November 10, 1997
No Space for this MooseAn anti-feminist cartoon is suppressed at the U of A
By day, Adam Thrasher works toward his University of Alberta doctorate in biomedical engineering: he helps design systems which may one day allow paraplegics to walk with the help of robotic prostheses. By night, his work is somewhat less charitable in spirit. He is the author of Space Moose, a cartoon visited 10,000 times a month on the World Wide Web and run weekly in the University of Alberta Gateway. Space Moose is a festival of caricatured scatology, violence, perversion, irreligion and even pedophilia. It has stimulated outrage before, but in five years the university had never suppressed the strip, despite lampoons of University institutions, Trekkies, the mentally retarded, and Christians. Only one group, it seems, has the clout to make the university turn censor.
On October 2, the Gateway ran a Space Moose cartoon making fun of Take Back the Night, an annual women-only inter-city protest against male violence. The opening panel showed the strip's antiheroes. Space Moose and Billy the Bionic Badger, loading and cleaning automatic weapons. As the strip unfolds, Space explains "Since antiquity, Man has ruled the night...l'll be damned if I let them take that away!" The next week's strip depicted Space Moose and Billy gunning down feminists in exaggerated Marvel Comics fashion, eventually getting captured by a bulletproof Hulk-like woman. In subsequent weeks, Space and Billy escaped a brutal "patriarchy correction" ward.
"Take Back the Night implies that there exists a gender war in which women must reclaim the night from their violent enemies, men," says Mr. Thrasher. "This ridiculous notion fosters fear by portraying all women as victims and blaming all men for the actions of rapists and murderers." The October 9 cartoon could not have made its political point without being violent, he insists. "The strip was intended to be an exaggerated, comicbook-style representation of the illusory 'gender war.'"
Gateway editor-in-chief Rose Yewchuk found the cartoon offensive and did not want to run it, but for the sake of story continuity she put Mr. Thrasher's World Wide Web address on the comics page so that Space Moose fans could find the missing cartoon and keep up.
However, by October 21, that move would land Ms. Yewchuk and Mr. Thrasher on the pages of nearly every Canadian daily newspaper. A group of female political science and sociology students complained to the university about the cartoon and the Gateway's pointer to it, provoking an emergency meeting of university officers. The university could not dictate to the self-financing students' union-run Gateway, but it decided to kick Mr. Thrasher's cartoon off the university's computer network.
There are no written guidelines for what constitutes "appropriate" use of university webspace, admits acting dean of students Burton Smith. "Unless he has no sense of taste or right and wrong, Mr. Thrasher ought to know that this is an inappropriate use. The university's computers are not for putting cartoons on, they're not for having great debates on, they're not for attacking any particular group or philosophy. It's intended for academic work and research." What, then, of university sites celebrating frivolities like supermodels and TV sitcoms? "Well, we extend a great deal of latitude as long it doesn't cause distress on the campus," says Prof. Smith.
The cartoonist fled to a new website, spacemoose.com, furnished by a sympathetic Edmonton net provider. From that platform, Mr. Thrasher has challenged enemies by posting a series of past cartoons in which Space Moose attacks male bus patrons with a giant circular saw, beats a male nurse to death to escape a psychiatric hospital, and slashes male student politicians' throats with a knife. The university did nothing on those occasions. "It is telling that there is so much uproar when women are depicted as victims of cartoon violence, but none whatsoever when men befall the moose's wrath," wrote Mr. Thrasher.
The university was also silent in 1996 when the strip accused Christians of "forcing their delusions on others" and referred to the Bible as "diarrhea." Tom Oosterhuis, the university's Christian Reformed chaplain and a Space Moose detractor, finds that curious. 'There's no doubt feminists get more attention than Christians," says Mr. Oosterhuis. '"Whether that's a prejudice on the part of the university is another question... certainly individuals within the feminist structure are more willing than Christians to make such things power issues and use censorship."
Space Moose is the most popular comic strip in Gateway history. It received a citation for merit from a British computer magazine in 1995 and is popular in Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Last year, Space Moose ran for students' union president and finished third, collecting 1,400 votes. Mr. Thrasher has just published a 108-page Space Moose anthology entitled Triumph of the Whim. "The publicity can only help my book sales," he admits, "but the university has really delivered a blow to freedom of expression by banishing my cartoons."
The controversy may not be over, as Gateway editors have not yet heard from the students' union's "discipline, interpretation and enforcement" (DIE) board. The S.U.-controlled Gateway constitution forbids the publishing of sexist material, and feminists are likely to argue that editor Yewchuk did so by disseminating the cartoon's web address. Ironically, Ms. Yewchuk is herselfa staunch feminist. She still feels her compromise between censorship and freedom was proper, but she thinks her opponents are right about the cartoon.