Climate Comix! A Guest Post by Seth Tobocman

Seth Tobocman1 Seth Tobocman is a radical comic book artist who has been living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side since 1978. Tobocman is best known for his creation of the political comic book anthology World War 3 Illustrated, which he started in 1979 with fellow artist Peter Kuper. He has also been an influential propagandist for the squatting, anti-globalization, and anti-war movements in the United States. We’re very pleased to be working with Seth, and to share his experience and knowledge with Ad Astra readers. -NMB

Why does one read a book? One reason is to inform oneself.

        Why does one create a work of art? The earliest art referred to hunting, which was the means through which we survived.
LascauxPaintings
Climate change is a matter of survival about which we are very poorly informed. So it’s natural that there are comics about global warming. Here are four good ones.
post-york-01Title: POST YORK
Author/Illustrator: James Romberger
Published: Uncivilized Books (2012)
Pages: 40
Dimensions: 8″ x 11″
         If you want to know exactly what New York City will look like when its permanently flooded up to the second floor, then James Romberger is probably the guy to show you. James is one of the best draftsmen in comics. He can draw anything, from any angle, without reference. He has the kind of skill that we are all jealous of. His pastel cityscapes are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yeah, you heard that right, in the Met with Rubens and Rembrandt.
         James wrote POST YORK in collaboration with his son Crosby who is a rap performer. A  disk of Crosby’s music is included in the package. It is the story of two teenagers, a boy and a girl, living in the ruins of Manhattan who encounter each other by chance. It is a concept reminiscent of the movie PLANET OF THE APES and the comic: KAMANDI THE LAST BOY ON EARTH, by one of James’ big influences, Jack Kirby. Romberger also uses a plot device from the experimental films of the 1960s: The story has two endings. The encounter can turn out to be fortuitous or fatal. It is, in the end, a pretty simple story, but Romberger has great compassion for his characters, whose vulnerability is made clear.
          There is not much information or analysis of global warming here. But I’ll take heart without analysis over analysis without heart any day of the week. And POST YORK has heart!

funny weatherTitle: FUNNY WEATHER: Everything You Didn’t Want to Know About Climate Change But Probably Should Find Out…

Author/Illustrator: Kate Evans
Published: Myriad Editions (2006)
Pages: 96
Dimensions:  8.3″ x 5.8″
          Kate Evans is a unique talent who American audiences are just finding out about. I became aware of her work when the late Brad Will handed me a copy of her first book. She started out by chronicling the adventures of her comrades, environmental activists involved in the British road protests of the 1990s in a self published book, COPSE: THE CARTOON BOOK OF TREE PROTESTING. The portrayal is detailed, impassioned, but also quite funny. Kate pokes fun at her buddies in much the way that Bill Mauldin found comedy in the lives of unshaven American soldiers in the muddy trenches of World War Two. These are the kind of jokes that convey a loving familiarity.
           She then traveled to Palestine and did some beautiful comics about the people she met there. These aren’t funny; but serious, moody and picturesque. Then she did two funny books about breast feeding her kid.   Kate’s latest book, RED ROSA is a biography of the revolutionary socialist, Rosa Luxembourg. It is well researched and well drawn.
           So Evans’ M.O. is clear, she likes to draw comics about subjects she actually KNOWS about. She looks for humor where she can find it but NEVER at the expense of moral values. Kate is the type of comic book artist we need more of.  FUNNY WEATHER is the best primer on climate change. Every thing you need to know is in there and you can read it in one evening. It is, as the title suggests, humorous and entertaining.
          Her drawings are crude and a bit amateurish. But they have the kind of exuberance we always enjoy from underground comix. In this sense she has much in common with Spain Rodriguez, John Holmstrom, Dianne Demassa or Trina Robbins. Her images always make her narrative clear, the true test of a cartoonist.
           Funny Weather is structured, like a medieval morality play, as a debate between a fat selfish capitalist climate denier, complete with suit and tie, and a skinny, androgynous, environmentalist punk, mediated by a number crunching scientist (who almost always agrees with the punk). Kate’s countercultural roots are apparent in her portrayal of people who want a middle-class lifestyle as being driven by greed. This may alienate some people. Here, Kate’s humor is her saving grace which softens the blow of a heavy handed narrative.

ClimateChangedTitle: CLIMATE CHANGED: A Personal Journey through the Science

Author/Illustrator: Philippe Squarzoni
Published: Harry N. Abrams (2014)
Pages: 480
Dimensions: 6.5″ x 9.2″
         I will have to confess that before this book appeared on the stands I had never heard of Philippe Squarzoni . He apparently is very well known in France, has published lots of graphic novels, written some screen plays and won some awards. Please forgive my ignorance of the important French comic book scene.
         CLIMATE CHANGED, like FUNNY WEATHER gives you the basic facts about global warming. But it gives them to you in a very different way. It is slow and introspective. It is a book about how climate change makes us FEEL. The author is honest about how much we will have to give up to solve the problem, and questions whether we are ready to make the sacrifice. Squarzoni sympathizes with the middle class and agonizes over the prospect of losing privileges we enjoy, like international air travel. He points painfully to the only times in recent history when the carbon footprint has gone down: The great depression and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hard stuff, but maybe we need to hear this. Philippe finds hope in “Solidarism”, Europe’s tradition of social welfare and democratic socialism.
          To deliver this heavy mixture of information, emotion and ideology, Squarzoni , like Romberger, draws on the French New Wave cinema of the 1960s and 70s. In a structure reminiscent of the films of Jean Luc Godard, CLIMATE CHANGED goes back and forth between subjective and objective reality, jumps forward and backward in time, uses ironic juxtaposition of text and images and refers over and over again to well known American movies. It is a sophisticated work of art.
           It saddens me that Philippe Squarzoni’s brilliant script is not matched by his bland artwork. His images are cool and professional and just good enough to carry the story. It is in the end, the story he tells that matters. Philippe Squarzoni  has given us a vision of climate science that speaks to the concerns of the middle class, and this is a great service.

Flood_EricDrookerTitle: FLOOD

Author/Illustrator: Eric Drooker
Published: Dark Horse (2002)
Pages: 138
Dimensions: 6.6″ x 9.3″
        In the mid 1980s, Eric Drooker stumbled upon a copy of Scientific American, with a cover that showed his hometown since boyhood, New York City, sinking into the sea. This image, along with the street battles between police and protesters in Tompkins Square Park, the daily struggles of the poor and the sights and sounds of the city, gave rise to his first book, FLOOD. It is, to my knowledge, the greatest work of art to be inspired by global warming.
         The great flood is an ancient myth. In the epic of Gilgamesh, it serves as a metaphor for man’s mortality, for the impermanence of all we create. We Jews detourned this Babylonian tale for our own religious purposes. The Biblical flood testified to man’s sinfulness and God’s disapproval. To the inevitability of the Lord’s just punishment. Drooker understands the power of this momentous metaphor and employs it toward an ecosocialist vision.
            In this powerful progression of images, Drooker shows us the oppression we all experience working and paying rent in this city, he goes on to show us the history of the United States, the conquest of the Native peoples and the destruction of their lands. Then he shows riots, rebellion and war. Then finally the flood.
             Drooker’s work is deeply influenced by the wordless woodcut novels of the early 20th century and particularly the art of apocalyptic graphic moralist, Lynd Ward. This choice of tradition has more than superficial significance. Ward was the director of the arts program of the WPA, the government employment program set up to counteract the effects of the great depression. As such, Ward was vilified by the generation of abstract expressionists that followed. Drooker and I both went to art schools where we were told that WPA political art was just the squarest, the most out dated, the worst thing you could do. And yet when Eric shows us a 1980s street corner drawn in this 1930s style, it looks just right. There is no better way to draw it.
           I once asked Eric “Why do you persist in following Ward’s style so closely. Sure, he was great, but the world has changed.”
           He replied “That’s my point. The world hasn’t changed as much as people think it has.”
           There is not a lot of information about climate change in this book. But there is a deep analysis. He shows us that global warming is the result of the totality of human activity. Of a society based on domination and exploitation. The rising ocean is natures critique of capitalism.

WHAT WORKS AND WHAT DOESN’T

mattbors_climate
“Climate Talks” political cartoon by Matt Bors, 2014.

Each of these graphic novels is a noble attempt to tackle a difficult issue. But what is often lacking–indeed, in many artistic commentaries about climate change–is the sense of revolutionary optimism that makes political art effective.

            It’s hard to write about climate change because it can be so depressing. Artists use different strategies to get around this. Romberger uses the familiar format of a science fiction adventure movie. Evans uses comedy. Squarzoni uses the tradition of the 20th century introspective novel. Drooker uses the spectacle of the grand historic epoch. But what would really help would be to make these books even more radical in their analysis of capitalist society..
             I suggest that the artists could do more to explore the ways in which society imposes over-consumption on the individual. Our parents’ generation did not adopt car culture because of “America’s love affair with the automobile”. They started driving because they moved to the suburbs. They moved because the urban tenements were hell holes. And those tenements were hell holes because landlords didn’t take care of them. If New York City had responsible urban policy, Levittown would never have been built. Without the vision of a different type of society, any discussion of global warming leads to hopelessness.
              So the really great comic about global warming? The one that tells us “What Is To Be Done”, that can be a manual and a guidebook for the street fighters of the future? That book hasn’t been created yet. I recommend this project to the cartoonists of today.
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