It's a question editorial cartoonists ask themselves whenever something tragic occurs in the news. It could be a major natural disaster, it could be the death of a prominent personality. Or, as has happened not once but twice this week, it could be a mass shooting like those that took place in Toronto and Colorado.
How do you approach it? You can't be funny about it, obviously, but the story is so big you can't ignore it either. It's your job to interpret current events visually. And normally your job is to be provocative (to a certain extent, you're expressing an opinion after all), glib and funny. But you can't do that when lives have been lost, families torn apart or destroyed. In such cases you need to be especially sensitive to the feelings not only of those directly touched by the event but to the thousands who identify and grieve along with them.
In the cartoon above, Yahoo! Quebec's Fleg reacted to last night's Dark Knight Rises Colorado movie theater shooting with a reference to the Caped Crusader himself. Batman mourns the dead from an isolated mountaintop. The cartoon is sombre while making an appropriate pop culture reference. It expresses a sadness and bewilderment that most of us feel but doesn't otherwise express an opinion.
Freelancer Michael De Adder's Toronto Star cartoon on Monday's block party shooting goes further in its view of that tragic event. It comments on the sad fact that an inner city toddler in Toronto is almost as likely to get hit by a bullet as they are to fall off their trike. In other words, childhood isn't supposed to be like this, kids should be able to run and play in their neighbourhoods safe from the danger of flying slugs.
Unfortunately, as is often the case when feelings are high, the cartoon was completely mis-read by a lot of people who might otherwise agree with the sentiment. In some cases, readers thought De Adder was trying to be funny about the story, which he obviously is not. But sometimes irony, or the lack thereof, lies in the eye of the beholder. Other readers took exception to his use of the word "they," interpreting it to mean African-Canadians, whereas De Adder meant the "they" to refer to children. In fact, as he explains in his blog, his initial version of the cartoon had the word "children" in it but he changed it because he thought, with a child pictured, the word "children" would be redundant.
My Montreal Mirror cartoon on last year's Tucson shooting went much further than either of the above, specifically assigning blame, in this case to Sarah Palin, who along with an array of Tea Party-supporting conservatives I felt had created an atmosphere that led directly to the attack. I'm not sure the editor of a mainstream daily would have let me get away with such a strong, direct statement. But, working for an alt weekly, I had much more latitude.
Even so, every time something truly awful happens as a cartoonist you have to figure out a way to deal with it that is somehow meaningful, relevant, respectful and true to your world view. It's never a simple or an easy task.