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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.

cover


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.

Bogged Down: A Review of Environmental Comic ‘Rain’

by Alex Gendler | October 31, 2019

For those who remember their high school reading assignments, the name “Thrushcross” might ring a few bells. But although “Rain” sets its story in the same dreary moors as Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the tragedy it relates is both less dramatic and more consequential than Cathy and Heathcliff’s ill-fated love.

cover

Title: RAIN
Words by: Mary M. Talbot
Art by: Bryan Talbot
Published by: DC Comics (North American edition)
Pages:  168
Specs: Hardcover, 9.75″ x 6.5″, $24.99

 

The comic is the fourth collaboration between Mary M. Talbot, a longtime academic scholar of gender and language, and her husband Bryan Talbot, whose credits include his own The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and Grandville series, as well as titles like Judge Dredd, Sandman, and even some classic Magic: the Gathering cards. While their previous work together focused on the biographies of fascinating historical figures, “Rain” follows the relationship of a fictional lesbian couple during the run-up to the very real Boxing Day floods that displaced thousands across northern England and Ireland in December 2015.

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The book follows Cath, a tough and cynical freelance writer from London, through the course of several visits to her partner Mitch, an ecologically-conscious English teacher and gardener living in Yorkshire. Throughout the story they fight, reconcile, share tender moments, and explore their emotional and ideological differences. The real drama, however, occurs not between the characters but around them. Over nature walks, lectures, and conversations we learn that not all is well in the rustic moors. Marshland is being burned to support the seasonal grouse hunts, natural predator populations are mysteriously declining, and the rain looms ever more ominously over the sleepy residences.

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“Rain” skillfully handles its environmental themes, moving between the local, the global, and back again, tying together everything from class and colonialism to pesticides and soil erosion in well-researched and easily digestible explanations. Along the way, the reader is given a crash course in how healthy bogs help prevent flooding, the health dangers of glyphosate, and even a basic primer in protest preparation. One of the most subtle yet crucial points explored is that the most cherished of ‘rural traditions’ such as grouse hunting are often rooted in a framework of class power and environmental exploitation – a welcome corrective to the common tendency on the Left to trace all societal ills back to industrial modernity.

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The informative value of the comic, however, often ends up overshadowing the narrative, with the characters seeming to be addressing the reader more than each other. Environmental explanations are delivered with surprising coherence in the middle of a supposedly heated lovers’ quarrel. Questions that the interlocutor should already know are posed transparently to be answered with monologues. And the protagonists themselves come off more as functional props than fully fleshed out characters. Given that Cath is a queer freelance writer living in London and has been dating Mitch for three years, it somewhat strains credulity to saddle her with the sort of benign ignorance towards green lifestyle politics one would expect to find in a suburban Tory voter. Nor does her inevitable change of heart seem particularly inspired: “That environmental stuff you’re always banging on about – I think you may have a point.” The feeling that you’re reading an educational pamphlet rather than an organic narrative is unfortunately heightened by the art style, which, while replete with the detail and characterization one would expect from a veteran like Talbot, is permeated by a flattened, monochromatic quality somewhat reminiscent of textbooks.

Nevertheless, the fact that the comic’s environmental message outstrips its narrative framework is mitigated by the fact that this story itself is an important and engaging one. Rather than trying to cover the familiar big-picture terrain, “Rain” uses a hyper-local setting far from the forefront of environmental discussion to demonstrate how seemingly disparate activities impact the delicate ecological web that binds us all. The story ends on an optimistic note – if the apparently mismatched couple can find hope and stability in their relationship, perhaps we can do the same for our relationship with the world around us.

fracking protest

 

Alex Gendler is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. His educational videos for TED-Ed have been watched tens of millions of times, exploring topics like the Turing TestDystopias, and the historic wars that inspired Game of Thrones. You can follow him on Twitter at @achilleselbow.

Introducing: “Rainbow Reflections: Body Image Comics for Queer Men”

Art and scholarship come together in this stunning full-colour comics anthology! Thirty-eight short comics reflect on body image from the perspectives of queer men, exploring our understandings of masculinity, attraction and self-worth. Interspersed throughout the book are fact sheets with the latest findings in queer men’s health research, providing readers with a mix of scholarly literature and heartfelt depictions of personal experience.

cover w shadow

 

ISBN: 978-0-9940507-9-3
Publisher: Ad Astra Comix
Publishing Date: June 28, 2019
Page count: 170
Dimensions: 7.25″ x 9.25″
Softcover, full colour
List Price: $20 ($10/each if you buy 3 or more!)

 

This book is back from the printer and is now available for retail or wholesale purchase here, in our up-and-coming new online store. Comics feature many meaningful topics, including body image and conceptions of self-worth, working through troubles with partners and friends, and some things you can expect during difficult times, like a mental health crisis or transition surgery.

It is our hope that we can get this book into the hands of people who need it! If you are a gender/sexuality educator and would like a copy to review in consideration of using it in your teaching, please contact us and we’ll get right back to you.

This book contains some explicit content and may not be appropriate for everyone, including swearing, depictions of bullying (racism, fat-phobia, body-shaming), as well as illustrations of sex organs and sexual activity — though we can’t imagine anyone over the age of 13 who hasn’t tried to access free porn… and wouldn’t it be cool if we suggested that sexual health be something we consider alongside our mental and relationship health? In other words, the sexual content in this book is not gratuitous; it is contextualized within the theme of queer folks’ physical, mental, emotional, and sexual health.

 

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.

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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.

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].”

dayglo portland douche

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.

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“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.”

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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.

dayglo whatever hippie

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.

antifa chasing richard spencer

 

 

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.

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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.

all ads preview

 

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)

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.

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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.
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 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.