Too Soon?

I recently received a letter from a fan (let’s call him “Tom”) who was disturbed and offended by a painting I had created. I’d like to share my response and open this subject up for some (hopefully) civilized discussion.

Here’s the e-mail:

Hello Mr. Stout,

I am a great admirer and long time fan of your incredible artwork.

However, in perusing your website recently I came across your “Happy Easter” print. I found this image disturbing and out of turn with the rest of your body of work. This depiction of Jesus Christ is, in my opinion, in poor taste and disgusting on a multitude of levels, not the “fun” kind of disgusting.

I’m all for artistic expression but I have to ask, what is the motivation behind this image? I’m truly curious what set of beliefs, feelings and experiences leads one to be compelled to create such an image?

Here’s my response:

Hi “Tom”,

Thank you for your interest in my work. I’m happy to explain one of my favorite pieces, as a few people have had your same reaction. Most of my friends, upon seeing it for the first time, laughed out loud and then told me I was going to burn in Hell. It is one of my most popular prints, by the way. Of course, explaining humor is the quickest way to make something funny become unfunny — but I’ll try, nevertheless.

First off, if you haven’t noticed over time, I can have a very dark and subversive sense of humor. For the most part, this has been expressed in my underground comix work, where no subject is off limits (Thank you, Robert Crumb). I have loved the dark humor of cartoonists Gahan Wilson, Charles Addams, Rodrigues and Sam Gross for all of my life.

I am also known for designing zombies (I was the production designer for the cult classic Return of the Living Dead). Years ago, I was commissioned to create a one-man show of zombie paintings for a prestigious gallery here in Los Angeles. For this show I decided to come up with a number of fresh takes on zombies and use them to parody popular culture. I created a zombie version of Grant Wood’s famous painting “American Gothic”, for example:

While ruminating on possible subjects for this show it occurred to me that, technically, Jesus was the first zombie, i. e., he was the first person we know of to die and then be brought back to life. Since parody was on my mind, I also included the Easter Bunny, a religious icon that actually pre-dates Christ (Christianity absorbed a lot of other religious cultures to make Christianity more appealing to the folks they were converting. The rabbit — and eggs — symbolized Spring fertility to the pagans. Since the pagans’ celebration took place roughly the same time as Christ’s resurrection, rabbits and eggs became part of the Easter celebration. The Christmas yule log and Christmas tree are other examples. Many fundamentalist Christians have strictly banned the Easter Bunny, Easter eggs, Christmas trees and all other forms of paganism from their Easter celebrations).

One of the trademarks of the zombies that I design is that they’re all happy. My zombie Jesus is no exception; by that big smile on his face it seems that he’s glad to be back.

There is currently an ongoing public debate about “crossing the line”, humor-wise. I agree with nearly all of the professional comedians who feel that there is no line, that every subject is up for grabs and nothing should be taboo. That flies in the face of devout Muslims, for example, who hold that any depiction of the prophet Mohammad is disrespectful and forbidden. Many feel that such disrespect should be punished with death. My friends at Charlie Hebdo paid that terrible price, even though they were expressing themselves in what most Europeans consider a free society.

Many of the comedians agreed that the Holocaust is off limits for humor — right before telling some very funny Holocaust jokes (A German officer is trying to sell Jews on boarding the train to Auschwitz by singing the praises of how wonderful it is: “Auschwitz? They should have named it ‘WOWshwitz!”).

One of my favorite Hitler jokes was told to me by one of my closest Jewish friends:

Hitler was famously a vegetarian and a tee-totaler (this is true).

Q: Why did Adolph Hitler never drink?

A: It made him mean.

I got into the most trouble for an album cover I created back in 1981 for Rhino Records. The LP was entitled BeatleSongs. It did not contain any songs written by the Beatles; it was a collection of songs about the Beatles. I decided the cover should be a cross section of Beatles fans at a Beatlemania convention. I felt it would be incomplete if I didn’t include the fan who actually “collected” one of the Beatles, so standing far left is Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s assassin.

You might have missed this other visual Christmas/crucifixion joke of mine. Here it is. You can be choose to be offended or you can laugh.

I hope you laugh.

Bill

Friends, fans — What do you think?

11 Responses to “Too Soon?”

  1. Gary V. says:

    Well explained. Will Elder would have been proud.

  2. Diane O'Bannon says:

    Your stuff is funny, intelligent, well thought out, not tossed off with insult intended. Your point of view is as legitimate as anyone else’s.

  3. Rick Catizone says:

    Bill, as you know, I greatly appreciate your friendship and love nearly every piece you have ever created. While you say it is similar to your American Gothic piece, I find a huge abyss between them. I don’t mind lampooning a classic painting for an editorial point. The difference is that no one knows those people and they don’t have any special significance for anyone.

    Now, I did find the Easter piece offensive at the time (and still do). So hopefully you will understand my view, and what I would expect would be the view of any Christian. Out of all your magnificent art, I find it hard to believe that this is your best seller. It tells me we are in far deeper trouble than I thought. I cannot fathom any Christian or really anyone of any religious stripe who would buy it. I certainly wouldn’t buy a piece mocking Mohammed or Buddha even if I had a dark moment and thought it humorous. We all have dark comedy moments or thoughts; many shouldn’t be voiced.

    The thing is, Jesus Christ was not resurrected as any type of corpse, but as far as His human side, a fully healthy human. He was not a zombie in any sense, even tho’ I know the point you were trying to play on. This was God in human form sharing His love with all and healing them both physically and spiritually. He came to overcome sin and death and gave His life willingly to save us by paying our sin debt that none of us can pay. He went to one of the most tortuous deaths imaginable, because He loves us so much. To see THAT man portrayed as a zombie, or even just emaciated human (tho’ seemingly alive) robs the reality of what is recorded and turns it into a mockery. It also makes it seem that He wasn’t victorious but that Death had a major impact on Him, when He is the Author of Life. According to those who saw Him, ate with Him, touched Him, etc., He was not a shell of His former self in any sense.

    Now, I know there are those who do not believe that He was God, and others don’t even believe He even existed (altho’ virtually every real historian says it would be foolish to claim such). And over the last few decades especially, it has become fashionable to try and say Jesus was built on Mithras and other legends, when in fact if one really researches finds that many of the original myths have been changed in large part, or are now reinterpreted using Christian terms even tho’ the original legends differ greatly. But whether one has deeply investigated and come to the conclusion that there is no more attestable fact than Jesus Christ and His resurrection or not, I personally find it a poor choice to subvert an historical founder of a faith, especially one regarded as such a loving and compassionate person. I don’t say any of this lightly, because I don’t want to seem like I am trying to offend you with my statements. I certainly have enough personal connections to zombie and horror films, so it isn’t that I don’t get zombies or think every illustration with a zombie has some occultic connection. But you asked an honest question, and this is my honest response, trying to say how I as a Christian view this.

    All the Best Always,
    Rick

  4. Sam Park says:

    Bill,

    I was at that first Zombie show. I loved the satire expressed through culture. This painting does not offend me in the least. I’m more interested in your incredible skill in producing it.

    Sam

  5. bruce says:

    Bill,

    Keep doing what you do! There will always be people who have to over analyze everything and cannot find humor in what is clearly meant to be humor.

  6. James Danky says:

    No limits, please. Love your work.

  7. Rick Tucker says:

    Bill,

    I laughed out loud when I first saw the Easter painting. I loved the references to Zombie Jesus on Futurama too. I do not think religion is sacred, in fact, I KNOW it’s not by way of those who claim to be devout. I’m not telling people to quit their faith, that’s their business, but a public figure is a public figure. If someone knocks on my door to tell me about “The Lord” I’m obliged to tell them what’s wrong with both knocking on a stranger’s door and their belief system. I would never walk into their church and tell them how to think because, unlike them, I respect their right to believe as they wish as long as it doesn’t affect me.
    I’m a former Catholic who was slated for the priesthood as a boy. I did all the rituals including speaking Latin I never understood as an alter boy (who was never molested by any priest). My entering the priesthood faded as I started asking direct and pertinent questions when attending catechism classes.
    Anyway, bottom line, like you, and many very funny and wise people there’s nothing sacred. Humor breaks both ways and takes no prisoners. People have died and been killed as the price of that freedom and suppressing it because it offends someone is going to lead to a lot of suppression.
    I may not believe in Jesus Christ, but I do like thing like the parables and sermon on the mount. The man/prophet portrayed in those stories has never struck me as thin skinned or in need of protecting. That goes for Mohammad, Buddha, all the gods in the Rig Veda, and the thousands of others no longer popular in global culture. If they exist/existed no mortal could speak for them. Indeed, like the pantheon of Greek gods, they’d just wreck the lives of those mortals who fell out of favor. There’s no need for mortal defenders which, really is an offensive concept- that any short lived, walking corpse of a human needs to speak for the gods who allegedly made them and every other damn thing (imagine an ant speaking for a human being and it’s still less insulting as an idea).

    So, pun away. You can’t please all the people all the time. Don’t even try. Keep doing what you do best and stay honest. It’s never been easy, but if it was, it wouldn’t be as much fun.

    Rick Tucker

  8. John Cosgriff says:

    I am thankful I live in a country where freedom of expression, any expression, is allowed. Can you imagine if artists, writers, and creatives, of all types, only created works which were inoffensive? What sort of homogenous pap would we have then? If we said, “Christians, or Muslims, or people who don’t like sex or violence, or don’t like ideas that challenge their sensitivities won’t like this, so let’s not do that.” You’d have a blank sheet of paper, that’s what. If you don’t like something, move on, there’s plenty of inoffensive stuff for you to look at. Pull your chair up to a nice Thomas Kinkade painting, and have a glass of milk, but don’t come down on someone who doesn’t share your sensibilities.

  9. Aaron says:

    Howdy Mr. Stout,

    Well, I have to say I’m not a big fan of the Easter zombie painting. Part of it is it touches a Christian nerve, and also I’m just not a fan of zombies. I said (in a sermon once) that zombies are the most boring monsters imaginable. My reason for that is the modern zombie (that came along with Night of the Living Dead) just doesn’t have a good legendary back story, and no real literary classic source like Frankenstein or Dracula. The traditional zombie of voodoo legend I found rather interesting, but when it comes down to it, I really only love the cinematic portrayal of zombies in Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies. I still love your work, and Gahan Wilson’s, and Charles Adams’ as well. Parody and irony do indeed have their place in art. And let’s face it, God is a pretty large target.
    P. S. I realize that The Creature from the Black Lagoon also lacks and foundations in legend or literature, but c’mon, he’s practically a dinosaur. Dinosaurs are always cool.

    Christ is risen! Happy Easter, Aaron

  10. James Van Hise says:

    Although the Beatlesongs cover seems quaint now, wasn’t the problem that it was only one year after John Lennon died and you didn’t let Rhino Records in on the joke until after it blew up in their face? I recall that the LA Weekly did an item about the album cover and they said they’d received an “anguished” letter from you, though they didn’t publish it.

  11. Scott Rosema says:

    Actually, my favorite part is the little splash of blood on the pink bunny’s head. It’s like the old saying, “Location, location, location ….”

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