Editor’s note: In the following interview, Dayton Daily News Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Mike Peters (also author of the long-running comic strip, ‘Mother Goose and Grimm’) shares his thoughts about the tragic massacre at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the power of political satire. — Connie Post
Q: What was your reaction when you learned about the massacre at Charlie Hebdo?
A: It was horrible. As a cartoonist, I’m totally outraged and broken-hearted. I’ve been a fan of those cartoonists and know their work.
It also makes me proud of being a cartoonist. These people have lost their lives for doing what they believed in, satirizing things.
It started years ago when their first cartoons about Muhammad came out. And, of course, that got me so mad because death sentences were put on those cartoonists. The first thing I wanted to do was draw a cartoon about Muhammad. But my wife said, “Tell me about the cartoons you’ve done about Jesus.” None of them made fun of Jesus. I used Jesus to show how politicians were using religion to get votes. Similarly, as a cartoonist, I want to use Muhammad as a way to show the dichotomy between the way people are acting and what they profess.
Q: When it comes to satirical cartoons, are there any taboo subjects?
A: No. Never. Not one. When tragedy happens, like 9/11 and other things, at first you draw exactly how you feel. If it’s tragedy you feel, you show tragedy. After a few days or maybe a week, you start questioning, “How did this happen?”
Q: Have you ever feared for your life because of a cartoon you drew?
A: I have gotten many, many death threats — and horrible things people sent to me in the mail, like used toilet paper.
One time at the newspaper I received a postcard addressed to “The Devil Incarnate.” It said, “I’m praying for your soul.”
When we lived in Beavercreek, my wife got bullet-proof glass for the window in the room where I worked.
Q: Is it important for an editorial cartoonist to challenge the status quo and question authority?
A: My mom had a TV show in St. Louis, where I grew up, for almost 25 years. I saw her take a topic she cared about and got St. Louis talking about it. Topics like the poor. She taught me when you have a voice, you try to help the guys who don’t have a voice. I became a liberal cartoonist to give a voice to those who don’t have a voice.
Q: How will this tragic incident in Paris change the way editorial cartoons are regarded?
A: I don’t think it’s going to change a thing. It’s surely not going to stop me.
I hope that the reaction from the French having thousands of people in the streets holding up signs saying, “We are Charlie,” will show that the Muslim terrorists are not winning.
Mainstream Muslims must recognize that the terrorists are hurting them, too. The only people who are going to stop this terrorism committed by Muslim extremists are mainstream Muslims.
Q: What is the role of the editorial cartoonist?
A: Making people think by drawing what you see, what you feel. A great cartoon sticks with you for the rest of your life. It can leave a lasting image on your mind.
Q: An editorial cartoon is a visual metaphor of some current event. Is it easy to draw one?
A: It’s not easy. Not easy at all. You try to find some clever way to take an image everyone already knows and turn that image into what you want to say. You want it to touch them. Some cartoonists take the first idea and think they’re done. Mine won’t be the first or second or third idea. It takes me one complete day to do one cartoon.
Editorial cartoons are very hard, but more satisfying than comic strips: they involve getting an idea across, getting people to think about that idea, and getting them to laugh. When I started, there were about 250 cartoonists in the United States. Now there are about 40 full-time editorial cartoonists.
Cartoons and satire bring great value to an editorial page.
Q: Are you still learning?
A: Of course. I learn every day. That’s the great thing about being a cartoonist. I love doing it. I’ll never stop.