Chicago comic school artists react to Charlie Hebdo massacre

By Taylor Mullaney

In 2013, the Europe-based International School of Comics opened a new campus in Chicago. Six weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Annalisa Vicari, Emma Rand and Christopher Kutz, teaching artists from the school, said they do not fully excuse the publication’s drawings. Vicari, 29, Rand, 23, and Kutz, 41, shared how they think the attacks will affect art education and artists’ limitations moving forward.

Quotations have been edited for clarity.

Taylor Mullaney: What was your initial reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre?

Emma Rand: This was such an unforeseen tragedy. It’s hard to think about because, as an artist, you feel safe. I sit at a desk and draw. I’m not a firefighter. I’m not a cop out on the street. It feels like nobody’s safe now.

Annalisa Vicari: I was shocked. You feel so far from Paris and yet so close, too. I was actually in Italy at the time.

Taylor Mullaney: Have you seen Charlie Hebdo’s drawing of the prophet Muhammad? If so, what did you think of it?

Annalisa Vicari: They wanted to provoke a reaction. Charlie Hebdo made fun of all sorts of topics, including French politicians. The problem is that they wanted to cross the line all the time. No judgment, but in my opinion, it was too much.

Christopher Kutz: I don’t have a problem with them doing what they did, but they had to know there would be consequences of some sort.

Emma Rand, 23, is an illustration teacher at the International School of Comics in Chicago and a freelance illustrator. Rand graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, focusing in illustration and comics. (Taylor Mullaney / MEDILL)
Emma Rand, 23, is an illustration teacher at the International School of Comics in Chicago and a freelance illustrator. Rand graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, focusing in illustration and comics. (Taylor Mullaney/Medill)

ER: Charlie Hebdo made some super offensive pieces. I don’t agree with a lot of their opinions, but they certainly weren’t asking for this. I think they could have been a lot more respectful, but they’re artists. A lot of really good art is towing that line and crossing the line to get a conversation started.

TM: Is there a line that artists can cross? If so, where is that line?

CK: I’m all for free speech, but you have to be very cautious with something strongly ingrained into people’s belief systems. One person’s satire is another person’s bullying. There’s a balancing act between where your freedom of speech ends and someone else’s freedom of religion begins.

ER: If you put strict rules on something, people are just going to break away from those rules. If you try to stem something before it starts—especially with artists—that’s just gonna blow up in your face. I think it’s on the individual to think, “Is this a good idea? No.”

TM: Have you ever been concerned about crossing boundaries in your own work?

ER: I have been concerned about that, which is why I tell other stories. The toughest subjects I want to cover in this political climate are depression and anxiety, not really world issues.

AV: No, I don’t. I feel disconnected from that fear myself.

Three students at the International School of Comics in Chicago practice drawing hands at a Wednesday night illustration class. (Taylor Mullaney / MEDILL)
Three students at the International School of Comics in Chicago practice drawing hands during a Wednesday night illustration class. (Taylor Mullaney/Medill)

TM: Does the International School of Comics have a role in reacting to the tragedy?

AV: Yes. Our school in Italy issued a press release shortly afterward. It’s always involved in social issues and projects supporting the community and collaborating with international associations. As a school, we are really sensitive about global problems.

I would like for the school in Chicago to commemorate the attacks in the future, but I don’t think students are comfortable enough yet.

TM: Should incidents like the Charlie Hebdo massacre affect how we educate artists? Why or why not?

ER: I don’t think it should affect art education at all. It shouldn’t affect how we teach art, because it’s not about the artists. It was about the horrible people that attacked the artists. It’s not on us to change.

CK: I think students should look at the reaction from the art community. There were a lot of cartoons that came out that did some really great reactionary work, like single-panel editorial type cartoons.

Christopher Kutz, 41, is a former high school art teacher and a current student at the International School of Comics in Chicago. He holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. (Taylor Mullaney / MEDILL)
Christopher Kutz, 41, is a former high school art teacher and a current student at the International School of Comics in Chicago. He holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. (Taylor Mullaney/Medill)

With one panel, they told an entire story. They said why they were against the massacre but didn’t inflame the situation. That’s the sign of a great artist.

Teachers should discuss boundaries to make students aware that different cultures have different expectations and certain taboos…and that’s a good thing. I think it gives you more ammunition to tell your story.

TM: What will be the lasting impact of this tragedy, and what can art students and cartoonists take from the attacks moving forward?

ER: Unfortunately, the horrible terrorists that did this are bigger than they were before. People are more interested and going back to look at that cartoon that originally set it off. But I don’t think it’s gonna change the way people cartoon.

AV: What happened was because Charlie Hebdo’s drawing—their art—was strong. Visual art and drawing will forever be the first form of communication. I don’t think this should create fear. Artists should still draw about controversial topics, but be respectful of tradition, of history—because that’s identity.

Photo at top: Annalisa Vicari, 29, shows off the entrance mural at the International School of Comics in Chicago on the city’s West Side. Vicari, who is originally from Italy, works as director of the comic school. (Taylor Mullaney / Medill)