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Draw Your Weapon!

Posted on Jan 13, 2017

By Mr. Fish

    Detail from the cover of “The Realist Cartoons.” (Fantagraphics)

When Aristotle said “The gods too are fond of a joke,” he was commenting on the inauspicious similarity between gods and mortals. “Most people enjoy amusement and jesting more than they should …  [A] jest is a kind of mockery, and lawgivers forbid some kinds of mockery—perhaps they ought to have forbidden some kinds of jesting,” he added.

    The Realist Cartoons
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While the 20th century Greek classicist and literary critic C. A. Trypanis wrote that “comedy is the last of the great species of poetry Greece gave to the world,” many famous Greek philosophers considered humor morally corrosive and antithetical to sound reasoning. Plato believed that comedy, because of the anarchistic mood it promoted and inspired, needed to be controlled by the state. He went so far as to characterize humor as a malicious vice debilitating to rational self-control. “We shall enjoin that such representations be left to slaves or hired aliens,” he wrote, “and that they receive no serious consideration whatsoever.”

Nearly 2,500 years later and with several hundred decades of evidence to support an opposing point of view, it is now undeniable that Plato and Aristotle were wrong. There is no greater exemplar of sound reasoning—and no greater filter of politics, religion and the media—than humor. 

It is arguable, given the cartoons and cartoonists so lavishly celebrated in Fantagraphics’ new release, “The Realist Cartoons,” that without humor we would not have such a precise tool with which to ridicule—nor the incentive to deviate from—the myopic mainstream narrative that would have us believe that the government, or at least the party with which we choose to identify, is consistently maintained by wise and benign stewards of justice. Humor also shows us that morality is measurable by how well we surrender our natural curiosity about how the world works to unimaginative bureaucrats tasked with telling us precisely how it should work. 

Satire, particularly in the form of cartooning, has the power to reshape our comprehension of absolutely everything in pursuit of a surprising punchline offered in contempt of conventional deduction. Humor upgrades the dexterity of our thinking and convinces us of the subjectivity of truth and of our need to interact with one another using means beyond the political, religious and cultural contrivances on offer from the more traditional modes of perception, reflection and motivation.

In sharper terms: It turns out that, yes, bullshit is, in fact, fertilizer.

Paul Krassner began publishing his satirical magazine, The Realist, in 1958 and stopped in 2001, finally upstaged by real world events whose tragedy and absurdity trumped any and all satirical contrivances. After all, it was during that year on September 11 when the United States was attacked by 19 men with box cutters who ended up killing nearly 3,000 people. The date of the attack also happened to be the 126th anniversary of the initial publication of the very first newspaper comic strip in the United States, Professor Tigwissel’s Burglar Alarm. It was published by the New York Daily Graphic newspaper, whose offices had been located some 5,000 feet away from the site of the World Trade Center.

Appropriately, the strip depicted a self-aggrandized egomaniac who attempts to protect himself from the threat of a home invasion by stockpiling excessive firearms and weaponry and installing a foolproof security system designed to prevent a surprise attack. In the comic strip, the firepower and security system don’t work and Professor Tigwissel is attacked, but he arrogantly claims success afterward. He promises to patent his device to perpetuate the notion that we are best protected by the machinery of our paranoia and a weaponized mistrust of the world rather than a less hysterical adherence to truth, justice, humanitarianism and mutual cooperation. Such was the premonitory power of the cartoonist in 1875, and such was the sickening plunge of real life into the realm of gruesome fantasy many years later that rendered the satire of The Realist no longer allegorical, but literal—literalism being to allegory what a real fire is to a crowded theater.

The demise of The Realist, which is now being called the “Charlie Hebdo of American satire,” and which writer Terry Southern referred to in the 1960s as “the first American publication to really tell the truth,” also was due to the ever-increasing corporatization of American democracy and the blatant commodification of artistic free expression by unimaginative businessmen and their marketing departments.

Specifically, where there once existed a well-informed anti-authoritarian audience for satire, Americans became passive consumers of inconsequential burlesque masquerading as satire. People assumed corporate-sponsored jokes that merely used political personalities and circumstances as fodder the same way that slapstick used seltzer bottles and baggy pants were somehow the same thing as sharp and unforgiving criticism by uncompromising freelancers for the deeper purpose of revealing political and social injustices and commenting on them in a way that engenders more psychic pain than physiological pleasure. The idea became that humorists in search of laughter alone over frank and honest outrage are not satirists for one simple reason: Mirth cripples rage, and rage is necessary for the beating back of political, cultural and religious bullshit in service of change.

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