representation of him and other actual artists actually living in boxes on the street, but rather a premise taken to an extreme to achieve what people with senses of humor call a ‘joke.’
The clothes’ colors were chosen at random and not based on any person living or dead. To further set your mind at ease, the iron depicted in the cartoon, while based on an existing sculpture on Wall Street, does not in real life have human limbs or a face and does not narrate local events.”
— Brent Brown
Sometimes you do a cartoon with what you think are pretty clear intentions, but then you hear back that those intentions were misread or misinterpreted or misconstrued or just missed completely.
Getting complaints about your cartooning efforts, especially when the complaints are based on the reader seeing the opposite of what you meant (or in some cases, just seeing something that is not there at all) is kind of annoying, but some would say it beats having your work completely ignored and receiving no feedback at all. (Hey, they may hate it, but at least you know someone is actually seeing it!)
Therefore, I would like to go back and address some of these “missed conceptions” that have happened and since there are more than a few, I will tackle each independently.
A Place to Sit printed in Mountain Xpress circa 7/27/2010
The first is this cartoon focusing on the plight of the growing local homeless population (always a touchy subject with well-meaning, but humor-impaired social advocates) and specifically a series of downtown bench removals by the city and private business/apartment buildings in order to deter the use of them by tourist-deterring and unmarketable homeless people, criminals, smokers, and/or other undesirable users.
This led to a reduction of available places to sit. So I did a cartoon with tourist-resident types complaining about the lack of places to sit (made ironic because the places to sit were taken away due to complaints about all the homeless sitting on them). Combining this with the usual stories of homeless being both complained about in letters to the editor and attempts to dissuade their presence by enforcement of loitering laws and I have the complainers actually sitting ON the homeless guy (who complains about not only not having a place to sit, but also not being allowed to stand around either).
So the cartoon was about the absurdity of having the indignity of the homeless guy being even further de-humanized by being made furniture—just so he can legally exist in a place where he can neither sit nor stand around. I thought it was pretty clearly on the side of the hapless gent’s circumstances, and that giving him that last line (which was, I thought, a clever pun on the repeated use of “can’t stand” turned around for his own use) was a clear indication that this was sympathetic to his position!
But noooooooooooo. The next week, there appeared this excoriating letter to the editor, as well as more of the same thing in a post on the very-ironically titled blog Community of the Beloved, decrying what the two people needed to compose this misconstrued missive attack as “appalling” and “blatant prejudice” as well as implying it could lead to “awful violence” against people who are homeless. Here is the full letter, as well as screen shots of the blog post:
“Prejudice is destructive to the fabric of our community
It is appalling that, on the one hand, Mountain Xpress can write such a powerful piece exposing the past prejudice of deeply rooted racism in “Back to Summerlane” [July 28 Xpress] and, in the same issue, promote such blatant prejudice against people who are homeless [in the cartoon] “Land of This Guy.” This kind of prejudice ripples out, changing the landscape of our city as revealed in “Benched” [July 28 Xpress] and can lead to the awful violence seen at Camp Summerlane.
We welcome citizens without homes, seniors, tourists and Asheville residents to find comfortable seating, rest and the opportunity to build real relationships that have the power to overcome our prejudices at Be Loved, a community house located at 39 Grove Street in downtown Asheville.
— L. White and A. Cantrell
Seeing they had obviously missed the whole point of the cartoon, I tried to reply to both their online letter and their blog post, explaining the actual concept, but got no reply to either.
I wrote back:
You have completely misinterpreted my cartoon. The entire premise of the comic strip is that while the complaining couple are worried about having a place to sit and having to (oh no!) see homeless people while they are downtown; the actual homeless man is forced to behave as their furniture in order to be legally allowed to exist downtown in lieu of the anti-loitering laws displayed on the sign.
This cartoon was (I thought, anyway) obviously taking a sympathetic view of the homeless person’s plight by showing how he is not only ignored, but further degraded by taking such anti-homeless laws and sentiments to an absurd degree, such as requiring them to be furniture. It is not encouraging such behavior at all, merely using the absurdity of it to make a larger point against treating them that way! It was also combined with the recent story of benches being removed.
It’s probably not a good sign when a cartoon has to be explained with three paragraphs. That could mean that the cartoonist did not get his point across well enough. It could, however, also reflect on the inability of the person reading it to recognize parody, satire or sarcasm. In any case, I hope the intended meaning is now clear to you.
For a place that likes to “spread the love” they sure don’t mind going off half-cocked and accusing cartoons, that they are too one-dimensional and literal-minded to apparently understand, of “treating our friends on the street with disdain and disrespect”.
So, that wraps up part one in this attempt to explain myself to the (hopefully) few who do not get my cartoons but are nevertheless so demonstrably and publicly vocal about their “outrage” that I feel I have to be equally public in defending myself, as well as pointing out what they got wrong.
I realize I should take the advice of other cartoonists and just ignore the few cranks (“fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke” my colleague at the Asheville Citizen-Times instructs) and be assured most people either did get it or (more likely) don’t even care about, or notice cartoons in the first place. Also remembering that said majority is rarely heard from the way the very vocal, terminally-outraged are, but hey, I have blog posts to make, and this seemed like a good recurring blog subject since these types of things require a long-form, multimedia approach.
The real tragedy is that this cartoon was also done in a style that evokes Tom Wison, the famous creator of Ziggy and even though I drew the homeless guy as Ziggy himself, no one seemed to notice that, either!
Here is a good article from Carolina Public Press Written by Paul Clark about the Southern Stereotypes in comics exhibit at WCU (where they were nice enough to invite me to a cartoonist panel discussing such things). I was also interviewed for this article.
In it, I spoke about my late uncle’s produce business and how he would dress up as the stereotypical “hillbilly” that potential tourists/newcomer customers would expect to see. Here is a collage of some of the label/ad designs I tried to come up with for him, as well as a photo from a newspaper clipping of him and my late aunt:
An interesting aside, is that I used him as the inspiration for a cartoon (featured in the same Carolina Public Press article) where I take up the issue of cultural stereotypes that was partially in response to another cartoon by fellow cartoonist, Randy Molton that was featured in the Asheville alt-weekly, Mountain Xpress. Randy’s “pigdemic” cartoon (suggesting certain bestiality inclinations inherent in certain people in certain geographical regions) caused not a small bit of controversy at the time (May 6, 2009 issue).
“Well, Brent Brown’s “Stereotypes” cartoon is quite humorous and a great improvement over Molton’s “Pigdemic,” even though Brown’s “hillbilly” character is the only person of the five types in his entire cartoon who is portrayed as being ignorant for real, ignorant beneath his stereotype. (It’s hard to get away from it, isn’t it?)
Even the double-negative frame, although borderline, is humorous.
I think the cartoon would have been even funnier, though, if Brown had left out the stereotypical language “whatchoo you in fer” and instead had the real person behind the ignorant stereotype saying something unexpectedly erudite.
It clearly is possible to poke fun at stereotypes in ways that are not insensitive or insulting toward a person, group, or culture, and except for “whatchoo you in fer,” this cartoon does that quite humorously.
By Betty Cloer Wallace
What she did not know, was that it was based on an actual person, my uncle, who—though he was playing the part of the cartoon hillbilly as a marketing gimmick—was nevertheless a rough-around-the-edges, rural, country type who was still prone to speaking in a NC mountain dialect with syntax and grammar not considered proper or correct and filled with regionalisms. To have him sound like Rex Harrison would, I agree, have been a funny idea, but in this case, I was being true to the comic strip avatar of my uncle Bobby. It was also a way to say that even though the people here may have an accent and non-standard way of speaking, that they are still nothing like the cartoon stereotype portrayals that may or may not even be based on reality, but became so prevalent that even the people they mock eventually used them for their own purposes.