35 Years of World War 3 – An Exclusive Interview

It’s been thirty-five years of World War 3.

As momentous as it sounds, no one could have known in 1979 that this self-published periodical based in New York City would become the longest-running anthology of political comics in the world–at least, that we’ve been able to find.

Marking the occasion, and that of the crowd-funding campaign to compile much of that work into a new book by PM Press, Ad Astra got the opportunity to ask some of World War 3’s founders and current contributors about comics, creative expression, and the role of the artist in the lifelong struggle for social justice.

Visit the WW3 crowdfunder currently on Kickstarter! Contributors include: Sue Coe, Eric Drooker, Fly, Sandy Jimenez, Sabrina Jones, Peter Kuper, Mac McGill, Kevin Pyle, Spain Rodriguez, James Romberger, Nicole Schulman, Chuck Sperry, Art Spiegelman, Seth Tobocman, Tom Tomorrow, Susan Willmarth, Carlo Quispe, Isabella Bannerman, Jordan Worley, Mirko Illic, Mike Diana, Scott Cunningham, Ward Sutton, Paula Hewitt Amram, Peter Bagge, Hilary Allison, Rebecca Migdal, Ethan Heitner, Anton Van Dalen, and dozens more.

First off, what is or has your role been at World War 3 Illustrated?

Seth Tobocman: In 1979, I started the magazine with the help of Peter Kuper, Christof Kohlhofer and Ben Katchor. I’ve been constantly involved as editor and publisher since then, as well as contributing a lot of my own artwork and comics.

Seth Tobocman1
Seth Tobocman in front of his painting, which became the cover of WW3 Issue #40, called “What We Want”

Scott Cunningham: I started submitting comics to World War 3 after the Tompkins Square Police Riot of 1988 (editor’s note: for photos, see  below). This was a pretty famous event – at least around the Lower East Side where I was living at the time. I did a series of street posters protesting the police’s violent behavior, and Seth saw the images and was trying to track me down to contribute to the magazine. Which wasn’t easy, since I didn’t sign the posters (postering being illegal and all). But I went to a fundraiser for the magazine around that time and met Seth – and the rest is history. At least, my history. After contributing comics for a couple of years, I stepped into a co-editor role.

From right to left: WW3 contributors Kevin Pyle, Peter Kuper, and Scott Cunningham. 2011.

Kevin Pyle: I co-edited quite few issues starting in the early nineties, through 2010. For a chunk of that time I was the primary production person who brought WW3—at least the actual hard copy—into the digital era. Thankfully, that role is now shared by many people  who have the expertise to expand our online presence.

Back in the day — from left to right: WW3 contributors Scott Cunningham, Seth Tobocman, Peter Kuper, Sabrina Jones, and Eric Drooker being interviewed live on Paper Tiger TV West in San Fransisco, 1990. Click to watch full interview.

How did you find yourself using art to carry a political message?

Tobocman: Politics is a natural part of how I look at the world, so it has to show up in my art. The world around me gives me constant inspiration for new work. For sure, there were events that made a big impression and effected the direction of my art–the invasion of Grenada  (1983) led me to do my first stencil graffiti, in that such an illegal act required an equally illegal response. The housing movement in my neighborhood offered me a vast area of subject material to explore. More recently, the Occupy movement showed up to confirm that we had been on the right track all along.

Cunningham: My background was in fine art painting. That had become less satisfying to me in my late 20s. Essentially, to become successful in art, you need to sell your work to rich people. I worked at a gallery for a couple of years and developed a distaste for rich people who collected art. So, I sort of was trying to figure out what to do next. Then the riot around protesters supporting the homeless living in Tompkins Square Park happened. I knew people who were beaten by police during that time. The Lower East Side came to look like a war zone and suddenly you see these cops everywhere…and they didn’t look like the regular beat cops. They looked like soldiers. Very militaristic. I guess you could say the event politicized me. Looking for an outlet for my rage, I started postering on the street. Then I discovered WW3 on a magazine rack and thought I could do work for them, if I could figure out how to do comics. Luckily, the editors were willing to help me with the process, translating my posters into something that could work as a narrative. The first piece I did for them wasn’t all comic-like – more like a series of posters. But I learned how to do regular comics over time.

Pyle: I did a few posters for political groups in college, but it was really seeing the work of Sue Coe and issues of WW3 that got me moving in that direction. I was a big fan of German Expressionism and I think when I saw contemporary work that shared that aesthetic, I started looking deeper at the reality it was portraying. I also think doing op-ed illustrations for newspapers got me interested in writing about the things I was illustrating. My first book, Lab USA, was kind of what I thought should be the newspaper.

What are some of the ways that World War 3 has gained an audience over the years? What was the strategy getting going?

Tobocman: For the first few issues, it was pretty difficult. But then we were picked up by an indie record distributor,  Mordam Records, who were very much involved with whatever Left existed in the American punk scene. So we were carried in all these little music shops and venues in the 1980s. That sustained us all the way up to about 2002, when the music industry collapsed. Since then, we have been innovating and finding new ways to reach the public. Our work with PM Press is part of that innovation process.

Stencil art going up at a WW3-related "Paint Jam" in 1990.
Stencil art going up at a WW3-related “Paint Jam” in 1990.

Can you tell me any particular anecdotes about the challenges of starting/maintaining the world’s longest-running radical comic anthology?

Tobocman: The first two issues were put together in a really weird way to save money. It involved printing the guts in one place, the cover at another, getting the paper at a short end paper supplier. Then stapling it and trimming it by hand… At one point I cut my finger trimming a copy and had to go to the hospital.

Pyle: I wasn’t there at the beginning, but in the early days before everything was digital, we would have to go look at the negatives at the printer out in Queens. Because of where it was located, the easiest way to get to it would be to go down to the end of a train platform, cross the tracks and a rubble and trash-strewn vacant lot. It had the feel of some covert act.

Ye Olde Printing Presse - used to crank out issues of WW3 in the 1990s!
Ye Olde Printing Presse – used to crank out issues of WW3 in the 1990s.

Cunningham: Peter Kuper always says that the only reason we’ve survived this long is that no one gets paid!

Not that we don’t fight over ideas, or the quality of the art that goes into the magazine, or the balance of perspectives that the magazine embraces… But what we don’t fight over is how much you got paid. And those [seem like] the kinds of fights that can really make your blood boil. Money…the root of evil, right?

We’ve got this Kickstarter campaign going right now to raise cash for the anthology, and it makes me a little nervous… because if we reach our goal, the magazine will actually have some bucks to work with for the first time, rather than struggling to make enough from sales and ads to crank out the next one. I guess that gives you some idea about where we’re coming from. I’m worried we might have too much money. But I shouldn’t worry too much. I’m sure we’ll still never get paid!

What kinds of political discussions do contributing artists have through WW3? Can you give an example of a controversial issue that has led to debate between artists… or a comic being refused for political reasons?

Tobocman: We have always had a number of different points of view, from liberals to anarchists to people who don’t want any label. It’s important to make it possible for all of these people to have a voice.

We had big arguments about feminism back in the day because the comics scene was so overwhelmingly male back then. It was hard to get women comic artists–many of whom were trying something new that they had never imagined doing before–to feel welcome.

Cunningham: I don’t know of any comic refused because of the political ideas in it. I mean, we don’t have neo-Nazis submitting work, which helps to cut down on the amount of stuff we would reject. In some ways, the debates that stick in my mind over the years, had to do with “quality”. Someone has a good idea, or interesting perspective, or personal story that seems worth telling, but they don’t have the chops to turn those ideas into a good comic. Editors will often work with those potential contributors to try to make the story better, or pair them with an artist who can make it better. But different editors have different ideas about what’s good, bad, and acceptable, and that’s the zone where the debates can get the most heated. I have a feeling that others WW3ers answering this question might think differently about it… That’s why it’s good that we have a broad range of people who edit the magazine.

Exhibit of WW3 poster art in San Francisco - early 1990s.
Exhibit of WW3 poster art in San Francisco – 1990.

Tobocman:  [I also remember] discussion of esthetics. Eric Drooker, Paula Hewitt, Peter Kuper and I were all looking at woodcut artists of the1930s–Lynd Ward and Masereel. At one point I said to Eric, “Hey, it’s cool to be influenced by this, but our stuff shouldn’t look exactly like theirs. Because times have changed.” and Eric replied, “But that’s the whole point! Look around you! Times haven’t really changed!”

In the Kickstarter video, September 11th is specifically mentioned as a time when American artists experienced a lot of doors closing to free expression. As a New York-based magazine, what was the response like to those first issues that came out in response to 9/11 and the subsequent set-backs?

Pyle:  I remember it being really positive. The release party for that first issue after 9/11 was absolutely packed with all sorts of folks I hadn’t seen at other events. I think people were hungry for a different perspective and they knew we would have one.

I really want to point out the quality of the narratives in World War 3–I picked up my first copy at an indie record store in Illinois when I was about 13 or 14, and loved it. I picked it up again, for the first time in 15 years, in 2013, and the content was just as good as I remember. I’m wondering if you’ve had any favorite stories over the years?

Pyle: One of the earliest issues I edited was mostly made up of Shit House Poet stories by Sandy Jimenez. Given that, as editor, I spent a lot of time with stories, Sandy’s gifts as a writer, [plus] the fact that it was so personal, I was deeply effected by that work. It may have even inspired me to explore the material that became Blindspot. I think Seth’s work that was part of War in the Neighborhood fits your description in that the politics of it are intertwined with the complexities of human relations.

Collection of artwork on display at Exit Art in New York City - 2014.
Collection of WW3 artwork on display at Exit Art in New York City – 2011.

Tobocman: I feel like Sandy Jimenez is one of the best writers in comics. I think his story “Skips” which is in the anthology is a good example. He shows us how people are effected by social conditions, but never loses sight of the individual. He is able to show human beings with all their failures and still maintain some compassion for them.

I like Fly’s piece on her first sexual experience “K-9s First Time”. It gave me a new way of looking at sexuality, from a point of view I had never understood before reading it.

I also liked Peter Kuper’s “Promised Land”, Eric Drooker’s “Throwing Stones” and Tom Keough’s “The Gaza Strip”. These were some of the first American comics to take on the Israel/Palestine conflict. That was brave work.

I like the work of Hayley Gold in the new issue. It’s a very personal comic dealing with anorexia. Hayley is one of the new generation of cartoonists who are not burdened by the idea that comics have to be kids stuff. Here she is, a college junior, doing very sophisticated material.

Cunningham: I don’t want to play favorites here. But I’ll single out James Romberger’s comic on the life of artist David Wojnarowicz as one that really stood out to me, about how Wojnarowicz worked as a male hooker when he was just a kid. That ran years ago, and was an excerpt from a longer story that was eventually published as Seven Miles a Second (Fantagraphics, 2013), recently republished. We also published a story by the controversial artist Mike Diana called “Grasshopper Boy” which I thought was one of his best.

WW3 prides itself on showcasing new and emerging artists. Can you give us any examples of first impressions about folks who have gone on in the art/comics world?

Pyle: I can’t think of any first impressions but I always love to see WW3 contributors out there with their own books. Part of me always wonders, with a new contributor, if we’ll see a lot from them or just a little. I know, for myself, WW3 was very important for the simple fact that you had a deadline, a place you knew something would be printed, and a group of people you respected who would read it.

Tobocman: When I met Eric Drooker and Paula Hewitt, they were handing out free copies of their own ‘little red book’. A 4¼” by 5½” comic book called “The USA at war at Home and Abroad”. (Editor’s note: a limited edition re-print of this VERY book is available to Kickstarter supporters at the $25 funding level! Get one while you can!) The drawing style was crude and people today would not recognize it as the work of the same artists. But the message was right on the mark. In fact, the analysis in that pamphlet would effect my work for many years to come.

I met James Romberger in 1981 at a comic convention. He was showing this amazing pastel comic strip called “Jesus in Hell” to none other than Jack Kirby. Kirby said “You’re the best kid! But don’t take this to those guys at Marvel and DC. They won’t understand it! Take this to a museum!”

More recently, I was handed a leaflet at a demo with an interesting comic strip on it. I asked who was the author and was introduced to Ethan Heitner, who now works on WW3.

Comic by Palestinian rights activist, Ethan Heitner.
Comic by WW3 contributor and Palestinian rights activist, Ethan Heitner.

Back in 1983 no one knew who Eric Drooker, James Romberger, Peter Kuper, Seth Tobocman or Sabrina Jones were. And today, how many people know about Ethan Heitner or Hayley Gold? But WW3 gives people a place to start where their integrity isn’t compromised by someone’s bottom line.

Cunningham: Absolutely everyone on that list [of contributors] above would qualify. WW3 has been a great launch pad for a number of important artists over the years.

Can you say how many subscribers you’ve had or issues you’ve printed/sold since 1979? What can you tell me about the breadth and reach of WW3, today and over the years?

Tobocman: Our print run ranges from a low of 2000 to a high of 6000 depending on the issue, but I think our influence has been greater than those numbers would indicate. Copies of the magazine are shared between many people–and then the artwork is shared again, as it is copied into flyers and posters, made into murals and tattoos. When I meet readers of the magazine I find they are some of the smartest, most creative, most socially active people in the world. Many are artists themselves, or work in community organizations. So we have had a big effect on many different social movements, from the Squatters in the 80s, to the people who rebuilt houses after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. I am very grateful that these people have made my work a part of their life and activism.

Pyle: All told, it’s been 45 issues and two (soon to be three) anthologies. I know I’ve shown WW3 in a few classes I’ve taught about activist art, and sent plenty of issues abroad. I was at a language school in Guatemala that had some comics in their library, and I could tell from the selection and conversations that they were lefties, so I sent them off a big old box of magazines when I got back home. I sent a lot of the prison issue (Issue #24) into prisons. But the best was when I used to read letters sent to the PO Box (back before the internet) from small towns in the Midwest saying things like, “I love your magazine! I never knew there was anyone who thought like me!” It reminds me of Peter Kuper’s response to the accusation that we’re preaching to the converted— the converted need comics too!

Being a young punk kid growing up in the Midwest, one of those letters was probably from me! What else do you do as artists/activists/educators?

Pyle: I’ve been jumping back and forth between pamphlet-sized activist comics, like Prison Town and Wage Theft, that are designed as outreach tools to specific groups in need of social justice, and graphic novels aimed at kids 12 and up. My graphic novels, like Blindspot and Take What You Can Carry aren’t overtly political but somehow end having those themes run through them anyway. I also do a lot of short comics workshops in public schools.

bad_for_youCunningham: My new book with Kevin Pyle is what we call WW3 for kids. Bad For You is pretty political and meant as a way to educate kids about a lot of issues that affect them. It’s an attempt to instill critical thinking at an early age, to make kids question various forms of authority that are telling them what is bad for them. I don’t think I would have done a book like Bad For You without my experience working on WW3, and editing issues of the magazine with Kevin helped us in the collaborative process on the book.

Seth spraypainting
WW3 founder Seth Tobocman at work on a stencil painting.

Tobocman: I have been drawing my own comics since I was a kid and have a number of my own books out. I have also done illustrations for books and magazines and posters for radical organizations.

(….Ed’s note: This is the most modest response in the history questions. Don’t just take his word for it–check out Seth’s long list of books available on Amazon.ca, or check out his personal website, sethtobocman.com. “You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive” was a milestone book for me personally as a young artist.)

“35 years of World War 3” seems to be a loaded statement. Literal meaning aside, what does that mean to you? Are social justice activists and artists still engaged in the same “war”  as three and a half decades ago?

Cunningham: For me, since the day I was born (and years before it), America has been on the lookout for the next war, the next enemy, the next reason to feed the gaping mouth of the military industrial complex, instead of using its huge resources to feed its people instead. We should be helping to educate kids instead of pouring money into weapons designed to destroy them. What a fucking waste. But that’s the 1984-ish, perpetual war that America has decided to wage since the 1950s.

That’s WW3.
Pyle: I think it speaks to the necessity of having something like WW3 in existence. The fact that it is constantly rejuvenated with new energy and talent who jump on board with nothing more than a promise of hard work and a vehicle to express their anger, concern and humanity, tells me that it survives because it is tied to something deeper than your average comics anthology.
Younger editors like Ethan Heitner and Hillary Allison help carry the torch from the wave of energy people like Rebecca Migdal, Sandy Jimenez bring (alongside others, too numerous to mention). At the center of it is Seth and Peter, who have always been there as constants to keep the magazine going. But the ultimate constant is the need for a place for the artists who have something uncomfortable or challenging to say about the world we live in.

Tobocman: When I was a teenager, I kept running into cool things that were already over. Someone had done something really interesting, and then abandoned it before it amounted to anything. It was very disheartening. So I didn’t want to add to that great pile of disillusion. That’s why it was important to set this magazine up in such a way that it would keep coming out.

There is an ugly cliché that radical politics is something you only do when you are young. While I have made plenty of mistakes and I hope my understanding of people has deepened, I do believe that, in a broad sense, the positions we took 30 years ago were right. We said that comics could be a serious art form. We said that deregulating the economy would lead to another depression. We said pollution would lead to global warming. And the list goes on.

So what part of this am I supposed to take back? There is no reason to stop publishing this magazine.

I want to thank Seth, Kevin and Scott for making themselves available for this interview, and to all of WW3’s contributors currently keeping the magazine going. Readers–don’t forget to check out the Kickstarter campaign, learn more from the video, and contribute to their drive to get some great perks.



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