Crash Course: If You Want To Get Away With Murder Buy A Car. By Woodrow Phoenix. Street Noise Books, Brooklyn, NY, 2020. 208pp. $16.99.
Power Born of Dreams: My Story is Palestine. By Mohammad Sabaaneh. Street Noise Books, Brooklyn, NY, 2021. 118pp, $15.99.
Street Noise Makes Noise (but in a good way)
Guest Review by Paul Buhle
This is a review about two outstanding comics. But it is first of all a review of a new comics publisher. A veteran of the book trade, founder and publisher Liz Frances, jumped into the fast-changing world of GNs a few years ago, after a considerable career in the publishing industry. She has explained to interviewers that she wants to create books that count, that have both passion and social value. Certainly so, but I see these two books rather differently. Not that I doubt her explanation for a minute. What I think I perceive is a glimpse at a new generation of comic artists and their art.
Neither of these books is particularly close to traditional comics styles, the kind that my older sisters lovingly employed, when I was six, to teach me how to read. I remember more or less precisely that moment in my life. Looking back from a distance of about seventy years, I can easily grasp the big change. Comics are now certain to be “read” in very different ways, sometimes on devices that do not look or act like printed books, although the books on review here are printed. The real change, however, reflects how artists themselves learn and come to see themselves. As Parsons comics teacher and comic artist Ben Katchor reflected in an interview book, a few years ago, the internal logic of the young artist is no longer the world of the drawing board nor any other fixed spot.
Crash Course author/artist Woodrow Phoenix, a British citizen, whose parents emigrated from Guyana, where the CIA overthrew a leftwing government in 1960 and perhaps arranged for the assassination of the rebellious Walter Rodney in 1980, is a very radical person in his own way. He delivers a powerful message to the heads of readers, certainly to mine, in pounding page after page.
How does he do it? Because he explores in words and expressionist-like drawings the things we know, but do not want to think very much about our cars and our driving. Despite being a key form of death and injury around the world, not even to speak of vast environmental damage, driving has dug itself into our brains. Even if we spend maximum time (as I do) either biking or walking, for most of us, the car is always there. It gets us to the grocery store or to a doctor’s appointment, or to “get out of the city” for a while to visit friends and relatives. Not to mention moving distances for major changes in our lives and work. All these could certainly be done without cars. Given contemporary arrangements, only with real difficulty.
But there’s far, far more to it, and at the psychological core, cars have been ingeniously devised and stylized to make up for the insecurities and shortcomings of our individual lives. “Individual” is key here, as he explains, because each driver lives within a second skin, competing with others in the same circumstances for safety, speed, and psychological reinforcement. Merely reciting the names of models recalls the vicarious excitement, exoticism, and terribly real speed, made all the more attractive because the depictions in every media never show anyone in the real, constant traffic jam. In every hour of an average commute, twenty minutes is spent locked in very boring lines, rousing the desire to get ahead of every competing car and to cut corners by going ten or twenty miles per hour over the law or passing in the breakdown line.
All this, as Phoenix makes so vivid, is dramatized by the sheer eeriness of a vast but empty parking lot. And just as vividly by the violent use of cars to run down political demonstrators, acts now apparently made non-punishable. Cars have created non-spaces across the world, at the same time that they have become weapons, in many ways the weapons of daily use.
Power Born of Dreams begins in prison, an Israeli prison, and that is the most fundamental fact of this book. The second most fundamental is the artist’s technique: linocuts, recalling a past era when leftwing artists of the 1920s struggled to make a living outside of the magazine world. As the artist says, “I was unable to carve my name onto the walls of my prison cell.” So, he chooses a kind of carving, to carve the stories of imprisoned Palestinians, on paper.
The lines are spare, the background black. Interrogation goes with confinement, and each reinforce the other. Israeli companies have made themselves world-famous with “crowd control” techniques, tried out mainly in the West Bank against Palestinians protesting the loss of their homes and their land. The artist’s road out of mental confinement is his art. He can see a tree outside and become a tree, for a moment. Then come back to his own reality behind bars.
He is, in real life, a citizen without a country. No Palestinian who lived in East Jerusalem can be allowed Israeli citizenship, not even marriage with an Israeli can make that happen. Leaving East Jerusalem can easily preclude returning, ever. And even remaining in your home means awaiting the dreaded moment when you will be driven out by a would-be Israeli settler insisting that not even a long family history in this spot, this house, entitles you to remain there.
A large part of the narrative is the deeply personal, deeply disturbing story of the artist himself. During the Second Intifada, he set himself on the task of drawing portraits of the dead, drawing the victim in the mortuary, then giving the portrait to the family the next day, at the funeral. A young boy, the brother of one of the victims, asks, “Can you make my portrait?” The artist says no, he only draws the dead, and this boy surely has a long life ahead of him, but learns days later that the boy, too, has become a martyr, trying to avenge his killing of his brother.
“They tore down the tree and destroyed the nest?” is his dialogue among two birds. “Imagine living without a home.” This leads, as it must, to an apparently tragic conclusion: the settlers slice up an imagined Palestinian homeland, in the geographical territory agreed to at Camp David, into slices smaller and smaller, divided from each other so that travel and work, not to mention emergency medical care, become almost impossible.
Things could change, at least theoretically. But a humane outcome could not alter the power of Mohammad Sabaaneh’s artistic descriptions, their capacity, we hope, to open hearts of readers everywhere.