The emperor’s funny clothes

Laplace may have been shaken by the Charlie Hebdo attack, but the show went on for him.

French illustrator Eric Laplace, a.k.a. Placide, outside the Saint-Placide Metro stop in Paris (photo credit: Courtesy)
French illustrator Eric Laplace, a.k.a. Placide, outside the Saint-Placide Metro stop in Paris
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Almost two centuries ago, English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton posited that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” The 19th-century playwright may very well have been echoing the sentiment of his preeminent compatriot co-professional William Shakespeare, who over 200 years prior to that postulated, in Hamlet, that “many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills.”
While both the aforementioned Brits were referring to the power of the written word to overcome, and even forestall, acts of physical violence, pens have also been used for centuries to produce illustrative figurative art that expounds all sorts of themes, and often without the need for words at all.
However, one wonders what Bulwer-Lytton and the Bard would have made of last year’s horrific response to the efforts of Charlie Hebdo to impart tongue-in-cheek and provocative ideas about politics and religion.
Last Thursday I met French illustrator Eric Laplace – a.k.a. Placide – who came over from Paris to attend the opening of a group exhibition of caricatures, and to take part in a panel discussion about the importance of caricatures today.
The discussion also featured some of our top artists in the field, including Belgian-born illustrator and cartoonist Michel Kichka, veteran comic-book artist and writer Uri Fink, comics illustrator Yuval Caspi and Channel 1 TV personality Oren Nahari.
Laplace is a longtime freelance illustrator contributor to the French satirical publication and, naturally, remembers the events of January 7, 2015, only too well.
“I was not at the offices of Charlie Hebdo at the time. You know, January is a time of sales at the shops, so I was out buying myself some shoes,” he recalls. “When I got back to my studio, there were many phone messages, saying things like ‘Have you seen what happened at Charlie Hebdo?’ I didn’t know what the problem was. I opened my computer and I saw something had happened. It was incredible.”
At this stage, Laplace was still unaware of the severity of the situation. His studio is across the street from his apartment so he popped over the road and turned on his TV.
“I saw two journalists in black talking about some attack on Charlie Hebdo, but I didn’t think it was too serious. Nobody could realize it,” he continues. But the awful reality soon became inescapably clear. “I received a text message from a friend telling me that Cabu is dead.”
The latter refers to Jean Cabut, who worked under the nom de plume of Cabu, who was a staff cartoonist and shareholder in Charlie Hebdo. He was killed in the terrorist attack, four days short of his 77th birthday. It was both a professional and a personal blow for Laplace, as he had drawn inspiration from Cabu from the word go.
“Cabu was my idol,” says Laplace. “I do this work as a drawer because I admire Cabu. My father used to read Le Canard enchaîné [a French satirical weekly founded in 1915, to which Cabu contributed]. There was a beautiful caricature, by Moisan of [then-French president] Charles de Gaulle dressed like Louis XIV, and I loved Cabu’s work for the paper, too.
“I have loved him for 50 years, since I was a small child,” says the fiftysomething cartoonist. “I met him at different festivals. For me, Cabu was the best cartoonist of all. I was so very sad when he was killed. The first cartoon I put on my website after the attack on Charlie Hebdo was black, just black.”
Laplace may have been shaken by the attack, but the show went on for him, and he had a professional trip to make to the south of France which went ahead, albeit with some added logistics and, of course, emotional content.
“I was invited by a school to talk to the students about press cartoons, but they thought I wouldn’t come. Everyone in France, in the world I think, was in shock.”
There was more bad stuff in the offing. “While I was driving out of Paris, I heard the news on the radio about the killing of the policewoman,” Laplace recalls. “They kill policemen, they kill journalists, they kill 11 people. They killed people at the kosher supermarket the day after that.
“When I arrived at the school, there were two policemen who came to be my guards. It is the first time a cartoonist has two guards,” laughs Laplace. “It is a paradox, that a cartoonist has to have guards to do some work at a school.”
Laplace’s stint at the college was an emotive affair. “I see boys and girls were crying, and we had a minute of silence. Cabu was dead. It was ridiculous for me.”
Laplace had another school to visit in the south of France, and the police officers were replaced by another pair who followed the cartoonist’s car.
“I have a friend on a farm in a place between the two colleges, and I called them and asked if I could make a stop there,” says Laplace. True to his whimsical-satirical outlook on life, the cartoonist found something to tickle his funny bone, even at such a dire hour. “I was inside with my friend drinking whiskey, and the poor policemen were outside in their car. It was raining heavily and asked my friend if we should ask the policemen to drink with us, and he said yes. The policemen came in and I told them I didn’t need to be careful about drinking and driving because I would have a police car behind me,” he laughs.
He soon sobered up when he got back in his car and heard the news of the attack on the Jewish store.
“I got back home and many cartoonists came to my studio and we ate and drank and went to the demonstration.”
Four days after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, over 1.5 million people gathered around Place de la République in the French capital for a demonstration. Laplace says he was comforted by the huge public response. The massive turnout helped to assuage any nagging doubts he may have had about the significance of his work, and the role played by Charlie Hebdo and its ilk.
“Sometimes I thought that the work of the cartoonist is not important, that society doesn’t need this. We try to make funny drawings. We are not serious. On that day [of the demonstration] I understood that the work of the cartoonist is very, very important because you need to have courage behind this liberty. You need to have a critical mind and to have liberty of thinking. You need to be tolerant and irreverent.”
For Laplace and his professional counterparts the struggle for freedom of expression goes on, while walking a tightrope through a minefield between what is considered – just about – appropriate and what can be said to be in general bad taste.
Last week, the front cover of the Charlie Hebdo edition issued to mark the first anniversary of the terrorist attack portrayed God as a gun-wielding figure with the caption: “One year on: the assassin is still out there.”
The cover design was criticized by the Vatican daily Osservatore Romano, which noted that religious leaders have repeatedly condemned violence in the name of God.
Laplace, whose demeanor suits his moniker, remains unrepentant. “We use humor and irreverence. We laugh about politics, the military and religion, and people on TV, you know, people who think they are important – people with power of money, of mind power, the power of politics, of religion. We are the fool king [court jester]. That is our job.”