Cover Image: Red Lines

Red Lines

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It was eye-opening.

I will be the first to admit I'm not an expert in cartoons or politics, however I'm familiar with the format because I live in a country where we really like to complain about our politics... like a lot.

I found the format of a graphic novel a delighful way to convey this study in the way governments censor politic views, specially because you'd never think of a cartoon, comic or other graphic media as 'dangerous' but they're certainly powerful. So much that some of the most political images of our times come from them.

The one thing I'll say is that the graphic part could've been just a little more entertaining and less formal, if that makes sense. It was maybe a bit too much like a document.

I loved it, that's all I can say. It very much brought back to the last issue of Mafalda where she gets literally run over by a government truck.
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This was a very creative attempt to use a graphic novel format to write a well reasoned, well sourced, clearly articulate, academic examination of the issue of the ways governments and corporations use hard and soft power to censor political cartoonists.

The information presented was amazing, comprehensive, depressing, and well organized.  There were numerous international cartoonists and the format allowed for easy presentation of their cartoons.

The drawback was the graphic novel style.  Although there were some interesting experiments with form in some chapters, most of it seemed too much like a documentary (talking heads, newspaper clippings, etc.) with out the dynamism of sound and moving pictures.  The drawings and photo illustrations often seemed distracting to me rather then enhancing the words. 

That said, the content is so important and chilling that it overcomes the issues with the form.
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Red Lines is a graphic nonfiction about censorship of political cartoons, though some of the commentary can be applied more broadly to censorship as a whole. The first chapter provides definitions of censorship and related terminology to provide a background, then the book transitions into chapters detailing examples of censorship in specific regimes before going into thematic or identity-based examples of censorship.

Political cartooning is not something I knew a whole lot about going into this book, but I left with a greater appreciation for the work. 

As a whole, I found the book to be well researched and really like the formatting through the first half that was reminiscent of old-school punk zines and how the interviews with cartoonists were laid out as a series of photographic cut outs with speech balloons. I also really liked the transition chapter that was solely a gallery of censored cartoons with commentary about why the cartoon was scratched or what was edited in order to publish it. I also liked the conversations about how political cartooning and censorship has changed in the era of social media and appreciated that cartoonists interviewed were from a variety of locations and not just states like China or Iran that are known for their censorship, as well as the nuance given to the chapter on Charlie Hebdo. 

In the second half though, the formatting changes and while it makes sense to have a chapter about how the internet has changed political cartooning to look more reminiscent of a web page, I found the change from the zine format to be quite jarring.
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Thank you to Netgalley, the publishers and the authors for an ARC of this book.

The premise was so exciting first of all- a book based on political cartoons? In all my studies, it's not something we get to cover as holistically as it's done here. While I'm at it, I have to give a huge round of applause to the amazing team that was responsible for the layout of this book. The typography, the photos, all melding so seamlessly with the cartoons themselves made the book even more of a revelation. Such an interesting read and I'm definitely recommending it to all my journalism and polisci friends who are sure to love it.
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If you've  ever wondered what an annual Comic Book Legal Defense Fund report focused on the global state of censorship would look like as a well executed graphic novel, look no further. Red Lines breaks down issues impacting freedom of speech across a variety of areas, detailing the pain felt for it and lives lost in defense of it.
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Red Lines is an interesting look at satirical cartoons and censorship. My takeaway from the whole thing: It’s complicated. There are lots of different kinds of censorship and many methods employed today in even the “most free” of nations are not as easy to spot as direct and violent censorship. They also bring up the question of: are some forms of censorship good? It's not funny if you're kicking down. Only if you're punching up. But even that creates a grey area as discussed in the chapter on Charlie Hebdo and similar controversies. I was left with a lot of information and a lot to think about. 

Stylistically, I liked the graphic layout. I thought it added a lot. My one concern is the size of the font. I am not sure what size the print version would be, but I needed to use my laptop to read the e-version zoomed in. I have pretty decent vision and usually don't have issues.
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Red Lines is a graphic book about censorship broadly speaking by focusing on censorship of political cartoons. As such, it works very well, keeping the reader interested in the information while enforcing the power of the drawn image.

No doubt some readers will be disappointed because the book is not made to be overly aesthetically appealing but rather to support the information. If you're mostly interested in the appearance rather than the content, you might be a little disappointed. But the artwork serves its purpose quite well. Political cartoons aren't always the most attractive, their power is a combination of the image with a message, with the message being front and center. In this book, the artwork is used to help convey the message rather than decorate the message.

Also, some readers with reading comprehension issues will see contradictions where there aren't any. A close reading of the text makes clear that what appears to some as a contradiction is actually nuance. These same readers also pretend to understand intellectual history and bring in poorly expressed versions of Enlightenment thought to pose for their little mental selfies. 

The problem with censorship is that when there is censorship that means someone, some group, is making the determination about what is acceptable or not acceptable. Whether from the right or the left such power corrupts. One of the attempts to work around such problems is not so much to censor the speech for its ideas but for what it tries to accomplish. Is it presenting a case, no matter how logical or illogical, against or for some idea(s)? Or is it trying to incite violence? Yet even that can be problematic. If one believes that a system should be changed drastically, maybe even a revolution, is that inciting violence or is it trying to make change and violence might be a byproduct? That question is a lot more complex than it first appears.

If you want to couple this with another recent book on censorship, I read this alongside Dangerous Ideas by Eric Berkowitz. It is a broader and more historical account but the two books went well together.

I would recommend this to readers who want to better understand censorship as it applies to political cartoons. Though those more interested in pretty art than the ideas might be disappointed.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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Red Lines presents a fascinating history and series of discussions about the provocative nature of visual literature. A compelling argument about culture and complexity.
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This book is packed with incredibly interesting histories and interviews, so I'm very glad I read it even though the art and production quality are a little disappointing. There's a particular thing that a lot of non-fiction research-based comic books do where it feels like they're "cheating" by trying to cram a full-length book's worth of text onto one page while just making the layout vaguely comic-y, and that happens quite a few times here. Consequently the art elements feel hastily thrown together, and as much as I love comics, I often felt like this book would be better off as a regularly-formatted history book (with plenty of example illustrations from the cases discussed).
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A thing of contrasts and reversals, this. A book about political cartoons and censorship, itself presented in a cartoon fashion which recalls the old 'For Beginners' series, while also containing original interviews and such. A book I requested from Netgalley because I love the way Sonny Liew draws, but which contain little pencilling from him – the art side of this is more a matter of layout, composition and collage, while the text comes from academic Cherian George. A book which celebrates the Enlightenment tradition of free speech in a way which, regrettably, will probably now get it dirty looks from both sides of the political divide – but also talks about power in all its guises, as likely to reference Gramsci and hegemonic domination as quote the Encyclopaedists. At times that can be frustrating: when we're told "it's the use of power that characterizes censorship. It's about coercion - actual or implied; physical, economic, or technological. But it's not censorship if someone in authority uses only moral influence and the power of argument to urge cartoonists to act responsibly", it's surely begging the question when it talks about 'responsibility', because that's exactly the same sort of language censors use when having what they characterise as a quiet, no pressure cup of tea with someone – and there's a whole section on how that can itself be a threat, albeit a veiled one. But if the book never quite reconciles this, maybe that's because nobody yet has; no matter how theoretically hardline on free speech, there can be few who'd lament the after-the-fact judicial punishment handed out to Julius Streicher for Nazi German's Sturmer, or those responsible for Rwanda's Kangura, over the parts they played in laying the groundwork for genocide. And if that's so, follows the seductive whisper, wouldn't it be better to clamp down on such things ahead of time...and then step by tiny step, a free press becomes a shackled, complicit instrument of greater powers again, albeit maybe in a slightly different direction.

If this can be vexing, it's also refreshing to read a treatment of a complex issue which, in what feels all too rare nowadays, does admit and investigate difficulties, rather than trying to sand everything down to a tweet-sized slogan, or else giving up and defaulting to facile both-sides-ism. It can celebrate someone like Malaysia's Zunar, who helped (temporarily) bring down a corrupt regime despite being threatened with prison time – while also noting that the oft-quoted figure of a 43 year sentence which he faced was the theoretical maximum sentence if found guilty on all counts, rather than anything which precedent suggested he was remotely likely to get. Even the Charlie Hebdo shootings, which top and tail the book, get a surprisingly nuanced treatment, especially once a juvenile court hands out a probation sentence to a kid who parodied a Charlie Hebdo cartoon of the Koran not stopping a bullet by showing how the magazine didn't either. As everyone down to former colleagues of the dead points out, this is of course rank hypocrisy. Though even before that point's been reached, this section is one of the few times Red Lines addresses an issue that goes mostly unmentioned throughout – an awful lot of the cartoonists profiled are not very good, and I don't just mean ones from other cultures where it could well be that I'm not familiar with the tradition and reference points. There's extensive excerpting from the work of Rob Rogers, for instance, sacked from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette over his anti-Trump cartooning. And judging from these excerpts, had I been his boss I would absolutely have fired him for being rubbish, but then simply because he was instead fired on ideological grounds, I have to side with him, which is maddening. Though my dilemma is as nothing compared to that of the Pittsburgh mayor who, despite having been a frequent target of Rogers over both his policies and his weight, felt obliged to do likewise, and bless him for that.

The corollary for this, and again it's a bit of an omission, is that nowadays if a cartoonist is any good, they'll be seen much more widely. Consider First Dog On The Moon – I doubt I'd ever have heard of an Australian editorial cartoonist pre-internet, and I say that as someone whose family had Australian links so was if anything more up on their pop culture than most in Britain. If the stats are correct, and US newspapers had over 2000 editorial cartoonists in 1900, down to fewer than 40 now, then that is fairly shocking – but equally, how many of them were missed? The book talks about how plenty of online memes can be considered as political cartoons, and vice versa, but still suggests that there should be a professional class able to devote themselves to this full time. Well, why? And who decides how they're selected? Because as the book makes clear, the market may be a lesser evil than authoritarian regimes when it comes to limiting cartoonists, but it can still be a limit. Sudan's Khalid Albaih is an interesting case study here, having moved first to Qatar and then Denmark, and freely accepting that his decision there does represent a movement from less free to more free environments – but still bristling at the compromise entailed, at the West's complicity in repressive regimes elsewhere, wary of being "the angry black man, the leftist, the crazy guy from down the street" lest he lose access to the press and his living. George and Liew undoubtedly have a particularly interesting perspective on this through coming from Singapore, the only one of the world's top 10 most developed countries where the press is not ranked as free, and where papers being owned by big conglomerates makes them vulnerable to pressure regarding government contracts for other arms of the business. But all over, the old bargain whereby ads and entertainment used to pay for investigative reportage and cartoons has fractured in the face of the internet. Some countries are happy to subsidise tame cartoonists, as with Iran's House of Cartoon, which dominates the field in the country and is happy to support satirical work so long as it's only ever directed outwards. Though I think for sheer dystopian weight, the biggest shudder the book gave me was the friendly cartoon mascots of Shenzhen's internet surveillance department, with second place going to Fernando Alvarado, communications director to Ecuador's Rafael Correa. Elected on a platform of indigenous rights and reining in agribusiness, Correa proved about as good at this as you'd expect from the history of leaders who make big promises to the poor. Instead he turned out to be more adept at bullying kids, or cartoonists who pointed out the gap, with Alvarado sending messages that radiate HR rictus, suggesting ideas for 'better' cartoons about his boss that recall every goon who ever offered a creator unsolicited advice on their set, only this time with the power of a government behind him.

Every so often, there's the weird sensation of a book which has yet to come out nonetheless being an artefact from a more civilised past. When George talks about the Streisand effect, and how cartoonists can sometimes win by making censors look ridiculous, we get the line "The idea here is to turn the spotlight on the attackers, showing their ulterior motives, lies, conflicts of interest, corrupt behavior and other shortcomings." Which, if nothing else, is a charming reminder of the old world where any of that might remotely have mattered, rather than the one we now inhabit where, even in countries with a free press let alone anywhere else, >40% of the population are so high on ideology that they'll stay loyal regardless of how busted their chosen figurehead may be. This is a shame, because elsewhere the book is quite good at exploding myths, not least about the eponymous red lines. A name which suggests they'll normally be obvious but, as example after example shows, they can be far more effective for being vague, encouraging cartoonists and editors to practice self-censorship and shy away from anywhere they might conceivably get into trouble. Not that this is always a deliberately orchestrated policy of uncertainty, of course – sometimes inconsistency can be a product of factional tensions within the regime, a change in relations with another power, whatever. But the effect is the same, and much like Bentham's panopticon – less need for the Ministry to keep an eye on everyone if everyone has an internalised man from the Ministry to do their work for them. Although even then, many of the cartoonists discussed here genuinely had no idea they were anywhere near the line when they got in their biggest trouble. In the most extreme examples, this is because the outrage was provably a misinterpretation, deliberate or not, as when one poor sod gets accused of mocking the death of someone who was still alive when he drew the cartoon. Of course, in other cases the rights and wrongs aren't that cut and dried. There's a fascinating section on the minefield of caricature when it comes to Israel, with cartoonists very carefully removing the national insignia from Israeli tanks or rockets in their cartoon, lest the Star of David within the flag lead to it being interpreted as anti-Semitism – and then getting accused of that all the same (which, understandably, is particularly galling when the cartoonist in question is Jewish too). Yet, equally, there are of course times when anti-Zionism is serving as cover for anti-Semitism. One of the most heartening stories here comes when Jordan's Emad Hajjaj, after a conversation with an Israeli cartoonist, stopped using rabbis to represent Israel in his work. Equally, you've got South Africa's Mandela-approved Zapiro, a man who'd had plenty of trouble with the apartheid era regime, then also getting accused of racism for his attacks on the numerous corruptions and idiocies of Zuma and Mbeki...despite all of which, he holds his hands up and admits that yes, there are times he's fucked up, specifically by using the common political cartoon image of an organ grinder and his monkey when dealing with African politics. Now that the battle lines can often be so fiercely drawn that someone called out regarding one misjudged joke then ends up doubling down over and over until they've basically become a full-time hatemonger (mentioning no names of formerly amusing Irish writers), it's refreshing to see someone readily admitting and apologising for a mistake like this.

As the mention of memes may suggest, the definition of political cartoons here is broad, including stuff from comics proper, some of which (like Comicsgate, used as a case study when discussing the gendered dimension to some online mob hate) I'd seen unfold in real time. Another example I remembered first-hand is Ardian Syaf, the Indonesian artist booted off X-Men for hiding references to fundamentalist rallying points in the art – and another instance where I have to respect the book's ornery thoroughness, its refusal to stick to examples where the reader is likely to side naturally with the artist over the authority figures bollocking them. But perhaps the saddest example is Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen, an account of the bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath which didn't run into anything like the expected antagonism at the time – only to then face it decades later instead, once memory and history had faded enough that nationalism was resurgent in Japan. But frankly, I need to wrap this up. The book is packed with fascinating stuff I want to quote, some of which I knew, some of which I'd forgotten (the optimism of 1996's Declaration Of The Independence Of Cyberspace, heartbreaking now – "We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force or station of birth. Where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity"), and plenty of which was entirely new to me – often heartbreaking too, like Palestine's Naji al-Ali, whose work attacked enough sides of the struggle in his benighted homeland that it's not even known which faction ultimately murdered him. If the book as a whole is better at raising questions than answering them, well, that need not be a bad thing, and in this instance may be inevitable. After all, as it says, there may be a general agreement that the role of the political cartoonist is punching up, not down – but that only raises more questions, because power is a complicated thing, and it's not like there is or ever could be an agreed hierarchy of who has more of it. "Is China," for instance, "an emerging global bully, or a people scarred by a Century of Humiliation by foreign powers and still subject to racist condescension?" And how could that ever be decided when all parties' answers can easily be summed up with the immortal "Well he would say that, wouldn't he?" Not necessarily what you'd call a satisfying read, then, but I'm still glad I read it.
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