Category Archives: Uncategorized

Out Now: ‘Undocumented’ Special Edition

We’re thrilled to announce the publication of our fourth title, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention Centres’. First published in a very short run in 2014, Undocumented grew out of the research of architect and activist Tings Chak. Tings has been active in the Toronto chapter of No One is Illegal, a group dedicated to protecting the rights and freedoms of migrants.

This second, expanded edition of the book comes at a difficult time for migrants. With Trump talking about building a border wall, hiring hundreds of thousands of border guards and even discussing using 100,000 national guards to deport migrants, things are looking grim. The situation in Canada is not much better, as refugees flee over the US border only to be threatened and arrested when they arrived.

That’s why it’s so important to keep informed. Undocumented provides critical context for understanding how migrant detention works to strip people of their humanity and make them invisible to society at large. Forewarned is forearmed as they say and this book helps to explain what is shaping up to be one of the most important struggles of the 21st century.

What’s more, Tings is donating her royalties to the End Immigration Detention Network, so every sale will help fight the oppression of migrants.

Head on over to the crowdfunder page!

Seth Tobocman Bibliography

Disaster and Resistance: Comics and Landscapes for the 21st Century


LEN: A Lawyer in History


You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive
Disaster and Resistance: Comics and Landscapes for the 21st Century


Portraits of Israelis and Palestinians


Other books that Seth has contributed to:


Since 1979, Seth has contributed art, money, and time to the radical comics anthology, World War 3 Illustrated. Here are a few…

Nine Must-Read Texts About European Squatting Scenes

As we run our most recent crowdfunding project, we have taken a dive into the history of squatting as a practice of anti-capitalist resistance. In many parts of North America, it’s difficult to conceive of squatting as anything other than a romantic ideal – except for the fact that settler societies are squatter societies by nature, albeit of an objectionable variety. Meanwhile in Europe there are vibrant squatters’ movements in the Netherlands, Greece, Germany and many other countries. What’s the secret to their success? You might find a few clues in the books below.

nine-tenths of the law1. Hannah Dobbz – editor of “Nine-Tenths of the Law: Property and Resistance”

From AK Press, the publisher: “How does “property” fit into designs for an equitable society? Nine-Tenths of the Law examines the history of squatting and property struggles in the US, from colonialism to 20th-century urban squatting and the foreclosure crisis of the late 2000s, and how such resistance movements shape the law. Squatting is defined by Dobbz as “occupying an otherwise abandoned structure without exchanging money or engaging in a formal permissive agreement.” Stories from our most hard-hit American cities show that property is truly in crisis.”

Learn more here

2. Squatting Europe Kollective – “The Squatters’ Movement in Europe: Commons and Autonomy as Alternatives to Capitalism”

the squatters movement in europeFrom Pluto Press, the publisher: “The Squatters’ Movement in Europe is the first definitive guide to squatting as an alternative to capitalism. It offers a unique insider’s view on the movement – its ideals, actions and ways of life. At a time of growing crisis in Europe with high unemployment, dwindling social housing and declining living standards, squatting has become an increasingly popular option.

The book is written by an activist-scholar collective, whose members have direct experience of squatting: many are still squatters today. There are contributions from the Netherlands, Spain, the USA, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and the UK.”

Learn more here

3. Nazima Kadir – “The Autonomous Life? Paradoxes of Hierarchy and Authority in the Squatters Movement in Amsterdam”

the autonomous lifeFrom Manchester University Press, the publisher: “ ‘The Autonomous Life?’ is an ethnography of the squatters’ movement in Amsterdam written by an anthropologist who lived and worked in a squatters’ community for over three years. During that time she resided as a squatter in four different houses, worked on two successful anti-gentrification campaigns, was evicted from two houses and jailed once. With this unique perspective, Kadir systematically examines the contradiction between what people say and what they practice in a highly ideological radicalleftcommunity. The squatters’ movement defines itself primarily as anti-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian, and yet is perpetually plagued by the contradiction between this public disavowal and the maintenance of hierarchy and authority within the movement. This study analyses how this contradiction is then reproduced in different micro-social interactions, examining the methods by which people negotiate minute details of their daily lives as squatter activists in the face of a fun house mirror of ideological expectations reflecting values from within the squatter community, that, in turn, often refract mainstream, middle-class norms.”

Learn more here

4. Pierpaolo Mudu and Sutapa Chattopadhyay – “Migration, Squatting, and Radical Autonomy” Edited by P.M. and S.C. on behalf of the Squatting Europe Collective

squatting migration radical autonomy From Routledge, the publisher: “This book offers a unique contribution, exploring how the intersections among migrants and radical squatter’s movements have evolved over past decades. The complexity and importance of squatting practices are analyzed from a bottom-up perspective, to demonstrate how the spaces of squatting can be transformed by migrants. With contributions from scholars, scholar-activists, and activists, this book provides unique insights into how squatting has offered an alternative to dominant anti-immigrant policies, and the implications of squatting on the social acceptance of migrants.”

Learn more here

5. Lynn Owens – “Cracking Under Pressure: Narrating the Decline of the Amsterdam Squatters’ Movement”

cracking under pressure lynn owensFrom Penn State University Press, the publisher: “Social movements excite and energize their participants in their early phases, with expectations high and ambitions yet unchecked by reality. Consequently, the academic study of social movements has focused primarily on the stages of mobilization and growth. But all movements eventually decline, and it is important to understand why they do, when they do, and what the effects of decline are.

Lynn Owens aims to broaden and enrich social movement theory by focusing on this phase of decline. He does so through a close investigation of the fate of the squatters’ movement in Amsterdam, which emerged in the late 1970s as a reaction to the housing shortage of the 1960s, peaked in the early 1980s at some 10,000 participants, and then fell into a period of prolonged decline. As a movement significant for its influence on radical movements elsewhere in Europe and for its contribution to Amsterdam’s reputation as a center of countercultural activity, this case study affords an opportunity to examine not only why movements decline but also how—how activists respond to decline first by downplaying it, then by debating it, and finally by adjusting to it.”

Learn more here

5. Bart van de Steen – “The City is Ours: Squatting and Autonomous Movements in Europe from the 1970s to the Present”

the city is oursFrom PM Press, the publisher: “Squatters and autonomous movements have been in the forefront of radical politics in Europe for nearly a half-century—from struggles against urban renewal and gentrification, to large-scale peace and environmental campaigns, to spearheading the antiausterity protests sweeping the continent.

Through the compilation of the local movement histories of eight different cities—including Amsterdam, Berlin, and other famous centers of autonomous insurgence along with underdocumented cities such as Poznan and Athens—The City Is Ours paints a broad and complex picture of Europe’s squatting and autonomous movements.”

Learn more here

6. Stephen Luis Vilaseca – “Barcelonan Okupas: Squatter Power!”

barcelona okupas“From Rowman and Littlefield, the publisher: Barcelonan Okupas: Squatter Power! is the first book to combine close-readings of the representations of Spanish squatters known as okupas with the study of everyday life, built environment, and city planning in Barcelona. Vilaseca broadens the scope of Spanish cultural studies by integrating into it notions of embodied cognition and affect that respond to the city before and against the fixed relations of capitalism. Social transformation, as demonstrated by the okupas, is possible when city and art interrelate, not through capital or the urbanization of consciousness but through bodily thought. The okupas reconfigure the way thoughts, words, images and bodily responses are linked by evoking and communicating the idea of free exchange and openness through art (poetry, music, performance art, the plastic arts, graffiti, urban art and cinema); and by acting out and rehearsing these ideas in the practice of squatting. The okupas challenge society to differentiate the images and representations instituted by state domination or capitalist exploitation from the subversive potential of imagination. The okupas unify theory and practice, word and body, in pursuit of a positive, social vision that might serve humanity and lead the way out of the current problems caused by capitalism.”
Learn more here

7. Agnes Gagyi – “Hungary: The Constitution of the ‘political’ in Squatting”

From Baltic Worlds, the publisher:

“The idea of political squatting has been codified in the practice and self-reflection of Western European radicalizing movements, which turned, following the downturn of the 1968 movement cycle, to conflictual strategies in urban settings, to voice problems of housing, youth unemployment, and various countercultural values. In defining political squatting, researchers rely on these historical backgrounds to grasp the political dimension that makes squatting more than simple occupation. In doing so, they tend to raise elements of the Western European historical context as evident corollaries of the phenomenon. For example, in a new comparative study on Western European squatters’ movements in 52 large cities, Guzman1 summarizes the literature on political squatting, identifying typical elements of the political context of squatting in phenomena such as support by the New Left and the Greens, squats serving as platforms for the extra-parliamentary left, involving Marxists, autonomists, anarchists, and a left-libertarian subculture, and being part of campaigns for affordable housing or minority rights, or against war, neo-Nazis, unemployment, precariousness, urban speculation and regeneration projects, gentrification, and displacement”

Learn more here

8. Håkan Thörn et al – “Space for Urban Alternatives: Christiana 1971 – 2011”

From the Goteborg University website: “In 1971, a group of young people broke into a closed down military area in Copenhagen. It was located not more than a mile from the Royal Danish Palace and the Danish parliament. Soon, the media published images and reports from the proclamation of the Freetown Christiania, and people travelled from all over Europe to be part of the foundation of a new community. A ‘Christiania Act’ passed by a broad parliamentary majority in 1989 legalised the squat and made it possible to grant Christiania the rigth to collective use of the area. However, this was reversed under the Liberal-Conservative government in 2004 when the parliament decided on changes in the 1989 Christiania law. The Freetown has refused to give up its claims on the property so it remains highly contested. Around 900 people live in Christiania today. It is governed through a decentralised democratic structure, whose autonomy is strongly contingent on the Freetown’s external relations with the Danish government, the Copenhagen Municipality, the Copenhagen Police and to the organised crime in connection with the cannabis trade. This book brings together ten researchers from various disciplines; Sociology, Anthropology, History, Geography, Art, Urban planning, Landscape architecture and Political science to bring thier own reflections on the unique community that is Christiania. In the introductory chapter, the editors provide an overview of the research that has been done on the settlement from the early 1970s to the 2000s.”

Learn more here

Interested in learning about the history of squatting here in North America? Check out our pre-order campaign for Seth Tobocman’s ‘War in the Neighborhood’, a 300 pg account of squatting and the fight against gentrification on New York’s Lower East Side.


“War in the Neighborhood” Pre-ordering is now LIVE on Indiegogo!


After more than a decade out of print, readers around the world are getting ready for “War in the Neighborhood”.

Visit the “War in the Neighborhood” Crowdfunder Now!

War in the Neighborhood is 320 pages of largely unheard history. First published in 1999, WITN is a story about smashing cinderblocks, filling in the cracks and finding our future in the rubble. It tells the story of New York City’s Lower East Side in the late 1980s, when it came under attack by wealthy developers, cynical politicians and that special kind of daring yuppie who thinks that gunshots in the night are a sure sign of a hip ‘hood. The panels may be black and white, but the moral questions raised in the comic are anything but.


It may be hard to imagine that a story set at the end of the Cold War is relevant to struggle today. The history of social struggle, however, repeats itself. The lessons contained in ‘War in the Neighborhood’ have echoes in Occupy, Black Lives Matter and other 21st century social movements.

grady alexis

black panthers

‘War in the Neighborhood’ is the longest book we’ve ever published. Our printer tells us that it will cost about $11,000 to print 3,000 copies. In order to ensure that our publishing projects are sustainable, we make sure that pre-order campaigns like this one cover the full cost of printing. Our funding levels reflect the cost of laying out, printing and shipping these titles. That’s why we’re asking for 15 big ones in order to cover costs.

But, there are some incredible perks in this crowdfunder: workshops, original poster art, super-rare political comics… even some special offers for retailers and distros! So check out the crowdfunder and spread the word!





7 Reasons ‘Extraction! Comix Reportage’ still matters

Sure, ‘Extraction’ came out in 2008. It was a different time: Bush had just left the White House, the economy had collapsed and Taylor Swift’s merciless conquest of the pop charts had not yet begun.  How relevant could a comic from way back then be to our lives today?
Super fucking relevant, as it turns out. From Nunavut to Tierra del Fuego, extraction industries continue to devastate the planet, displace indigenous peoples and contribute little in the way of public good. Mining companies fly under the radar of most people in the developed world, and that invisibility is a super-power they employ to villainous ends. Luckily, people are fighting back, especially indigenous communities. These seven stories show us how the reporting in “Extraction” has a lot to tell us about struggles past and present.


1. The toxic legacy of mining is still destroying our environment.

Take the Mount Polley spill in British Columbia, Canada. On August 4th, 2014, an estimated 24 million cubic metres of industrial waste poured into the previously pristine Lake Quesnel. With 600 km of shoreline and an estimated maximum depth of 610 metres, the lake is and is a tributary of the Fraser River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean in the Vancouver area.
Researchers believe the spill may have an impact on the spawning cycle of some 800,000 sockeye salmon who move through the Quesnel system – especially worrying because the salmon were almost wiped out by human activity in the early 20th century. Imperial Metals, the company responsible for this devastating ecological disaster, won’t have to pay fines or face charges for its negligence. Luckily, the Northern Secwepemc te Qelmucw leadership council has finalized a mining policy to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.


Alta Wildfire 20160504
Wildfires continue burning in and around Fort McMurray, Alta., Wednesday, May 4, 2016.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

2. Extreme weather events are happening more often.

And we know climate change is to blame! Record heat and unusually dry conditions turned northern Alberta into a tinderbox this year, setting the stage for one of the worst wildfires in the history of the province. January, February and March reached record temperature highs expected to occur only once every 50 years. The blaze, which is still burning, gutted part of the tar-sands town of Fort MacMurray and threatened extraction sites in the tar sands themselves. Climate deniers are quick to insist there is no link, but as the New Yorker said, the evidence is compelling.

Crisanta Perez, mining activist

3. Indigenous people in Guatemala are still fighting for justice.

Journalist Dawn Paley and artist Joe Ollman teamed up for “Extraction: Comix Reportage” to produce a work of investigative journalism on the impact of Goldcorp’s mining operations in San Marcos, Guatemala. A protester at Goldcorp’s Marlin mine was beaten, drenched in gasoline and burned alive in 2009. Conditions are dire. The Guardian described the situation:

“…intimidation, threats, social division, violence, bribery and corruption of local authorities, destruction and contamination of water sources, livestock dying, houses shaking, cracked walls, the criminalization of protest, forest cleared, and appalling health impacts such as malnutrition and skin diseases.”

Crisanta Perez, a Maya Mam woman from the area, recently toured Canada to share her story and collaborate with indigenous and mining justice activists in Canada. Here in Canada, groups like the MiningWatch and the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network are fighting to raise awareness and hold corporations like Goldcorp accountable.

54.0440701, -128.6608887
54.0440701, -128.6608887

4. Alcan wants to pump sulphur dioxide into the air in Kitimat, British Columbia.

Alcan, the aluminum mining concern responsible for the deaths of indigenous people in the Kashipur region of the Indian state of Orissa (as outlined in “Extraction”), has since been acquired by mining giant Rio Tinto. But in this new form they’re ‘upgrading’ an aluminum smelter in Kitimat, B.C. without paying for necessary scrubber technology. This will allow it to increase sulphur dioxide emissions by 56%, a potential health risk to inhabitants of the area. Worse, sulphur dioxide is a major contributor to acid rain,
Environmental advocates like Kitimat residents Lis Stannus and Emily Toews are doing what they can to force Alcan to install the scrubbers and protect air and water quality. Meanwhile, the local Haisla Nation is prevented from speaking out by a clause in their Legacy Agreement with Rio Tinto Alcan.



5. Governments continue to ignore the risks of nuclear power.

Meltdowns? Never heard of ’em. Nuclear waste? Just bury it! Proliferation of nuclear weapons? It’ll make us all safer. And never mind the horrific ecological and human health consequences of extracting uranium – governments around the world continue to invest in nuclear power. Who stands to benefit from the reckless expansion of nuclear power? Corporations like Cameco, the world’s largest publicly traded uranium company and subject of a great work of comics journalism in “Extraction”.

According to the Pembina Institute, “…tailings or wastes left by the milling process  consist  of  ground  rock  particles,  water,  and  mill  chemicals, and radioactive and otherwise hazardous  contaminants, such as heavy metals. In fact, up to  85 percent of the radiological elements contained  in the original uranium ore end up in the tailings.  Canadian uranium mines produce more than half a  million tonnes of tailings each year. As of 2003, there  were 213 million tonnes of uranium mill tailings in storage at 24 tailings sites across Canada — enough material to fill the Toronto Rogers Centre (formerly the SkyDome) approximately 100 times.



6. Mining is a feminist issue.

Few social movements in the 21st century have more energy and vitality than the feminist movement. But while there is an incredible amount of important work being done in North America to protect and expand the rights of women living there, the struggles and suffering of women in the developing world is too often forgotten.
Canadian mining companies often stand accused of liability for sexual violence around their extraction operations. Women in the developed world are in a strong position to hold these mining companies accountable, and while organizations like MiningWatch do incredible work, there’s plenty left to do. The Toronto Stock Exchange is host to more publicly traded extractive corporations than any other stock exchange in the world. Almost $8.9 billion in equity capital was raised in 2014 on the Exchanges, through 1,482 financings, which represents 62% of all equity capital raised by the world’s public mining companies last year. Canadian feminists interested in confronting the gender violence caused by first world corporations have their work cut out for them.


People embrace as they wait for the arrival of the body of slain Honduran indigenous leader and environmentalist Berta Cáceres, outside the coroners office in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, earlier this month. Not two weeks after, another member of Cáceres’ organization was shot and killed. (Source)

7. Mining justice activists are still being murdered

South African mining activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe was gunned down at his home last March, and locals suspect the involvement of Australian mining concern Mineral Commodities Limited. Indigenous activist and environmental justice advocate Berta Carceres was also murdered in her home this March after a lifetime of struggle against the unchecked greed mining and other industrial interests. Western mining interests are linked to dozens of murders around the world and the violence shows little signs of slowing.
From 2001-2011, more than 700 environmental activists were murdered around the world. Another 100 were murdered in 2014 alone! Activists around the world are doing what they can to fight back, but they need the support of people who live in wealthy countries like Canada, the US, or the European Union.

I’d keep this list going but I need to go lay down and cry. Please do pre-order a copy of “Extraction” and get involved in the struggle for mining justice wherever you live.

Comics Journalism: A Guest Post by Brad Mackay

brad mackayBrad Mackay is a writer and cultural commentator who has covered a wide range of of subjects, including comics and cartoonists. He wrote and co-edited (with Seth) The Collected Doug Wright: Canada’s Master Cartoonist.  This article first appeared in THIS Magazine in January 2008. We are re-printing it here on Ad Astra Comix with permission of the author, coinciding with the re-release of the anthology “EXTRACTION!”, to provide our readers with an overview of comics journalism. Full text is © Brad Mackay. 


In January 2007 when David Widgington started thinking about a new project for his small-but-scrappy imprint Cumulus Press, he quickly settled on a subject: the alleged wrongdoings of Canadian mining companies at home and abroad. The choice was a natural one for the Montreal-based publisher, which frequently tackles social justice issues.

Founded in 1998, Cumulus earned a reputation for eclecticism, printing everything from short fiction, memoirs and travel books to multimedia DVDs, music criticism and poetry—including that of Governor General’s Award-winning poet George Elliott Clarke. So when it came time to decide on the format for Cumulus’ latest project, Widgington—not unexpectedly—choose to forge new ground for himself: comics journalism.

An idea that would have been dismissed by most publishers just a few years ago: a comics-based exposé of the mining industry is the kind of project that seems perfectly tailored for the young, politically-engaged readers that Cumulus called its own. Inundated by media and hungry for new approaches to storytelling, this younger demographic has been instrumental in rise of the graphic novel (and the comic medium in general) from supporting act to headliner over the past decade. It’s a trend that Widgington was clearly aware of when he began to assemble the project in 2006.

Inspired by The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s 1937 non-fiction book about the brutal living and working conditions in three mining towns in Northern England, Widgington was eager to bring a similar investigative approach to bare on the mining practices of Canadian companies such as Goldcorp and Alcan. This was exacerbated by his frustration over what he says is the largely credulous coverage that the mining industry gets in the mainstream media, most of which is dedicated to business mergers and new mineral discoveries.

Bre-X got a lot of press, but that was because of financial issues,”  Widgington explains from his home. “They didn’t talk about the potential impact on the communities where the supposed gold deposits were located.”

Already familiar with a number of non-mainstream journalists devoted to covering the social and environmental effects of mining, the choice to use comics was an equally easy choice.

“How do we make people, who maybe don’t read the financial section of the newspapers, aware of Canada’s role in the mining industry around the world?” Widgington says of his decision. “It seemed like the perfect opportunity; to get some comics and some journalism together, and see what happened.”

The result, originally released in December 2007, is EXTRACTION! Comic Reportage: an investigative graphic novel that reveals the dark side of the Canadian mining industry both internationally, in India, Guatemala, and at home in northern Quebec and Alberta’s controversial oil sands.

EXTRACTION: Comix Reportage – First edition cover, Cumulus Press, Montreal, 2007

Divided into four chapters, each one dedicated to a precious (and profitable) resource, the book offers a gritty, ground-level look at the force that is brought to bear in the hunt for new sources of oil, gold, uranium and bauxite (or aluminium ore).

The first chapter, which pairs Vancouver writer Dawn Paley with award-winning Montreal cartoonist Joe Ollmann, explores the questionable practices of B.C-based Goldcorp Inc. who are in the process on establishing a controversial gold mine in Sipakapa, Guatemala. Ollmann deploys his trademark world-weary characters (every blemish, mole or baggy eye has a home here) to full effect as he brings Paley’s first-person script about an organized movement by locals to quash the mining project to life in lush black, white and gray tones.

Unlike most graphic novels, the book itself is the result of a team of writers, artists and editors who pushed the project into existence. Edited by Widgington, writer/activist Frédéric Dubois and veteran cartoonist Marc Tessier, each chapter is written by journalists and writers handpicked for their intimate knowledge of the mining sector, such as Paley, Victoria-based Tamara Herman (who is active in groups opposing Alcan’s mining efforts in India), Montreal broadcaster Sophie Toupin and environmental consultant and academic Petr Cizek. In addition to Joe Ollmann (This Will All End in Tears), the artists tapped for the project included Phil Angers (Mac Tin Tac), animator Ruth Tait and aspiring cartoonist Stanley Wany.

Accustomed to working with tight timelines (not to mention tight budgets), Widgington says the unique process of EXTRACTION! was a challenge over the 10 months it took to see it to press. Both exciting and frustrating “often at the same time” he quips, the transition from the original scripts into the comics form was daunting.

“We scripted all of the articles before we handed them to the comic artists and we had all sorts of questions, like ‘Can we use mise a scene here? Or set up a scenario that actually didn’t happen, to get the information across?’ It was like, where does the journalism end and the comics begin?”

It’s these kinds of questions that make the genre of comics journalism so exciting to read, and often such a challenge to create. No one knows this more than Joe Sacco, the American cartoonist who is credited with coining the term “comics journalism”. Born in Malta and raised in Australia and the U. S., Sacco has hewed out a unique position for himself as the pre-eminent cartoonist/reporter of his age thanks to the success of books like Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde and The Fixer (published by Montreal’s Drawn and Quarterly Books).

palestine gaza strip
“The Gaza Strip” from Joe Sacco’s PALESTINE – 1992.

According to Sacco, his books can take up to seven years to complete thanks to a time-consuming approach that includes months of research, dozens of interviews and countless reference photographs—and that’s not including the months needed to actually write and draw. It’s a method he originally formed in the early 1990s when he began working on Palestine, his genre-defining debut that was recently re-released in a Special Edition featuring fascinating background notes and sketches that provide a peek into his unique process.

joe sacco portrait“It would be a lot easier for me to be a print journalist,” says Sacco from his home in Portland. “When you’re writing, you can say ‘We were escorted by an armoured car’.

[But] if you draw it, well then what kind of armoured car was it? Do I make something up? And if I don’t find an exact reference, you think ‘Is this how accurate it’s going to get?’”

For example, when he begins drawing a person he often changes their name to protect their identity, a tactic common to traditional journalism, but then he has the additional challenge of drawing them in such a way that it not only true to the story, but also protects them from possible harm.

“There are no damn rules to it,” Sacco says, of his chosen medium. “And I think there cannot be. You have to think ‘How important is that detail? Is it really going to change the essence of the story?’ At some point you’re more like a film director that’s looking back at [Queen] Elizabeth I.”

“There are many troubling notions about what I do, to myself,” he adds. “So I try to be as rigorous as I can be with all the details.”

It’s this seemingly obsessive attention to detail that helps make the 288 pages of Palestine hold up some 15 years after it was first published (then, as a poor-selling comic book series.) The book, which chronicles a two-month visit Sacco took to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in late 1991, is packed with stories about the people he met along the way who’ve been uprooted and displaced by the Israeli government. But it’s also packed with thrilling visual experiments, both successful and unsuccessful, that serve as testament to his efforts to forge a new journalistic path.


A graduate of the journalism program at the University of Portland, Sacco’s disillusionment with traditional journalism—along with his unease about his undertaking—are as much a part of Palestine’s narrative charm as are the stories he recounts. (In one scene, Sacco shows himself thinking “I will alert the world to your suffering! Watch your local comic-book store!”)

This unease, which all but disappears in his later work, was on his mind so much during the making of the book that Sacco felt a need to give his unique new vocation a proper name. In 2001, during interviews for the collected Palestine he began calling it “comics journalism” in an effort to help explain what exactly it was that he did for a living. Seven years after the fact, Sacco no longer has the need to explain himself, and has come to appreciate the inherent benefits of the form.

“The great thing about comics is that it’s so loose and so little had been done with it, that I didn’t feel like there were any footsteps that I had to follow,” he says. “Comics then, and maybe even now, were like un-trampled grass and you could walk across it in any direction you wanted. It’s one of those mediums that’s so open to interpretation.”

And Sacco is by no means the only cartoonist to take advantage of this creative freedom. Though he’s credited with giving comics journalism its name, many other cartoonists have worked in a similar vein including Eric Drooker and Peter Kuper (founders of the socialist comics magazine World War 3 Illustrated), British cartoonist and anti-capitalist Sue Coe (an alumni of the ground-breaking “commix” anthology RAW), Canadian Guy Delisle (with Pyongyang, Shenzhen and his forthcoming book about Burma), and even the likes of Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith and Leonard Rifas, the rabble-rousing leftist cartoonist who created Corporate Crime Comics during the 1970s.

But to many comics historians, including Jeet Heer and cartoonist Art Spiegelman, the roots of today’s comics journalists can be traced back much further — nearly 150 years further — to the American Civil War. When the war began in 1861 newspaper and magazine editors were hungry for images to run alongside their coverage of the divisive confrontation. Unfortunately, nascent photographic technology wasn’t advanced enough to allow photographers to capture battles, says Heer.

civil war political cartoonist
Abolitionist cartoon satirizing slave holders racist justifications for enslavement of blacks. A white couple passing a group of slave laborers says, ‘Poor things, they can’t take care of themselves.’ Illustrations of the Antislavery Almanac for 1840.

“During all of the 19th century wars, like the Crimean War and the Civil War, the main defining images weren’t photographs of the battlefield, but from illustrators who were sent out there,” he says from Regina. “There are photographs of The Civil War, but they’re always after the battles because the cameras [at the time] required exposures of five to 10 minutes.”

This reality paved the way for the success of popular printmakers like Currier and Ives, who made a fortune by selling prints of headline-grabbing Civil War battles. This practice continued in later years, as newspapers made a practice of sending their best illustrators (including George Luks, who penned the seminal comic strip The Yellow Strip for a stretch) to the front line to serve as what came best be called war artists. Though these illustrations bore none of the sequential narrative that we have come to identify as ‘comics’, their success helped pave the way for what came be called the first wave of comics journalism.

The first incidence of the power of cartooning being harnessed for journalistic purposes actually came about a few years after the Civil War, in the politically corrupt world of New York City. While working for Harper’s Weekly, German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast began penning a series of cartoons that lampooned William “Boss” Tweed—a notorious New York politician who was the head of the city’s Democratic Party organization, then known then as Tammany Hall.

boss tweed

Among the first political cartoonists, Nast’s comedic and incisive cartoons (which blended art with text) brought the damning investigative reports the magazine had been running on Tweed to life in a format that was accessible to a wider audience. The forefather to the comic strip which would emerge at the turn of the century, Nast’s serious-minded cartooning was as influential to other artists as Michael Moore would be to aspiring filmmakers more than a century later.

Nast’s media melee eventually had reverberations north of the border as well. In 1873, John W. Bengough, one of Canada’s first professional cartoonists, founded Grip a satirical weekly magazine that targeted politicians and the societal norms of the day. Bengough’s cartoons ridiculed Prime Minister John A. MacDonald and tackled topics like the Pacific Railway scandal.

A few decades later, The New Masses, the seminal American communist magazine, pushed the concept of comics reportage further by sending its artists to cover labour strikes and protests. Though still restricted to one panel, these artists (which included the likes of Art Young and Crocket Johnson, who would go on to draw the comic strip Barnaby and illustrate the popular children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon) furthered the burgeoning tradition of cartoon reporting.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that the first true examples of comics journalism began to appear, thanks to none other than Harvey Kurtzman, the founding editor of Mad magazine. Kurtzman’s role in comics reporting came about after he left Mad in 1955, following a dispute over money with his publisher William Gaines. In the years after, Kurtzman became something of a celebrity cartoonist, reluctantly rubbing shoulders with the liked of Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner. As a result, in the late 1950s and early 60s Kurtzman was commissioned to write and draw a number of high-profile assignments for Esquire, Pageant and TV Guide, that saw him hanging out with Jimmy Cagney on a film shoot in Ireland, lurking around the set of The Perry Como Show or translating the action in a Times Square penny arcade.

These strips, some of which are slated to be reprinted by Seattle’s Fantagraphics Books next summer, are fuelled by Kurtzman’s sly observations: on the set of The Fugitive Kind, Kurtzman depicts Marlon Brando as a down-to-earth celebrity with quirks—like a tendency to rub other people’s arm and his proclivity for public nose-picking. Largely forgotten except by the most-devoted Kurtzman fans, his work from this time shows a visual experimentalism that can be seen in present-day cartoonists. His sprawling, wordless two-page spread on the life inside a bustling penny arcade manages to capture far more than mere words could do in the allotted space – a feat echoed by Sacco in a stunning two-page spread in Palestine.

Though not as serious as his editorial precursors, Kurtzman’s work during this period marked a turning point in both form and content, not unlike the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer that would emerge a few years later. This nascent trend of comics reportage would be further championed by Kurtzman in 1960, when he started up Help! magazine. Over the next five years, he hired an impressive cast of young talent to help fill its pages (including Woody Allen, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam and Gloria Steinem) and made a practice of sending cartoonists like Jack Davis and Arnold Roth on comics assignments to interview Casey Stengel or report on daily life in Moscow. He also managed to recruit a young cartoonist named Robert Crumb for assignments that included sketchbooks of Bulgaria and Harlem.

These seminal works would eventually serve as inspiration for the next major development in comics journalism. In the mid-1990s cartoonist Art Spiegelman (as devoted a Kurtzman fan as they come) used these works, along with examples of French comics journalism from an early 20th century magazine called L’Assiette Au Buerre, as part of his pitch to create a “comics editor” position for himself at the popular men’s magazine Details.

Riding high on the success of his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, Spiegelman landed the job and promptly began assigning stories to his cartoonist friends. Though overshadowed by his many of other achievements, his time at Details bore compelling fruit including comics by Kim Deitch (who visited an inmate on death row), Jamie Hernandez and Joe Sacco, whose 1998 strip about the Bosnian war crimes tribunal earned Details acclaim within the magazine industry.

In years since, the increasing popularity of graphic novels and comics in general has only widened the audience for potential works of comics journalism.  At the same time, newspapers, now faced with competition from the internet, have turned to new styles of storytelling in the hopes of attracting a younger readership.

Taking a page from their predecessors nearly 150 years before, many papers, including The New York Times and The Guardian, now regularly turn to cartoonists like Sacco to interpret world events through featured comic strips. In Canada, the National Post has been particularly open to this, publishing comic reports on everything from the Liberal leadership convention to the Toronto International Film Festival.

Over the past couple of years, Post cartoonist Steve Murray has been sent on so many off-beat assignments that he has become something of a Gonzo comics journalist. Murray (who also works under the pen name Chip Zdarsky) is grateful for the unique opportunity, but is quick to fess up to its challenges.

“It takes one really long day to write, draw and colour a piece, and of course whatever time I’ve spent researching,” he says via email. “I enjoy doing it, but it is hard work and, unlike a standard reporter, I have a whole other set of issues to deal with regarding the visuals so it sometimes feels like twice the work.”

“The main problem is that I’m presenting things pretty factually, but because it’s cartooning most people assume that big chunks are made up.”

This is complicated by the fact his dispatches typically employ a guerrilla style of comedy that put Murray the cartoonist squarely in the centre of the action, not unlike Hunter S. Thompson (but, hopefully, more sober).

Though that’s likely no longer a problem facing Joe Sacco, both artists agree that comics journalism is finally coming of age as a genre of its own. Sacco, now 215-pages into what will eventually be a 350-page book about the Gaza Strip, is stunned at the turn his luck has taken since the first issue of Palestine was published.

“[Back then] doing a book about the Palestinians was almost a fantasy project for me, in that I felt I had to do it—but I didn’t think really think anyone was going to read it,” he says. “And hardly anyone did read it when it came out as a series; the sales just got lower and lower and lower. It was only when it came out as a book and the non-comics world saw it, that it started to do well. Now people are giving my work the time of day because it’s in comics form.”

“In other words, they’re probably not going to read another book about the Palestinians. But if I do another book about the Palestinians, I know there are going to be people who are going to read it because of the fact that it is a comic. Go figure that.”


Interview #1: joe (Perth, ON)

This comic is first of a series of interviews we are doing as we travel across North America. If you’d like us to visit your town, e-mail us.

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