Local cartoonist reflects on Charlie Hebdo killings

Local cartoonist reflects on Charlie Hebdo killings

By Erich Wagner (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)

One could say that ink runs in Alexandria resident Steve Artley’s blood.

The son of an editorial cartoonist in Des Moines, Iowa, Artley, former Alexandria Times cartoonist, said he was surrounded by the profession from an early age.

“My father [Bob Artley] was at the Des Moines Tribune,” Artley said. “I must have been around 2 when he first brought me into the newsroom. So I’ve always been exposed to it.”

Artley has been published in a variety of local and national publications throughout his career and knows cartoonists around the world. So when the news started to filter in last week that terrorists had attacked the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people, his heart sank.

“It’s like cold water poured over you,” he said. “It was just awful. It’s not like I was frightened that anything would ever happen to me, but it was just a feeling of outrage. Absolute outrage.”

In response to the incident, Artley, like many other cartoonists around the world, penned his own sketch in support of those who lost their lives, including the popular slogan: “Je Suis Charlie.”

Charlie Hebdo likely was targeted because of its frequent depiction of the Muslim prophet Muhammed — a practice banned under some prominent interpretations of Islam. But Artley was quick to stress that the widespread solidarity with the controversial satire magazine doesn’t mean cartoonists like himself approve of the secularist weekly’s content.

“It’s all about freedom of expression,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if I like them or not. For me it definitely crossed the decency line, but I completely condemn the actions of those terrorists.

“They’re just armed with pencils and pens. They aren’t hiding away under balaclavas. They put their names in the corner — we know who they are.”

Artley said his upbringing only partly accounts for his career trajectory. Even when he was in school, he found himself subconsciously doodling and sketching in his notebooks.

“That’s just how I would take notes; that’s how I understood them,” he said. “To me it just made sense. I remember I had a teacher in seventh grade. He saw what I was doing one day, and he picked up my paper.

“He brought it to the front of the class and I remember sinking into my desk, preparing for the inevitable humiliation and the order to just get out of class. But he held it up and showed it to the class and said: ‘Look! It’s all here. He probably understands the most of what I’ve been saying out of any of you.’”

Like most journalists, Artley said his days are mostly dictated by deadline after deadline. He checks a variety of news sources to keep up on issues and look for inspiration.

“The Internet and technology is great, because I can access it whenever I want and look up any subject for research,” he said. “So then I sketch out my ideas and produce. It’s a job, but I love doing it.”

Artley takes a different tack from Charlie Hebdo when crafting his cartoons. Instead of making as loud or controversial a statement as possible, he prefers to challenge readers’ preconceived notions, and offending people jeopardizes that.

“I would never do that; I would never do a lot of the cartoons they’ve published,” he said. “I definitely self-censor. It’s only reasonable. It’s not that I worry about threats; the point is to provoke thought and get people to look at whatever issue in another way.

“I may not change people’s minds, but if I want them even to consider another view, I don’t use offensive things, because it’ll stop them from getting there. I’d lose a good portion of my audience.”

But that doesn’t mean the terrorists’ actions were justified in the slightest, he said.

“By the same token, I’ll defend anyone’s right to do that,” Artley said. “I’ll defend people I totally disagree with. Look at the KKK or Nazis: I can’t stand them, but I’ll still defend their right to express themselves.”