Religion and cartoons

I once had a bit of a run-in with the religious powers-that-be over a cartoon strip. But unlike those Danish cartoonists, most of whom acted like callow youths eager only to provoke and cause offence, I actually was a callow youth eager to provoke and cause offence. Well, that’s my excuse anyway.

It was the late 1980s when Viz was all the rage and there were many imitators, – including me and a group of friends. We ran a self-published fanzine-style comic called DoodleBug. We were talking one day about the cartoons we saw as kids that always featured a central character who had some kind of magic skill or gadget and would go around trying to help people, though it would usually backfire on him – think “Danny’s Tranny” in Topper, or “Pete’s Pockets” in Whizzer and Chips.

This kind of character had already been parodied to death by Viz and others, but we decided there was one person who fitted the blueprint perfectly: Jesus. At this point those who do have deeply held faith should maybe stop reading!

So we came up with a script, drawn by me, in which Jesus is the ultimate cartoon character. He encounters people with problems – no wine for a wedding, a man with no food for him and his 4,999 pals, leprosy ... you get the idea. “Jesus soon discovered that with his miracle-performing skills, almighty amusement and miraculous mirth is never far away,” we wrote. As a seasoned reader of the strips it was based on will know, they often end in punishment for the main character. In our strip it was not the slipper from Dad but – forgive me dear reader, I was only 21 at the time – crucifixion.

The strip ran in DoodleBug, which we distributed ourselves and had a circulation of about 1,000, with not a whisper of complaint. But when I started at university later in the year, and the strip was reprinted in the rag mag, it was a different story. The college chaplain wrote a letter to the students’ newspaper in which he said that the strip “could only have been devised by those who are contemptuous of the Christian religion”. I remember gulping when I read “the authors must stand accused of an attack which is on par with ‘racial’ attacks. I am reminded of the mocking cartoons with which the Nazis represented the Hebrew religion”.

The president of the university’s Christian Union also wrote a letter. She quoted from the Bible and implied that we were all going to hell.

I’ll be honest, at the time I thought the notoriety was great. The cartoon had succeeded in provoking. As a lapsed Catholic (and former altar boy!) I had wanted to mock, to take the mickey out of something that seemed to me like a lot of nonsense.

Seventeen years on, I look at it with a slightly more mature eye. I must admit, the strip still makes me chuckle, in the same way Monty Python’s Life of Brian does. I’m still a non-believer (or “heathen”, as my mum used to put it) but I’m not sure I’d do the strip again. Reading the letters of complaint now, I see now that the authors were genuinely upset. And I regret that. It was only supposed to be a laugh!

Anyway, luckily it was only Christianity that we picked on. They may have been strongly worded letters, and we may have been compared to Nazis, but at no point did anyone say, “We will accept nothing less than beheading for the perpetrators”.