Physicist Stephen Hawking passed away this week at the age of 76 and I distributed many editorial cartoon tributes to newspapers. Readers love memorial cartoons, often passing along their warm feelings about a celebrity to the cartoonist. We get more fan mail from memorial cartoons than anything else we draw.
Hawking’s memorials have drawn more criticism than praise. Some cartoonists have drawn the professor ascending into heaven – even though Hawking was an atheist and didn’t believe in heaven. We saw the same thing some years ago when Apple founder Steve Jobs, a Buddhist, was depicted in scores of cartoons at the Pearly Gates.
Many other cartoons depict Hawking rising out of his wheelchair, ascending to the stars. Pennsylvania cartoonist, Sean Delonas, drew Hawking leaving his wheelchair behind and walking up a starry stairway. Others show Hawking flying, among the stars, above his wheelchair.
Hawking was an advocate for the rights of the disabled. He was quoted in Science Digest saying, “My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics … Indeed, they have helped me in a way by shielding me from lecturing and administrative work that I would otherwise have been involved in.”
Critics of the images on social media make the point that Hawking was defined by his ideas rather than his disability. Some saw the wheelchair as part of who Hawking was and were troubled to see Hawking’s “identity” functionally erased in the images.
In a Los Angeles Times article, Jessica Roy writes, “Showing Hawking leaving his wheelchair behind implies that being in a wheelchair is something to escape. But Hawking’s wheelchair didn’t confine him. With a sophisticated onboard computer, it enabled him to work, to travel, to write and to lecture.”
Austrian cartoonist Marian Kamensky took the arguments about Hawking’s disability to heart by drawing a cartoon showing Hawking in his wheelchair in the sky, saying “No thanks” to an angel who is offering him wings – a sentiment that was sensitive to Hawkings handicap, but not Hawking’s atheism.
When it comes to memorial cartoons, cartoonists need to fly, wheel and walk a fine line.