Tag Archives: Protest Art

Paul Buhle on Comics: World War 3 Illustrated #52

Tragedy and Hope

Frontlines of Repair. Edited by Paula Hewitt Amram, Seth Tobocman and Jordan Worley. New York: WW3 #52. Distributed by AK Press. 217pp, $15.

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

It is a little hard to believe that World War 3  Illustrated, now nearly half a century in the struggle for challenging art and social change, seems so fresh.  Sometimes, the “fresh” is fresh blood, at least as much as fresh-growing plants or humans in their increasingly inhumane environments. WW3 can be grim and means to be grim, here and there in the pages, some lavishly drawn in color. The editors insist that the book is intended to “repair the world, and ourselves,” even bearing a gardening theme that pops up a couple times. The splendid experimentation in comic art offers, in any case, a way forward and a hope.

Per usual, the variety of work defies any easy generalization. Where else would pages by Ben Katchor, sometime New Yorker illustrator, be found alongside those of Sabrina Jones, Kevin Pyle, Sandy Jimenez, Seth Tobocman and a host of young artists making what is likely their first appearance in print, or something close to their first? WW3 is, by intent, not only a political expression of radical ideas but a school for learning and development, an outlet for young idealists to try out their work in just about any form. Some of the results are inevitably stronger than others. But again and again, the intensity of the effort comes through, sometimes along with a surprising personal candor.

Thus we find the notoriously excitable Seth Tobocman explore himself, his own life, in “Rage,” rooted in family experiences but realizing itself in social struggles where anger helps and hurts, is at once either justifiable or inexplicably self-destructive. He has drawn on various subjects so often, we naturally respond to his multi-general family saga beginning in the Cleveland of his childhood, and the grandparents’ bodega (aka “Candy Store”). The more prosperous side of the family can relax and enjoy upward mobility; the less prosperous carries a rage and resentment at what happened to Jews in the twentieth century. Both sides unite, so to speak, in the drive for children to achieve and advance, whether they want to or not.

Thus Milwaukee’s own Sue Simenski Bietila, a school nurse by profession, who lays out the tales of Street Medics from the 1960s to now, volunteers who are threatened, sometimes beaten or arrested by cops, for providing aid and sanction.  Thus in 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Bietila shows us street medic Gaige Grosskreutz, who tried to stop a high school right-winger from murdering a protester, but was murdered in turn  (Fox News glorified the shooter, who was acquitted.) Bietila knows the issues and the moments of struggle as no outsider could. She’s an artist on the job, the unpaid job.

Thus the artist calling herself “Fly” delivers seven jarring pages on George Floyd. Christopher Cardinale describes the use of masks in New York (forbidden on the streets from 1845, then mandated in 2020, albeit with occasional police assaults against anyone who urges them to put on masks) in political and personal terms.

Thus artist Kevin C. Pyle takes us to the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona, where the building of The Fence and the misuse of an aquifer in the building process only begin to accelerate the degradation of ecosystem and the Tohono O’odom Nation, on site for centuries. Against this background or creating a background is philosopher Walter Benjamin, his quotes effectively explaining the deep and terrifying logic of “progress” as destruction laying the basis for more destruction.

Gianluca Constantini and Elettra Stamboulis take us to Bergamo, Lombardia, in Northern Italy, where the health system was said to be among the best in the world. Come Covid, the reality of a continuing privatization was revealed. Bodies piled high and the artist trapped in his studio struggled to grasp the moment. “Doctors became heroes for a while. But we need…continuing social justice, not just heroes for a day.”

I’m drawn, so to speak,to the pages of Sandy Jimenez, Bronx educator who loses his job after fifteen years, finding himself in middle age without any certainly what he will do or even who he has become. He works it out, partly by elaborating a friend’s saga, the erstwhile Vietnam Vet who looks back with horror at the killing, and gains self by coming out. Jimenez ends by embracing his younger friends, poor Latin Americans or Eastern Europeans who find their way to the Bronx. They show him that he has a role beyond working for a living: it is quite a gift.

I am also drawn to the familiar touch of Sabrina Jones, seen here recovering the familiar bunny (source of “Br’er Rabbit” in Southern folklore exploited by Disney but very real nonetheless as the weak animal who has historically outwitted the more powerful animals including humans) but now faces all-destructive “development.”  Lawns, fences, pesticides ruin what could still be recuperated as a healthy environment for Mr. Rabbit and his animal friends, birds and frogs to butterflies. Message: let your land re-wild itself with native habitat!

More should be said about the color work of Paula Hewitt Amram, the occasional color page by Kate Gerhart or the rightly renowned Eric Drooker. And the black and white full page drawings by Tom Keough of James Baldwin, Harriet Tubman and others less famous. More could be said about so much more in these pages. But I leave them for readers to discover.

Paul Buhle’s latest collaboration is ¡BRIGADISTAS!, a story of the Spanish Civil War; his next ones include a pirate comic and an adaptation of W.E. B. Du Bois’s  Souls of Black Folk.

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DIRTY PICTURES by Brian Doherty–a Look at the Origins of Comix

Dirty Pictures: How an Underground Network of Nerds, Feminists, Misfits, Geniuses, Bikers, Potheads, Printers, Intellectuals, and Art School Rebels Revolutionized Art and Invented Comix. by Brian Doherty. Abrams Press. 2022. 448 pp. $30.

Comix! No, not just comics. Comix is the term we use to describe all the work created by independent comics creators (often auteur cartoonists doing both the writing and the drawing) dating back to the Sixties underground up to today. Brian Doherty has had a great time digging into the roots of, and connecting the dots to, this quirky offshoot of the comics medium. First off, I gotta say that Doherty is quite in tune with his subject and cuts to the chase. Perhaps the biggest question that comes up on this topic is What in the hell was R. Crumb thinking? Well, you won’t get far without an open mind on this. Doherty gets to the heart of the matter with a quote from 1972. A reporter for The New York Times asked what Crumb’s intention was in creating some of his most macabre and provocative work. Crumb answered, “I don’t know. I think I was just being a punk.” Then Doherty adds to that the fact that Crumb and his fellow cartoonists were all bucking a highly restrictive system of censorship. Nothing was allowed at the risk of offending anyone! If that sounds familiar, well, it won’t be lost on anyone reading this book. The point is, Crumb was indeed reacting to something, rebelling against something. Did he go too far? Or was it more one guy’s approach, along with a whole slew of other cartoonists, both men and women, with their own fiery takes on society? I think this whole book rests upon the assumption that a reader can walk and chew gum at the same time. In other words, yes, there is a possibility of seriously looking at the most controversial facets of comix without retreating from it. One key aspect to understanding is to look at the motivation to rebel. As Doherty reminds us, the “x” in comix is there for a reason: to distinguish comix from mainstream comics, the all too often watered-down and lame opposition, particularly during the days of the Comics Code.

Once we get something of a handle on Crumb, the rest of comix is a piece of cake! Well, maybe not. But that’s basically the arc we’re following: the great warriors, led by Crumb, out to raise hell; then, the reaction to all this ruckus, which included anyone offended by the first wave of mayhem; ultimately, a long process of the original “filth” working its way through the rest of the culture; and finally, all the accounts settled and those left standing declared the champions: Crumb, Spiegelman, and so on. Doherty does an impressive job of maintaining the flow of events, logically moving from one place, one publisher, one movement, after another. For those old enough to remember some of this history, it rings very true. Doherty has written the kind of book that many of us knew was possible. It involves keeping an eye on the key players and examining their aspirations and actual activities. Again, it’s impossible to avoid both Crumb and Spiegelman, both very aware of the fact they had reputations to either maintain or enhance. And then, of course, you had all sorts of other activity brewing, not the least of which was the feminist contingent led by Trina Robbins and her crew at Wimmen’s Comix. Robbins and her women cartoonists were determined to fight fire with fire.

Like any great art movement, comix is the story of the artists who led the way as well as of those to have taken up the mantle. What sustains the character and spirit of comix today harkens back to the highly charged independent streak of the original underground. You can’t have comix, or anything that resembles it, without a healthy embrace of the subversive, the experimental, and the guts to see through the most outrageous expression. It may offend. In fact, it definitely will offend and there will be consequences to pay. But, all in all, we’re far better off when an artist isn’t restricted or afraid to just be a punk, as Crumb summed it up. But art cannot remain in a vacuum or it will die. As Doherty points out, a new wave of artists brought in refinements. Most notably was a finer sense of the literary as demonstrated by Los Bros Hernandez and their ambitious Love and Rockets comics willing to take on richer and subtler literary aspirations. I’ve been a champion of the term, “alternative comics,” as I see it as a very valuable distinction. It’s nice to see Doherty using it here. He points out that pivotal break with the past as the underground ruckus rebellion gave way to a more cerebral alternative vibe. Indeed, it was to be a new and significant development to the still unfolding world of indie comics, a world that has given shape to the highly personal and strange creature we know today as the “graphic novel.” Sure, there are still diehard purists who claim to not understand what is meant by that term outside of being a brazen marketing tool. But people do know what a graphic novel is, or can be, just as they know what is meant by the term, “comix.” And that’s because, believe it not, people can really walk and chew gum at the same time. If they couldn’t, well, we’d really be in a lot more trouble. Doherty’s book is a very welcome addition to our understanding of comix, from its origins up to its current offshoots, offering common sense insight.

DIRTY PICTURES is available beginning June 14, 2022 and ready for pre-order. Visit Abrams Press.

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