Not just for laughs

Just as internationally renowned Turkish soap operas peak through closed doors to reveal people’s private matters, satirical magazines have been a reflection of Turkey’s public sphere since Ottoman times.

 text by Marzena Romanowska for BRIDGE

The popularity of humor cartoon magazines in Turkey is a true social phenomenon. Similar publications in Europe occupy a market niche and don’t sell more than a few thousand copies per month. Contemporary Turkish titles such as Penguen, Uykusuz and LeMan have a combined readership in print of nearly quarter of a million every week. Such magazines have been a part of Turkish culture for the past 150 years; despite never-ending obstacles from authorities, they have the unfailing support of readers. First voicing strong political opposition, their message changed alongside the authorities. As they cover complex range of issues today, their popularity also sees a complex trend.

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One title gave the genre new direction and became an undisputed element of modern culture: Gırgır was founded by the Aral brothers founded in 1972. The figures are disputed, but according to some sources, circulation reached a record 700,000 weekly copies at the height of its popularity. That makes it the biggest in terms of circulation in Turkey and the third biggest in the world after American MAD and Soviet Krokodil. It brought up the current generation of Turkish cartoonists not only in terms of practical skills, but also work ethic and editorial responsibility. Oğuz Aral mentored many of today’s renowned caricaturists, including Hasan Kaçan, whose “Eşşek Herif” was one of Gırgır’s most popular series, and Latif Demirci, who is currently drawing for one of Turkey’s biggest dailies, Hürriyet. He also mentored Metin Üstündağ, better known from his signature as Met Üst, one of the founders of Penguen.

MK Perker's sketch of himself and Met Üst for the Penguen's series "Çorbacıda Bitsin Bütün Sabahlar"

MK Perker’s sketch of himself and Met Üst for the Penguen’s series “Çorbacıda Bitsin Bütün Sabahlar”

Met Üst is for many young caricaturists what Gırgır’s Oğuz Aral was to him: a teacher. “We have a master-protégée relationship in the magazine,” he explains the basic rule of the system, which has raised generation upon generation of Turkish cartoonists. More experienced colleagues give the newest illustrators direction in many ways. “People we grew up with are not only our colleagues, but they are also our ‘abi’ (big brother) and ‘abla’ (big sister). If I say or do anything stupid or start showing off, they smack me in the head and tell me to get a hold of myself,” says M.K. Perker, internationally renowned illustrator and one of the permanent Penguen contributor. Although his works have been published in every illustrator’s dream titles, including The New York Times, The New Yorker and MAD, he talks about the process with modesty, as does his mentor. “There is that kind of fame that comes with the job, but we grew up in very modest operation,” Met Üst says. What does he need to put a magazine together? “One computer and a few drawing boards, that’s all.”

Coloring in the lines

Although it might seem like there are no taboos for the Penguen team, there are discreet, self-imposed boundaries as a result of lessons learned from Oğuz Aral. “There is an unwritten rule that says we should take the weaker side,” Met Üst explains. “If we’re writing about the relationship between teacher and student, we are on the student’s side. If we’re showing parents and children, we are on the children’s side. We don’t side with the rich or the strong, but with those who are being suppressed by the system,” he says. “This is what helps us not to cross the lines. And this scale has never failed us.”

Such unwritten rules are taught on the job. Instead of getting a pep talk, new artists spend the time with the team to observe and learn. “We don’t prep them, but they can see how we react to certain situations or stories that we work on,” M.K. Perker says. “This is how they understand our stance on things.” It is important to set clear rules from the beginning as many cartoonists become involved at a very young age. M.K. Perker took his first steps at Gırgır when he was still at school. “Today the youngest cartoonist at Penguen is 23. At his age I had already been professional for seven years,” he says.

Penguen always keeps its door open for amateurs. They can send their work to the office or come in person to get feedback from their favorite editors. The best amateur examples are published weekly in the Yumurtalar section.

What the fans demand

The ultimate judgment comes from readers. Even the impressive circulation numbers do not reflect the actual popularity of Turkish humor magazines. Both Uykusuz and Penguen have more than a million likes on Facebook each – numbers not matched by any other Turkish periodical.

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Many of the current readers have been hooked since their childhood encounters with their favorite titles. “At book fairs, festivals or conventions, these are the people who queue for our autographs,” M.K. Perker says. Anyone who has attended the Istanbul Book Fair knows that few novelists and authors can draw a line as long as these cartoonists.

Istanbul-born Erkut Akgün, who has been a faithful reader of humor magazines for more than 20 years, was familiar with Gırgır since before he could read, so he made up his own dialogues. “Reading Gırgır was a cool thing that only big kids could do. I had to do it too,” he recalls. Children’s preferences regarding magazines varied a bit from those of adult readers. “Fırt and Çarşaf were my favorites due to their light nudity. As one can imagine it was something important for a 7-to-10-year-old kid.”

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Readers all have their own personal stories and memories about satirical magazines. Favorite characters from childhood? “Avni, Deli Ziya and Nafi made me laugh a lot,” says Ahu Erdal, who used to read Gırgır as a teenager. Nafi was based on Private Zero from American comic strip “Beetle Bailey,” but the other characters are Turkish originals. Deli Ziya from the “Eşşek Herif” series was an insane (deli in Turkish) homeless man, whose life revolved around the stone he used to sit on. The name of the fearless child a shantyhouse, Avni Avanak, would later become the title of a satirical magazine published by Oğuz Aral in 1990-1996. “I was also very fond of reading Atilla Atalay’s jokes every week and telling them to my friends at school,” Erdal adds.

Izmir-native Senem Kale remembers taking a stack of magazines with her when moving to Ankara to start university. She sometimes returns to older copies that bring back memories. “It’s like a family album,” she says.

The cartoonists are also nostalgic about early reading experiences. Met Üst compares reading time to time spent with a lover. “When I was a kid, Gırgır used to come out on Fridays. It was a very special time,” he says. He would make himself tea or coffee and spend a whole night pouring over the latest issue.

Root of the joke

Basic recognition of the country’s customs and traditions is crucial to understanding the jokes, including the very first ones told by the famous “father of Turkish humour,” Nasreddin Hoca, who is believed to have lived in 13th century’s Akşehir, Konya. As much as storytelling is national exercise, as M.K. Perker claims, one can never be sure whether a joke is going to get you a laugh or a punch in the face. People’s habits and daily routines, often a source of frustration for many, gain a new dimension when captured in a cartoon frame. “Turkish humor doesn’t reference ideas, but comes from the lifestyle itself. It all comes from the way people speak, their gestures and so on. It’s situational,” he explains.

Every new title takes humor in a new direction. Very often a new publication is a spinoff from members of an old team. “People left Limon [a magazine launched by Met Üst after his departure from Gırgır] to make a more political magazine. That’s how LeMan started. Later others left LeMan to make a funnier magazine,” Met Üst explains dynamics in the industry. “There is always someone who wants to go in a new direction. They often remind you of where you wanted to go when you were young.”

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Many satirical magazines are competitors in theory, but in practice all the cartoonists are on the same side of the barricade. “Everyone knows each other, sometimes from childhood. People grow up, leave the magazines to start their own projects but the relationship continues,” Met Üst explains. “For example, Uykusuz came out of Penguen. Sometimes we sell more, sometimes they sell more, but this generally feeds both of us.”

Support is especially visible in the most difficult of times. When newspaper cartoonist Musa Kart depicted the prime minister as a cat, which resulted in legal charges, Penguen ran a cover with the prime minister’s face on all kinds of animals. “We looked like heroes, because we were defending the cartoonist and putting ourselves in danger,” Met Üst says. Such examples are common. When M.K. Perker’s magazine Harakiri was shut down, LeMan published a cartoon about it. It also stood by Penguen when their office was set on fire. “Even though we are rivals with other magazines, we know they come from the same family tree and we look out for each other,” M.K. Perker says.

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MK Perker’s sketch of himself and Met Üst for Penguen magazine

Penguen is very proud of its independent status and, according to Met Üst, this is the magazine’s biggest strength. “We’re not part of a big media company. You can easily sell ads with the circulation we have, but we don’t. This is why people respect us,” he says. History shows that business interest doesn’t pair well with a satire magazine’s mission. The departure of Oğuz Aral and many of the staff after Gırgır was taken over by a large publishing group caused a massive drop in the circulation and eventual closure of the magazine in 1993.

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Drawing by MK Perker for Penguen magazine

None of the readers BRIDGE consulted could explain the social phenomenon of Turkish satirical magazines. It is as if they were part of the country’s genetic material. Getting the weekly dose of printed humor seems as natural as having tea after a meal. “The children of Nasreddin Hoca” are educating the next generation of readers to make sure the tradition of printed satire continues. “People have humor bond in their DNA. When they get together they always joke, but you never know how this might end up,” M.K. Perker sums up.

Brief History of Turkish satirical magazines

 

1869/70 – The first magazine, Diyojen, is published by cartoonist Teodor Kasap and author and playwright Namık Kemal

 

1908-14 – Satirical magazines boom with more than 50 new Turkish titles, as well as many local magazines in Greek, Armenian and French

 

1914 – A new trend featuring satire on the Ottoman reign; most popular title: Karikatur

 

1922 – Launch of Akbaba, Turkey’s longest-running satirical magazine, which shut down in 1977

 

1946 – The character Marko Paşa is introduced in a magazine under the same title created by Aziz Nesin and Sabahattin Ali; the character has since been reincarnated by many other cartoonists under various names.

 

1972 – Launch of Gırgır magazine, which was published under the direction of Oğuz Aral until 1989

 

1991 – Mehmet Çağçağ and Tuncay Akgün leave Limon magazine to create LeMan

 

2002 – Metin Üstündağ, Selçuk Erdem, Erdil Yaşaroğlu and Bahadır Baruter start Penguen

 

2007 –Uykusuz is launched by Yiğit Özgür, Ersin Karabulut, Oky, Umut Sarıkaya, Uğur Gürsoy and Memo Tembelçizer

 

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