Charlie Hebdo’s gross out cartoons are an ancient French tradition worth preserving

Thought Leader Handbook, Rule 1: After disaster, lie in wait. Wait until the “What hath God wrought” phase is over, usually about 12 hours.

Rule 2: Take either the stance that the victims (in this case, Charlie Hebdo) were stupid (as the Financial Times’s Tony Barber claimed on Wednesday) or that they were…well, still stupid, but never mind that, even idiots have a right to free speech, ra ra ra.

The English-language media are almost universally taking as a foregone conclusion that Charlie Hebdo’s comics were terrible and not funny.

For example, the following caricature-of-a caricature ran in Gawker on Thursday, poking fun at Charlie Hebdo’s lowbrow leanings. Too soon, people. If you wouldn’t express this kind of disdain for Charb as a human being (a.k.a, Stéphane Charbonnier, the magazine’s director, who drew some of Charlie’s most controversial cartoons), you shouldn’t say this about Charlie Hebdo as a publication, either:

(Gawker Media)

Furthermore, you’re insulting France. Not the best response.

I’ll come out and say it, because no one else will: French gross-out humor is the best. Particularly the illustrated variety. And it’s very much worth pointing out that unlike the American or Japanese graphic novel/superhero comic tradition, the French ribald comic is not misogynistic, and has focused largely on making fun of male bodies rather than being a socially acceptable way of contributing to men’s spank banks.

It seems that some very important cultural context is necessary here, because of a persistent double standard among some of America’s cultural elite: They applaud sex and nudity in French films because that’s just how the French are and it’s super-sophisticated because film is some kind of exalted art form. What’s less discussed is the equally glorious and equally awesome tradition of French men’s-urinal-graffiti-worthy humor.

Very few other cultures have so successfully married intellectual rigor with shitting and farting. And there’s a long tradition behind it that goes back at least as far as the 16th century, with François Rabelais’ five-volume La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, illustrated by famed cartoonist Gustav Doré. Therein, Gargantua is described as having been born with a penis so large that 16-and-a-quarter aulnes (roughly 25 square feet or 7.6 square meters) of blue damask were required to make his first codpiece (volume I, Chapter VIII).

Later, as a schoolboy, his classmates vex him so much that he drowns them in his pee – thereby discovering his favorite assassination method. And by the way, if you always lamented that you didn’t have sufficient detailed knowledge of codpieces, this is the go-to series.

Over the centuries, various editions of these books have been accompanied by some pretty great etchings and illustrations, including such poignant scenes as the pride his father felt when Gargantua as a boy invented the “torche-cul” (literally “ass-rag,” as in non-disposable toilet paper). I was sadly unable to locate any dong pictures, but here’s one of Gargantua urinating on Paris:

"Gargantua compisse les Parisiens" by Gustave Doré - Bibliothèque nationale de France. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
(Wikimedia Commons)

And here’s a scan of an original Doré woodcut (provided to Quartz by a publisher of rare illustrations) that was used to print one version of the Gargantua book:

(JVJ Publishing)

French cartoonists have always married the high to the low. When the French artist Honoré Daumier imitated Rabelais’s illustrator, Doré, in a portrayal of King Louis Phillipe as Gargantua, as seen in the image at top of this article, he received a six-month jail sentence for his drawing. If you’re a responsible parent who is attentive to your child’s education, you’re probably now wondering, “I would like get my child interested as early as possible in French gross-out humor, but how do I start?”

That’s an easy one. They should begin with the comics that sold me onto the genre: Astérix et Obélix, the children’s pseudo-historical graphic novels written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo in the latter half of the 20th century. The books follow the adventures of a brave group of Gauls who are steadfastly resisting Roman hegemony. There’s no genitalia, don’t worry. Mostly just gas. And guess what? These comics are the reason that every French child knows what the Latin phrase “Alea Iacta Est” means (“The die is cast,” Julius Caesar).

It seems that one thing has been missing about the debate raging over these comics: Permission to laugh at the comics themselves.

The whole point of Charlie Hebdo’s kind of humor is to remove fear, so that real conversation can take place without pretentiousness.

And the first steps in removing fear are clearly butts and flatulence. Can you think of a single situation, no matter how grave, where the atmosphere would not be instantly shattered with a loud fart – or a drawing of a butt? There is no faster way to create universal common ground.

Bravo, Charlie.

The author's favorite Charlie Hebdo cover. Drawn by the late Charb, it asks, 'Who wants the English in the EU, anyway?
The author’s favorite Charlie Hebdo cover. Drawn by the late Charb, it asks, ‘Who wants the English in the EU, anyway? (Charlie Hebdo)

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Quartz’s full coverage of the attack in Paris can be found here.

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