Johnny Hart, the creator of “B.C.,” one of the “most widely read cartoonists on Earth,” is taking flak for a recent cartoon strip that many suggest defamed Islam.
The cartoon, which appeared Nov. 10 in more than 1,200 newspapers worldwide — including The Washington Post — shows a caveman entering an outhouse at night, and then saying, from inside, “Is it just me, or does it stink in here?”
The first public questioning of this cartoon arose in a washingtonpost.com chat Tuesday, when a reader noted that the cartoon seemed to make no sense, except metaphorically. The reader noted that the cartoon contained six crescent moons — three in the sky, and three on the outhouse door — and wondered if this might have been a veiled slur on the world’s 1 billion practicing Muslims.
The CAIR e-mail mentioned the moons, and also noted that Hart had drawn a prominent sound effect — “SLAM” — between two frames to accompany the closing of the outhouse door. The SLAM was stacked vertically, in the shape of an I, and could be seen to signify “Islam.” The cartoon appeared on the 15th day of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.
Hart claims it was a silly bathroom joke, although others aren’t so sure:
“Why is the door slamming? You don’t slam an outhouse door.”
This is Marshall Blonsky, professor of semiotics at the New School in New York. Blonsky is an expert in the interpretation of signs and symbols. The first thing he said, on seeing the cartoon, is that he didn’t get the joke. The second thing he said was that the outhouse is clearly serving some metaphoric purpose: “It represents something that stinks in the world.” And the third thing he said was that there was something very puzzling about that SLAM.
“It’s inappropriate,” he said. “You gently close an outhouse door.” One does not ordinarily enter an outhouse in anger or with a melodramatic flourish, he said. One utilizes this particular convenience in as unobtrusive a way as possible.
Blonsky said the cartoon seemed in some way manipulative — constructed in “a polysemic fashion, to supply multiple meanings that would deliberately evade interpretation.” When told of the religious interpretation, he said that in this light, the cartoon suddenly made logical sense. The coincidences were simply too great to ignore, he said.
Even a group of other cartoonists weren’t sure what the joke in the strip was supposed to be, although personally I have to say that I’ve never found B.C. either (a) particularly funny or (b) particularly clear. The cartoon does seem incomprehensible without this type of interpretation, though: otherwise, there’s no point.
That said, I remain troubled by this observation about literary or artistic criticism:
In analyzing this cartoon, semiotician Blonsky cautions against succumbing to the Intentional Fallacy: In criticism, he says, it is a mistake to give much weight at all to the artist’s stated intention. For one thing, it discounts the strength and influence of the unconscious mind, he said. All that matters in artistic criticism, he said, is the effect of the art on its viewers: the way people interpret it. In other words, even if Hart intended no offense, the offense is there.
I disagree to an extent. Sure, I think it’s fine to utilize literary criticism to find a variety of meanings in something. For example, when I read a guy who contended that Frodo’s encounter with Shelob in The Two Towers was somehow a representation of some sort of sexual encounter, that was never an interpretation I’d found in the scene. But if he sees that there, I can understand that. I might find different meanings in the same scene. In school, they’ll tell you that a play like Shakespeare’s MacBeth can often be utilized to illustrate a whole host of points, some of which may even be contradictory.
But it’s a far cry from finding different meanings, or utilizing literature or art to support different interpretations, to ascribing that meaning to the creator. At the moment you say “This is what the creator meant,” as opposed to “I find this interpretation in here,” I think you’ve crossed a different line than merely artistic or literary interpretation.
To put it differently than what Blonsky said: Just because the offense is there, it doesn’t mean that Hart meant to offend. Without a doubt, the important thing is how art effects its viewers, but I’m not so certain an artist should be held responsible for every interpretation discovered in their work. Back when George Lucas released The Phantom Menace, there was a fair amount of discussion of Jar Jar Binks as a racial stereotype. Lots of folks found that meaning there: it doesn’t mean that Lucas put it there, intentionally or otherwise. When I was in high school and we read Edgar Allen Poe’s the Masque of the Red Death, the teacher identified several hundred different “meanings” for various images in the story. Did Poe “mean” everything that’s been “found” represented in his story? I say no. Okay, that doesn’t mean we (as the audience) can’t find that meaning there, but then isn’t that our meaning, not the artist’s? And if that’s true, how can we legitimately hold the artist responsible for “our” meaning?
All of which is irrelvant here to the extent that there’s seemingly no other real meaning to the cartoon. Hart says it’s just a bathroom joke, but all the crescent moons and the vertical “SLAM” do seem to point to some sort of hidden joke. When an artist is cryptic and forces the reader to try to come up with a meaning, the artist shouldn’t be surprised if people come up with some real winners; more, he should be ready to explain the “real” (i.e., intended) meaning. Hart’s explanation of this as a bathroom joke doesn’t really fit, and it still doesn’t make sense. As a bathroom joke, it isn’t even lame: it’s incomprehensible.
Note: The author wastes a fair amount of time writing about a variety of subjects over at Walloworld, where this post originally appeared.