All right, so I finally read Joann Sfar’s latest sketchbook comic, Greffier, which collects his comics form transcripts of the Charlie Hebdo trial at the Parisian Correctional Court earlier in the year (February 7-8, to be exact). This was the trial in which three Muslim organizations, the French Union of Islamic Organisations (UOIF), the International Islamic League, and the Great Mosque of Paris, sued the venerable weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for defamation of a religious group by having published the infamous Danish Muhammed cartoons, as well as adding to the mix a cover by Cabu showing the Prophet, in January 2006. Charlie Hebdo, whose lawyers asserted their right to publish the cartoons under the principles of free speech, was — thankfully — acquitted of any wrongdoing.

Sfar writes in his introduction to the volume: “I’m neither a journalist, nor an editorial cartoonist. I wanted to take notes as a comics author. To document the entirety of the debate. Not just the essential parts”. He wants to convey the entire experience of a courtroom trial. Unfortunately, he fails quite egregiously at this.

One has to admire the ambition, skill and sheer fingercrushing effort that has gone into this work. Sfar actually manages, generally, to take notes of the proceedings as they happen, in comics form — words and pictures, and most of the time in sequence on the page. And it’s gone over in watercolour! — though that may have been done after the fact.) Yes, the drawing is of course extremely loose, but — as always with Sfar — lively and engaging (he occasionally even makes delightful visual jokes, such as when he compares Jyllands-Posten‘s editor Flemming Rose to a flamingo). Along the way, he several times remarks, at one point with very funny drawings, just how badly doing all this is killing his hands, and how frustrated he is that he doesn’t have time to get down everything being said, but what he does get down is substantial. As a feat of cartooning, the notebook is simply stunning.

As a representation of the ‘entirety of the debate’, however, it seems sorely lacking. Over 113 pages of transcript, a grand total of 12 is devoted to the depositions of the plaintiffs. So unless their depositions really were extremely abbreviated, he is not, in fact, living up to his stated goal. Add to this that through those 12 pages, Sfar makes the plaintiffs appear as something close to complete idiots with no case. He even calls the lawyer of the UOIF “the lawyer of the idiots.” And he constantly provides snide counterarguments to what little of their depositions he deigns to transcribe.

The defendants, on the other hand, are given ample space to express themselves. Most of the witnesses as well as their lawyers are heard by Sfar, and invariably to his fawning applause. He comes across entirely uncritical of them, constantly reminding us of their great eloquence, sage viewpoints, and generally sterling human qualities. One starts to wonder whether the courts in Paris issue dribble bibs.

OK, Sfar is up front about his bias — a bias I share, by the way — and he doesn’t claim to be objective in any way. Furthermore, a good deal of the arguments presented by the defendants are certainly impressive, as well as eloquently expressed, and I don’t doubt several of the witnesses are admirable human beings. But after a while this uncritical admiration just starts to grate and gets in the way of the actual arguments made. We don’t need Sfar to tell us how right this or that witness is, especially when he isn’t offering a lot of insight beyond sheer cheerleading; the words are there, and we’re prefectly capable of making up our own mind about it, thank you.

Additionally, while I agree that the fundamentalist and strongly anti-semitic UOIF is a particularly unsavoury organization, and also to my mind qualify perfectly as ‘idiots’, Sfar’s cheeky attitude towards them discourages rather than invites sympathy for his viewpoint. And as mentioned, the way he presents it, the plaintiffs seem to be more or less totally unprepared and to have only the flimsiest of cases imaginable. If this is an accurate description, one wonders why the suit ever went to trial and how the Grand Mosque secured the counsel of Francis Szpiner, who is also counsellor to Jacques Chirac. Sfar does state, initially, that he is very impressed by Szpiner, but — going by what he shows us of his performance — the reader is left wondering why, exactly. Come on, this guy has contributed to keeping Chirac out of jail for I don’t know how long — I simply cannot believe he is as bland a lawyer as he seems here.

The problem isn’t so much that Sfar has a viewpoint and expresses it, this is a personal notebook after all, not a reportage. The problem is that the cartoon crisis is indicative of a series of important issues facing contemporary society, both in the West and elsewhere, which is why the lawsuit went to trial in the first place. Much as I agree that anything but a complete acquittal for the magazine would have been a disaster for our values of free speech and free press, it doesn’t make the implications of publishing the cartoons inconsequential or unproblematic, which is what Sfar makes it seem like here.

Again, he’s of course perfectly entitled to do so, but had he actually presented ‘the entirety of the debate’ as he claims to attempt, I am sure he would have arrived at a much more engaging work, in which the political conclusion reached by most readers would surely be the same, but based on fuller consideration and therefore deeper understanding of the lawsuit and the issues that prompted it. As it turns out, he is too superficial an observer to do such a contentious issue justice.

Sfar, Joann, Les Carnets de Joann Sfarr – Greffier, Paris: Delcourt (Shampooing), 2007, 230 pages, colour, €19.90 (by the way, the book also collects Sfar’s other, unrelated contributions to Charlie Hebdo, many of which are smart and fun).

See earlier related posts on the Metabunker here, here and here. Check out Rackham‘s extensive coverage of the Cartoon Crisis in English here and in Danish here. UPDATE: Dirk has called my attention to an exchange on the book between Christophe Bigot, the “Lawyer of the idiots,” and Joann Sfar on the ActuaBD site. Interesting reading.