For Ron Turner, waking in the middle of the night early Wednesday was nothing new; he would just watch some news and hopefully go back to sleep again. But the news that morning was about the brutal massacre of 10 journalists and two police officers at Charlie Hebdo, France’s long-running satirical magazine, by Islamic terrorists, and it was hard to stay calm after seeing something that hit so close to home. For Turner, the shootings struck at the core of his business: comics that (sometimes) offend.
Since he started it in 1970, Turner has run Last Gasp Books, one of the largest publishers of underground books and comics in the world, including Zap, Weirdo and Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. The stable of artists on Last Gasp’s roster reads like a blacklist compiled by the establishment of the art world: R Crumb, Ron English, Winston Smith, Robert Williams, Mark Ryden and S. Clay Wilson are just a few of the rebel kind who Turner has worked with. And it’s not just Last Gasp’s artists that garner attention, as there are plenty of notable Last Gasp publications, including Barefoot Gen, the controversial graphic novel about the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Japan; several collections of erotic art, including a fetish coloring book and a collection of photographs of female genitalia; and even a book on the “Painter of Light,” Thomas Kinkade.
“There’s been a couple of employees that I’ve bought weapons off of over the years because they were nuts and certainly didn’t need a weapon,” Turner says. He stowed the guns in a drawer. “Maybe it’s time to get those things cleaned and set them up by my desk,” the publisher mused.
Turner has even received death threats for his work. Back in 1971, Last Gasp published Legion of Charlies, a graphic novel illustrated by underground cartoonist Greg Irons that told the stories of both the My Lai Massacre (carried out by the Charlie Company) and the Tate Murders (which were ordered by Charlie Manson). After the book started receiving publicity, Last Gasp started receiving threats from Manson’s followers.
“In a fair fight, I don’t think hardly any of Manson followers would’ve been hard to defeat or defend against.” Still, Turner muses, “When you have people you don’t know issuing you threats, you have to take that seriously.”
Thankfully nothing came of the threats. Yet in France, where comics are a celebrated art form — it’s home to the third largest comic book festival in the world — Charlie Hebdo was the target of attacks over its content even before this week’s brutal massacre, including a firebombing back in 2011. That still didn’t stop the paper from publishing more inflammatory drawings of the prophet Mohammed in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya back in 2012.
And despite the fact that the magazine experienced such a horrible event, critics have continued to take the publication to task for its crude, bigoted portrayals of Mohammed. In response, Turner says that such criticisms are part and parcel of creating satire.
“If you’re not offending somebody, you’re not doing your job,” said Turner.
On Wednesday, while the magazine’s staff and the rest of the world continued to recover from such senseless murders, Turner vocalized why satire is such a necessary component of modern society.
“[Satire] is important because it brings out the flaws we all have and throws them up on the screen of another person,” said Turner. “How they react sort of shows how important that really is.” Later, he added, “Charlie took a hit for everybody.”