Comic taken from the ISIS reference

Cartoonist Stephen Pastis, creator of popular comics Pearls before pork, announced on his Facebook yesterday that his July 27 comic had been taken down by unions and newspapers for being too offensive.

Pearls before pork is a daily comic published in more than 750 newspapers. Its main characters are the sarcastic, narcissistic, beer-loving Rat and his roommate, the utterly ignorant Pig. Other main characters include Goat, an arrogant intellectual; Zebra, who seeks to avoid the incompetent brotherhood of dope crocodiles next door; and Guard Duck, a violent and delusional veteran. Pearls before pork won the National Cartoonists’ Society Newspaper Cartoon Award in 2003 and 2006 and the 2015 Reuben Award for Best Newspaper Cartoon. It is appreciated for its dark humor, violence, coarse language and sadly elaborate puns.

In censorship Pearls before pork strip, the character Pig apparently shouts “ISIS” over the phone. An NSA surveillance agent monitors the phone call, leading to Pig’s arrest by the FBI. The comic’s humor results from a clever pun – Pig isn’t, in fact, shouting “ISIS” – thus mocking incompetent government officials. The tape can also reasonably be interpreted as a work of political protest and condemnation of perceived violations of Fourth Amendment rights.

Mr Pastis tweeted that the tape “seems harmless to me, but I guess these are sensitive moments.” His Facebook post on the matter was less apologetic. “As you will see, it is not offensive at all. At least not for me. Newspapers nevertheless censored the comic simply because it uses the name of a terrorist organization that no doubt appears every day in the press.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for newspaper comics to face editorial deletions or censorship. Comics combine stylistic elements from books and visual arts and are therefore challenged by censors for the same reasons as other media; censors object to their use of offensive language, inclusion of sexual content, and references to drugs, alcohol, or so-called “sensitive topics.” According to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, comics are often misinterpreted as “low-value speech” despite their unique ability to use powerful synthesis of words and images to convey emotional and political messages in an intelligent and humorous.

Indeed, this is not the first time that Pearls before pork sparked controversy. Mr. Pastis details some earlier incidents in his book Lions and Tigers and Crocs, Oh my God! For example, a Midwestern newspaper once promised to change its policy in response to the August 2003 Mr. Pastis cartoon that mocked President Bush’s intelligence and hawkish foreign policy, and the Washington Post pulled a March 2014 cartoon that contained the allegedly offensive word “dwarf”. His biggest controversy, however, was his January 9–10, 2007 comic strips, whose character Atatürk the Lama enraged Turkish readers who thought Pastis was poking fun at former Turkish President Mustafa Atatürk; Mr. Pastis has received numerous death threats and a letter from the Turkish ambassador demanding an apology.

Speaking to Columbia Journalism Review, author of The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power Victor Navasky says a comic can cause particular anger because “it’s a form of public humiliation, and people receive it differently than they receive from words”. The CJR continues,

At least some of the anger stems from the visual nature of the medium, which makes cartoons both striking and accessible. They sow discomfort for the subjects and their supporters, without recourse for the aggrieved, says Navasky. “The response to these things is disproportionate.”