‘War in the Neighborhood’, first published in 1999, tells the story of New York City’s Lower East Side during the late 80s and early 90s, a period of rapid change.
Although gentrification is now unraveling communities from Atlanta to Seattle, what happened in the Lower East Side was one of the earliest modern examples. Artists, people of colour, migrants, radicals, squatters, the homeless and regular working class people all called this crowded area full of abandoned buildings home.
Though no one book could ever hope to tell the entire story, ‘War in the Neighborhood’ contains a full cast of artists, anarchists, dog-walkers and ex-prisoners as they fight to build a future for themselves before greedy developers literally burn it out from under them.
Modern readers familiar with the history of internet-age social movements like Occupy Wall Street will be surprised how much they recognize in these stories. Gendered violence, police brutality, factional fights and hostile news media all come together to paint a very familiar picture.
Instructive as it is for activists, ‘War in the Neighborhood’ is above all a feeling, human portrait of life in a troubled time. As neighborhood residents fight the police, the cold and each other to make space for themselves, our own hopes for affordable housing, community, and safe space are reflected on the page. In an era of market crashes and rigged elections, we recognize our own struggle to build something that lasts in a world intent on tearing us down.
As momentous as it sounds, no one could have known in 1979 that this self-published periodical based in New York City would become the longest-running anthology of political comics in the world–at least, that we’ve been able to find.
“The Adventures of Tintin: Breaking Free” is a comic about class war. If that doesn’t sound quite like Tintin’s typical adventures through Orientalist portrayals of the 1930s, there’s a reason why.
Published under the pseudonym J. Daniels, ‘Breaking Free’ expropriates Hergé’s classic images of the reporter turned adventurer and remakes him as the central protagonist of a general strike. Featuring a cast of familiar faces in entirely unfamiliar roles, ‘Breaking Free’ is as much a blueprint towards revolution as it is an exercise in wishful thinking.
Title: Breaking Free / The Adventures of Tintin Author: ‘J. Daniels’ Illustrator: ‘J. Daniels’ Original Release: February, 1992 Published: Attack Intl (UK) Other Spec’s: Softcover, 176 pages, black and white interior.
Of central interest is that, for a comic about class war, ‘Breaking Free’ has a lot to say about other struggles: the fighting proletariat are not all gruff blue-collar blokes in flat caps, though there’s no shortage of them here. But the story teems with the diversity of the systemically oppressed: housewives tired of devalued housework, lesbians running away from intolerant homes and elderly being driven out of their communities by gentrification. The idea that all our struggles are connected is intimately threaded through the narrative of the general strike, driving the strike on by recognizing that all are allies in the fight.
Before the strike begins, Tintin and his uncle (a transformed Captain Haddock) head out to take in a football match. In the crowd outside, a fascist is selling a newspaper. As this excerpt shows, this is no crude caricature of a fascist. Employing language about safety and economic security, the fascist organizer plays on the worst fears of the working class. But the Captain is no stranger to solidarity, and makes the left-wing argument very ably: black or white, it’s us against the bosses.
The Captain aptly deconstructs the notion of a ‘white’ race in simple terms, demanding to know which sort of immigrant the fascist descends from. In the sincerity of its depiction of fascism and nuance of the Captain’s arguments, the comic treats the issue of race seriously. Certainly more can be said on the tendency of white men to dominate within even progressive social movements, but at least it addresses the issue seriously.
The question of women’s roles in the struggle also crops up, as in this excerpt, and gets a broader showing than race. Tintin treats Mary as little more than a domestic servant, prompting a well deserved dressing down.
Mary emphasizes that she’s neither swayed by lesbians nor middle class feminists, debunking those chauvinistic myths about feminism by speaking from her own experience. Rather than be easily persuaded, Tintin flies off the handle, and needs time to cool off before coming around to understanding her point of view.
In just a few short pages, the comic covers domestic work, working class feminism and sexual assault. These are not abstract problems for academics to write endlessly on – they are issues affecting left-wing organizing in the 21st century. Tintin later puts in his time as a babysitter so that some of the women can get out to the strike meetings.
Although Tintin wises up about feminism quick enough, he still has some internalized homophobia to deal with. Rather than coddling him, his squatter neighbour Nicky puts it to him very frankly. Tintin is just as guilty of breaking society’s rules, and all Nicky asks is that he live and let live. If his acceptance seems to come a little too easily when she forces him to admit that homophobia is one more way the rich divide us, Tintin is not completely reformed.
But Tintin learns, albeit slowly. When Nicky and the rest of a queer contingent at the strike are hassled by a protester who quickly resorts to homophobic slurs, Tintin turns up out of the crowd to tell him off.
The point the comic is making is twofold – first, that gay and lesbian people have as much of a stake in the class struggle as anyone else. Fairly elementary stuff, all told. But the more radical insistence is on visibility – not only are they welcome, but their banner demonstrates public support of the strike, reflecting both diversity and solidarity.
Granted that the origins of many liberation movements are in fact decades older, Breaking Free came out in 1992, at a time when intersectionality was still working to get a foothold in leftist organizing, particularly within the realm of labour. It is a great read for anyone involved or interested in progressive organizing.
A couple of weeks ago, some good friends of mine in Toronto, also Americans, invited me to join them in a trip over the border to New York to check out the exhibit of Buffalo native, Spain Rodriguez: “Rock, Roll, Rumbles, Rebels, Revolution”.
Both my friends Nick and Tanya are themselves bikers, rebels, and surviving witnesses to that mythological time, the 60’s and 70’s (not to mention their occasional run-ins with Spain and folks he knew back in the days he rode with the Road Vultures and drew for now-legendary underground comic publications like Zap!). Going to the exhibit with them was as close as I would get to having Spain there to explain some of the nuances and timely political/cultural references.
Sadly, only a few days before we visited the exhibit, Spain passed away. He was 72, and had been battling prostate cancer for about six years. It became especially poignant to understand the legacy of this artist, who was a pioneer of indie comics, a pioneer of comics journalism before the term was even coined, and a pioneer for political comics and historical comics. What’s more, his career wasn’t 3 or 4 ‘golden years’ nestled in a lifetime of mediocrity. His cutting edge work ranges from the early days in underground comics, unbridled by still-McCarthy-Era censorship rules, to just before he died.
Comic book eccentric, Art school nerd, Tough-ass biker, leftist shit-disturber | Spain was an in-betweener, and these are always the folks who make incredible art. Their creativity isn’t confined to one genre, one subculture, one ideological viewpoint of the world. As a biker, Spain scared his comics compatriots and offended some of his lefty comrades: after all, these were three typically segregated subcultures within a man’s world of the 1960’s (none would even begin to include women as anything more than decoration for a few more years…a sidenote). For this overlap, we have some incredibly enlightening artwork depicting the era’s biker culture, general drug and counter-culture, and, more crucial for me and this blog, political happenings of the day.
Before drawing for Zap! with Crumb in San Francisco, Spain covered the Democratic National Convention in Chicago for the East Village Other (a publication described by the New York Times as being so left-wing it made the Village Voice look like a church circular). This was the home of his other early work, Zodiac Mindwarp.
Above, we see some of the spirit of what went down.
There’s no argument that Spain was an expert brawl-drawer. From his days with the Road Vultures to his activist scuffles, the man had a talent for laying out scenes that generally pass most of us by in blurs if and when we experience them.
These illustrations, when compared to photographs or even video of the protests and police repression, give you more of the feel of the surroundings, and vividly so. I’ve postulated that he had a tendency to compile several visual records in one large frame. Taking these many single instances he saw–he not only depicts what was in front of him, but he describes the scene and tells a story with it.
Spain went on with his occasional comics journalism, and much to my liking, even delved into historical comics. The book “Devil Dog” illustrates the life of one of my favourite American military figures, Smedley Butler. My friend Nick also told me of a piece he did on the Chaco War fought by mercenary pilots in Bolivia in the 1930s that I’ve yet to see, but I can’t wait to inspect. Untold American history is the bloodstream of my own comic series, so, needless to say, this interests me. His most notable political work is probably Che: A Graphic Biography, published in 2009, which he wrote with the editorial assistance of Paul Buhle, a radical history and comic book expert (best combination–ever).
Young comic lovers should appreciate the fact that, in addition to all his other work that had given him a legendary status in indie comics, Spain never stopped paying attention to political causes around him. The exhibit even included some work depicting the Occupy Movement, that he drew mere months ago.
On November 29, comix artist Def Backderf tweeted, “On the day he died, Spain Rodriguez was inking a poster. Died with a pen in his hand. Hell yeah, amigo! You’re a legend.”
Everything else that he so wonderfully was–all aside, this fact alone commands my respect.
Good night, Spain. Your work will forever have a place in my heart.