Political Comics Today: What's in the Works

This post is a bit of a precursor to my two-day jaunt through Toronto’s most exciting celebration of the comic book medium, the 2012 Toronto Comic Arts Festival. I’ll explore some of the reasons why I think TCAF is such an incredible event to visit in a moment, but first…

I’ve skipped around on my previous posts about some of my favorite political comics, but I don’t think I’ve yet given much analysis on why I think they’re so useful. It’s difficult to make generalizations in a medium that exercises its talent so broadly; what I will say first is this: political comics were instrumental in my coming of age and social awareness. I was 12 years old when I ordered MAUS from my school’s Scholastic Books bi-monthly order form, and I just knew it would be worth the money, because I needed my Mom to ‘sign off’ on the PG-13 parental discretion slip. Hell yes.

What became of that comic–and a small collection of others shortly after–was a quiet awakening. Instead of reading about an issue in a book (or worse, as is the case for many young adults, a simplified, opinionated ‘topical essay’), and feeling the words of the subject thrown at you as a speaker would throw to his audience, comics felt more like a conversation. A back-and-forth as much with speech as with the eyes. I liked the freedom to be invited to explore subtleties and complexity… a double-entendre, a hypocrytical narrator, a message that is a simple thing to say, but is seemingly a whole new world to look at. It is one thing to read a description of an Orwellian dictatorship; it’s quite another kettle of fish to feel the personal and social tensions rising up around you, unpredictably, in a story such as Alan Moore’s V for Vandetta.

Tomorrow, as hundreds of comic book writers, artists, and publishers descend on Downtown Toronto, I’m reminded of what I found last year at TCAF–my first since moving here in 2009. Or rather, what I didn’t find. It was such an incredible turnout–hundreds of artists, writers, and publishers, thousands in attendance. And unlike the corporate ComicCon’s, of which there are plenty in Toronto and charge a good $20 to get in–you trade line-ups for signatures with fading Hollywood Sci-Fi stars for table after table of artists and writers, who will talk to you, in person, no time limit, about… well, whatever. Folks are totally open and amazing. In general, the Fest caters much more to the alternative / indie comic book scene, and that in and of itself is something great worth mentioning.

…. So why did I start writing this post about what I didn’t find at TCAF last year? What I mean was, cough, Where the hell were all the political comics? I met some amazing folks from all over North America, who had incredible talent, and came from some incredible backgrounds and experiences. But not one of them, among hundreds, focused on political comics. Now, for sure, for whatever reasons, the political / educational comic was not anyone’s vehicle choice, and I respect them–I especially respect artists on this, whether they are writers or illustrators–because when you’re an artist you’ve just got to do what feels right. But really…. Not a one?
I wasn’t shy about asking them about this last year, either. I heard a lot of different reasons, but the general consensus is that people really aren’t interested in political comics (or at least–“they don’t sell.”)  As a side note: if you were at TCAF last year with your political comics and I didn’t see you and give you a high-five, come and find me. My bad–I’ll buy you a slice of pizza for lunch this year.

One exception to this that I remember was Eric Kostiuk Williams and his incredible work in Xtra Magazine illustrating the history of the Toronto Bath House Riots. Looking at his work (which made the front cover of this issue) shows some of the true dynamism of the comic medium–the entire feel of this article is changed by his illustrations. The article was worth reading, anyway… but seeing his work, you actually feel like you’re missing out if you aren’t reading it.

With so many changes happening in the world right now, and the multitude of experiences and history that we are all tied to, I can’t believe that artists and writers wouldn’t want to hone in on this corner of comics–especially the alternative and indie crowd. What’s even harder to believe is that people wouldn’t pick up those works, buy them, and learn something they didn’t know about a subject–any subject–the history of slavery in Canada. The Iranian Revolution. How Wall Street crashed the U.S. economy. Fuck, the history of sugar is political. And I promise you people would buy that. People love sugar.

So, here is hoping that this year I find a few diamonds in the rough and can chat with them about their work. (And then publicize it here.)

I’m reminded, in closing, that one of my key reasons political comics are so dear to me is that they’re utterly trap-like: that is, most people (who aren’t comic book nerds) think of comics as dumbed-down versions of books. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons a political comic book on the Holocaust would get picked up more than a written novel on the same subject (“Why would I read Number the Stars when I can read MAUS? With pictures?”)…. before you know it, someone who thought they found a way to just fast-track through a history project has been educated on a subject, and straight-up schooled on the awesomeness of comic books. It’s such an incredible opportunity to open someone up to a new idea–while going above and beyond their initial expectations from the medium.

A Maus-trap, if you will. That was the first one I walked into… and I hope to find a few set up in the Toronto Reference Library tomorrow.

NMG

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