Kategoriarkiv: Comics

Freedom of speech 1: Charlie Hebdo (again)

This week, when social and sociological aspects are discussed in our course about comics (also see previous post), we give you this update by Fred Andersson:

Again ordinary French citizens are assassinated outside their workplaces for no other reasons than having shown the ”wrong” kind of images to the ”wrong” kind of people, or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Again terror alert levels are raised all over Europe. Meanwhile, the famous French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo shows no fear; its cartoonists continue to ridicule the rich and the powerful in a manner which is essentially a French democratic tradition since 1789. Recently, a cartoon of AKP leader and Turkish president R.T. Erdoğan as the generic male working-class TV-watcher in underwear, lifting the abaya/robe of his giggling, veiled and tray-carrying ”wife”, exposing her ”lower back”, adorned the front page of Charlie Hebdo. Speech bubble: ”Ouuuh! Le prophète!” (Oh! The prophet!). Headline: ”Erdogan. Dans le privé, il est très drôle” (in private, he is very funny).

Note that for attentive readers of the magazine, this is Erdoğan depicted in the same attitude and position as the stereotype of a racist and hypocritical French male, of an earlier Charlie Hebdo frontpage, no 1207, 9 September 2015.

The only part we dare to show.

The diplomatic consequences were imminent. In Turkey ruled by Erdoğan, an insult against the president is today treated by Turkish legal and executive offices as an insult against all of Turkey. According to this logic, all of France is held responsible for one single provocative cartoon, and the statements by Émmanuel Macron in defence of the freedom of speech is seen as a confirmation of a state-sanctioned aggression against Turkey, not as a defense of a general democratic principle strongly associated with the constitution of the current (fifth) French republic and the first amendment (1791) of the United States of America.

Why don’t I reproduce here the whole front page of Charlie Hebdo? Simply because I do not dare. Finland occupies a middle position between those countries which currently have no legal restrictions against blasphemy (such as France, Sweden and the USA), and those in which blasphemy can be a reason for imprisonment (e.g. Russia, see the Pussy Riot case) or even death sentences (Iran, Saudi Arabia).

The Finnish legal code, paragraph 10 in Chapter 17, defines it as a ”Crime against the protection of faith” if a person ”Publicly expresses blasphemy against God, or with an abusive intention defames or defiles something which is otherwise regarded as holy by a church or a community implied by the law of the freedom of religion”. Certainly the muslim communities are among those implied by the law which this paragraph refers to, and it is not wholly impossible that a lawsuit could be initiated by certain groups against newspapers and institutions in Finland who choose to publish or show the Erdoğan cartoon. Remember that Erdoğan is represented as exclaiming: ”Le prophète!”. The presence of the holy notion of the Prophet in the context of alcohole (beer can and wine glasses) is certainly enough to produce outrage among many believers. Even worse is the connection between the holy Notion and the exposed female parts, i.e. the essential ”butt” of the joke.

Even in countries without explicit laws against blasphemy, such as Sweden, cartoonists and editors have to consider their choices with great care. The case of the Swedish artist Lars Vilks exemplifies the consequences that can follow, for both the individual and for society, from acts of intentional provocation. Thirteen years after Vilks’s drawing of Muhammed as a ”roundabout dog” (a very Swedish notion) was first shown, and ten years after that drawing became the stated reason of attempted terrorist attacks i Stockholm (on December 11 2010), the artist still ”enjoys” 24-hour police protection and a very restricted life.

Apart from the risk of becoming a victim of religious extemism, there are other risks as well for publishers and public individuals who show support for such artists as Vilks and the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. You will probably be seen as a defender of certain racist and sexist stereotypes often used in satire, and your name will be associated with political sentiments alien to most representatives of western Academia. In the political left of consensus-based northern countries (but also in the USA), such individuals as Lars Vilks and Aron Flam (see next post) have come to be regarded as belonging to the far right, as they do not confirm to certain standards seen as necessary for a civilised debate. To a great extent, they have come to be seen as friends of the enemy (e.g. friends of radical Sionism) and then by association as enemies.

It is noteworthy that the only major media channel in Sweden which has published the Erdoğan cartoon is Expressen, the major liberal evening paper of the country, published in Stockholm. Expressen also published a lengthy comment on the case by Lars Vilks (unfortunately behind subscription wall).

As an editor of any paper or publication, the choice whether or not to publish controversial or ”politically incorrect” content will put you to an ethical test. This test can be described in the philosophical terms of general ethics: will you act according to consequentialism or according to deontology? (In Finland, Maaret Jaakola has studied Finnish cultural journalism with regard of this aspect, among others). If you act in the manner of a consequentialist, you will consider and evaluate all possible consequences of your action. Probably the negative consequences will seem to far outweigh the positive ones? Probably you will ruin a person’s life and career because of accusations or criticisms that you are about to publish? Probably you will become associated with political circles to which you certainly do not want to belong? Probably you realise that your friends will turn their backs on you? Then you will probably not publish.

If you are, on the other hand, an editor who adheres to the other and deontological extreme of media ethics, the consequences which may follow from your act really has no bearing on your decision. If a choice is deontological, it is only based on your inner conviction of what is necessary and morally right. You will probably refer to the principle of the freedom of speech, and to the duty (indeed the moral duty) of the press and the media to reflect in an unbiased manner all explosive facts and all political standpoints and interpretations, no matter how scandalous and how different from your own personal views.

In the French media climate, such channels and publications as Charlie Hebdo can pursue a secular satire in a manner often strongly reminiscent of earlier antisemitic stereotypes (known in both leftwing and rightwing varieties!) and receive unanimous support from the president of the Republic as a part of his new campaign against fundamentalism an un-republican values (with support from the majority of the French left!) This media climate is essentually based on deontological approaches to media ethics. It is a climate which is impossible in Sweden or Finland. Here, those who refuse to acknowledge any restrictions of expressions and opinions in public discourse often refer to themselves as fundamentalists of a rather peculiar and liberal kind: as first amendment fundamentalists (in Swedish yttrandefrihetsfundamentalism).

This year in Sweden, the legal case against the satirist and self-styled Jewish conservative Aron Flam has shown the consequences that would follow if copyright laws were applied in order to restrict the right to paraphrase and parody images. The recent death of the communist author and activist Jan Myrdal has given occasion to some heated debates on his intellectual legacy: Myrdal’s life and work exemplifies how a very consistent application of ”first amendment fundamentalism” in combination with anti-imperialist political standpoints can result in difficult paradoxes. I will return to both Flam and Myrdal in the next post.

Pinged at bloggportalen.se

A New Swedish Book About Swedish Comics


This is Fred Andersson, writer of this blog, beginning this evening’s update on comics and comics research in a more personal vein. The reason for this sudden sentimentality is that the topic makes me strongly recall certain picture stories that were probably the main influence behind my choice, as a teenager, to disregard all good advise and plunge into the totally irrational and insecure waters known as ”studies in the humanities”.

These picture stories were not Rembrandt, Shakespeare or even Bob Kane’s Batman. They were ”alternative” and experimental comics by such cartoonists as Martina Edoh, Joakim Pirinen, Ulf Lundkvist, Lena Ackebo and Max Andersson… (the list can go on and on…) The magazine was Galago, the main venue of young Swedish comics artists in the Eighties. The editor of Galago, Rolf Classon, was keen to foster an image of himself and his friends as a totally crazy pack at the far edge of the ”mad left” (in Swedish tokvänstern). These gags and surrealist inventions perfectly captured the spirit that reigned between Punk and 1989.

How we waited for every new issue! How we absorbed it all, and how we recognized our own fears and dreams! And then there were also Pox and Epix, bringing a constant flow of newly translated American, French and Spanish undergound COMIX into Sweden, thanks to the brilliant editor Horst Schröder.

Självsyn och världsbild i tecknade serier (Self-Image and Word-View in Comics) by Kristina Arnerud-Mejhammar, book series Seriehistoriskt bibliotek 1, Köping: Sanatorium 2020.

Well, it is very different days now. Trends in artistic or ”alternative” comics have changed several times. First there was a major economic crisis for comics and comics magazines at large in the Nineties, following 1989 and the recession, almost killing Galago. The market recovered but the carefree attitude of the Eighties did not return. With identity politics and new generation feminism, autobiographical storytelling became a strong current in European comics. During the last ten years, many young comics artists have started to identify more strongly with specific political issues and movements. The manner in which some express their dedication would be familiar to many artists older than the Galago generation. Politics in comics is no longer a joke, and sex and violence are no longer the only reasons why cartoonists are forced to repent.

Last Friday at Uppsala University, Kristina Arnerud Mejhammar defended her doctoral thesis Självsyn och världsbild i tecknade serier (Self-Image and Word-View in Comics) in which she analyses the work of four Swedish comics artists: Cecilia Torudd, Ulf Lundkvist, Gunna Grähs and Joakim Pirinen. All of these had their real public breakthrough in the Eighties with guest comics for the comics section of the main Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter. Ulf Lundkvist and (especially) Jokim Pirinen were also very active in Galago. Cecilia Torudd, the oldest of the four (b. 1942) has a large audience among readers of books and publications for children and teenagers. Her most well known story, about the everyday life of a single mother and her two teenage children, was running as a daily strip in Dagens Nyheter for many years. Joakim Pirinen, who is the youngest (b. 1961), is also most likely the one whose work is least read and appreciated outside the circles of comics fans. Aestetically, he is an highly experimental and innovative artist, and has even made completely ”abstract” comics (see e.g. the album Döda paret och deras ”vänner”, The Dead Couple and Their ”Friends”, 2008).

In addition to being an academic thesis, digitally available (link to the DIVA portal page) and publically defended in Zoom, Arnerud Mejhammar’s work has also been printed as a readable and nicely designed printed volume, no 1 in the new series Seriehistoriskt bibliotek (library of comics history) from the Swedish comics publisher Sanotorium. See image above. The book is rather evenly divided between theoretical and historical introduction (Chapters 1 and 2) and individual case studies about the artists (Chapter 3). Even though the case studies contain much useful information and pertinent observations, the greatest merit of the book is probably the overview it provides of comics culture in Sweden and of important debates in comics research.

In a gentle and pedagogical manner, Arnerud Mejhammar introduces readers new to the research field into the main competing theories about comics as a medium, and clarifies how the politics of the 20th century Swedish welfare state provides much of the explanation for the ideological and aesthetic choices exemplified by Torudd, Lundkvist, Grähs and Pirinen. She prefers the term alternative comics instead of for example ”adult comics” (which can give wrong associations) or ”experiental comics”, because the term ”alternative” stresses the strong connection between these comics artists and alternative lifestyles and political movements. This is especially evident in the cases of Torudd, Lundkvist (who has cooperated with the socialist-autonomous Swedish newspaper ETC. since its start in the late Seventies) and Grähs.

Due to her training as an art historian, Arnerud Mejhammar is capable of providing perceptive and detailed descriptions of certain image sequences and image frames which she has selected as particularly worthy of scrutiny. With this approach, she somewhat disregards the sequential and relational properties often stressed by more semiotically inclined theorists (such as Thierry Groensteen) and instead puts the old cartoon master Will Eisner’s motto ”what goes on inside the panel is primary” into good use.

Arnerud Mejhammar can describe a single panel in a comic almost as if it were a painting. This is probably not a very good narratological approach (narratology stresses the relationships within a text), but it makes her able to analyse an a very precise manner the psychological space created by the comics artist by means of stylistic choices.

See for example the panel by Joakim Pirinen shown below. It is the opening panel of an autobiographical story in which the basic theme is ”follow me into the house where I grew up”. In the opening panel things still seem rather normal, and the setting even looks rather idyllic, but already here the picture space has a somewhat dense and claustrophobic character. It will get worse as soon as we enter the house: the walls will close in, past and present will mix in an uncanny fashion and the limits between person and environment will become virtually erased. Arnerud Mejhammar rightly characterises this particular story as one of the most original and innovative works in alternative Swedish comics.

In her analyses of the other three artists, Arnerud Mejhammar similarly pays close attention to the setting and space inside comics panels, and to houses and interiors as important  elements in the stories. Her observations will stimulate the reader to think more about the manner in which the house in which we live, or in which we once lived, often has a shaping influence on our self-image and world-view.

Joakim Pirinen, opening panel of the story ”Följ med mig till huset där jag växte upp” (Follow me to the house where I grew up) from the album Den universella bristen på respekt (The universal lack of respect), Stockholm: Ordfront/Galago 1999. Image source: Arnerud 2020, p. 215.

Our courses about Perception, Eye-Tracking and Comics


Here at Åbo Akademi University in ”Swedish Finland” (svenskfinland) the sub-discipline of visual studies has existed for 12 years now, and this blog has been updated regularly or less regularly since 2012. It has been ha channel in which we inform about our courses but also about new research and new research questions in the highly interdisciplinary field of Visual studies. The current global COVID-19 situation in which almost everything we do here is done online, and in which neither students nor teachers are always even present in Finland, makes it convenient to continue this blog and to do it in English.

Basic book useful for all. Our textbook in the course Image Perception and Cognition, 2006 edition with Akiyoshi Kitaokas ”snakes”.

We always start the academic year in September and October with a course about the basic neurological and psychological principles of human vision. It is called Image Perception and Cognition and has been popular among our international exchange students during the years, as well as among students from the Åbo Akademi University (ÅAU) and the University of Turku (UTU) joint master program in biomedical visualization (BIMA). Until 2020, the course was also mandatory for all students who have chosen Visual studies as their minor/secondary subject. From this year the options will be more flexible: it is now possible to choose a more cultural/anthropological orientation and to exchange the Image Perception course for a course on visual sociology and anthropology which is usually given in April and May. However, this course is still given in Swedish only.

As another example of the wide range of disciplines and topics that can be included in courses and programs in Visual studies, this year our Image Perception course has been running at the same time as a course on the history and aesthetics of picturebooks for children. This latter course is given in Swedish by Maria Lassén-Seger, who is one of the main authorities today on culture and literature for children in the Swedish and Finland-Swedish academic community.

The Anthology Barnlitteraturanalyser (Children’s literature analyses) from 2008 with contributions by Elina Druker, Maria Lassén-Seger and others. See https://www.studentlitteratur.se/

A related topic is that of comics. From being a largely neglected and sometimes despised field for most of the 20th century (and seen as a threat to literacy and mental health by many proponents of ”high culture”), comics have started to aquire the status of the ”ninth art”, and the culture of comics has been researched from historical, cultural, folkloristic, literary, aesthetic, communicative and psychological perspectives. In psychology and psycho-linguistics, eye-tracking technology has proved useful in determining how we actually read comics (and how we read the many differents kinds of comics that exist) in comparision to how we read linear text.

Isn’t it therefore quite fitting that we should in November and December give one course about comics and another about the technology and methodology of eye-tracking? Some students with a psychological interest in comics could then follow both.

The setup we use for recordings and student projects in our eye-tracking lab. Eye-movements are measured with the infrared sensor SMI RED. Image source: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Fig1-Hardware-setup-with-binocular-eye-tracker-SMI-RED-250_fig3_264388921

This year, however, the COVID-19 virus and the recently imposed heavier restrictions on mobility at campuses in Finland have put an end to this brilliant idea.

As our course Eye-Tracking Methodology in Visual Studies, which should have started with lab exercise in our eye-tracking test room in the beginning of November (week 45) cannot be given online for obvious reasons, it has to be cancelled. The decision is not ours. An explicit decision about cancelling the course has been issued from the Faculty board, and it now seems that similar decisions have been made at our Finnish-speaking neighbor university, the University of Turku (which harbors one of the most advanced eye-tracking labs in northern Europe).

However, we have objected that the decision does not confirm to the current COVID-19 recommendations of Åbo Akademi University  (se recent updatses HERE), which state that ”Exceptions will be made for certain courses which require presence, such as courses with laboratory sessions or internships.”

With this blog entry and with separate messages, we today inform all those who have registered for the course Eye-Tracking Methodology in Visual Studies about this situation.

Scott McCloud showing his definition of ”comics” in his own comic ”Understanding Comics” (1993)

Our course Comics: Cultural and Interdisciplinary Perspectives is, however, still open for registration in the Åbo Akademi ”Peppi” system and will start in a week from now, on Monday 26 Oct0ber. It is possible to register until the course starts. Please see our course page for more information: Våra kurser/Our courses.

The course is thematically conceived with three parts, each with a separate teacher. The first part, which deals with the character of comics as a visual medium, will be given by Mikael Andersson, deputy university teacher in Visual studies. See earlier text related to this part: ”Some words on the ’simplicity’ of comics” (October 2013).

The second part, with an approach to comics from the perspecitive of sociology and comparative literature, is usually given by Ralf Kauranen who has specialised in Finnish comics and comics production in his research, and who now works at the department of Finnish literature at the University of Turku. Kauranen has recently been responsible for the research project Comics and Migration: Belonging, Narration, Activism, financed by the Kone foundation: Comics and Migration homepage.

The third part, which deals with the connections of comics to folkloristic traditions and notions, and the role of comics in contemporary Fandom culture, will be given by Jacob Löfgren. He received his PhD in Folkloristics at Åbo Akademi University and is now affiliated with the Popular Culture Studies research node at Lund University in Sweden: Popular Culture Studies Node.

Tomorrow there will be an update here about a new book and doctoral thesis about alternative comics in Sweden: Kristina Arnerud Mejhammar’s Självsyn och världsbild i tecknade serier. Kristina defended her thesis at Uppsala University in Sweden on Friday, 18 October.