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Turkish Magazine Has the Last Laugh

Publishing: Weathering a national recession and government-imposed fines, the political humor periodical LeMan continues to prosper.


ISTANBUL, Turkey — "A laugh a day is as good as eating a juicy lamb chop," goes an old Turkish adage. As Turks struggle with a severe economic crisis, few can afford meat these days, but many are laughing at their own woes thanks to a cheeky political cartoon magazine called LeMan.

No subject is too sacred or sensitive for the biting pen strokes of Turkey's most widely circulated weekly: not the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., nor militant Islam, nor police repression of Turkey's ethnic Kurds. Even Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's revered founder, is not spared.

A recent LeMan cover showed Spiderman, Superman and Batman fleeing New York as the twin towers of the World Trade Center crumbled. "Using American cartoon characters was our way of expressing solidarity," said Tuncay Akgun, a bespectacled cartoonist sporting pink velvet pants.

Akgun, 39, who with fellow cartoonist Mehmet Cagcag launched the magazine in 1990, describes LeMan's mission as "shattering all accepted norms, conventions and ideologies and in so doing make our readers laugh."

The formula works. As a months-old recession continues to shrink the sales of Turkey's largest newspapers and magazines, LeMan's circulation has held steady at an average 90,000 copies.

At 30 cents an issue, LeMan remains affordable to the average Turk. And it turns a profit despite a policy of accepting no advertising.

"We want our editorial line to remain uncompromisingly independent and ethical," Cagcag, 42, said in an interview at the magazine's headquarters inside a pink building. The offices are in Beyoglu, a Bohemian neighborhood of Istanbul.

"I read LeMan because it says so many of the things I think every day but never have the courage to say," said Mehmet Devrim, 18, a philosophy student.

Successive governments have launched dozens of court cases and imposed heavy fines on LeMan because of its portrayal of corrupt politicians and repressive police officers. Broadcasting or publishing ideas deemed to "undermine the security and unity of the Turkish state" is an offense that often lands journalists, academics and politicians in jail and raises questions about Turkey's bid to join the European Union.

A less risky but equally popular staple of the magazine is its satirical written commentaries on Turkey's internal clash of cultures--between the millions of migrants from the religiously conservative Anatolian heartland and the urban Turks typified by Istanbul's disco-going, miniskirted wannabe Europeans. LeMan has invented a vocabulary to depict this clash, and the words have permeated everyday speech.

"Zonta" is among the most widely used. Coined by LeMan cartoonist Guneri Icoglu, the word means a hairy, potbellied Anatolian hick who typically seeks to woo sophisticated urban women through tasteless displays of his newly acquired wealth.

"LeMan's sociological impact on Turkish youth is indisputable," said Hasan Unal Nalbantoglu, a sociology professor at Ankara's Middle East Technical University who uses the magazine as course material.

Market surveys show that the average LeMan reader is between 18 and 25 years old and that more than half are women. In a country where three of every five people are younger than 35, LeMan's success will endure, Nalbantoglu predicts.

LeMan's roots go back to another legendary cartoon magazine, Girgir, which was born three decades ago during a period of repressive military rule. With thinly veiled jibes at generals and crooked politicians, Girgir's circulation rose to half a million copies in the mid-1970s.

Akgun and Cagcag honed their skills at Girgir. They broke away to found LeMan after deciding that readers needed what Cagcag calls "a new kind of realism."

That meant shedding the cautious symbolism espoused by the old school of Turkish cartoonists. Pointing to LeMan's long-running strip about torture in prisons, Akgun said: "We didn't just say, 'Oh, dear, there's torture in Turkey.' We drew it."

The new magazine was not an instant success.

"We were so poor," Akgun recalled, "that readers would send us food and cigarettes just to keep us going." Rats chewed up some of their drawing boards in the putrid Istanbul slum where they then had a studio. But within a year LeMan overtook Girgir, whose sales are now below the 10,000 mark.

Ulus Baker, an Ankara-based academic specializing in popular culture, says LeMan owes part of its commercial success to its growing proportion of explicitly sexual cartoons.

"These guys are losing their creative edge," Baker said.

LeMan's lawyers confirm that the majority of court cases launched against the magazine by prosecutors in recent months have been for alleged pornographic content, not contrarian political views.

Akgun and Cagcag deny they are compromising artistic integrity for financial gain and bristle at the notion that they are successful businessmen. Yet, undeniably, they are. They now have four other satirical magazines, a chain of cafes and a flourishing merchandising business.

Both acknowledge that LeMan is losing its originality and that readers are craving something fresh. So they have opened their pages to young cartoonists with new ideas.

Another magazine in the making?

"Yes, I'm heavily pregnant," said Cagcag, grinning broadly. "The monster is on its way."

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