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!
When cartoonist do their job by being a thorn in the side of the status quo, some of those in the comfy status quo circle take offense. This is a good thing….means your spot on. That irony of absurdity is lost on the complainer speaks volumes.