Speaking of speech

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Recently I was asked by my alma mater to participate in a panel discussion regarding the many threats to free speech at the hands of terrorism.  We are all acquainted with the brutal and troubling ways in which this threat has played out in recent months. The panel happens April 6 at The College of William & Mary, so if you’re in the area, feel free to stop by and say hello. The alumni magazine thought it would be great to do a cover story on the same topic, and it made sense that I’d illustrate it.

In terms of imagery, there are few things that have been done to death as frequently as the “pen as weapon of free speech” has. Pen vs. gun: the symbolism is natural and obvious, but it seems to me like every working cartoonist drew their own similar version of it in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. My colleagues at the New Yorker offered their takes on the issue as well. Some of the images cartoonists created were brilliant and some were legitimately moving, but I intentionally avoided participating because I felt like I was struggling to come up with anything new on the issue. So this was personally a challenging assignment.

The first bunch of ideas I came up with felt a little too contrived, too gauche, especially since magazine covers are not usually the territory for overwrought editorial concepts.

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The cover idea that the editors picked was chosen not necessarily for it’s poignance or cleverness (because it’s not to be found there), but merely because it was the least complicated, least controversial thing I suggested:

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It’s perfectly sensible why this was what they favored, but upon hearing it, my actual response was “Ugh.” I mean, yes I drew it, but the image does little for me. The art director politely hinted that maybe I could try to make it more interesting, and I said – yeah, it had better be!

As often happens with these things, the better solution somewhat randomly popped into my head while I was sitting on an airplane en route to Chicago, and I drew it up as soon as I got to the hotel bar. Speech bubble as chalk outline: I don’t know you could call this fresh or clever but it was definitely a satisfying image for the cover, in that it says precisely what it needs to say as simply as possible, and without words.

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And after the necessary tweaks – elevating the eye level, moving the police tape, etc – the final art came together well before deadline.

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In hindsight, this drawing now seems obvious, which is probably why I like it. One of the sketches that had been rejected as a little too blunt for the cover then seemed to fit as an illustration for the actual magazine piece, so I did a finished version of that one also:

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I work in b&w so often that it’s fun to work in color, even with a subject like this and with an intentionally muted color palette. Let’s hear it for print!

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