Eugene Had Its Own “Charlie Hebdo”

Nous sommes Charlie.

Eugene has a unique connection to the French satire periodical Charlie Hebdo, that is gathering worldwide sympathies since last week’s attack that killed a dozen of its staffers.

We gave succor and support to our own Comic News from 1988 until 2005. We didn’t stand in its way as it grew into America’s only free weekly cartoon and humor magazine.

I managed those antics for its final decade, as if anyone can ever claim that antics have been managed. You tolerated it every week, which is all the encouragement some of us need. We are Charlie.

When the Skinner Butte Cross was being removed, Comic News suggested it be replaced with a clothesline between our buttes, where residents could air our dirty laundry. When the new library was being designed, we were the first to recommend a fourth floor — though our idea was to leave the third floor unfinished as an art installation, allowing residents to argue for a decade about what should fill it.

Comic News never endorsed candidates, but we did assemble a panel of experts to determine that John Kitzhaber governed his hair better than opponent Bill Sizemore did. When developer John Musumeci was grabbing headlines for his own antics, his investment company was still listed in the phone book as Arlie Land & Cattle Co., so Comic News staffers called his office regularly with questions about vaccinating cows.

We were threatened with lawsuits, jack-booted thugs, and an occasional punch in the nose, but we never got a death threat. No harm ever befell us. Like Charlie, we never missed a deadline.

The University of Oregon’s Special Collections Library now has a near-complete set of our 505 issues. I like to imagine our archives and Ken Kesey’s mixing it up after the lights go out.

When Danish cartoonists drew a fatwa for depicting Mohammed in 2005, we republished the offending cartoons as soon as we could, though that was after our free local edition had ceased publication. Here’s a factoid you may not have known, because we never told anyone. Our editor, publisher, head writer, and art director all had religion degrees — from Vanderbilt, Yale, Notre Dame and Bob Jones University.

That never surprised me. Once you’ve thought deeply about God — regardless of where those thoughts led you — all the foibles of humanity find a larger context. It’s easier to find what’s funny when there’s nothing that’s out of bounds.

We insisted that funny was all that mattered, but we also knew that wasn’t the case. If it wasn’t at least a little bit true, it couldn’t stay funny for long. Likewise, mean-spiritedness might evoke laughter to mask discomfort, but only for a moment or two. Making it both funny and true was the trick we tried to pull on every page. It made for some late nights. There was always pizza.

Comic News pushed the envelope, but licked it first with great care. You laughed, so you were implicated too. Humor allows no bystanders; only accomplices.

So the groundswell of support for Charlie also doesn’t surprise me. We may comfort ourselves by marginalizing our clowns and court jesters, but we know their role is essential to any good we hope to do. Self-importance, overreach and groupthink will always plague human endeavors. Humor offers an antidote to our arrogant excesses.

Commentator David Brooks and others may want to put the jokesters at the children’s table, leaving serious discussions for the so-called adults. I’ve spent Thanksgivings at each table. The kids’ table was way more fun.

That’s not to say the fun isn’t also useful. It is. When the emperor parades around buck naked, it will be one of the so-called childish ones who dares to say what everyone can see.

We mustn’t think these outliers don’t matter. The clowns play an important role in this rodeo we call life. The face paint and the silly shoes exaggerate their human features, but their serious job is to save us from whatever trouble we’ve created. We don’t stop to think what bad might befall them, until it does.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs