Niels Thure Krarup
In 1996 a first workshop for Christian cartoonists in Europe was held in Denmark. The following article describes the problems its organisers faced, and the challenges posed to the churches by humour and graphic art.
Does Media Development make you laugh? Probably not. And it's quite likely that the editors would be sorry if it did. This is a serious publication which disseminates sober observations and dispassionate analysis. It is written with a straight face and meant to be read without giggles - and there's nothing wrong with that, of course!
Except that reading it is a duty ...for me (and I shall make no attempt to take anything beyond a personal point of view here - as you will see if you care to read on!) So let me get a confession out of the way right from the outset. I've been a member of WACC for 24 years, and I believe that I still have all my back issues of Media Development and its predecessor WACC Journal stored safely in boxes waiting for the moment when I've got time to read them. But up to now, I've just browsed quickly through and filed them. They have almost always appealed to the wrong half of my brain - the logical/analytical left half - and I enjoy much more the creative/intuitive use of the right half ...where I assume (although my knowledge of these matters is scanty) that our sense of humour must be situated.
Germans have a sense of humour!
Two years ago, I took part in the 'Evangelische Kirchentag' in Hamburg as an official representative of the Danish Lutheran Church. These 'Church Days' were an exciting experience for me in general and an eye-opener in particular as far as humour is concerned since I had always thought of the Germans as much more serious than, e.g. the British.
Working my way through the enormous 'Market of Possibilities' I came across the 'Löwensteiner Cartoon Service' which is run by a retired pastor to supply cartoons by established cartoonists to church magazines. Their material fascinated me, and I suddenly realized that we were sorely lacking in humour - if not in my country, Denmark, then certainly in my church.
A bit further along, I found a series of publications by an author named 'Tiki', who in the introduction on the covers was labelled as pastor (as indeed he is) but called himself 'Christlicher Karikaturist'. I spent a long time looking through his publications and enjoyed his angles on the Christian faith, the Church, and the human condition. We met for a few seconds when I found him in person, autographing books in one of the stalls, and I got his fax number.
I wrote him to tell about an old dream I had: To facilitate a workshop for aspiring Christian Cartoonists. He agreed to come and conduct a 'Master Class' - for travel expenses only - and I set out to prepare for it. The hard part was the invitation maze. The Standing Committee of WACC Europe responded warmly to the idea and urged me to proceed, and WACC supported it with funding.
I found a list of churches and Christian youth organisations in Europe and sent out invitations for the 'First European Christian Cartoonists' Workshop'. I knew full well that the persons who would receive these letters - among a mass of other mail - were unlikely to know the budding cartoonists for whom the invitations were really intended. At best I could hope that the letters would be passed on to somebody who did - perhaps information/publishing people with a mind warped enough to be enthused by the prospect of more and better Christian cartoons.
I had learned along the way that there is a 'Petit Musée de la Bande Dessinée Chrétienne' in Bruxelles, and after repeated faxes to them I finally got a response from the person in charge there.
He told me that there is, in fact a network among Francophone (Catholic) Christian cartoonists. The delay in that reply was very frustrating: We were now only about a month from the time when the workshop would be held, and although images would play a central role in the workshop, communication with words would of course also be vital, and it wouldn't be possible to supply translation.
Still, I mailed invitations to 18 members of the group and got a couple of kind apologetic responses, but no participants from the Latin part of Europe - except a Portuguese Baptist who is an industrial worker but has a great graphic talent. Like a Romanian professional graphic artist - an eastern orthodox Christian who makes a living restoring frescoes and painting icons - he had been referred to me by fellow members of WACC Europe. A young German theologian picked up the invitation through the YMCA - I had written to all of their European headquarters.
It was interesting that after the workshop was announced in WACC newsletter Action there was a request for more information from the Philippines, and two African Cartoonists faxed to ask if they could take part. They are both experienced staff cartoonists at the Nation group of newspapers in Nairobi, but I dared not try to get them to attend. It seemed important to maintain some kind of cultural homogeneity among the participants, despite the universality of humour. (I was happy to receive a fax from one of them later on, telling me that he had been given a stipend to spend a sabbatical period at a creative community in Italy supported by the Benetton company.)
A characteristic in common with the tutor
The eleven participants formed a somewhat varied bunch - many with interesting backgrounds. The youngest - and wildest - participant was only 17. He might have completely lost contact with his church if the local pastor hadn't spotted his talent and asked him to 'tell Bible stories' in the parish magazine. One of the older participants phoned to say how sorry he was that he was broke and couldn't register. We worked out a deal where a Christian Press agency paid for his tuition in return for an agreed number of cartoons to be produced after the workshop. The most talented of all the candidates I was in touch with was unemployed and extremely sorry that his benefit would be revoked if he took part in the workshop.
Already in the opening session it turned out that the participants had a number of things in common with one another and with their tutor. They had always irritated their teachers by their incessant drawing during school lessons. Many were fans of the same comic strips (some could quote passage after passage from 'Calvin and Hobbes'). And most had overlapping twists of humour - everybody was enthused to find out that we would spend an evening - with an appropriate supply of popcorn - watching Monty Python's The Life of Brian.
I hope that there may be time to hold another workshop, building on the experience of this one, but I would like to add two elements: A 'correspondence course' would be valuable before the residential part of the training - warming participants up with a set of assignments and exercises. A 'supervised period' after the workshop would also be valuable, providing advice and critique as requested while the members of the workshop apply what they learned.
In this age of information technology many different components could be added to the workshop idea. A simple one would be to hold workshops simultaneously in several locations - even on different continents, (reducing travel expenses). The same assignments could be given to the various groups, who could then, for example, exhibit their products to one another on the Internet and exchange criticisms and suggestions.
Elements of the programme
The contents of workshops like this will of course vary as long as they have the character of a 'Master Class' with a virtuoso both teaching the details of her/his craft and discussing the deeper philosophy and the broader perspective with the 'apprentices' from a personal viewpoint and based on individual interests and experiences.
In our case, the different sessions which 'Tiki' proposed and conducted had the following scope and character - as he outlined himself.
Gallery. Everybody showing and explaining his works. No programme, I do only moderation. The focus is on plain technique first.
Technique workshop. I will start to reveal my style of working, sharing all my tricks (and some of other artists I know). The focus is on pure technique first (paper, pen, ink, colouring), then on the evolutional way (first idea, sketch, outline, captioning, final drawing) and then on multiplying technique (copy machine, scanning). Then we share them together, everybody adding what was not said before. No exercises, but individual demonstrations.
Ideas workshop. Again, I will start to describe my way of getting from a customer's order to a cartoon. The focus is on brainstorm techniques and "last chance survival tricks". Then the group brings together what they have. Exercise: Creating a cartoon outline to a real-life order.
Humour school. This will be a tough part, but a rewarding one. We will look at our own cartoons and the work of other cartoonists and do serious humour criticism. Why is something funny? When does a cartoon have a deeper meaning? A special part is a text/ caption workshop about the co-operation between picture and word. Exercise: Find captions for existing cartoons.
Laughing in His name. Until now, there was nothing specially "Christian" in the workshop. Here I give a short lecture about humour, the church and the Bible to initiate discussion. It is about limits, about my experience with not-so-funny church people and about my own statutes regarding what I don't make jokes about. Exercise: Everybody writes down their own statute
Marketing meeting. This is not yet about money, but we are coming close to the point. There are people in need of humour, and marketing is the art of bringing these people together. And even further: How to invent new opportunities to spread cartoons inside and outside the church. We should try to do a complete survey from church newsletters and newspapers to books, films etc. Exercise: Creating one new way in everybody's own country to distribute their own cartoons.
Bits or atoms? Nicholas Negroponte, America's online guru, distinguishes atoms (e.g. books, CDs) from bits (the letters in the book, the music on the CD etc.). So what are we producing? Bit or atoms? If bits, then there will be a revolution ahead regarding the way of distribution. Cartoons on the Internet, multimedia productions, drawing with drawing programmes etc. Exercise: Science fiction! Describe your drawing office in 2010.
Multimedia. Media are growing together, a cartoon is part of a film inside a printed medium. There are new media growing, e.g. infographics in newspapers. People with drawing skills are badly needed everywhere. Exercise: Create a cartoon character that fits into several different media.
Money meeting. The sweetest taboo! I am not the best cartoonist regarding technique, charm and artistic skills. But when it comes to a good balance between art and marketing, I may be a specialist. I am always for open words regarding royalties and all that stuff. Exercise: Formulate your personal targets for the next year and the year after, concerning dissemination and return-of-money.
Copyright conference. This is difficult because of the different copyrights in different countries. But some rules are international, and some bad tricks of publishers too. With over 15 years of experience, I can tell a lot, as can, I am sure, many of the participants.
International Christian cartoonists united. A brainstorming session about spreading our work across national boundaries.
What do we want? This is about the real (!) aims of our work. What do we think that the Lord will want us to do? What are our gifts for? This will be a mixture of self-experience and listening to the silence. I think of an Eucharist we will celebrate together, with silence and prayer.
Does the church need such talent?
We felt very much like a small international congregation during the days of the workshop - as we went to Sunday worship in the local parish and met for morning devotions and evensong among ourselves at the boarding school where the workshop was held.
It was clear that participants looked on their special talents as a gift which they want to use in the service of the church. With some experience, as they develop their craft, they can offer many good moments of smiles and reflections.
The question remains whether the rest of us are ready to look for openings where cartoonists can get an opportunity to use these talents - and in this respect the outlook is not too bright. Church publications are still heavily dominated by words, and at times it is hard to understand that He who was the Word always spoke very visually.
For the outsider - as well as for many of us inside - humour is essential. Some would even say that a church which has no sense of humour can not be taken seriously!
Niels Thure Krarup is currently a member of WACC-Europe's Executive Committee and editor of its newsletter Link.