Small world: I found out only weeks ago that a British colleague with whom I’d exchanged friendly messages over the years is the anonymous artist behind Jesus and Mo, the acidly witty comic strip featuring two self-obsessed prophets. Every month, the Freethinker publishes a new installment, but the two roomies’ divine black-and-white adventures can also be found in six Jesus and Mo books – and on their own website, which is updated twice a week.
Since its launch, a little over eight years ago, the atheism-influenced comic has attracted some prominent admirers. Richard Dawkins praises Jesus (I’m tempted to stop here for effect) and Mo, saying the gruesome twosome and their creator provide some of the
… shrewdest, wittiest, most critically penetrating running commentary on the absurdities of contemporary religion.
Fans also include novelist Salman Rushdie, columnist Nick Cohen, biology professor Jerry Coyne, and, truth be told, me.
This month, over in England, Jesus and Mo became something a flashpoint in a national debate over free speech, censorship, and religious accommodation. You can read up on the tumult here.
I asked Jesus and Mo‘s creator if he would answer your questions and mine. “Gladly,” he said.
Allow me to start us off.
“It was right after the start of the Danish toons controversy — the shit didn’t really hit the fan until January or February of the next year, after months of determined campaigning by Danish imams. I’d been harboring thoughts of a religious satire comic featuring Jesus and Mo for ages, and I think the early stages of that particular controversy acted as the catalyst that kicked me into action. It was [Islam's] ludicrous depiction taboo that provided the strip’s first joke.”
Were you at all concerned at that time that you’d be making matters worse, adding fuel to the fire?
“Jesus and Mo had already been going for a couple of months before the fire really got started. There was a spike in traffic for a few weeks, but in the grand scheme of things Jesus and Mo carried on relatively unnoticed. I suppose it is possible that the comic was ‘adding fuel to the fire,’ but what’s the alternative?”
What do you get out of drawing Jesus and Mo?
“It’s always fun to make something, and it’s especially fun if somebody else likes it. I enjoy making people laugh and I get a warm glow when a comic is appreciated. A simple ‘LOL’ in the comments or a Tweet can make my day. That’s how sad I am.”
How did you define success when you started Jesus and Mo? Have you achieved what you set out to do — in terms of creativity, public debate, income?
“I counted it a success when I received my first LOL. The public debate it has caused is a bonus — albeit with a dark edge. But it’s always good to get people to talk. I make very little money from it, but that was never the point.”
Do you make the comic strip deliberately provocative?
“It’s meant to provoke laughter, so in that sense yes. However, I have to admit that the potential offense of an imagined religious reader also adds an element of humor — of a childish, sniggering variety. But I think it’s important to remind people of a religious persuasion who might be upset or offended by Jesus and Mo that it is not for them. They are not the intended audience, so to complain that they find it hurtful or offensive is irrelevant. Why are they looking at it?”
What are the most memorable reactions you’ve had — from the Christian side and from the Muslim side?
“The strip inspired a nun to start her own comic. She thanked Jesus and Mo in the acknowledgements of her first print collection. I’m always surprised when any religious person writes to tell me they enjoy the comic, and I’ve had quite a few Muslims do so.”
“I’m slightly embarrassed and irritated by my anonymity. It’s very restricting, and if I didn’t have a young family I would probably go public. There are some deranged fanatics out there, and I can’t countenance putting anyone I care about in danger. If I was on my own, I’d brazen it out.”
The assistant comments editor at the U.K. Telegraph, Tom Chivers, wrote last week, “I’m afraid I’m not going to reprint a Jesus and Mo cartoon, out of simple cowardice and the desire for a quiet life.” Can you appreciate his position? What would you like to say to him?
“I appreciate his support, and his honesty about his reasons for not reprinting. There is a risk of overestimating the actual danger, however, and I think Tom probably has done this. I doubt he would have come to any harm had he reprinted, and it would have been a feather in the cap of the Telegraph. But I don’t blame him, and I’m in no position to criticize, being scrupulously anonymous myself.”
What do you make of the fact that the current controversy surrounding Maajid Nawaz focuses on perhaps the most innocuous drawing you’ve ever done, rather than on one of your more overtly blasphemous comics?
“It shows that the whole business is not about the comic, but rather a personal attack on Maajid Nawaz. It’s revealing that the original image was so inoffensive that Shafiq and Ansar had to lie about Nawaz linking back to jesusandmo.net in his Tweet.[Mohammed Shafiq is the chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation; Mohammed Ansar is a Muslim commentator associated with the Muslim Council of Britain — TF]. That enabled them to pin Jesus and Mo as a whole on him — though even that wasn’t enough, apparently, as Shafiq told the BBC that the comic depicted them ‘having gay sex’! They are evidently shameless rabble-rousers who regard self-promotion as a higher ideal than truth.”
What do you think of Channel 4 placing a black blob over Mo during its news broadcast on Tuesday, to avoid ‘causing offense’?
“I was appalled. They effectively took the side of the fanatics in a debate which they were supposed to report impartially. They did U.K. Muslims as a whole, and liberal Muslims in particular, a grave disservice by implying that they are all hyper-sensitive theocrats. It was a dreadful journalistic decision. My latest cartoon is about it.”
Your turn. Please start your question (in the comments) with this string: J&MQ. That way, it’s easy for our guest to find your query and answer it.
Our AMA is not a real-time event à la those pioneered by Reddit. Jesus and Mo‘s creator has agreed to pop in and out over the next day or so. He’s on GMT (five hours ahead of New York, eight hours ahead of Los Angeles), so please make allowances for that time difference — and be patient. Now ask away, and for his sake, don’t forget to drop in a couple of LOLs!