Words: Hugh Goldring
Pictures: Nicole Marie Burton
Based on the research of Sky Croeser (Dept Internet Studies, Curtin University)
To order this comic as a booklet, visit our online store.
Words: Hugh Goldring
Pictures: Nicole Marie Burton
Based on the research of Sky Croeser (Dept Internet Studies, Curtin University)
To order this comic as a booklet, visit our online store.
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.
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?
Title: Premonitions: Selected Essays on the Culture of Revolt
Author: A.K. Thompson
Published: 2018 by AK Press
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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].”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
On August 13, 2015, Peter Collins died in prison. The headline in his hometown newspaper read ‘Police Killer Peter Collins dies in prison‘. It’s remarkable how many lies can fit in a headline.
No one contests that in October, 1983, Pete shot and killed Constable David Utman. But for the headline to say only that Pete was a ‘police killer’ is to tell an unforgivable lie. It might have read ‘Award-winning AIDS activist Peter Collins’ or ‘Fearless champion of animal rights Peter Collins’. A more honest headline could have said ‘survivor of child abuse Peter Collins’, in recognition of a portion of his trauma.
There is another unforgivable lie in that headline. ‘Peter Collins dies in prison’. They use the neutral word, dies, as though there’s nothing else to say about it. But here’s something that needs to be said: the prison system murdered Pete. When he found blood in his urine he asked to see a doctor. It took them months to fulfill his request. Bladder cancer can be treated if you catch it early. But for Pete it was too late.
To tell Pete’s story the headline might well have added another word at the end. That word is ‘alone’. Though his cancer was known to be incurable he was denied compassionate release. He might have spent the last weeks of his life reunited with his family. With his friends. With freedom.
But whether it’s for love of the police or the profitability of sensationalism, no headline is going to tell that story. For that you’ll have to read his book, ‘Free Inside’, published by Ad Astra Comix. Featuring comics, original art and writing by Pete and those who knew him, ‘Free Inside’ is no fit tribute to a man whose indomitable spirit cannot be captured by mere print.
But at least it tells the truth.
Preview of Art in “Free Inside”
Things you can do to help:
Pre-order copies of “Free Inside” for yourself, your classroom, your church library, or your social justice organization by e-mailing us at email@example.com
Share the following press release about the book:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 'Free Inside' Documents the Life of Prisoner and Activist Peter Collins Ad Astra Comix is pleased to announce the publication of its latest title, 'Free Inside: The World of Peter Collins'. A mixture of comics, art and writing by Pete Collins and those who knew him, 'Free Inside' is a record of Pete's courage and tenacity. After a troubled childhood, Pete was imprisoned in 1983, convicted of killing Ottawa Police constable Robert Utman. Left alone with his thoughts in prison, Pete felt a terrible remorse for what he had done that would remain with him for his entire life. He spent the next several decades of his life working to heal himself and help those around him. He died of bladder cancer in 2015 after being denied compassionate release so that he might spend his last moments with his family. Prison confined Pete but could not contain him. He was an advocate for the rights of animals, prisoners and people with HIV / AIDS. In 2008, he was awarded the Canadian Award for Action from the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Human Rights Watch. He helped prepare fellow prisoners for parole hearings and fought tirelessly for justice. Although the prison authorities repeatedly obstructed his work as an artist, Pete persisted. His acerbic cartoons about prison life speak to the frustrations therein. His political cartoons skewer the hypocrisy of powerful people. His sketches of birds and other wildlife show his sensitivity and patience. 'Free Inside' is a kind of memorial to Pete - full of his work, his thoughts and the thoughts of those who loved him. It speaks to the failures of the Canadian prison system and the triumph of the human spirit in the face of misery. We are proud to publish this first full length collection of Pete's work and hope that it will encourage people to judge prisoners not in terms of their one mistake, but the whole of their lives and experiences.
The Left was baffled in 2016 to learn that Trump was taking a stance against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. As the new administration fires up for trade wars, perhaps it’s time to review what we know about the role of the American state in international trade.
Ad Astra Comix is pleased to announce the second edition of ‘Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention“. First published by an academic architecture publisher in 2014 in a limited run, we are excited to bring ‘Undocumented’ to a wider audience.
As with previous Ad Astra projects, a pre-order campaign will be held to raise awareness and cover the costs of printing. Stay tuned for details!
Last January, we spent time in Atlanta Georgia with our friend. Specifically, we spent time in Dekalb County, Georgia, with Andrew, the co-founder of On Our Own Authority Books and his daughter, Olivia. This comic is about them.