The explanations of this one are going to take a while, so get a cup of coffee:

Well, this cartoon started out with me grasping for ideas for  “local” events that I can turn into cartoons with something funny happening to make everyone happy  (me, who needs something to make a cartoon out of for an impending deadline, readers who demand to be entertained by something hilarious and/or insightful, and publishers who demand local themes in their cartoons).

I thought I had a good idea when I read that two local Kmart stores are closing down, just weeks apart. One in Asheville and one in nearby Hendersonville. Maybe, if there were a third store to close, the sign guys could be taking them away and it could cause a completely unintended misunderstanding on their part. Just like many other comedies have done (one example that came to mind was the Seinfeld episode “The Gymnast” where Mr. Pitt, completely unbeknownst to him, ends up as Hitler, while talking to a group about a merger with Poland Springs water. (See clip below)

 

 

I thought the cartoon above would be funny, but I am also not naive. I knew the volatile aspects of a white male (which I happen to be) using even an oblique reference of racist imagery for something as trivial as a joke about sign misunderstandings could cause a lot of furor (especially from other liberal white people, eager to prove how not-racist they are by angrily going after any hint of it they feel they have discovered). Sure, Seinfeld could make jokes about Hitler misunderstandings, but he is Jewish, so that allows him a certain amount of leeway on certain topics. Likewise, Dave Chapelle and all his KKK  sketch. Being a member of the least-oppressed group on earth, leaves me with little standing to address most non-white-guy issues with impertinence. Of course, Matt Parker and Trey Stone made use of similar jokes with unknowing  characters ending up in racist outfits like the “Pinkeye” episode from season 1 where Cartman comes to school dressed at Hitler for Halloween and the principal is horrified, making him change into a “nice, ghost costume” that she quickly makes up for him and—of course—he now is dressed as a Klansman. So, maybe it would be okay, if it was clear that this was not laughing about racism, but rather, as in Mr. Pitt’s and Cartman’s situations, instead laughing about a misunderstanding about racism.

I also second-guessed myself about the ending panel. The black people in the comic were portrayed as angry and antagonistic with throwing bottles and rocks, which was my way of making it clear that this was not an endorsement of the three Ks (which, I admit, are quite overpowering with the bold red colors standing out prominently in the comic, but hey, that’s the Kmart logo, and I had to use the actual logo to make the joke work). I decided that kind of portrayal would be too negatively stereotypical, however. Wouldn’t it be a fresher approach to have the two black guys who see the truck still get the wrong idea about what the Kmart signs—put together on a truck and driven though their neighborhood—meant, but have their reactions be more reflective and disappointed? This might be a better way to go, I thought, since it meant I could also add a layer of meaning in the dialog to show how it must feel to be so used to racism that the equivalent of a Klan parade float could come down your street and your reaction would just be a shrug or sigh and comment that “oh, racism is back now that Black History Month is over with.” (The shortest month of the year! “and also the coldest….just in case we wanted to have a parade!” as Nat X once remarked!) Which is what I changed it to in the version that was ultimately printed. See below:

 

Printed version of Kmart sign cartoon

Printed version of Kmart sign cartoon

 

Well, all seemed okay, until after the issue came out, and I got a call from my editor that an advertiser in the paper, whose half page ad ran directly below the cartoon that issue, was very angry and they had a letter to the editor complaining about the cartoon as well. I was given a chance to write a response, explaining, in a very limited amount of space, my thought process and meaning behind the cartoon. Even while submitting the cartoon, I had been afraid that despite my very careful attempts to assure I handled the subject as gingerly and sensitively as possible, that there may still be some danger of it being misinterpreted, but boy was I not prepared for what some people were reading into it and accusing me of trying to say with it.

The letter and response printed. Now, I don’t take very well to being accused of something that isn’t true, and I certainly do not go around apologizing for things that I did not do. So despite the detailed reasoning which which I addressed every single misperceived aspect about the cartoon (and there were a LOT of them), there was another letter the following week, from that aforementioned, disgruntled advertiser. He was complaining  now, not only about the cartoon itself, but about what he considered to be a response from me that was not nearly as apologetic and contrite as he demanded it should be. The now-jittery paper did not give me any space in print or online to respond to this (highly personal) attack. Therefore, I was forced to use social media such as Facebook to respond to him. Others also did on my behalf, for which I am grateful. There was a glaring lack of anyone agreeing with the aggrieved (white) store owner trying to make sure everyone (particularly, I’m sure, potential customers of his organic business) knew how awful he thought this cartoon was and how often he fights for what he thinks is right! By the way, the previous letter writer, who I responded to in the paper sent me an email thanking me for the reply and description of my thought process in creating the cartoon.  Though I am sure she still did not approve of the cartoon or me doing it, It was a nevertheless a gracious move on her part. There was even a positive letter that week, written in support of, if not the cartoon, at least cartoons existence in general. Another positive note, was that it got me into the next issue of the sardonic Asheville Disclaimer392937_10200710587597744_2057969903_n

Other Links below:

Letter to the Editor from Susan Bean with this response from Brent Brown.

Positive letter by Jessica Newton and a very negative letter by offended advertiser, Joshua Lawton, followed by several response posts.

Mountain Xpress created an article named Red Letter Subject on their web site.

I hope this extremely longwinded attempt on my part to explain what led up to this cartoon can diffuse some of the (apparent and undeserved) volatility of it to those few who find it volatile. I can’t help but notice all the offense and lecturing, indignation came from other white people, and I heard nothing from the actual local African-American community. I would have been interested in hearing how it was perceived to non-white-liberal types.

In retrospect, maybe a white male should not ever even attempt any reference to race in comedy. You might be able to say something about race and society in comics, but unless it’s devoid of any humor, the minefield you enter is really not worth it.