Political Comics at #TCAF 2013

It’s safe to say that this past week was one of the busiest for me in recent memory. On top of working a 40 hour week at my day job (in 4 days), the Toronto Comic Arts Festival was in full swing and I was pulling together what I’d hope would be two kick-ass events for the weekend.phone photos 058
TCAF breaks records every year–has since I’ve been attending at least. If this year didn’t reach fire-code-breaking capacity at the Toronto Reference Library (in addition to several off-site satellite locations), and to be sure, they’re still still waiting on the official numbers, then it was awfully close. More notably there was an insane amount of talent at the show: Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly of RAW Magazine / MAUS / New Yorker fame. Jaime + Gilbert Hernandez, Tagame, Matsumoto, Chester Brown, Seth, David B… the list goes on.
Unlike my previous years at the festival, I saw a notable rise in interest (as well as work available) pertaining to political comic books. This is despite the skiddishness that remains around the term “political”. But whatever people want to call it, I found much more to chew on over the weekend than in years past.
Before I go into some books, a note on Comics Journalism.
If there’s one way to get people to talk comfortably about political comics and their viability, it’s Comics Journalism. I think it’s seen as a happy medium for a lot of  different interest groups, whether it’s non-comic folk looking for some different non-fiction, or comic fans looking for a different type of page to turn. In turn, the sub genre doesn’t effect the topic. Joe Sacco really birthed the term, from his thumb-to-index-finger loins, with work like Palestine and Safe Area Goražde, using comics to take on some pretty acceptable topics of intrigue in the journalism community… but since, really, you could do a comics journalism piece on just about anything and it would have the potential to be amazing. I look forward to seeing more and more come to maturity in this genre over the coming years.
…And secondly, a brief note about Art Spiegelman’s MAUS. I did not include MAUS in this list, because 1) I think it’s deserving of a little more commentary than one paragraph, for all it has done to influence the world of political comics… and comics in general. 2) It was put out 20 years ago. I feel like it’s a bit silly to put it among a list of up-and-comers with newly released works. (In other words, there will be more on MAUS as a specific work to come soon on Ad Astra!)
OK. To the books.

mattbors_lifebeginsatincorporation
LIFE BEGINS AT INCORPORATION by Matt Bors – I’ve never considered myself a fan of editorial cartoons, so when I decided to back Matt’s Kickstarter campaign, that really just meant that I liked his work more than I cared to admit. After a bit of discussion and a lot of planning on both ends, Matt was able to make it up to Toronto to promote his book at TCAF, in the midst of some type of Eastern-Time-Zone-only book tour.
The book is a collection of political cartoons and essays spanning years of wonderful American political drama- from the gay marriage debate that is still somehow being discussed, to the continuing occupation of Afghanistan and the reality that war-time simply seems to be the perpetual reality for Americans, post-9/11. I have plenty to say about this book and have already uttered plenty of niceties here. My recommendation over reading my book-length review is just to buy the book. It’s better.
From left to right: Rutu Modan (Jerusalem), Matt Bors (Portland), Sarah Glidden (vagabond drifter), Josh Neufeld (New York City)
From left to right: Rutu Modan (Jerusalem), Matt Bors (Portland), Sarah Glidden (vagabond drifter), Josh Neufeld (New York City)

I will add, however, that Matt gave a great presentation to an engaged crowd at the Comic Book Lounge on May 10, the night before TCAF–despite monsoon thunderstorms and a competing 10th Anniversary TCAF party down the road (we had this shit scheduled MONTHS ago. We’re not the splinter group. THEY’RE the splinter group!). Attendees included at least one other fellow Kickstarter backer, which was great to see.
On Saturday evening, Matt and I shared a table with comic creators Josh Neufeld, Sarah Glidden, and Rutu Modan to discuss “Comics & Politics” at TCAF to a great crowd who asked lots of questions–from comics journalism to comics activism, free speech and “to draw or not to draw” (discussing the Mohammed cartoon), stereotypes, backlash for work done… it was great. And what’s more, it shows a genuine interest in political comics from a variety of entry points.
sarahglidden_howtounderstandisrael

HOW TO UNDERSTAND ISRAEL IN 60 DAYS OR LESS by Sarah Glidden – Right in there on the topic of Comics Journalism. Sarah Glidden went to Israel on a Birthright trip and came out of it with How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. Not only is it a journalistic piece about the country, it is journalism of herself experiencing it. The artwork is very much a European comic book style, with simple, expressive line work and really nice coloring (these are pretty much the first two things I think about when someone says European Comics). It’s packed with a thousand little stories that maybe tell us more about an American’s viewpoint on Israel than Israel itself, in all its historical and political turmoil. But I like the frankness that Glidden gave when describing the outcome of the book while at the TCAF panel (at the risk of seeming “wishy-washy”), when she said that this place became real when she traveled there, and the people in it became human beings. While I may not agree with Sarah on her political conclusions (and I’ve yet to see, as I’ve yet to finish the book!), it hardly seems relevant when we’re talking about a work of art that is depicting a personal experience.joshneufeld_ADNewOrleans

A.D. NEW ORLEANS by Josh Neufeld – This book has been on my list to pick up for some time, and it was a pleasure to share a stage with Josh and talk to him about this project. I’ve yet to fully pinpoint my thoughts on this, but there is something to be said about  a writer’s perception of an experience, and a visualist’s perception of the same thing. Neufeld seems to pick up on details of the Hurricane Katrina disaster that go missing in other accounts–and it’s not just a matter of mainstream vs. independent media. The wreckage, the crowds, the sweat, the loss of cherished items… all pulls at you differently when you are immediately able to absorb the information through a drawn depiction, without the filter or process of language. I particularly like the variety of people interviewed and their respective color palettes in the book’s pages. This will be a great one to finally read cover to cover.

I also got two other books that were illustrated by Josh Neufeld – The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media, and Stowaway, written by Tori Marlan. Both works of comic journalism, although entirely different.


davidB_bestofenemiesBEST OF ENEMIES by Jean-Pierre Filiu et David – When I first eyed this book at TCAF last year, I’d already spent all my money. Good thing I have a better job this year. Best of Enemies explores the long and complex history of U.S.-Middle East relations. It is part 1 of 3: 1783-1953, and so incredibly fascinating. David B.’s illustrations are absolutely addictive; despite history typically being considered a dry subject matter, he ads enough art and style to the panels to keep even the subject’s most un-enthused reading on. In my limited French comprehension, David had to tell me in English that he and Jean-Pierre, an historian and former diplomat, are busy working on the next book, despite their own crazy schedules traveling around the world. I look forward to reading this one, as well as the coming two.


vendittihuddleston_homelanddirectiveTHE HOMELAND DIRECTIVE by Robert Venditti and Mike Huddleston – One of the few works of fiction that I picked up over the weekend, this self-described ‘political thriller’ is available through Top Shelf Productions, one of my favorite publishers. I always worry about books that look like this one… I don’t want to read a comic book version of the Bourne Identity, although the plot to this one sounds a bit more like the BBC TV show, Utopia. What pushed me over the fence with this one was the attention to detail that I can see–the stylistic and color scheme differences in the artwork as the pages change scenes, the elaborate plot that all ties together at the end (according to the dude from Top Shelf…. who I believe, cause they’re usually believable). Great cover art, too. I will get to this one, albeit a little later than some of the others. Suspicion ensues….


harveypekar_clevelandHARVEY PEKAR’S CLEVELAND with art by Joseph Remnant – In hindsight I’m trying to remember the reason I purchased this comic. It may have been the incredibly detailed pen and ink cross-hatch artwork, or the wonderfully vivid content of working class history in the Midwest, or the introduction by Alan Moore. All are good takers; combined, they won me over. It looks like a great read that most people would greatly under estimate.


7SbooksSEVEN STORIES PRESS at TCAF
Was so psyched to see Seven Stories Press –traditionally not a comics publisher–at TCAF this year. What a great addition to the exhibitors list. Tons of historical and political comics to choose from. I would place them as pretty much the only contenders to have stocked radical comics at the festival. Kudos to them coming and to TCAF for welcoming change and getting them on-board!

THE BEGINNING OF THE AMERICAN FALL by Stephanie McMillan – Yet another work of comics journalism, documenting the nature and relevance of the Occupy Movement in the U.S. This book was the 2012 winner of the RFK Center for Justice & Human Rights Journalism Award – not an award that I’m familiar with, but impressive nonetheless for a type of journalism not yet fully grasped. I am particularly interested in this because it is a political comic that isn’t afraid to take a side- it clearly sees its prerogative as educating a broader audience about the Occupy Movement and inciting a greater level of political participation in the world around us. Can’t wait to read.

AS THE WORLD BURNS by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan – Also at the Seven Stories Press table was this title, also one that I’d never heard of. This book teams McMillan up with notorious deep ecology activist Derrick Jensen to make satirical play on the impending environmental and ecological crises of out time. While it is fictional (perhaps allegorical?) it is undeniably meant to shock people at just how close we’re getting to a great collapse. Looking forward to the read.

PARECOMIC by Sean Michael Wilson and Carl Thompson – Also by Seven Stories Press, about Michael Albert and his development of Participatory Economics. I will probably pair this one up with another comic I plan to review about capitalist economics and see how many of you are still awake at the end. Introduction by Noam Chomsky. See, now you have to buy it.

canadian books

CANADIAN POLITICAL COMICS at TCAF

If political comics can be construed as typical, then it is assumed that the great bulk of them at the festival would be from the U.S. Despite TCAF being a Canadian event, there’s just more of everything coming from the U.S. in comics. But to my delight I was able to find some great work available through Conundrum Press, a publisher based out of Nova Scotia.

THE HERO BOOK by Scott Waters – Not so much a graphic novel or comic as an illustrated memoir (it says that right on the cover), The Hero Book is an artistic yet journalistic look at the culture and psychology of Canadian soldiers. At least, that’s as far as I can tell. Sorry, I was too busy looking at the ABSOLUTELY JAW-DROPPING artwork to read any more than a couple of sentences. Holy shit, this book is beautiful. And from what I can tell, the content is right up my alley. Looking forward to the read.

CHIMO by David Collier – While dealing with the topic of Canadian soldiers like the work above, Chimo appears to be much more comic book-y. As a part of the Canadian Forces Artists Program (seriously, I was surprised as well to hear that such a thing existed), Collier actually went through basic training to be able to write this book. As far as I know, he was in his early 40’s at the time. Impressive, David! It makes drawing out 100 pages sound pretty damn easy!

PAUL JOINS THE SCOUTS by Michel Rabagliati – This book fascinates me. The folks at Conundrum described it to me as something from their ‘Young Adult’ section, but pointed out that it covers a lot of the FLQ crisis in Quebec during the 1970s. What an interesting combination! I love the idea of mixing political and non-political plot lines (isn’t that more like real life?). Paul is the author’s semi-autobiographical character, so it would appear that the work draws from a lot of first-hand experience. Looks like a great piece – can’t wait to pick it up.

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