Greek cartoonists draw the crisis

AP, Sunday 16 Oct 2011

The ancient philosophers had their golden age; now it's Greek newspaper cartoonists' time to shine. The economic crisis that threatens to go global offers a bonanza for satirists with a talent for the scathing image or caption

Poster of the Cartoon Exhibition at the Benaki Museum

Cartoonists have portrayed the Greek economy as the Titanic, that eternal symbol of disaster; Greek leaders as buffoons shielded from mobs by robotic police with gas masks and truncheons; and ordinary Greeks as beggars, at the mercy of fat cats in top hats who represent international creditors.

"Bad times are good times for cartoonists," said Maria Tzaboura, a cartoonist for the Greek newspaper Proto Thema who sees humor as a form of protest and "less is more" as a guide for her simply drawn victims of circumstance, their limbs scattered about like a dismembered children's doll.

Greece's economic upheaval affects almost everyone, consuming commentators, cartoonists among them, who channel a nation's confusion and anger over slashed wages and benefits, higher taxes, goalpost-shifting politicians and the austere dictates of foreign creditors worried about their own portfolios.

Greek cartoonists eviscerate every conceivable culprit with the precision of a surgeon's scalpel or, better said, an assassin's dagger. Sometimes, they unleash happy-go-lucky blasts of sarcasm that yank a grin or snigger.

They don't just play for populist laughs in blogs and newspapers. It is serious social commentary by people who seek to shape the outcome of the crisis. Some have lost their jobs to it. As Dimitris Georgopalis, treasurer of the Greek Cartoonists Association, wrote in an email: "We are not casual observers. We live and work in this situation and the influence is visible in our work."

Their travails reflect a polarized society. Caricaturist Tasos Anastasiou was recently dismissed from the newspaper Ta Nea, ostensibly for economic reasons. He alleged in a letter to the journalists' union that he was fired because he harshly criticized the government.

The Benaki Museum in Athens hosted an exhibition of crisis cartoons by 24 members of the nonprofit association, which sold T-shirts with cartoons to cover costs. The show ended early this month.

"I know what Greeks have done wrong or badly, but at this point, it's not just the Greeks. We're part of something bigger. We're not the problem, we're part of it. This whole crisis comes from the banks. We could have prevented some things," mused cartoonist Tzaboura, who also illustrates children's books.

Pondering the massive U.S. debt, and Italy's shaky finances, she suggested her nation was a diversion, or scapegoat: "Thank God they've got Greece now. I'm not saying it's an excuse."

Tzaboura favors Greek wordplay. One cartoon shows a human form in five pieces, with arrows identifying each as a "dosi," or "installment" in Greek. The term refers to bailout tranches from European creditors and the International Monetary Fund that keep Greece afloat, though the cartoon implies the pact has chopped up the Greek psyche like mincemeat.

Another shows uplifted hands with fingers extended in a traditional Greek gesture of insult known called "moutza" that is often seen during protests outside parliament in central Athens. The caption refers to "moutza-xedin," an approximation of "mujaheddin," or Muslim fighters engaged in what they believe to be a holy struggle.

"It's something that has pushed people to choose sides. We don't just observe right now. We're becoming more active," said cartoonist Spiros Derveniotis. He said he was laid off at the City Press newspaper for economic reasons this summer, but is counting on work in comics or foreign publications.

One of his images portrays what he calls the isolation of Greek leaders, showing a caricature of Prime Minister George Papandreou and government ministers, flanked by police, occupying a Parthenon-like structure as an angry mob pelts them with tomatoes and what appear to be gobs of yoghurt. Another cartoon displays a pair of hands shackled by two gold euro symbols, transformed into handcuffs.

The latter image describes "how we managed to make ourselves a golden cage. Being in the euro, and part of the European integration, was supposed to give us benefits," Derveniotis said. "Apart from that, it was also something that was taking, from a sovereign country, the tools to decide its path. Nowadays, it's becoming more and more apparent. Now it's official. We can't do anything on our own."

He cited Charlie Chaplin roles like the gold prospector as an influence for Greek cartoonists, as well as the Marx Brothers; the revolutionary mood of France in 1968, where some Greek cartoonists studied; Greece's military rule from 1967 to 1974, when cartoonists only hinted at touchy topics to avoid censorship or arrest; and an angry, aggressive tone that seems, well, quite Greek.

One image making the rounds is a doctored photograph of Papandreou in a black turtleneck, hand raised to his chin in the iconic pose of the late tech visionary, Steve Jobs. The caption refers to the Greek prime minister's turbulent tenure: "No Jobs, 2009-2011."

Students at a Greek high school compiled a cartoon calendar that skewers Germany, which is pushing Greece for austerity measures in return for loans, by recalling the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War II. An image depicts a euro symbol instead of a swastika on the Nazi flag, and another shows a German officer denying a last cigarette to a condemned man because of the high tax on tobacco.

"It may be exaggerated or considered as offensive to the Germans, but this kind of humor is part of our everyday life," said Elina Makri, an online commentator. "That may explain why one of my law university professors in France once said to me, 'Every time I come to Greece and I watch the news on TV, I am not surprised why drama and comedy were born in Greece.'"

Michael Kountouris, an editorial cartoonist for 25 years who has won international awards, said he valued the example set by the early 20th century Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who viewed art as a means to shape, rather than reflect, the world.

Kountouris prefers the power of image alone, letting the viewer, he said in an email, "find answers to questions that probably you haven't posed yet."

One drawing shows a forlorn man sitting on top of an ancient column submerged in water. Nearby, a polar bear floats on a small island of ice. In another picture, torch-bearing men in Ku Klux Klan-style hoods and robes stand at night around a flaming euro symbol, a stand-in for a burning cross.

"Until now, Greek cartoons had been dealing with the internal affairs of the country, matters that could even be unknown to the European reader. Lately, the subject we are working on has become of global concern," Kountouris wrote. "The crisis in Greece is turning into an institutional one, a political one, a lack of trust, of reliable information by the media, and last but not least, a lack of humanity."

Kountouris said he was dismissed from his job at the newspaper Eleftheros Typos this month. The newspaper declined to comment.

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