Words fail frequently, but images rarely do. When political cartoonist Thomas Nast penned his attacks against corrupt New York political operator William "Boss" Tweed in the 1800s, Tweed famously said, "Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures."
Words fail again when confronted by the Jan. 7 mass slaughter of artists and editors at French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo: 12 people killed, including two police officers, at the hands of masked gunmen retaliating against the publication's depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and leaders of Islamic extremist groups.
As horrendous as it is, mass killings happen with numbing regularity. The attack on Charlie Hebdo, however, made me feel sick; lost for words. I got into journalism as a political cartoonist, copyediting and drawing for the Bonner County Daily Bee in 1999. It was a not a good time to enter the field: Newsrooms were shrinking, and the first staffers cut were often the cartoonists. Today, the American political cartoonist community is littered with hacks unfit to clean Thomas Nast's brushes. Only in alternative papers like Boise Weekly will you still find original, biting, artistic commentary, which is in large part the reason I gravitated toward independent journalism.
Of course, there came a time when I traded my art box for a keyboard, but I've never given up my love and respect for satirical artists. Nothing is quite so brave or cutting, so elegant or effective, as a well-aimed visual barb. In our image-obsessed culture, nothing is quite so important, nor so threatened.
International political cartooning did not suffer the brutalizing that took place here. In countries like England, France, Germany; Denmark, Latin America, even Russia, it remains a vital, powerful medium populated with artist-journalist-commentators who risk their lives to defend freedom of expression. That they lose their lives in that defense is painful, horrific and chilling but underlines their importance—now more than ever.