POWER BORN OF DREAMS is a graphic novel born behind bars

A guest post by Seth Tobocman

Prison can crush the soul. There are people who survive a short sentence only to come  out emotionally crippled for the rest of their lives. But there are others who transcend their  circumstances, for whom confinement can be a period of spiritual growth. Some artists find  great inspiration there. 

artist Mohammad Saba’aneh

 I first became aware of Mohammad Saba’aneh when he was in an Israeli prison,  convicted of drawing illustrations for a book, written and published by his brother, who  happened to be a member of Hamas, a banned organization. Our magazine, World War 3  Illustrated, joined an international campaign to free Saba’aneh. I had no idea what a gem of an  artist was buried behind those prison walls. 

 Being a political prisoner doesn’t make Mohammad a badass. It just makes him a  Palestinian. It is estimated that 70% of Palestinian families have one member who has been  incarcerated. Israeli law allows the state to hold Palestinians for an extended period of time  without pressing charges. So Palestinian youth are locked up on the slightest pretext, jailed,  tortured and interrogated. All in the hopes of finding information about the Palestinian  resistance, and terrorist plots, real or perceived. The Israeli system was the model for the  repressive measures enacted in the United States after 9-11. 

 So doing time doesn’t make Mohammad Saba’aneh special. What he did with that  time, that’s special. 

 “I convinced myself to believe that I am a journalist who came to prison to work” says  Mohammad. “My first task was to steal pen and paper from my interrogator. I was liberated on  the blank page. It became my world. My pages became a way to journey out into the universe.  I kept the pages hidden from the guards as I was dragged from cell to cell. And I felt a sense of  liberation each time my pages survived.” 

 In the drawings which he started in prison and completed shortly after his release,  Mohammad shows us the Palestinian political prisoners, the conditions they live in, the absurd  legal system they endure, and their deep longing to be reunited with their families.  

 But prison did not just offer Mohammad new subject material, it presented him with  challenges and opportunities that greatly improved the formal qualities of his art. 

 Like many artists of his generation, Mohammad started out making art in  photoshop. In prison he had no access to computers and had to work with pencil and paper.  He says that this improved his drawing skills a lot. 

 Mohammad says that the first artwork he was aware of were the drawings of  Palestinian political cartoonist Naji Al-Ali. His mother showed him those pictures to teach him  Palestinian history. Naji Al-Ali’s sparse, fine lined drawings were ideal for a third world press  where ink itself might be in short supply. Naji could sum up complex conflicts in one small  image, with just a couple of symbols or figures, expressing politics with passion and poetry.  Naji was assassinated in the 1980s and is viewed by many as a martyr. So it’s not surprising  that Mohammad began his career as a newspaper illustrator following in the footsteps of Naji Al-Ali. 

 In prison, working, not for a publisher’s deadline, but to fill his own time,  Mohammad’s work broke out of the limitations of the editorial cartoon. His drawings became  more complex and more subtle. When he came out of jail, he began to draw these long, mural-like scrolls, combining hundreds of figures and events arranged across a tortured Palestinian  landscape, often presenting a timeline of history, the story of his nation, or of the world. 

 Mohammad was aware that artists from all over the world had petitioned for his  release. A lesser man would let this go to his head. But in Saba’aneh’s case, it humbled him. He  felt that he was now obligated to become a better artist. He studied the work of Picasso, Jacob  Lawerence, Diego Rivera and many others, and began to expand his visual vocabulary. He also  became aware of today’s graphic novels and took a great interest in the form. 

 He traveled. On his visits to New York, Mohammad and I often hit the museums.  He seemed hungry to absorb everything he saw. He wanted to be influenced by the whole  international history of art, and to take it in as fast as possible. As though world culture was a  meal he had to swallow in one gulp before someone could take it away from him. This made  me realize how privileged I was to live in a city full of art galleries instead of a city full of soldiers  and check points. 

 Mohammad would guest lecture my classes at SVA, blowing my students’ minds  with descriptions of the difficult conditions under which he produced his work. But Mohammad  often seemed to be more of a student than my students. He was eager, attentive, curious, and  open-minded, like a really good student. Although he is a grown man with a wife and two  children, there is something youthful about him.  

 Mohammad eventually did go back to school, receiving a grant to take graduate  courses in England. There he produced his first graphic novel, Power Born Of Dreams (Street Noise Books, 2021).  

 Saba’aneh had seen the early 20th century wordless books printed from wood  blocks by masters like Franz Masereel and Lynd Ward, and he was aware of how contemporary  graphic novelists. like Art Spiegelman, Eric Drooker, Peter Kuper and myself, use scratchboard  to get a woodcut look. He decided to produce his whole story in linoleum cut prints. But he  could not always afford sheets of linoleum so sometimes he would carve into a tabletop or  door to produce his prints. 

 The result is visually stunning. The dramatic dark areas remind me of the  chiaroscuro of Eric Drooker’s Flood, the compositions remind me of Peter Kuper’s Franz Kafka  adaptations. He seems to have looked at the whole field of graphic novels and incorporated  the best of what we have produced, and we should all be honored by our participation in his  project. 

 The plot line combines documentary and autobiography with fantasy and  metaphor. A jailed Palestinian artist decides to survive his imprisonment by drawing. He makes  a deal with a talking bird. The bird will fly out into the world and bring back stories from the rest  of Palestine which the artist will illustrate. This, many stories within one story, structure, pays  homage to great works of world literature, like One Thousand and One Nights and  Boccaccio’s Decameron.  

 The stories the bird brings are pretty grim: children who can’t sleep because they  hear warplanes over head, mothers who lose their sons, prisoners who long for their freedom,  and the whole tragic history of Palestinian oppression. Where then is hope in this sad  situation? 

 Hope can be found in the fact that an artist has represented this harsh reality  with such a loving hand, creating beautiful compositions and careful renderings. Combining  journalistic integrity with imagination and mythology. Endeavoring to uplift his people through craftsmanship. And hasn’t this been the function of art throughout history, to sublimate human  suffering? 

 Listen up world! Today is a big day! Palestinian political prisoner and Arab  editorial cartoonist, Mohammad Saba’aneh has become a graphic novelist, and we are all  better off for it!

Seth Tobocman is an artist, educator and activist living in New York City. He is a founding member of the editorial collective of World War 3 Illustrated, the longest-running anthology of political comics available in English. His published works include the graphic memoir War in the NeighborhoodDisaster and Resistance, You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive, as well as, most recently, LEN, a Lawyer in History, and The Face of Struggle.

Comic Art Poster Series: “So You Care About Indigenous Scholars?”

Page text by the “So You Care About Indigenous Scholars?” Collective

In February 2020, a group of Indigenous and allied scholars collaborated with Ad Astra Comix to produce a series of posters about some of the experiences that Indigenous peoples have in the academy.

Coming out of this workshop led by its Indigenous participants, and calling out the extractive academy, the result is the “So You Care About Indigenous Scholars?” posters series. The posters recognize and celebrate Indigenous peoples and their ongoing survival, resistance and resurgence. They use humour and irony to create teachable moments for a broad audience and build critical consciousness.

To show your support for Indigenous scholars fighting off the zombie apocalypse–still happening in an Ivory Tower near you–please share these images on social media, and download a PDF and print it out for your department, office, dorm room, etc.

To receive free, high-resolution PDFs of these posters for download, click the links below. To order 18″ x 24″ full colour poster prints (for the cost of printing + shipping), e-mail Ad Astra Comix at adastracomix@gmail.com.

  1. Indigenous Land
    Sullivan, C, Piatote, B, Smith, C, Weir, J, Diver, S, Burton, NM, and H Goldring 2020. ‘Indigenous Land’, So you care about Indigenous scholars? poster series, Ad Astra Comix, Canada.

    About this poster: Indigenous Land emphasizes that the university campus always was, always will be Indigenous land, and a place of Indigenous teaching.

    To download this poster, click here.

2. Extraction Zombies
Smith, C, Piatote, B, Sullivan, C, Weir, J, Diver, S, Burton, NM, and H Goldring 2020. ‘Extraction Zombies’, So you care about Indigenous scholars? poster series, Ad Astra Comix, Canada.

About this poster: Extraction Zombies (just in time for Halloween!) highlights the tokenism and minority tax experienced by many Indigenous scholars, perhaps in your university department.

To download this poster, click here.

3. Pass the Ball
Piatote, B, Sullivan, C, Smith, C, Diver, S, Weir, J, Burton, NM, and H Goldring 2020. ‘Pass the Ball’, So you care about Indigenous scholars? poster series, Ad Astra Comix, Canada.

Pass the Ball expresses frustration about non-native scholars occupying the fields of Native knowledge and refusing to “pass the ball” or recognize Native scholars as experts in these very fields — and imagines a win for the team when Native scholars are valued.

To download this poster, click here.

4. The S.S. Academy
Smith, C, Sullivan, C, Piatote, B, Diver, S, Weir, J, Burton, NM, and H Goldring 2020. ‘SS Academy’, So you care about Indigenous scholars? poster series, Ad Astra Comix, Canada.

About this poster: The S.S. Academy depicts microaggressions experienced by Indigenous scholars, who are working in all corners of the academy but are not always appreciated for their merits.

To download this poster, click here.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE:  PETER KUPER TAKES ON JOSEPH CONRAD’S HEART OF DARKNESS

by Seth Tobocman | October 31, 2019

Peter Kuper is a first rate comic book artist and a master stylist who has, over the years, adapted many classic works of literature to graphic format, including Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and numerous works by Franz Kafka. But adapting Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness may prove to be his most difficult assignment.

cover


Title
: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
Words by: Joseph Conrad and Peter Kuper
Art by: Peter Kuper
Foreword by: Maya Jasanoff
Published by: W. W. Norton & Company (1st edition)
Pages: 160
Additional Specs: Hardcover, 6.5″ x 9.4″, $21.95 USD

 

When I was in grade school there was a big controversy over Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Parents wanted it removed from the curriculum because they felt it would encourage racist attitudes. The author would have certainly turned over in his grave. Twain was an abolitionist and most of the book concerns the attempt of a character called “N***** Jim” to escape slavery. And there’s the rub, of course.cut 2 The n-word is all over that book. And just preventing kids from picking up the habit of using that word is good enough reason to keep them from reading it until they are old enough to understand the historical context. The good intentions of the author aren’t enough to transcend the prejudices of his era. The same could be said about many other books of the past, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery melodrama, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And I’m afraid Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness falls easily into this category.

The Heart Of Darkness tells of a journey up an unnamed stretch of African river, but it is obvious, both from details of the story and from details of Conrad’s own, 6 month service in Africa, that this story takes place in ‘The Belgian Congo’. A colony in which local people were being forced to harvest ivory, and later rubber, at gunpoint.

pg 50-51 steamboat 2

By the time that Conrad was writing this novel, slavery had been abolished in the United States and Europe. There was a broad European consensus that slavery was wrong. What will seem odd to us, however, is that Europeans, of that time, did not see any connection between slavery and racist ideology. Nor any connection. between slavery and colonialism. While European governments knew exactly what they were doing, they had sold the public a fairy tale, that in conquering Africa and South America, the white man was on a civilizing mission. Bringing the ‘savages’ railroads, modern medicine and Christian morality. In fact, people were told that colonial forces were protecting Africans from ‘the Arab slave trade’. So what is revealed in The Heart Of Darkness must have been quite shocking to that public.

cut 1

Conrad clearly intended the book to be an attack on European colonialism. He starts out by comparing the conquest of Africa to the Roman invasion of Briton, a reference which surely hit home with an English audience schooled in ancient history. He portrays the colonial administration as driven by greed, incompetent, cruel and cowardly. The author accurately describes how Africans were being worked to death in chains by their colonial masters. His wild depictions of colonial agents living like kings, displaying the shrunken heads of their enemies and taking black women as concubines are all factually based. In showing the high mortality rate of Europeans due to disease, he is no less truthful. He makes Africa sound like a horrible place that no sane European would want to go to.

Conrad details numerous atrocities committed against the Africans. But it is in his description of those Africans that the author’s prejudices become apparent. To start with, that ‘n-word’ is on every fifth page. But it gets worse. While he is quite frank about the fact that Africans are being enslaved beaten, starved and shot, he can’t seem to produce an African character who is a fully formed human being. To Conrad, Africans are monstrous and weird. ‘Savages’, with all the supernatural qualities that word ‘savage’ held for the Europeans of his generation. When he occasionally shows us an African who is using any type of machinery, he always points out the incompetence of that individual, as though there are certain tasks only white people were born to perform. There is just no way around it! This is a racist book.

So there is a lot of work to do before this story can be read by a contemporary audience. And Peter, always a hard worker, does it. The n-word is no where in this book. Most of the descriptions of Africans beguiled and confused by technology are also left out. And Peter draws the black characters beautifully and carefully. A great student of the history of cartooning, Kuper takes pains to avoid the type of racial caricature frequent in all but the most recent comic books.

African authors have criticized Conrad for comparing their continent to a blank space on the map, dark, mysterious, uncivilized and empty. A wild place waiting to be tamed. They remind us that Africa was home to a complex society before the colonial invasion. There are many places in the book where the settlers are firing at an unseen enemy. Shooting into the mist or into dense jungle. The comic artist tries to remedy this by re-staging these scenes so that we can see what the white characters cannot see. The people running from their bullets.

Kuper, who has travelled in Africa extensively, draws the African landscape beautifully. Combining a knowledge of specific detail with an eye for economy that he has picked up as an illustrator. There are panels of this book that I could stare at for hours.

But with all this good work, and with Conrad’s racist superstructure remodeled, Kuper cannot escape the underlying architecture of the book, its plot.

Marlow, Conrads’ protagonist, is sent upriver, on a mission to bring back Kurtz, a charismatic colonial agent, who has ‘gone native’ and begun to use ‘unorthodox methods’ such as murder, and collecting shrunken heads, to extract ivory from the local population. While the colonial administration appreciates the ivory, they don’t approve of what Kurtz does to get it. Although it is often implied that their real motive for taking out Kurtz may simply be jealousy of his success. Marlow is horrified by Kurtz’ brutality toward the Africans, but he none the less admires the man, and promises not to damage his reputation. When Marlow returns to England, he cannot bear to tell Kurtz’ fiancé what her beloved was engaged in.

Heart-final-107-650x926

While it’s a good yarn, the message of this narrative is politically problematic. It gives us the impression that the abuses of colonial rule were the result of individual men, driven mad by the difficulties of living in the bush, taking the matters into their own hands. And so European governments, and white society, remain innocent. We know that the opposite is the case. The Belgian government provided colonial agents with printed manuals, explaining how to force Africans to work for them, by taking their wives as hostages.

In his defense, Conrad may not have known this. Or he may have known, but correctly calculated, that his readers would not have believed such a thing.

This contradictory narrative, that describes the horror while exonerating the people most responsible for it, is precisely why The Heart Of Darkness was the perfect template for the Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now. Because this was exactly what we wanted to believe about Viet Nam. That the soldiers who massacred villagers at Mi Lai were good boys, driven crazy by war, and not cold blooded killers enacting a policy designed in Washington.

The story creates an impossible conundrum for Kuper. If he were to change the plot line of the book, then it would not be the same book at all. It would be a new novel and not an adaptation. Kuper stays on-mission, and maintains the story. So the book remains problematic, and maybe that is as it should be.

What, then, is the function of The Heart Of Darkness, be it in graphic novel form or not, for a contemporary audience?

It certainly is not a book about Africans, because Conrad seems to know less than nothing about them. It really is not a very good book about colonialism, because Conrad’s revelations are partial, at best. But it tells us a lot about the mindset of Europeans of that time. It shows us that while they were enthusiastic about colonizing the world, many were shocked when they discovered the methods necessary to accomplish that task. And it shows that when confronted with the truth, they often had trouble processing the information. ‘Denial’ then, is more than a river in Egypt, it is also a river in the Congo.

Today, The Heart Of Darkness, is a book about whiteness. I recommend both Conrad’s original text, and Kupers’ adaptation, to those studying this subject.  I’m old enough to remember a world where school teachers assigned students to read books by Joseph Conrad, but told us that reading comics would lead to illiteracy. (They also told us that “The Beatles aren’t music!”) To live, today, in a time in which we must ask ourselves,” Is The Heart Of Darkness good enough to be turned into a graphic novel?” is indeed a delicious irony!

pg 54 steamboat 1

seth
Seth Tobocman is an artist, educator and activist living in New York City. He is a founding member of the editorial collective of World War 3 Illustrated, the longest-running anthology of political comics available in English. His published works include, among others, the graphic memoir War in the Neighborhood, Disaster and Resistance, and You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive. His next book, “The Face of Struggle: An Allegory Without Words” is due to be released by AK Press in April, 2020. 
profile
Peter Kuper, like Tobocman, is an indie cartoonist, activist, and founding member of WW3 Illustrated. He is perhaps most well-known for illustrating Spy vs. Spy in MAD Magazine. He has, since, produced numerous works, including ‘RUINS’ (Self Made Hero), ‘Diario de Oaxaca’, and ‘Stop Forgetting To Remember: The Autobiography of Walter Kurtz’. You can follow his work on Instagram.

Bogged Down: A Review of Environmental Comic ‘Rain’

by Alex Gendler | October 31, 2019

For those who remember their high school reading assignments, the name “Thrushcross” might ring a few bells. But although “Rain” sets its story in the same dreary moors as Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the tragedy it relates is both less dramatic and more consequential than Cathy and Heathcliff’s ill-fated love.

cover

Title: RAIN
Words by: Mary M. Talbot
Art by: Bryan Talbot
Published by: DC Comics (North American edition)
Pages:  168
Specs: Hardcover, 9.75″ x 6.5″, $24.99

 

The comic is the fourth collaboration between Mary M. Talbot, a longtime academic scholar of gender and language, and her husband Bryan Talbot, whose credits include his own The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and Grandville series, as well as titles like Judge Dredd, Sandman, and even some classic Magic: the Gathering cards. While their previous work together focused on the biographies of fascinating historical figures, “Rain” follows the relationship of a fictional lesbian couple during the run-up to the very real Boxing Day floods that displaced thousands across northern England and Ireland in December 2015.

8 fixed

The book follows Cath, a tough and cynical freelance writer from London, through the course of several visits to her partner Mitch, an ecologically-conscious English teacher and gardener living in Yorkshire. Throughout the story they fight, reconcile, share tender moments, and explore their emotional and ideological differences. The real drama, however, occurs not between the characters but around them. Over nature walks, lectures, and conversations we learn that not all is well in the rustic moors. Marshland is being burned to support the seasonal grouse hunts, natural predator populations are mysteriously declining, and the rain looms ever more ominously over the sleepy residences.

64 frixed

“Rain” skillfully handles its environmental themes, moving between the local, the global, and back again, tying together everything from class and colonialism to pesticides and soil erosion in well-researched and easily digestible explanations. Along the way, the reader is given a crash course in how healthy bogs help prevent flooding, the health dangers of glyphosate, and even a basic primer in protest preparation. One of the most subtle yet crucial points explored is that the most cherished of ‘rural traditions’ such as grouse hunting are often rooted in a framework of class power and environmental exploitation – a welcome corrective to the common tendency on the Left to trace all societal ills back to industrial modernity.

43 fixed

The informative value of the comic, however, often ends up overshadowing the narrative, with the characters seeming to be addressing the reader more than each other. Environmental explanations are delivered with surprising coherence in the middle of a supposedly heated lovers’ quarrel. Questions that the interlocutor should already know are posed transparently to be answered with monologues. And the protagonists themselves come off more as functional props than fully fleshed out characters. Given that Cath is a queer freelance writer living in London and has been dating Mitch for three years, it somewhat strains credulity to saddle her with the sort of benign ignorance towards green lifestyle politics one would expect to find in a suburban Tory voter. Nor does her inevitable change of heart seem particularly inspired: “That environmental stuff you’re always banging on about – I think you may have a point.” The feeling that you’re reading an educational pamphlet rather than an organic narrative is unfortunately heightened by the art style, which, while replete with the detail and characterization one would expect from a veteran like Talbot, is permeated by a flattened, monochromatic quality somewhat reminiscent of textbooks.

Nevertheless, the fact that the comic’s environmental message outstrips its narrative framework is mitigated by the fact that this story itself is an important and engaging one. Rather than trying to cover the familiar big-picture terrain, “Rain” uses a hyper-local setting far from the forefront of environmental discussion to demonstrate how seemingly disparate activities impact the delicate ecological web that binds us all. The story ends on an optimistic note – if the apparently mismatched couple can find hope and stability in their relationship, perhaps we can do the same for our relationship with the world around us.

fracking protest

 

Alex Gendler is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. His educational videos for TED-Ed have been watched tens of millions of times, exploring topics like the Turing TestDystopias, and the historic wars that inspired Game of Thrones. You can follow him on Twitter at @achilleselbow.

THE BEST DAMN ARTICLE ABOUT ERIC DROOKER I’VE EVER READ

a guest post by Seth Tobocman

Tucked inside AK Thompson’s largely political anthology PREMONITIONS (Selected Essays On The Culture Of Revolt) are two chapters about art that ought to be a wake-up-call to those who write about the subject. Including one about my old comrade and fellow poster paster Eric Drooker. What stands out about Thompson’s articles is that he discusses works of art in terms of their actual political use. Their social function. Their relation to praxis.

eric drooker people walking
art by Eric Drooker

Much writing about art misses the importance of the social context in which, and for which, a work of art was originally produced.

For example, a few years ago my partner and I visited the city of Ravena Italy. There we were startled to walk into churches and see parishioners dutifully praying and lighting candles in front of paintings and mosaics that had decorated the pages of our art history books. It seemed like a glaring omission, to me, that I had been through two years of art history classes in college, had focused precisely on these works, with almost no discussion of their Christian religious content.

Likewise, if you look at cave paintings, you can certainly discuss the use of a simple outline on an irregular surface to create the illusion of volume and motion. But if you ignore the fact that these are the intimate observations of the lives of animals that only a hunter gatherer society can produce, then aren’t you missing the whole point?

premonitions book cover

 

Title: Premonitions: Selected Essays on the Culture of Revolt
Author: A.K. Thompson
Published:  2018 by AK Press
250 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1849353380

 

In an essay with the academic sounding title The Resonance of Romanticism, Thompson explores the relationship between the early 21st century anti-globalization movement and the works of two artists, Eric Drooker and Banksy. He’s not making this up. Drooker’s art was regularly used on fliers of the period. Eric’s books were distributed in the Anarchist bookstores where plans for big actions were discussed. His imagery adorned squats and dorm rooms and was tattooed on the bodies of some of those arrested. And Eric was a regular at the demonstrations, usually carrying a drum. With Banksy it is a bit more of a reach. I don’t know that Banksy was directly involved in politics. But his work was popular with activists of the time.

eric drooker poster art
art by Eric Drooker

AK examines this work, not to determine its quality (he does seem to like it) but to understand what it tells us about the movement in which it was popular. His goal, in all the essays of this book, is to figure out why the anti-globalization movement, to which he has given the best years of his life, did not produce better results ( I’m biased, I kinda felt the same way about the squatters’ movement. ).

AK sees a nostalgic attraction to the imagery of 19th century romanticism in the art of Banksy and Drooker and wonders if this reflects a sentimentality in the character of the community that embraced this work. Unlike the current fad of “politically correct” criticism, Thompson does not use politics to critique art but uses art to critique politics.

In another chapter with an equally academic title, Matter’s Most Modern Configurations, AK Thompson investigates two major works of 20th century art which were censored by the powers that be. First he looks at Diego Rivera’s Man At The Crossroads, a mural commissioned for Rockefeller Center, which the billionaire later had sandblasted when he saw its overt socialist content. Thompson explores the painting in detail, showing how the artist co-opts both Pagan and Christian religious imagery to support an optimistic materialist message. AK examines and even graphs the compositional elements, only to lead us to the dramatic narrative of the mural’s destruction at the hands of a New York capitalist and it’s rebirth in Mexico City.

Libro_Los_Viejos_Abuelos_Foto_68
Recreated version of “Man at the Crossroads”, known as “Man, Controller of the Universe”

His second subject is Picasso’s Guernica. A tapestry reproduction of this great anti-war painting hangs at the United Nations building. But it was covered by a curtain when Colin Powell made his speech claiming that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, initiating one of America’s longest wars.

Both examples demonstrate the continuing relevance of art to politics while illuminating the complex relationship between modern art and capitalism, which both financed and suppressed the work of masters like Picasso and Rivera.

picasso
Picasso’s “Guernica”

AK Thompson is all about critique and I suppose I should critique AK a bit here. While the message of this writing is good, too much of the style bears the mark of the academy. He points out over and over again that his thought process owes a lot to the writings of John Berger (who I have read) and Walter Benjamin (who I haven’t read) and this gives me the (false) impression that I can’t understand what I’m reading without reading those other two authors. I understand the need to credit ones influences but this could be reserved for the footnotes and the whole book could be made accessible to a wider audience.

That said, AK Thompson is one of the more interesting voices that have emerged from the anti-globalization movement. He does not claim to have all the answers. Instead he asks important questions in a voice that is both humble and urgent.

Those of us who devote our lives to drawing alternative comics and political illustration are often amazed at the things people write about the field. Over and over again we see texts by people who just don’t get it. But AK Thompson is one of the guys who gets it.

I strongly recommended anything written by AK Thompson and I look forward to what he will produce in the future.

New Release: “The Beast: Making A Living On A Dying Planet”

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 11, 2018
Canadian Publisher Ad Astra Comix Launches Original Graphic Novel “The Beast” Exploring Alberta’s Oil Sands & Corporate Advertising

Ad Astra Comix is pleased to announce the release of ‘The Beast: Making a Living on a Dying Planet’, its fifth publication and first original title. Produced in partnership with Dr. Patrick McCurdy at the University of Ottawa, ‘The Beast’ explores the way advertising shapes our perceptions of the Alberta oil sands, the climate and the Canadian economy.

From environmentalists to oil sands workers, this book has something for everyone to chew on. Driven by economic uncertainty to work in Alberta, protagonists Callum and Mary struggle with doing good while making a living. While Mary flourishes doing oil sands advertising, Callum is dying of the exposure he’s paid in. Their crossed paths to success push them into conflict with each other and ultimately with themselves. Along the way, the book explores the advertising cliches that define oil sands discourse in Canada, from ‘Fort MacMurray is Mordor’ to ‘Diluted bitumen is good for the planet, actually.”

‘The Beast’ is a 112 page black and white graphic novel with six full colour ads that satirize real images produced by environmental NGOs, energy companies and grassroots oil sands supporters – yes, they’re real! Written by Hugh Goldring and illustrated by Nicole Marie Burton, ‘The Beast’ was released in February, 2018 and will launch on Earth Day – April 22nd, 2018.

‘The Beast’ is available through Ad Astra Comix’s online store, on Amazon and through AK Press in the US. Review copies available upon request.

MEDIA CONTACT: Please send correspondence to adastracomix at gmail dot com, addressed to either
Nicole Marie Burton, Illustrator
Hugh Goldring, Writer
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Satirical ads included in the print edition of the book

From ‘It’s All Over’ to ‘Your Black Friend’: the anarcho-comix of Ben Passmore

dayglo ahole its all over

Hours before I met Ben Passmore for the first time, I’d been informed that it was the first night of Mardis Gras in New Orleans. My partner and I were on tour in the American South and had not made any definitive plans for the space on the map between Atlanta and Houston.  A friend of a friend put us in touch, and we gathered in a small group waiting for the Krewe du Vieux parade to start. The night’s theme: “politically incorrect”.

I could hear wooden chips and beads crunching under my shoes as I struggled to distribute the seven jell-o shots I’d just purchased from a nice old lady pushing a cooler through the crowd along the sidewalk. We stood, drinking, smoking, and watched the floats pass: a pair of queens with enormous falsies, an old white man from the ‘NOLA for Bernie Sanders campaign’ wearing a fake indigenous headdress and throwing candy. It was somewhat surreal, somewhat entirely foreseeable.

Mardis Gras continues like clockwork every year, but a lot of New Orleans has changed since Hurricane Katrina. The largest residential building in the city is abandoned. Entire neighbourhoods are boarded up, next to other neighborhoods peppered with colourful and chic low-income housing built with donations from celebrities like Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. In many ways, post-Katrina NOLA became the poster city for explaining concepts like disaster capitalism, neo-liberalism, and gentrification.

dayglo landscape

It’s hard not to notice elements of this un-done landscape in Passmore’s online comic, D A Y G L O A H O L E, which he worked on for years while living in the city. Characters wander around a mysterious post-civilization wasteland. There are semi-familiar objects everywhere, but ‘civil society’ and all that phrase entails is gone. Washed away. Each new comic extends further into this post-apocalyptic future, and deeper into Passmore’s mind we go.bens mind

“Daygloayhole has consistently been too ambitious for my level of talent, but I think that’s what makes it fun. I’m not a huge sci-fi nerd, but what little of it I’ve consumed and enjoyed consistently pairs the recognizable with the fantastically alien.”

Passmore spent several years working on daygloahole, living in New Orleans. Life was a mix of work, going to shows, and fostering a burgeoning indie comics scene through the NOLA zine and comics fair. Of course a city known for its history of parades and grassroots activism will attract its share of artists, hippies, road punks, and anarchists. When I suggested that New Orleans appeared to solve the age-old mystery of where crust punks go to die, he said it was “more to become undead… There’s a lot of lumbering soulessness [here].”

dayglo portland douche

And the anarchists were having a moment. Abandoned buildings were being squatted and used for political organizing or art projects.

The phrase ‘It’s all over’ appears again and again in daygloahole, which was funny because that’s all I could think when I was in New Orleans. And then, it doesn’t seem quite as funny anymore.

dayglo nightclub

“I think that’s something that I enjoyed at first, the culture of collapse in New Orleans, until I really realized the toll Katrina took on people’s minds and lives, and the disparity it underlined.”

food trucks for antigravity
“Food Truck” illustration for Antigravity Magazine

That disparity is one drawn clearly around race in New Orleans and Louisiana as a whole, whether we’re talking about segregation of schools and neighborhoods, police violence, or the state prison system. It was only in the last year that New Orleans removed several Confederate Monuments, which Passmore documented for the comics journalism website, The Nib.

The Confederate Monument fights became a flashpoint in the South for confronting fascist and white supremacist forces, who were being emboldened by Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” (a perfect dog-whistle for the South’s “Lost Cause” sentiment, which sticks around like 100% humidity). From inside a jail cell for confronting the KKK at Stone Mountain, to the streets of New Orleans where a masked Mardis Gras parade took to a Confederate statue with paint and sledgehammers, Ben took names, covered it, drew it, and showed the rest of us what was going on.

ben passmore taken em down
“I’ve been really excited about doing pieces for the NIB,” Ben says. “It’s good to have to explain your ideas with pictures and words if you’re politically wing-nutty. I assume the majority of the NIB readership is liberal and prolly not very into most of my Anarchist politics.”

“New Orleans created a feeling of urgency about white supremacy as a societal poison that I didn’t feel as much before I moved there.”

“And it for sure burned me out on white people.”

your black friend

In 2017, Ben Passmore made international news for having his work, a short 16-page comic called “Your Black Friend,” nominated for an Eisner Award. For those of you not in the comics industry: that’s kind of like being nominated for an Academy Award. Needless to say, as an anarchist, but more as a political comic enthusiast, I was pretty stoked about the news.

‘Your Black Friend’ is a comic for that person who wants you to know they’re not a racist. It’s a comic about micro-aggressions, cultural appropriation, and lefty-progressive virtue-signalling. It is a short but poetically full-circle sampling of how annoying, depressing, terrifying, and frustrating it is to share space and community with white people (even those nice ones) in a white supremacist world.

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Passmore’s first 20 years were in and around Great Barrington, Massachusetts. “My mom was/is an artist and she encouraged me to draw a lot. I think she would’ve liked me to draw trees… I drew a lot of muscle guys in spandex covered in spikes.”

Ben would eventually go on to art school and major in comics with a minor in illustration.

Passmore seems somewhat surprised that younger people are inspired by his work.

“I get messages from other weird black cartoonists and people that get stuff out of my comics. A couple times people have told me that they’ve been “reading my comics for years” and they’re in their early twenties which is such a crazy thing to be a part of someone’s cultural scenery when they’re turning into an adult.”

There’s a lot being processed in Passmore’s comics, from the low-key racism of his friends, to his Mom voting for Trump, to his own relationships with addiction, depression and impulses to self-harm. Ben has made space for it all, while never taking himself too seriously.

dayglo whatever hippie

A current project of Passmore’s –not yet released– deals with identity, inspired by the pronounced dysphoria he experienced during the last two years’ living in NOLA. I’m looking forward to seeing that, given the nuance he gives to subjects like blackness and queerness. “I’ve never subscribed to the ‘destroy everything/destroy my body’ that characterizes some queer nihilism. Not because I don’t think that strain has validity, it’s just it feels complicated to be black and to desire physical deconstruction.”

black people have been gaslighted
From “Fighting For a Better History” about the call to remove Confederate monuments in New Orleans

Leftist comics – much like “the Left” in general– have a tendency to forget the nuance in their attempt to promote a cause. And that’s a fine strategy, if you’re designing lawn signs for an election.

Passmore’s work shows us that a comic is capable of something infinitely more sophisticated.

His advice to folks who want to make political comics: “Don’t be preachy… if peeps don’t at least recognize your point of view, it’s cause you didn’t make your case well enough.”

Your Black Friend‘ is available now from Silver Sprocket. Follow Ben’s adventures on Twitter and Tumblr, and if you want to show Ben some support, throw some pocket change at his patreon page.

antifa chasing richard spencer

 

 

THE BEAST: Making a Living on a Dying Planet

Beast book preview no white trim

Title: The Beast: Making a Living on a Dying Planet
Publisher: Ad Astra Comix, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-9940507-8-6
Additional Specs: 118 pages, black and white (with full-colour satirical ads at the front and back of the book).
Meta tags: environmentalism, media literacy, advertising, communications

This graphic novel is based on the research of Dr. Patrick McCurdy, Dept of Communications (Ottawa University)

Purchase this book here
Canadian customers only at this time.
International buyers, please e-mail us for payment instructions.

03 u got a better idea

From environmentalists to oil sands workers, this book has something for everyone to chew on. Full of difficult questions and imperfect answers, ‘The Beast’ offers the kind of uncomfortable chuckle that comes from the creeping tendrils of existential dread tickling our sense of uncertainty. Join Callum and Mary as they drift through bars, strip clubs and vegan wing joints not so much struggling to answer life’s difficult questions as doing their best to avoid having to ask those questions in the first place. Peppered throughout the narrative is a dismantling of the glib cliches that make up our current, intractable discussion of energy policy.

all ads preview

 

Additional Info

Author: Hugh Goldring
Illustrator: Nicole Marie Burton
Production Assistance: Patrick McCurdy
Recommended reading level: 16 and up (depictions of drinking, smoking, and sexual harassment in the workplace)

40 Years of Books w/o Bosses: A Comic Book Memoir

BTL 7

I wondered, as I held ‘Books Without Bosses’ in my hands, who its intended audience might be? It is, in brief, a comic book history of the non-hierarchical publishing collective, Between the Lines (Toronto, Canada). As a member of one of the world’s few non-hierarchical comic book publishing collectives, I think I am as close to a target audience as this book is likely to get. And indeed, it was a rewarding, complicated read for me. But it raised some emotionally difficult questions.

books without bosses

 

Title: Books Without Bosses: 40 Years of Reading Between the Lines
Author: Robert Clarke
Illustrator: Kara Sievewright
Published: October, 2017
Pages
: 64
ISBN: 9781771133272
Buy it: via BTL’s website

 

How many people work in radical publishing in North America? Five hundred? A thousand? If we count every zinester and amateur distro, maybe about 5,000 souls in all. That seems like a very thin prospective market for a title. At Ad Astra, we probably couldn’t dare to afford to publish something so extraordinarily niche. But we are a different generation of radical publisher from BTL. Since this is a very niche book it seems only appropriate that I write a very niche review.

When you open Google Scholar, it implores you: ‘Stand on the Shoulders of Giants’. For aspiring radical publishers, ‘Books Without Bosses’ offers a shoulder. Between the Lines was founded in 1977, a joint project between the Development Education Centre of Toronto and Dumont Press Graphix in Kitchener. As the title suggests, BTL was, from the outset, a non-hierarchical publishing collective. In an era of doctrinaire Marxist’ presses, their title was meant to emphasize their independence – rather than cleaving to one party line, they were between them. Over the next four decades it has survived police surveillance, the collapse of the brick and mortar retail trade and even the election of one of its authors to public office. Along the way it has published the likes of bell hooks, Noam Chomsky, Vandana Shiva and Cornel West.

BTL 1

That above paragraph covers much of what you’ll learn from the pages of ‘Books Without Bosses’. The history of a publisher, even an anti-capitalist, non-hierarchical publisher, is still the history of a business. That means it is a history of meetings, business decisions and tedious problems in your supply chain. For a baby publisher like Ad Astra, this history would be a priceless guide no matter what format it was printed in. The fact that BTL saw the value of using comics to tell their story is an added bonus.

The value of comics as a medium for political communication is, in part, that political history can sometimes be boring. This is a difficulty faced by ‘Books Without Bosses’. Even the most expertly-constructed comic can only hope to hold the attention of its reader for so many pages with tales of meeting minutes and shipping mishaps. Even for me, a text-only book on this subject would have been too much for my attention span, which was tested by ‘Books Without Bosses’. [Editor’s note: if you’re up for such a challenge, check out ‘”They Called Eachother Comrade” Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers‘ (PM Press, 2011)]

BTL 3

There’s no avoiding it: business history is dry stuff. The illustrated faces of BTL’s published authors, appearing beside their book cover, start to blur together by the second half of the book. I recognized an activist mentor here, an old university professors there, but it was otherwise beginning to drag a bit. If the narrative had chosen to highlight fewer authors, and use its pages to bring the core theses of some of its titles to life, it might have been a little more engaging. As it is, the comic ends up feeling a bit cluttered. As such, it struggles to take full advantage of the virtues of the comics medium.

Books are allowed to be boring, I think, if they are important. And while ‘Books Without Bosses’ is boring at times, it is an important text for a number of groups. If you have left wing politics, work in publishing, are interested in starting a cooperative or work in the Canadian arts sector, this is a book with relevant things to say to you. All of these strands tied together for me, since I tick all of those boxes.

I mentioned above that Between the Lines is a different kind of publisher from Ad Astra . This is largely a question of vintage. BTL was founded in the heady days of the 1970s, when government arts spending rained down on Canadian publishers like manna from heaven. OK, this is an overstatement. But arts spending at every level of government has been falling since Between the Lines was founded. These days, established cultural institutions like BTL are well positioned to take advantage of what arts funding remains. Newcomers like us are at a disadvantage from the angle of public funding.

BTL 2

The inside cover of ‘Books Without Bosses’ thanks both the Canadian and Ontario governments for its financial support. There is an acknowledgment of that support in the story of the book itself, too. By contrast, Ad Astra Comix receives no public support for its publishing projects. We fund our print runs entirely through crowdfunding campaigns. Similarly, Between the Lines has its offices in 401 Richmond, an arts and culture hub in downtown Toronto. This prime piece of Toronto real estate enjoys tax relief that allows it to stay open. Ad Astra Comix, by contrast, exists almost entirely in cyberspace. We run the publisher out of our home, with our basement as our warehouse.

I am not trying to make BTL sound like some kind of tax-payer subsidized stroll in the park, contrasted to Ad Astra as a neoliberal wet dream of private sector innovation. Far from it. As it developed, Between the Lines found resources where they could and built something precious and wonderful with those resources.

But as I read ‘Books Without Bosses’ and learned about the history of BTL, I felt two powerful, conflicting feelings. The first was awe and inspiration at all that Between the Lines has accomplished. They have survived and even thrived through several terrible decades for the publishing industry in Canada. They have produced many important books that are of real value to the left. And they have done it as a non-hierarchical collective!

The second feeling was one of deep sadness and frustration. Realistically, I don’t think that Ad Astra is ever going to be eligible for the kind of state support that has helped in part to make BTL viable. We are also wary of building up a dependency on public funding in an age of austerity – these days it seems far riskier to count on grants.

We are millenials. I joined Ad Astra while working as a freelancer. It is almost a religion for us that ‘no one works for free’. While we admire the good will and hard work of Between the Lines volunteers, we don’t want to build a publisher that relies on volunteer labour. Our rule is that joining the publisher means sharing in the profits and labours of the publisher in equal measure. In an age of unpaid internships, zero hour contracts and temp work, we mean it when we say: No one works for free.

Thus the sadness and frustration. I want to do as much good as BTL has done. In setting out to do so, I find a lot of lessons in the pages of ‘Books Without Bosses’. Their commitment to amplifying the voices of marginalized groups sets a good example. Their building partnerships with professors to get their books into schools is a lesson in sustainability. And the sheer grit that it takes to just exist as a publisher for 40 years as the industry goes down in flames around you is an inspiration.

BTL 4

 

But as I look toward the future I can’t help but wonder how I am ever going to do as much good as Between the Lines has done. Many of the circumstances and opportunities that enabled them to flourish were tied to the historic moment they existed in. I know that we have part of it figured out already: the internet has made crowdfunding possible, which enables us to take books to print based on pre-orders. This particular puzzle is still missing a lot of pieces, though.

What no one tells you is that giants move through history with the rest of us. Their thunderous strides shake my perch and it can be hard to keep steady. But the view from up here is incredible –as long as I don’t look down.

the panel is political.