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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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.

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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].”

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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.

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“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.”

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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)]

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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.

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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.

Political Comix Review: The Outside Circle

If you like beautifully written and impactful graphic novels, if you care at all about social issues, and you have the tiniest spec of curiosity about the impacts of Canadian colonialism and its lasting impact through generational wounds, YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK. Yes, I just went all caps. And yes, I genuinely think that ‘The Outside Circle’ deserves it. It is complicated, powerful, and undeniably insightful in ways that linger long after you have turned the final page.

outside circle


 

Title: This Outside Circle
Author: Patti LaBoucane-Benson
Illustrator: Kelly Mellings
Publisher: Anansi
Publication Date: May 2, 2015
Genre: Graphic Novel, YA Fiction, Fiction


 

But let me start with a disclaimer. This graphic novel is not for the faint of heart, and likely not altogether suitable for young children. The social issues touched upon include gang violence, drug use, poverty, incarceration, abuse, and the systematic destruction of families and cultures. It needs to be read, it needs to be discussed, but it is best suited to older teens and adults. And while the subject matter isn’t the lightest, the presentation is such that it is easily approachable by students, scholars, and independent readers alike.

the-outside-circle-anansi-pressThe style and colours in this book made a tremendous impact on me, and I had to read it through several times in order to appreciate the depth of the details and nuance. I enjoyed the ongoing transformation of masks throughout, the tattoo motif, the circle series, and the repetitive use of smoke and fragmentation. I also found the variety of panels and page layouts to be engaging, and I really appreciated the break from tradition western aspects and transitions. The layering of Aboriginal and pop-culture iconography was beautifully done, and the balance created through the imagery made it easily understandable despite my limited understanding certain cultural motifs. The result is a fast paced, engaging, and visually appealing experience.

I was instantly, and irrevocably, wrapped up in Pete’s journey from the very first page. The very meta nature of the opening page of story, showcasing a storyteller, expounded further by the narrator stating ‘let me tell you a story’ had me going daaaamn. I know it doesn’t sound super amazing in a review, but the layers in the book are so very meta, and I like meta – especially when it comes across without feeling at all pretentious! Now add in the integration of key documents on residential schools, the Bagot Commission, the 1867 Indian Act, and some painful and startling statistics;  I couldn’t look away. I cried during the family mapping exercise (if you haven’t figured out by now that I am a crier, where the heck have you been?), and cried even more at Bernice’s funeral and when Ray came to visit Pete in prison.

I am in love with how everything came full circle in the end, and I know that this isn’t always the case in the real world. But it was really was a touching and uplifting way in which to end this story. But more than anything, I am in love with how LaBoucane-Benson actively invites readers to become part of the narrative and to become part of the healing process.

Would I recommend this book? HELL YAAAASSSS! Especially to Canadian junior and senior high school teachers and librarians. ‘The Outside Circle’ is impressive, empowering, massively educational, and yet ultimately a story of hope. It is incredibly efficient in breaking down stereotypes, helps readers to understand and identify injustices present in Canadian society, and humanizes issues that too often reduced to statistics. This is an absolute must read!

 

This is a guest post by Jessica Macaulay, a censorship-fighting school librarian that continually advocates for diversity and equality in collection representation. She is an unashamed comics geek and advocates for their inclusion for readers of all ages and levels, and is dedicated to changing the student and parent perception of what school libraries are and should be. Hop on over to Minimac Reviews for more reviews of books and comics like this one.

Cartooning History – An Interview With Larry Gonick

While we were traveling America last year, we came across Vol 3 of Larry Gonick’s fantastic ‘Cartoon History of the Universe’ series. Endorsed by everyone from Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau to the late Carl Sagan, the series more than lived up to the hype. This led us to his website whose work spans topics ranging from history to physics to pure math.

books 4

That’s how we found out that since the very beginning, Larry has seen comics as a way not only to entertain and inform, but to change the world we live in. Once we’d seen that, we knew we had to interview him. Thankfully, he obliged.

larry gonick
Larry Gonick

1) How did you get into reading comics? What was the first comic you ever owned?

My father used to read me the comic strips from the Sunday Denver Post when I was four years old. I’ve been reading comics ever since. I couldn’t possibly remember my first. I’m pretty sure I Go Pogo entered the house by the time I was six. Kelly was surely my strongest stylistic influence.

2) On your website, it says you dropped out of math in 1972. What’s the story there?

Five years earlier, when I was applying to grad school, I had a sort of existential crisis. I suddenly realized that I was marching along a path leading to a career in a math department, without ever consciously having decided to walk that path. It was a chilling sensation, a sort of claustrophobic response to an intellectual realization about how futures are made. At that point, though, I saw no alternative, so grad school it was. Later, with social change erupting all around, a friend brought me a proposal to do a comic book on tax reform, inspired by the political-education/propaganda comics of Rius in Mexico. Rius (Los Agachados, Cuba for Beginners) was an eye-opener. He may not be the first, but he’s by far the greatest cartoonist to use comics to inform rather than simply to satirize. A soon as we started working, I was hooked.
gonick prof
 The key for me was this: although I drew a lot, I had zero confidence that my brain alone could generate enough comic inspiration to last a lifetime—until I saw this use of the medium. Here, I realized, was an endless source of material, and that’s how it’s turned out. When I got my first weekly comic strip, pathetically paid though it was, I dropped out of grad school.

3) You also say that “My crazy hope is that this crazy medium will somehow improve this crazy world.” That describes our work pretty well, too. But you’ve been doing this since the 70s. What made you think comics were a good medium for social change?
It’s hard to say. In the absence of a movement, not much. In the presence of a movement, plenty. I once (around 1975) had this argument with Jules Feiffer. I maintained that cartooning could work in support of a social movement (or even a political party). He insisted that the artist has to maintain independent judgment. At this point, I’d like to think that both are true, to some extent. It’s a rare social movement that doesn’t develop its own load of cant and shibboleths, and though the artist may support the movement’s goals and principles, she or he will have an overwhelming internal urge to make fun of the bullshit. It’s complicated!
challenge 2 religion

4) Your background is in math, but your bibliography covers an incredible diversity of topics from history to chemistry to sex! Did you have co-authors for some of those titles, or did you research it all as you went along?
 cooperationI had co-authors for all the science titles but one. I did the math books myself and found them tough going, because I’m so far removed from the classroom. My collaborators, being teachers, all had a good sense of what students find easy and hard, whereas I felt myself groping straight through. And the collaborations, despite occasional struggles, have always been a great experience for me. I learn a lot, and I like to think that my relentless cross-examination can lead the scientists to a little rethinking, too.
History I did all myself. For 35 years, I read almost nothing but history and biography. I love the stuff.

 5) Something that really stood out to me when I was reading the first three volumes of ‘Cartoon History of the Universe’ was how deliberately you avoided falling into a Eurocentric narrative of history. The Islamic world, the Indian subcontinent and China all feature prominently in your account of world history, with attention paid to the Eurasian steppe and sub-Saharan Africa as well.
 This was a conscious decision, obviously. My original political impulses made me mistrust traditional approaches and seek new narratives and connections, and believe me, they were easy to find.
manifest destiny
But in Vol 4 (rebranded by the publisher as Cartoon History of the Modern World, Vol 1) the focus shifts dramatically to Europeans, apart from a good account of Meso-American civilization and some coverage of the Inca. There’s still some coverage, but it isn’t at the level of the previous books. Why was that?
That’s where the narrative leads. The European conquests in America, Africa, and Asia led to European domination of world politics. In retrospect, I may have included too much European dynastic stuff, but the religious wars certainly mattered, and the story of the United Provinces of the Netherlands has been too little told.

6) I know you’ve just finished a book, and there’s a question about that coming up. But do you have plans for any future ‘Cartoon History’ or ‘Cartoon Guide’ titles, or anything else?

I’m in the middle of The Cartoon Guide to Biology with Dave Wessner, a biology professor at Davidson College (Steph Curry’s alma mater. Go Warriors!). It will surely be the longest of all the science books. I’m also working on my first project explicitly meant for the classroom: a large series of quiz questions for beginning physics.

 7) Looking at your website led me to the ‘Commoners’ series, which I read as short comics about the enclosure of different commons by transnational corporations. What led you to produce those?

 An old friend and associate, the late Jonathan Rowe, who spent his life in activist writing, put me on to the idea and found some funding to support the strip.

8) Do you still make time to read comics? Have you read anything good lately?

 I have the time to do it but little inclination. I mostly read novels, with a little non-fiction on the side. My problem with graphic novels is that they’re quick to read and you rarely want to go back. In this, they’re different from the great comic tradition of work like Pogo, which I re-read until all the pages fell out. I’m proud to say that the Cartoon Histories are books that people return to again and again. I realize this sounds dismissive, and in fact I still read comics. I love Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant  and check in with Randy Monroe’s xkcd pretty often. Of more-or-less recent book-length pieces, my favorite by was Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

9) You’ve got a new book coming out in the winter: “Hypercapitalism?” Can you tell us a little bit about it? What moved you to write it?

Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College, approached me about doing a book on capitalism and responses to it. I thought, Hm, why not go back to my political roots? The time was right. I especially liked approaching the subject from an unconventional direction: the psychology of money-chasing and material gain and what it does to more humane values and pursuits like community feeling and care for the planet’s future. Tim insisted that we finish the book with a long section on what people are actually doing to address our out-of-whack values, and I’m hoping that the book will stimulate some productive discussion out there in the discussion-sphere.

10) Inevitably, interviewers miss an important question. If there’s a question you wish I’d asked but didn’t, feel free to pose it yourself and answer it here.
Q. What’s your Social Security Number, Larry?
A. I prefer to remain a man of mystery.

the panel is political.