Is tragedy off-limits if satire helps heal?
BALTIMORE — As a Jewish kid growing up in the '60s, there was one TV show my parents made off-limits: "Hogan's Heroes." At the time, I could not understand what the problem was, but clearly the show was verboten.
To me, it was just a funny show. They couldn't stand it.
To them, portraying Nazis in a humorous light was disgraceful. The prevailing societal comeback to their argument, used by most fans of the show, including me, was, "We were laughing at them, not with them." It was a fine line then. Still is.
But as an adult now in my 40s, I've seen for myself and read plenty about how Jews have always had a way of taking pain, suffering, and tragedy and turning it around on an aggressor like a jujitsu move. Clearly, satire is one such weapon. Whether through pointed wit, sharp debate, or belly laughs so powerful that everyone just keels over, Jews are masters at it.
Ironically, we have been able to find amusement in even the worst of situations. With the third anniversary of 9/11 having just passed, I've been enjoying Art Spiegelman's new book, "In The Shadow of No Towers." Mr. Spiegelman is the author/artist who brought us the harrowing Pulitzer Prize-winning "Maus," in which a young man listens to his father recall the horrors of Nazi Germany. "Maus" is a tale told in comic book format, with Jews depicted as mice and Nazis as cats.
In "Shadow," which is designed more as a coffee-table book, Spiegelman compiles broadsheet-sized comic book illustrations showing life in lower Manhattan (where he lives) during and after the destruction of the nearby World Trade Center.
Why comic books? As Spiegelman describes it: "I know I wasn't able to think coherently [after Sept. 11, 2001], and comics are a way I've been able in the past to put my thoughts in order; literally put them in boxes."
I suppose we all put things in boxes in order to cope with them. We're taught how at a young age with cubby holes, toy boxes, and pencil cases. So, as adults, why not this format for the big emotional stuff, too?
Well, not every reviewer has approved. Newsweek liked it, but Time didn't. The magazine's reviewer said that, "When Spiegelman compares Osama bin Laden to Ignatz, the cheeky brick-throwing mouse from [cartoonist] George Herriman's 'Krazy Kat,' the mind recoils in dismay." How come? Does the analogous satire go too far?
Admittedly, the narrative is not as strong as in "Maus." But "too far" would seem to imply "off-limits." So Auschwitz is not off-limits for Spiegelman, but the World Trade Center is?
At a time when networks constantly unveil new "reality shows" that invariably end up looking more like "Fantasy Island," looking through the lens of what is clearly unreality is refreshing. Maybe even closer to reality.
The debate rages on.
Certainly, art can offend. Comedy can sting. And we'll be in for a lot of it. Where's the line? I'm not sure. But there's a reason they call it a punch line.
So, yeah, in a funny sort of way, life deals its own form of jujitsu. As a parent myself, I now better understand my own parents, and why what seemed like a wacky television show to me could deal such a painful sting to them.
And I want to be there when my kids are old enough to crack open Spiegelman's books. Partly to teach. Partly to learn. Partly to laugh.
• Abe Novick is a senior vice president at Eisner Communications.