FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
This is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. Call it an offensive ploy to sell magazines or an artistic political statement. Either way, an illustration on the cover of this week's issue of the New Yorker has plenty of people on fire. It shows Barack Obama dressed in a traditional form of Muslim garb, giving dap to Michelle Obama. She's sporting an afro, combat boots, and a machine gun. And that's just for starters. The artists responsible for the cover, Barry Blitt, said he wanted to satirize much of the misinformation about Barack Obama. But both Obama and rival John McCain said they found it offensive.
We turned to a man who's both done covers for the New Yorker and sometimes has disagreed with the magazine's editorial judgment. We're talking about Art Spiegelman. In 1993, he did a New Yorker cover called "Kiss," that showed a Hassidic Jewish man and a black woman kissing. This came after tensions between the groups in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn spurred intense riots. It got plenty of New Yorkers angry, including some Hassidic Jews, for whom kissing a person who is not of their faith and to whom they are not married is against their beliefs. I started out by asking Art why he did such a controversial cover at such a tense time.
Mr. ART SPIEGELMAN (Graphic Artist): Well, let's see. Back then, the wounds of that particular set of race riots were very raw still. And I felt as I was just entering into the New Yorker with a mandate to see how my underground comic sensibility and the New Yorker's rarified sensibility might meet. I offered this up as a Valentine's Day cover because there's this thing called irony, you know. If you show people who are murdering each other kissing, it makes one think about why they might have been killing each other. It opens subjects up to discussion that otherwise were just taken as givens. And I think this cover managed to unite that community in a way nothing else had. They both hated me for it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: So - well, let's apply some of the questions we were just talking about to the New Yorker's Obama cover. Again, it shows the senator in Muslim garb, a picture of Osama bin Laden on the wall, and Michelle Obama sporting a gun and ammunition, among other things. Do you think - there has been just so much...
Mr. SPIEGELMAN: I'll say.
CHIDEYA: Dissection, anger, back and forth, denunciation by both major party presidential campaigns. Do you think that this cover crossed the line of propriety?
Mr. SPIEGELMAN: Of propriety? Perhaps. But what it - I think it did so for an urgent and good cause, which is to blow this stupid calumny about Obama away, once and for all. It travels as the subtext through all this polite conversation. I just saw some NBC report that was quoting a Newsweek poll saying 50 percent of Americans believe that Obama is or was a Muslim, or was signed - sworn in on the Koran to the Senate seat, and so on. It's madness. And I - it seems to me that showing the fevered image directly will be a possible way of looking at and dissipating that image.
I think as a result it's a fairly brave thing to do, in which the New Yorker's fulfilling its function at its best, which is to make people think and talk. And the New Yorker helped that discussion happen. And it's one of the times where I feel, hats off, New Yorker! They got it right, you know. This is not something that goes away by saying, but it's not seemly to discuss this.
CHIDEYA: But there are some people who are always going to read this un-ironically and say, well, yeah, he is a Muslim despite, you know.
Mr. SPIEGELMAN: Well, the people who are that incapable are actually, I think, much fewer than the liberal pundits on the blogs seem to believe. I don't think that anybody who's capable of looking at that image and going, yeah, the guy's a monster from outer space, will be dissuaded from that position by pictures of a glowing halo behind Obama. Because the only way this thing gets out is if everybody discusses, with whatever outrage is necessary, what that image conjures up that's on the cover of the New Yorker. It's worth being outraged about. It's just not appropriate to think that the New Yorker somehow is fomenting that image.
The image is there. So it has to happen. Is - this is cartooning working at its best in the sense that it's functioning as a vaccine, you know? Like most vaccines, it has to take some of the toxin and inject it into you in order to make you strong enough to resist it, if you know what I mean. And this - I hear the pain as the needle enters the arm. And yet I think that that's the effectiveness a cartoon can have, by stripping things down to a primary point where one can actually have to look at it.
CHIDEYA: What about the issue of race? And what I mean specifically is some folks have argued that because this is the first presidential race with a major party candidate who's black, and because of our hundreds or years of tense racial history in the United States, that there are some comedic lines that at least non-black people cannot cross.
Mr. SPIEGELMAN: Well, I think...
CHIDEYA: Go ahead.
Mr. SPIEGELMAN: I just think it's more interesting that, as Obama very eloquently put it in his speech on race a few months back, you know, he's the person who can actually explain these issues to people across either side of the divide by his very upbringing. And as a result, we need to get to a place where it's possible to have conversations without having to decide that it's OK for me to talk because I've got some melanin in me. It's OK for me to talk about Crown Heights because, gee, I may not be a Hassid but at least I'm Jewish, so I'm allowed to comment on what's going on.
CHIDEYA: Now, have you chosen a candidate? Obama, McCain?
Mr. SPIEGELMAN: Oh, I think Obama's really necessary for America. It would be a horrible thing if we passed this opportunity by.
CHIDEYA: Why do you like him?
Mr. SPIEGELMAN: I think that - there are many reasons, but for one thing, I think what happens to the Supreme Court in the next generation is of great moment to me. Getting out of Iraq is of great moment to me. And well, gee, if nothing else, even if he were less progressive than he is, I think just having somebody that cool as president would be such a nice change.
CHIDEYA: Well, Art, on that note, thank you so much.
Mr. SPIEGELMAN: Thank you. Bye-bye.
CHIDEYA: Art Spiegelman is a Pulitzer prize-winning graphic novelist, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker.