It is tragic and sickening, yet in a way, fitting that the name “Charlie Hebdo” has been made world-famous by terrorist murderers who sought to silence the satirical magazine, whose headquarters was the site of an attack that claimed 12 lives. In “avenging” the offense committed against them — the publication of cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammad — the gunmen succeeded only in multiplying it exponentially. The name Charlie Hebdo (as well as the phrase “Je suis Charlie”) has become a defiant rallying cry against the enemies of free expression who carried out the attack, and the magazine’s work is being seen by millions more people than otherwise would have.
The canonization of Charlie Hebdo‘s writers and cartoonists is completely understandable, given the nature and extent of their sacrifice. There is no other side of the argument between free expression and murder. They weren’t saints, though, and nothing is more illustrative of that than the story behind their name. If you’re going to be Charlie, you might as well know who Charlie is.
The magazine began life as a proudly “stupid and nasty” monthly named Hara-Kiri in the 1960s, which spun off a weekly version in 1969. Hara-Kiri Hebdo (“hebdo” is short for “hebdomadaire,” which means “weekly”) would be more focused on current events, as it was on November 16, 1970. Jut two weeks earlier, on November 1, 1970, a tragic, disastrous fire at the 5-7 nightclub in Saint-Laurent-du-Pont caused the deaths of 146 people, and shocked the entire nation. When former French President Charles de Gaulle died suddenly of natural causes barely a week later, Hara-Kiri Hebdo announced the news with this cover:
Roughly translated, it means “Tragic Ball in Colombey – 1 Dead,” a too-soon joke so too-soon, it got the magazine banned for sale to minors by French Minister of the Interior Raymond Marcellin. One week later, Charlie Hebdo was born, a new incarnation of the “stupid and nasty” weekly named after the late Charles de Gaulle and another Charlie: Charlie Brown. Another French magazine devoted to cartoons, “Charlie Mensuel (monthly)” was named for Charles M. Schultz’s famous character, and was itself a takeoff of the Italian magazine Linus.
It’s a wonderfully twisted origin story, and it captures something that is often lost in the translation of provocateurs to legend: as is often the case, these weren’t noble, righteous crusaders for freedom, they were rude. We rightly cheer the epic middle finger they gave to these murdering scumbags, but they also, you know, doodled Mohammad’s taint. Is there anything more fitting than that they were named after the guy whose death they made fun of too soon?