Comics and Critics

The student at the center of a UA cartoon controversy says he wanted to make people think

Joseph Topmiller would like you to know that he is not a monster.

The UA senior created the "No Relation" strip that used to have a home on the comics page of the Arizona Daily Wildcat. Topmiller grew up in Scottsdale, with kind parents who taught him to care about others, he says.

On Oct. 9, Topmiller was thrown into an unexpected spotlight for drawing a comic he says he loved, and thought was intelligent and funny. The "No Relation" cartoon depicted a credit-card receipt for a restaurant with a 7 percent tip and the signature "Mark Goldfarb." At the bottom, it said, "Attention all crappy tipping Jews!!!! Just because you're 'screwing' the server ... does not mean that it's a mitzvah." (For those not up to speed with Yiddish, "mitzvah" is a good deed.)

As a result, Topmiller was called a monster, an anti-Semite and a racist.

Topmiller says that within 24 hours, the cartoon was featured on CNN, and later earned the focus of local media. Although local and national media outlets said they were unable to contact Topmiller, the Tucson Weekly contacted him through his MySpace page. Topmiller says he was always available and wanted to comment, but no one figured out how to reach him.

Topmiller's cartoon picked on almost everyone during its tenure in Wildcat. The cartoon took shots at Mormons, the LBGT community and even quadriplegics. The Oct. 9 cartoon, however, set into motion a debate on prejudice, newspaper ethics and the First Amendment.

Critics of the cartoon say it focused on age-old stereotypes that Jews are cheap. It reminded others of old Nazi propaganda that used cartoons to communicate anti-Jewish messages in newspapers.

On Oct. 10, the day after the comic was published, Allison Hornick, the Wildcat's editor in chief, published a statement of apology and an explanation that the comic "attempts to take common stereotypes and misconceptions and mock not only the stereotype itself, but also the people who believe in them." Hornick wrote that the comic did not intend to offend, and its views didn't represent those of the Wildcat.

Five days after the comic was published, the Wildcat issued a second apology in an editorial that stated, "Publishing the cartoon was a mistake, and failing to recognize the offense it would cause was an error in judgment." The editorial touched on the fact that the Wildcat is an independent newspaper that will continue to maintain its independence in what it publishes and who it employs.

The week after the cartoon hoopla, Topmiller says, he decided to focus his comics on sexually transmitted diseases, thinking the clap and Chlamydia wouldn't offend. But people still complained, and Topmiller was fired, with his comic pulled from the newspaper and its Web site.

It wasn't the first time Topmiller was fired. After the comic's first 11 days in the Wildcat, Topmiller was asked to leave after complaints regarding some gay-themed cartoons, as well as one that had the word "MORON" with the sentence, "If you squint hard, it looks like Mormon."

During his week away, Topmiller says, letters and calls in support of "No Relation" made the Wildcat editorial staff reconsider its decision, and "No Relation" returned.

"I was called so many names," Topmiller says. It was ironic to Topmiller when people started calling him homophobic, considering he is gay--with a nice Jewish boyfriend, no less.

"But that's the one thing I haven't done: I haven't called anyone names in my comic. I take certain stereotypes and certain situations and bring up something completely unrelated to (them). That's what the title was based on. And I thought it made people think."

Once Topmiller returned to the Wildcat, he says, the editorial staff put a system in place to check his comics for offensive material. Topmiller says he agreed to the process and made changes as requested.

"My whole thing was to go through a strict screening process. That was my deal. I said, 'I don't want to change my tone, but you can x-up my comics until you approve them.' We were really trying to be really safe," Topmiller says.

Then came the Oct. 9 strip. Topmiller claims an assistant coach from the men's basketball team threatened to deny the Wildcat access to the team unless Topmiller was fired.

"It was really sad, mostly sad to see how vicious people are," Topmiller says. "Everyone on the staff is nice--good-hearted, kind people."

The firing of Topmiller brought another round of criticism aimed at the Wildcat. Letters to the editor accused those who complained about the comic of not supporting the First Amendment. They were also angry at the Wildcat for dropping the comic.

Mark Woodhams, the director of Arizona Student Media, says the Wildcat, like many newspapers, learned that it's impossible to please everyone. Now, weeks after the comic was published, Woodhams says the staff wishes the controversy would disappear.

But that's not happening. A petition started by two UA students, Rob Lattin and Jeremy Reitman, asked for a formal apology in the Wildcat and requested that all Student Media staff members--including the personnel of KAMP AM 1570 and the Wildcat--take sensitivity training. Topmiller says he feels organizers of the petition would also like to see Hornick removed as editor of the newspaper.

The online petition, hosted at the Web site of Hillel Foundation, a Jewish student organization, has received about 1,500 online signatures. Lattin and Reitman say they participated in a meeting with Hillel officials and the Wildcat editorial staff to discuss the comic; an apology and training was discussed.

"We've heard all the (Student) Media departments will have to take some type of ethics workshop," Lattin says. "We want to follow up and make sure our efforts do not go to waste."

However, Woodhams says there will not be any sensitivity training. Helping editorial staff and reporters think smarter is the solution, not re-education, Woodhams says, adding that he plans to sit down with editorial staffers to discuss how to prevent this kind of problem from happening again.

Hornick didn't return calls and an e-mail request for an interview by press time, but Woodhams says it's important to know that the editor is responsible for all content of the newspaper, not Woodhams or the UA. The paper isn't part of the UA Journalism Department, but is independent, run by students who are paid through the newspaper's advertising revenues.