Political cartoons have always figured in the debate about the limits of free speech.
The recent firing of Michael de Adder of Brunswick News for his illustration depicting Donald Trump’s relationship to the crisis on America’s southern border has reignited a conversation about the place of cartoons amidst political commentary. Nearly three decades ago, Adam Thrasher, then a student at the University of Alberta created a strip called Space Moose. During the lifespan of the cartoon which was published online and in The Gateway, the school’s student newspaper, Thrasher’s art came under close scrutiny for art that some considered beyond the pale. We revisited that episode and asked Thrasher about any parallels he sees between cancel culture and his time at the centre of a campus controversy.
Banter: As the creator of Space Moose, do you notice any similarities between the episode you underwent having comics banned by the U of A, and the cancel culture we see nowadays?
Thrasher: Yeah, I mean it’s funny looking back on everything because it’s twenty plus years ago. I did it from 1990 to 1999 and if you google Space Moose today, the first result you get is the controversy over the ‘Take Back the Night’ comic that I drew. And, you know it’s one comic out of hundreds but it’s interesting that that’s the one that stands out, not so much because of the cartoon itself but because of the media blitz that surrounded it for months and months. So, I mean, in my mind it’s such a very small part of Space Moose, but for other people it’s a big piece of it. It was a horrible time for me, well it was good and it was bad. It was fun and it was exciting to fight that fight; at first I was sanctioned by the University and they wanted me to pay a fine.
I refused to pay the fine and some of my old lawyer friends came forward and represented me pro bono, and it turned into this whole appeals process, people were bringing in experts and a bunch of money was spent on legal fees. And it was getting a lot of press at the time, international press, so it was terrifying for me, the introverted person that I am to be at the centre of a firestorm like that. But it was also very exciting to be turned into a celebrity and put on the national stage. If you take all of that away, however, there’s this whole body of work that I did putting together these comic strips for years and years and the evolution that it went through. It was very rarely about attacking feminism it was just sort of general iconoclasm, being irreverent and using a lot of cuss words, and using offensive material just for fun you know?
Banter: Most of the strips were apolitical right?
Thrasher: I would say so, yeah. While Space Moose was happening, in the late 90s things like South Park just came into being. Now look at all the cartoons we have, web comics, and animated series, that are aimed at adults and they’re really profane, really offensive. They do sometimes annoy political groups, but not for any political purpose, there’s no sense of political opposition. It’s basically just “hey, you guys are really sensitive about this one thing so we’re gonna rub it in your face for five minutes and then run away giggling.”
Banter: Do you think there is anyway a comic like Space Moose could ever see the light of day in the current university climate of political correctness?
Thrasher: It’s tricky because in 1990 when I was a freshman at the University of Alberta, the student newspaper The Gateway had up to four pages of comic strips all contributed by students and it was a really open, fun, exciting time for cartooning, and I think most other university student newspapers had a lot of cartoons in them. But then within that ten year period (1990-2000), there was a cultural shift, a crackdown where the cartoons were becoming very crude; they were challenging people and they became more of a liability than they were worth to print, and I think a lot of newspapers just decided to get rid of the comics altogether.
I’m at the University of Houston now as a professor, and we have a student newspaper that I occasionally come across and it does still have cartoons. The editorial page still has the traditional one frame political cartoon and it seems like a safe space to poke at things using cartooning. But, the comic strips are very tame and I’m not sure if that’s because of the editorial standards or if that’s just what the contributors have decided to produce.
Banter: You’re older, and presumably wiser now than when you were a shit-disturbing grad student, have your views on freedom of speech changed at all?
Thrasher: No not at all, I’m an absolutist in terms of the freedom of artists expressing themselves however they want to. I’m also in favour of people refusing to listen, you don’t have to seek out things you know will be offensive to you. But, there are a lot of people who are very sensitive who are trying to control the dialogue and that’s always bothered me. I’m not politically active, I’m not a protestor or anything like that. I am a consumer of a lot of the artforms we’ve discussed. Some of these things would be considered extremely offensive to some groups, but I’ve always loved it, I’ve always loved the anarchic, the iconoclastic. I think back to when I was a kid watching Monty Python on TV and when I started cartooning those were the notes I wanted to hit. I wanted to make fun of religion. I wanted to make fun of the institutional powers that be. I love kicking at that stuff.