Red Lines: Political Cartoons And The Struggle Against Censorship is a difficult book to describe, even in very broad strokes. It looks like a graphic novel but is more a textbook with lots of pictures. If you were to remove everything except the prose and individual cartoons used to demonstrate particular points, the book would likely be a third as long and a lot easier to read; the deconstructed text that meanders through photo collages and choppy layouts aren’t at all reliant on the visuals to make the points put forth by creators Cherian George and Sonny Liew.
It makes sense that George—and especially Liew, whose art has been featured in a wide variety of comics—would want to make a book about cartoons that uses some of the same visual language and structure as that art form. Unfortunately, the results can be difficult to parse: Dialogue and exposition are cut off at odd points, only to continue in boxes and balloons that don’t always follow sensible layout conventions. The fact that the book is dense and peppered with academic jargon doesn’t help. Even readers interested in, and well informed about, political cartoons might have a hard time parsing the message Red Lines seems to want to make.
That opacity and the fact that Red Lines is being released by an academic publisher make it easy to presume that the target audience is students. George is a professor who, according to the acknowledgements, taught classes at both of the universities that helped to fund the book. The introduction in particular has a great series of visuals explaining the different kinds of censorship that people face today and where each is most likely to be found. Chapters on the role of capitalism in journalism and examples of censorship in various countries act as good primers for people who want to better understand the variety of forces that impact journalists and political commentators.
But Red Lines has several weaknesses that make it a bad fit for many classrooms and almost all casual readers. The first is that the entire book treats political cartoonists as somehow removed from and above other people, never part of the system that they comment on. Their identity is “cartoonist,” and that identity comes before all else (with the exception of gender, which is only discussed in the chapter on gendered censorship). The book also presents personal anecdotes from cartoonists the same exact way that it presents scholarly information from social scientists and other academics, conflating individual beliefs with extensively researched data.
There’s very little effort to define the subjects of the book, but at the same time wide swaths of important information are left out. Terms like “political cartoons” and “editorial cartoons” are used interchangeably, without firm definitions, and in many cases without discussing the medium of delivery at all. Cartoonists are discussed using both journalistic and activist language, but journalists and activists are repeatedly dismissed. Books like Sports Is Hell or The Photographer somehow do not count as political cartoons, but Ardian Syaf’s firing from X-Men Gold does. While there is a chapter on gendered censorship, race is only discussed in passing, and often gives a white person the last word on the matter; disabled and LGBTQ+ cartoonists are not included at all. Readers could easily assume that there are no non-newspaper political cartoons on the internet, based on the authors’ dogged refusal to discuss them. Given the existence of The Nib and the plethora of LGBTQ+ cartoonists they feature, it feels like an intentional and telling choice.
The chapter on gender censorship features at least one proudly public TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist, who excludes the rights of transgender women from their advocacy of women’s rights) and another transphobic writer arguing against the vague specter of “censorship,” a common tactic used by bigots to insist they are allowed to be bigots because anything less infringes on their rights to freedom of expression. The book simply identifies these women as writers and makes no attempt to disclose their biases, which calls into question every other expert and cartoonist quoted in the book. Red Lines closes with chapters about responsibility and offensive content, but George and Liew seem to leave readers with the conclusion that self-editing so as not to convey or incite bigotry is censorship the same way authoritarian control of journalism is. The intent may not have been to dismiss the very real threats and violence that cartoonists face along with other journalists and activists, but conflating that imminent danger with appropriate and contextualized editing has that effect. The deification of cartoonists as arbiters of truth and righteousness, and the flattening of complex issues of power and control into a broadly generalized “censorship” makes Red Lines all but useless, even in a classroom where students could have context and guidance.