Stuart McMillen’s webcomic adapts (and updates) Postman’s famous book-length essay, Amusing Ourselves to Death, which argues that Aldous Huxley’s vision of the future in Brave New World was ultimately more accurate than the one proposed by George Orwell in 1984. (Via).
Matt Bors prides himself (perhaps reluctantly) on being “The Last” nationally-syndicated editorial cartoonist in the United States of America. While the rest of the “sequential arts” are in the midst of their own Comic Renaissance, political and editorial cartoons are withering away with printed newspapers—now used with more satisfaction for fireplace starter and nesting material for gerbils than reading.
Despite this, Matt has built a decent following through cartoons and commentary that are consistently present and politically poignant. What do I mean by “present”? Outside of his regular publishing in regional newspapers near his home in the Pacific Northwest, his website archives all of his comics—which, from the perspective of social media (which have been steadily replacing print as our chief news sources for the past decade) are all very “share-friendly”. The first piece I ever saw of Matt’s got passed along in my Facebook feed, I believe, by the The Occupy Wall Street Page:
Web comic celebrity Matt Inman once put it a few years back, “With The Oatmeal, I wanted to create something where the viral marketing itself was the product, rather than trying to put it on something else.” I would argue that, er, Matt B. essentially does the same thing except with politicians instead of cats wearing ties (which does hurt his stats a little bit). In the realm of politics, though, Bors’ drawn conclusions are successfully competing with mainstream news media, (and they downright Haretsukan others in the domain of editorial cartooning). While the medium of the comic panels is almost defined by its accessibility, as Matt Inman hints at, the content of said panels remains a refreshing escape hatch from the suffocation usually associated with mainstream political discourse. It’s a pretty impressive balance.
For how long have you waited for an editorial cartoon–with mainstream accessibility–to point out the following:
(Check all that apply)
[ ] Most high-profile homophobes are probably gay (Matt keeps a list that’s about 2-score long)
[ ] The path to the Middle Class in America is arguably longer and harder than the path to citizenship
[ ] Despite being elected as the “anti-war candidate” against the GOP, Obama has continued the War on Terror, surged the troops in Afghanistan, NOT closed Guantanamo, and fully ushered in the era of drone-based warfare, currently occupying half a dozen countries in the Middle East / Central Asia.
[ ] Millenials, as a generation, aren’t “lazy”: they’re fucked (link goes to this gem of an essay, included in Matt’s book, posted on Matt’s website).
[ ] Occupy wasn’t a bunch of hippies sitting in a drum circle, and “I am the 99%” wasn’t just an incredibly meaningful slogan thought up in between bong hits.
At this point you may be thinking, “Isn’t this supposed to be a book review?”
The book is Matt in 200 pages. It’s everything that he offers as a political cartoonist in both form and content. It’s editorial cartoons and comics journalism, satire and commentary, covering women’s rights, marriage equality, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, gun control, elections, debates and popular [mis]conceptions about all of these things. It’s a powerful and enjoyable showcase that makes you wonder why NO ONE else is doing it like Matt is doing it. Matt made fun of me, more or less, when I described him like that before–I guess I just don’t know how else to say it.
Is there anything I disagree with Matt on?
His cartoon about Julian Assange, which focuses on the allegations of rape against the Wikileaks founder, to me, is like looking at Obama’s foreign policy today and trying to focus on the 2012 Benghazi Attack. My point? That’s it’s sooooo not the point. And yea, I’m a woman and I know all about non-consensual sexual encounters; and yea, there’s an American diplomat to Libya out there, listening to Steve King or Lindsay Graham, going, “Give me a fuckin’ break!”
One cartoon not doing it for me, out of a thousand, is acceptable.
Matt’s book, Life Begins at Incorporation, can be purchased online through Matt’s website.
This is an interesting new comic that’s just been brought to my attention. It’s called Wage Theft: Crime & Justice (1# – will there be a series?), and is more or less an educational pamphlet that details interviews with low-income earners (including migrant and undocumented workers) who are experiencing illegal cuts to their pay checks from their employers. The project appears to have been launched by a group called Interfaith Worker Justice out of Texas, with grant support from a couple of different church groups.
Wage Theft is written by Jeffry Odell Korgen and illustrated by Kevin C. Pyle (whose work includes Take What You Can Carry, Blindspot, and Prison Town. He is also a former co-editor of World War 3, America’s longest-running radical comics anthology.)
If you have trouble viewing the booklet above, try this link here.
Title: Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
Written by: Chris Hedges, Joe Sacco
Illustrations by: Joe Sacco
Published: 2012 through Knopf Canada (a division of Random House Canada)
List price: $29.95 CAD
Chris Hedges was trained to be a minister, and Joe Sacco is known to draw comics. Both, however, have made their strongest marks within the realm of journalism: Hedges as a foreign correspondent reporting from Central America, the Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa. Joe Sacco made comics journalism a concrete category with works like Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde, The Fixer, and others.
It seems only natural that the two would work together. They have overlapped each other’s geographical locations of coverage on a few occasions, particularly with Israel/Palestine and areas in the Balkans. Both understand the complexity of what they investigate and the need for empirical as well as historical inquiry.
But what I find intriguing about Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is the way I see their previous work illuminate these pages to reveal a truly devastating picture of the state of America. Hedges draws on a treasure trove of historical events he has personally witnessed or painstakingly researched to show how the elite of the U.S.A. may not be as invincible as they think; Sacco’s trademark illustrations immediately recollect visions of a street in Gaza—and yet, I’m not looking at a street in Gaza here; I’m looking at a street in Camden New Jersey or Immokalee, Florida.
To be clear, the book is about a little more than destruction and revolt. Those two points are the focus of two separate chapters. Others include:
Days of Theft: Pine Ridge, South Dakota
Days of Seige: Camden, New Jersey
Days of Devastation: Welch, West Virginia
Days of Slavery: Immokalee, Florida
Days of Revolt: Liberty Square, New York
What is recounted in these pages isn’t sensationalism. Sensationalism would imply that truths were stretched, or quotes taken out of context. What it amounts to is a gallery of some of the worst places to live in the United States today—regions termed by Hedges to be “the sacrifice zones” of unfettered capitalist exploitation. And therein lies the fundamental trouble with DDDR which digs at you through your read of it: that is, from cover to cover, it’s all true.
Each chapter is an article written by Hedges, documenting their travels to a particular site. Locals are interviewed and are the subjects of most of Sacco’s illustrations in the book (his work is typically either a landscape for an area, or a person talking of their experiences.) Within this format, Hedges makes invaluable use of his time as a foreign correspondent, drawing on that experience to show how these regions are being treated much the same as third-world countries under foreign occupations, domestic dictatorships, or the suffocating yoke of international debt. This is contrasted with his written descriptions (and Sacco’s visuals) of the people who inhabit these areas: most are simple people whose definitions are blurred, sometimes completely overtaken by the hardship around them. Hedges and Sacco point out strength and sacrifice in those they interview, as much as they profile individuals who, understandably, in the words of Hedges, are “living lives in which tenderness and security are grabbed in desperate snatches.”
This work is truly a testament to those most voiceless in America today—from West Virginians dying of the coal industry’s carcinogenic air, to the millions of Latin Americans living a modern-day slavery Hell in the American South. Their stories are illuminated with Sacco’s artwork, and their finds profound historical, philosophical, even moral depth with Hedges’ words.
It will disgust and anger you, but it is a must-read.
Fellow Torontonians, I hope you’ll join us on Friday May 10 for an incredible presentation on political cartooning, political comics, comics journalism, and more at Ad Astra Comix’s first event: The Political Comics of Matt Bors. Matt will be in town for the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) happening that weekend at the Toronto Reference Library, and to promote his new book, Life Begins at Incorporation.
Here is a copy of the poster we’ll be putting up beginning this week:
In conjunction with the event, Matt has agreed to have his book distro’d by Ad Astra Comix here in Canada, which is pretty exciting. So the event is also a launch for Ad Astra to begin actively distributing political comics!
I’m also extremely grateful to the kind folks at the Comic Book Lounge for inviting us into their space. It’s so nice to have comic shops that are not only supplying me with my next fix of comics, but also see themselves as an integral piece in an active and vibrant community- and Comic Book Lounge is an enthusiastic believer in this.
In addition to a presentation, where will be a book sale and signing, a bar lovingly stocked with local beer and wine, and free snacks. I can’t emphasize enough that there will be free snacks.
Folks can RSVP for the event on Facebook here. We look forward to seeing you there!
Title: Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story
Author: Mat Johnson
Illustration: Simon Gane
Published: 2010 by Vertigo Comics
Dark Rain is a fictional heist story set against the backdrop of an historical moment in both time and space—a flooded New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When Katrina hit, I personally thought it was an event of such a magnitude that it would find its way into more comics. After all, it’s a medium that has a long reputation for wrapping current events and recent history into its story lines. What I find interesting about Dark Rain, though, is that it is more true than most readers realize while they’re reading it.
There are two fundamental elements taking place here. The first is that there is a fictional narrative of Dabny and Emmit, two ex-cons who, despite a recent history of bad luck, now see a golden opportunity to rob a flooded bank. This comes into conflict in two ways. They are physically confronted with the reality that Dark Rain, a private security contractor (read: mercenaries) have been deployed to protect the bank, and their twisted Colonel has a similar heist plot in mind. They are also socially and morally confronted with the reality that the people around them, their neighbors and fellow community members, desperately need their help.
The second over-arching element is a political and social commentary of how Hurricane Katrina was handled: how the event intervened in millions of lives, and subsequently, how opportunists intervened in the disaster for financial gain—a reality that has been under-reported, largely because it was in the aftermath of the disaster, after camera crews and reporters packed up and went back to their regularly-scheduled programs.
Seriously, I have yet to find a review of Dark Rain that points out what, to me, was so obvious it made me buy the book—the fact that the name Dark Rain is an allusion to Black Water, the largest private military contractor in the U.S. at the time. They have since changed their company name to Academi, in the face of horrifying investigations into their practices both in the U.S. and particularly Iraq (as of right now, in 2012, there are more private military contractors in Iraq than there were U.S. soldiers, ever. A reminder that the Iraq War is still going on—it has just been privatized.) For more information about this, I highly recommend picking up Jeremy Scahill’s book Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.
Now I don’t know if Mat Johnson had this in mind, but I find it incredibly difficult to believe otherwise. Blackwater was deployed to New Orleans immediately following Hurricane Katrina, to protect “valuable assets” in the city. There is a great video of Scahill talking about witnessing this first-hand while he was covering Katrina as a reporter for Democracy Now!. After hearing that testimony from an award-winning investigative journalist, I also find the storyline of a heist to be ironic—if not, also, subtly alluding to Blackwater’s activities. Scahill points out in the talk that the company was hired by the Department of Homeland Security to deploy to New Orleans, at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of $950 per man, per day. If that’s not a heist, I don’t know what is.
I’d like to think that was all part of Mat Johnson and Simon Gane’s plan… but I’m still having a hard time tacking that hypothesis down as proven–seriously, no one has written about this?! Still, it gives me pause to think about some of the critical reviews I’ve read of this work. The common criticism of Dark Rain is that the personal story doesn’t mesh with the social/political commentary. Maybe those reviewers, in reality, are complaining of all that space those written words. As the cold hearted Colonel would say….
Title: The Death of Elijah Lovejoy
Author: Noah Van Sciver
Published: 2011, 2D Cloud Micropublisher
Got My Copy: At TCAF 2012, but you can order a copy through their website: www.2dcloud.com or by contacting the author at http://nvanscriver.wordpress.com
(Noah Van Scriver puts out some regular strips through his blog. I picked up this piece from the Toronto Comic Arts Festival last year.)
As I wind down from my trip visiting my Mom and Grandma in Lawrence KS, I felt it poignant to review a comic that takes us back to that notable time of Midwestern history when neighbours, friends and family alike were literally at each other’s throats over the question of slavery.
The Death of Elijah Lovejoy is about the untimely demise of one of the country’s many little-known abolitionists. Elijah Lovejoy was a church leader, writer, editor, publisher, and staunch abolitionist. The man had a life that was defined by two fundamental struggles in American history: the struggle against slavery and racism, and the freedom of the press. A monument of Elijah is dedicated to these fights in Alton Illinois, where the man took his final breaths. Earlier in his years, Elijah had caused great controversy when he protested the killing of escaped slave Francis L. McIntosh, who was chained to a tree and burned alive in Elijah’s town at the time of St. Louis, MS. His stance on the McIntosh murder, and his persistence in printing anti-slavery literature, would follow him to his grave.
I’m not too worried about sounding the spoiler alert with this review: the title gives away the cold reality that Elijah dies. The comic is a play-out of that final evening, when a mob of angry villagers has Elijah and his colleagues surrounded at the location of his printing press. (This was his 4th printing press—the previous three had been seized and destroyed by mobs.)
Van Sciver uses his simple, black-and-white illustrations to depict Lovejoy and his colleagues as they defense Elijah’s fourth (and final) printing press in Alton. The text, particularly the conversations, are hypothetical, but probably not far from what was said that night. The panels plainly show the unwavering sense of righteousness that was felt on both sides of the slavery issue, in which men would level buildings, hunt each other down, and burn people alive to make a point.
For more information on the comic, check out the links above. For more info on Elijah Lovejoy, the internet reveals that his story is not altogether forgotten. Here are a few links.
Wikipedia Entry on Lovejoy:
Lovejoy’s Biography on Spartacus Educational:
It was two years ago this month – on January 27, 2010, that Howard Zinn passed on. He was 87 years old. While he was arguably the most important American historian of the 20th Century and wrote a library of work–including his milestone, A People’s History of the United States–a fun fact is that the last publication he released during his lifetime… was actually a comic book.
Title: A People’s History of American Empire (A Graphic Adaptation) Author: Howard Zinn Artwork: Mike Konopacki Editor: Paul Buhle Published: 2008 through Metropolitan Books
The gravity of Zinn’s legacy tends to make singular reviews of his work impossible. A review of one work necessitates a contextual understanding of his life as a radical historian who in turn, participated in making history during his own time. That being said, I will assume that readers will go elsewhere to get their crash course on Zinn, so my review stays under 10,000 words.
This book is beautifully presented. It is now available in soft- or hard-cover, and at about 12″ x 20″, is a little too big to comfortably sit in my lap as I’m reading it. My assumption is that the creators chose a larger format because the work is so text-heavy.
That text is important, because Zinn is arguing a still-contested notion, and needs as much evidence to back up his arguments as possible. It begins with the annexation of Indigenous lands across what is now North America in the later 1800’s, and takes us to the present post-9/11 era of relative global military hegemony. Zinn’s thesis is relatively clear: all of modern U.S. history is a history of empire; however, there is a parallel history of life and resistance by many. This includes poor and working people, who have played major rolls through unions, churches, and other community groups; women, students, and minorities of many stripes have all had interesting parts to play in a history that is largely told, in Zinn’s words, from the perspective of only “certain white men” (implying the rich and powerful).
Compared to A People’s History of the United States, which first appeared as a piece of academic achievement, American Empire reminds me more of a documentary film. Zinn is shown giving a lecture at an anti-war event, introducing and concluding the book’s chapters, which jump to varying times and places. Major historical figures like Black Elk, Mark Twain, and Eugene Debs are in these chapters, speaking as if to the reader, in scripts pulled largely from their real-life quotations and writings. The creators have chosen to accent this large-scale historical narrative with Zinn’s own personal history, as a young unionist, a WWII Air Force bombardier, and finally, as a young radical professor during the Civil Rights and Vietnam War eras.
What you get here is an interwoven account of his research and his own personal account of the 20th Century. It’s a moving way to look at a history that was told to most of us very differently in school.
Visually, it’s all a lot to take in, especially if you want to appreciate the illustrations as well as the text. I see this book being most appreciated when you can read it in segments. This makes it perfect for classrooms or study group. Each chapter is about 6 pages.
We are looking at a graphic adaptation of Zinn’s work. But we’re also looking at a graphic adaptation of the man as a modern-day intellectual icon. (Ex: These great little “Zinnformation” boxes pop up from time to time in the chapters, depicting a little light bulb with Howard’s tell-tale white hair-‘do.)
But just because I support the work in principle doesn’t mean the review is all roses, right? I have a few critiques of the book, rooted in my perspective as a comics lover + writer, and as a history enthusiast who cannot overestimate the impact Howard Zinn has had on my education.
I’ll get right to the point:
I’m not a fan of comic book adaptations–of books, movies: anything. My experience with them has been largely that they are a lose-lose product: the comic book becomes a simplified medium for what was in its first stage a more complete and highly-developed creative product. (Insert any comic book adaptation of anything here: Game of Thrones, The Last Unicorn, Ender’s Game, etc. etc. etc.) On the other hand, the comic medium is dis-serviced by simply being a highly-saleable vessel by which to re-release something that’s already out on the market. In short, if you’re doing a graphic adaptation, you’d better be bringing something incredibly special to the table.
In this regard, I think this graphic adaptation of Zinn’s past work has both some hits and misses.
First, let’s talk about the hits.
(+) Of course, a comic book makes available a lot of the information that Zinn has, largely, buried in pages upon pages of academic text, filled with all the usual footnotes and supplementary reading. So it’s accessible, and that’s especially important to young adults or classroom settings, as I mentioned before.
(+) The book does in fact compile some new information, largely the primary sources used to assemble its “interview”-styled segments with historical figures like that of Mark Twain shown above. That and the additions of Zinn’s personal experiences make it a more colourful work than any *one* of his texty-texts.
(+) Some of the graphics that have been added to this volume, including the contemporary photographs, political cartoons and other artwork of the time does much to enrich the narrative. It’s always illuminating to have this kind of media–text is, after all, highly prone to editorialization–but a photograph or political cartoon can reveal something of an un-altered reality for the time period. Now, some of the downers.
(-) Personally, I find the cartoon-ish fashioning of the illustrations to be a little out of the mood of the book. This is a serious, often grim, telling of American history–there are many chapters that would have rightly moved me to tears, if not for drawings that look like they came out of a storyboard for Quick-Draw McGraw. I would have gone with a different overall style. Still, even if the manner isn’t to my liking, at least it’s consistent, and professionally rendered.
(-) Many graphics are modified photographs–that’s fine–but what irks me is that whoever photo-shopped them didn’t clean them up. It’s like writing a milestone book and then not bothering to format it properly. I don’t know why political comic books continue to disappoint me in this arena. It’s as if they see the quality of form and content as mutually exclusive. Or they think that readers just won’t care.
Some won’t: that’s true.
But for comic book connoisseurs as well as artistically-minded comic readers, this is what ultimately determines the quality of the work… i.e. the amount of love that went into it.
In my opinion, we’re in the beginning stages of a second golden era for comic books–with political and historical comics, for the first time, being seriously included in the festivities. The last thing you want is to be invited to that party and then let people down. Think I’m making a mountain out of mole hill? Maybe. I’ll come back to this in a moment…
…first I gotta to drill into your heads, again, why Howard Zinn was (and IS) so important. Don’t worry, it won’t take 10,000 words.
As I touched on before, when A People’s History of the United States was published in 1980, the words “People’s History” were neither a mainstream term nor a methodology. Academically speaking, it was a new argument: History didn’t have to be that of kings and “great men”, or, as Henry Kissinger put it, “the memory of states”. It was revolutionary. He introduced the historical equivalent of ‘the 99%”–an overwhelming proportion of human history sits in the stories and memories of common folk–and it was right under everyone’s noses, being largely ignored.
By 2008 when this book came out, Zinn was already an icon. This book has led to countless additional volumes written or based on that first People’s History. Like supplementary reading satellites, they revolve around the foundation of that first work. Here are a few:
- Howard Zinn’s (A People’s History of) The Twentieth Century
- Voices of a People’s History of the United States
- A Young People’s History of the United States, adapted from the original text by Rebecca Stefoff;
- A People’s History of the United States: Teaching Edition
Audio renditions of his work are narrated by Matt Damon, Viggo Mortenson, and others moved by his work.
Here are a few books written by other historians, composing a “series” founded on Zinn’s original work:
- Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World
- A People’s History of the Supreme Court by Peter Irons with Foreword by Zinn
- A People’s History of Sports in the United States by Dave Zirin with an introduction by Howard Zinn
- The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World by Vijay Prashad
- A People’s History of the American Revolution by Ray Raphael
- A People’s History of the Civil War by David Williams
- A People’s History of the Vietnam War by Jonathan Neale
- The Mexican Revolution: A People’s History by Adolfo Gilly
What we are reviewing here is one of those publications. There is no other historian, mainstream of no, who can claim such a franchise, nor such a significant intellectual imprint.
What I’m trying to say is this: when I see imperfections in comic books, I think of two things:
– Creators/editors who lack experience in comic books (lots of indie/underground comics, as well as quite a few political comics, whose creators are firstly activists or academics; not comic book-makers). This often points to a lack of necessary funds and time.
– A rushed attempt to make money (most often the case in the department of “Comic Book Adaptations’… yet another reason for my distaste of the category…)
With People’s History of American Empire, with all due respect, a little may be true of both.
But it kind of doesn’t matter what I think. At the end of the day, what’s important to me is figuring out what the end user (the reader) is thinking; and that’s what I’ve tried to do here.
Why does it concern me? Because I would never want someone to read this book and find out that their lasting impression of a work was “rushed attempt to make money”–when its origins are so profoundly the opposite in motivation.
Political comics will catch on. As the importance of non-fiction comics grows, more and more investment will be put into making a product with a cause that is indistinguishable from the mainstream players. But for now, the fact that this is one of the most well-circulated political comics of the past few years shows that we’ve got a little ways to go.
Some of you may recognize the logo that I use. Originally, it was depicted over the words, “Join or Die”, with sections of the snake labelled for the early British colonies. It is a woodcut attributed to Benjamin Franklin, circa 1754, and is widely considered to be the first political cartoon in American history.
It was altogether a cry, at least at first, for unity amongst the colonies against their enemies, the French and native nations.
But, as memes do, it was copied and re-used widely in the colonial era. Eventually, it was re-introduced in the context of uniting these ‘states’ against Britain–and became a de-facto logo for the Revolutionary War.
It is important to note that this wasn’t Franklin’s original intent. After all, one isn’t born a revolutionary–and in the days before Pop culture could depict what a revolutionary could look/act like without necessarily providing any political or philosophical substance to their identity, one wasn’t compelled toward that conclusion quickly. No, revolution was for those who had exhausted other avenues–for Ben Franklin, one of those was the Albany Plan.
“Join or Die” was printed and published first in Franklin’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, as a push for this Plan. Largely driven by him, it proposed (among other things) a unifying Grand Council and President over the British territories of North America to address new matters of concern–namely, security and defense (including a standing army) in the wake of France’s growing alliances with many North American indigenous groups.
The Crown, sensing that this idea smelled some too much of a push for independence, did not approve. Colony representatives, from New York to Virginia, were too embroiled in their own local squabbles to really care.
With regard to the Albany Plan and its rejection, Benjamin said:
“The Colonies so united would have been sufficiently strong to have defended themselves; there would have been no need of Troops from England; of course the subsequent Pretence for Taxing America, and the bloody Contest it occasioned, would have been avoided. But such Mistakes are not new; History is full of the Errors of States & Princes.”
Despite it coming about as the banner of an essentially failed campaign, it is interesting to see how this image has lived on. One can’t help but note that ‘JOIN OR DIE’, which has survived centuries, was crafted by a man who had a knack for effecting lasting imprints .
The premise of the cartoon, by the way, is somewhat obvious but has some interesting aspects. At the time, it was apparently common superstition that a severed snake could be re-connected (and brought back to life) if the severed pieces were reattached before sunset (… the more you know!). It was a fascinating way to convey that there was precious little time to act on an urgent matter.
The pieces, of course, are the colonies, who were all separate entities. Franklin was among the first to argue that they are recognizable as something of a larger whole, distinct from England and its other world colonies. The era of colonization in America was an era of massive change, and ‘JOIN OR DIE’ was part of a budding outlook… the earliest and most rudimentary depictions of a sense of national identity.
I’ve since seen it used for a lot of references to the Revolutionary War– Paul Giamatti’s “John Adams” series on HBO immediately comes to mind. I’ve even seen [modern day] Tea Partiers use it, somewhat to my confusion and amusement. Fundamentally, its significance isn’t so much about patriotic fervour as harnessing the sentiments of many into an idea–an idea that proposed tremendous action, which was represented with a simple symbol and but a few words.
My interest as a writer and as an activist is in connecting dots. With art as the form and history as the content, I think there are many sentiments in our world today that need harnessing–from depression to hatred, narcissism to nihilism–and media like comics can begin to make sense of it all in a way that is accessible.
It’s been argued into a cliché that one is the product of their surroundings—and to say as much about Eric Drooker would be an acknowledgement that his artwork is as much about New York City as himself. Maybe more.
The images he depicts in such stark contrast—whether it’s the linocut, scratchboard, or stencil art, all of which he’s known for—all present the same city, seemingly, at war with itself, constantly and eternally.
Eric Drooker was probably one of the first political artists that I discovered. I was 13-ish when Rage Against the Machine put out their single, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and the artwork of that album is Eric Drooker – from the graphic novel, FLOOD!, to be precise.
After that single came out, I looked for more of his stuff. Something in the pictures had a real distinct emotion and humanity behind it–I would say everything in his work had soul. I bought a book of posters and other “street art” by him (this was the late 90’s, back in the days before “guerrilla art/marketing” was a household term, and work by Bank$y wasn’t being bought for $1 million by the world’s rich and famous). Eric Drooker’s art centered around the issues that the people of the city—the city itself—struggled with: police brutality, poverty, affordable housing and tenants’ rights, the freedom to assemble, etc.
In this story, Drooker depicts the epic story of a man struggling for a modest existence with only a handful of text. On most of his journey, he finds little more than bad options after he is laid off. From there, life in the city becomes a downward spiral; he seemingly bounces off of its edges as he falls, the rain pouring harder and harder in the streets. He wants work but can’t find anything that pays enough or is within his skill-set. He wants to feel comfort and love from another human being, but in the night only finds human beings more emotionally starved than himself.
The panel sequence that I find most powerful is when he finds his troubles compounding—bad news over and over and over again. The panels get smaller and smaller, the graphics more and more crude. It’s the perfect depiction of when a bad day just keeps piling up with unfortunate events, until you sit down and try to vent to a friend or in writing… and by then, so much garbage has piled up that it all feels petty.
FLOOD! sharpens the over-arching message that Drooker presents to us in all of his work depicting New York City: It’s not just about one or another character and his or her stories–morality–or soul, as I mentioned earlier. Fundamentally, the “soul” in question appears to be the city itself. By the end of this story, you feel convinced of this idea that New York (and maybe all of our hometowns) have souls, and somewhere in the Heavens of the ether is a grand scale, precariously balancing all of the good (community, humanity, love, compassion, potlucks, free concerts in the park, dogs and cats, children playing in their neighborhood) with the bad (muggings, eviction notices, police violence, drug rings, gangs & crime syndicates, alienation, selfishness, and all that noise, noise, NOISE!). We wait in hoping that, should it ever be finally and resolutely judged, the number of good deeds will outweigh the bad.
… One can’t help but think about these things, especially when the streets of New York City really are a-flood. Even atheists and agnostics can’t avoid the mental exercise of imagining a natural disaster as an ethical and artistic expression of causality–from divine intervention, to karma, to some other simple form of poetic justice.