Pugnacious Elegie / Élégie Pugnace

In my last post I introduced the new Rotland Press offering, Rotland Inquiry No. 1: Charlie Hebdo. Ryan Standfest emailed me on January 10, three days after the shootings in Paris, to see if I would be interested in contributing to a volume of essays devoted to the publication. I immediately said yes, and soon after accepted an April deadline for the project. As I began to work on it during a very concentrated period of about a week, it became clear to me that I wanted to respond visually as much as verbally, if not more. I also realized that I had to build the textual argument first, then explore an illustrative treatment for it. I wrote about 10 versions of what became a miniature essay, clocking in at 180 words. 

The piece is a hybrid thing, and a collaboration with graphic designer Scott Gericke, my increasingly (!) longtime collaborator. 

The text: 

Élégie Pugnace / Pugnacious Elegy
An Illustrated Essay by D.B. Dowd
ⓒ2015 D.B. Dowd

Charb, Cabu and the others are gone. 

Many have offered opinions about the offending drawings–mostly about what the things “say,” and almost nothing about how they look. Some have harrumphed about their sophomorism and crudity, as if Charlie Hebdo were in the business of putting on art exhibitions. Cartoons are more like symbols than pictures. Emblems. Primary visual utterances. 

People have been making them for a very long time. And why? To communicate with other people. Also as a form of resistance. Like contemporary taggers who spray their claims–I AM / JE SUIS–cartoonists are vandals. Citizen scratcher-scrawlers. And we should be grateful to them. They deface our satisfactions. 

But as we have recently seen, the taggers are outgunned. The sectarian enforcers who patrol party lines always have better equipment. 

C’est la vie. (Et la mort.) 

Defy jealousy. Practice liberty.

Flout the savage prophets. 

Dare we tell jokes now? After the Charlie Hebdo slayings, wouldn’t it be vulgar to do so? The question is cosmic. When the jesters have been slaughtered, are things unfunny? 

(Bitter Laughter.)


I expect these pages to speak for themselves. That said, there are some citations that merit mention (and which appear in notes at the bottom of pages).  As readers of Graphic Tales know, I think about historical sources and long-running themes in the history of illustration and cartooning quite a bit. Because those histories receive short shrift in academic art history, I engage with them in my work as a way of paying homage. In the case of "Pugnacious Elegy", I redrew Honoré Daumier's Robert Macaire; an irritated bull by Charlie Hebdo editor and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier (murdered 1/7/15); a Fremont culture petroglyph, circa 1000 CE; and a crudely-hewn cigarette-smoking Philip Guston character from 1975. Guston, of course, was a painter, not a cartoonist, but he drew on the visual energies of cartooning in the late "blasphemous" stage of his career, in self-exile from abstract expressionism. 

Subsequently I quoted Daumier's mockery of Louis-Phillipe as the fat-pear king, redrew Warner Brothers' Bosko, and offered  7th-grader defacements of Hillary Clinton and Vladimir Putin, the latter as a vampire. 

The third spread  illustrates the sentence, Flout the savage prophets. This picture surprised me as I worked my way through it. It fuses 195s sci-fi and 1930s animation design  (to say nothing of the blackletter type that became a motif for the project). The prophets in question are indeterminate; although Mohammed inspired the Kouachi brothers, many prophets demand submission and ought to be resisted. 

Finally the last spread strikes a funereal note. The headless Bishop holding his noggin was drawn from the left portal at Notre Dame: Paris' patron saint, St. Denis. Ultimately he seemed like a perfect imperfect metaphor. A downbeat finish, appropriately.  

I was honored to participate in this project. As it turned out, formally speaking my "take" was the outlier. Others submitted long, closely reasoned essays and/or cartoons or comics. The illustrated essay I produced certainly owes a debt to the conventions of Spartan Holiday, but remains quite distinct, as well. Scott Gericke's fingerprints are all over this thing–especially the color, which is far higher-keyed than color I tend to use. I recoiled at first, but the CMYK vocabulary makes implicit arguments about printing and distribution. Thanks to Scott, as well as to Ryan Standfest and Rotland Press designer S. William Schudlich. 

D.B. Dowd, "Pugnacious Elegy", Rotland Inquiry No. 1: Charlie Hebdo, 2015. The left half of the opening two-page spread. The right half of that spread is below. 

Dowd, "Pugnacious Elegy", right half of opening spread. The citation text at the bottom of this page reads: Drawings after historical scrawlings from left to right across this spread: Honoré Daumier’s Robert Macaire, 1836; Stéphane Charbonnier in CH, 2012; Fremont culture petroglyph, Nine Mile Canyon, Utah, circa 1000 CE; Philip Guston’s Painter, 1975. The picture frame is my device, the desktop memento mori.

Dowd, "Pugnacious Elegy," left half of the second spread. 

Dowd, "Elegy," right half of second spread. The citation text at the bottom (which I fear has been cut off in the printed version): Above, hat tip to Daumier’s pear-king; drawing after Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising’s Bosko, the first stock player at Warner Brothers animation, 1929. On the final page of this essay, drawing after St. Denis group from the left portal, Notre Dame de Paris (19th century reconstruction).

Dowd, "Elegy," third spread. 

Dowd, "Elegy," fourth and final spread.