Political Comics Today: What's in the Works

This post is a bit of a precursor to my two-day jaunt through Toronto’s most exciting celebration of the comic book medium, the 2012 Toronto Comic Arts Festival. I’ll explore some of the reasons why I think TCAF is such an incredible event to visit in a moment, but first…

I’ve skipped around on my previous posts about some of my favorite political comics, but I don’t think I’ve yet given much analysis on why I think they’re so useful. It’s difficult to make generalizations in a medium that exercises its talent so broadly; what I will say first is this: political comics were instrumental in my coming of age and social awareness. I was 12 years old when I ordered MAUS from my school’s Scholastic Books bi-monthly order form, and I just knew it would be worth the money, because I needed my Mom to ‘sign off’ on the PG-13 parental discretion slip. Hell yes.

What became of that comic–and a small collection of others shortly after–was a quiet awakening. Instead of reading about an issue in a book (or worse, as is the case for many young adults, a simplified, opinionated ‘topical essay’), and feeling the words of the subject thrown at you as a speaker would throw to his audience, comics felt more like a conversation. A back-and-forth as much with speech as with the eyes. I liked the freedom to be invited to explore subtleties and complexity… a double-entendre, a hypocrytical narrator, a message that is a simple thing to say, but is seemingly a whole new world to look at. It is one thing to read a description of an Orwellian dictatorship; it’s quite another kettle of fish to feel the personal and social tensions rising up around you, unpredictably, in a story such as Alan Moore’s V for Vandetta.

Tomorrow, as hundreds of comic book writers, artists, and publishers descend on Downtown Toronto, I’m reminded of what I found last year at TCAF–my first since moving here in 2009. Or rather, what I didn’t find. It was such an incredible turnout–hundreds of artists, writers, and publishers, thousands in attendance. And unlike the corporate ComicCon’s, of which there are plenty in Toronto and charge a good $20 to get in–you trade line-ups for signatures with fading Hollywood Sci-Fi stars for table after table of artists and writers, who will talk to you, in person, no time limit, about… well, whatever. Folks are totally open and amazing. In general, the Fest caters much more to the alternative / indie comic book scene, and that in and of itself is something great worth mentioning.

…. So why did I start writing this post about what I didn’t find at TCAF last year? What I mean was, cough, Where the hell were all the political comics? I met some amazing folks from all over North America, who had incredible talent, and came from some incredible backgrounds and experiences. But not one of them, among hundreds, focused on political comics. Now, for sure, for whatever reasons, the political / educational comic was not anyone’s vehicle choice, and I respect them–I especially respect artists on this, whether they are writers or illustrators–because when you’re an artist you’ve just got to do what feels right. But really…. Not a one?
I wasn’t shy about asking them about this last year, either. I heard a lot of different reasons, but the general consensus is that people really aren’t interested in political comics (or at least–“they don’t sell.”)  As a side note: if you were at TCAF last year with your political comics and I didn’t see you and give you a high-five, come and find me. My bad–I’ll buy you a slice of pizza for lunch this year.

One exception to this that I remember was Eric Kostiuk Williams and his incredible work in Xtra Magazine illustrating the history of the Toronto Bath House Riots. Looking at his work (which made the front cover of this issue) shows some of the true dynamism of the comic medium–the entire feel of this article is changed by his illustrations. The article was worth reading, anyway… but seeing his work, you actually feel like you’re missing out if you aren’t reading it.

With so many changes happening in the world right now, and the multitude of experiences and history that we are all tied to, I can’t believe that artists and writers wouldn’t want to hone in on this corner of comics–especially the alternative and indie crowd. What’s even harder to believe is that people wouldn’t pick up those works, buy them, and learn something they didn’t know about a subject–any subject–the history of slavery in Canada. The Iranian Revolution. How Wall Street crashed the U.S. economy. Fuck, the history of sugar is political. And I promise you people would buy that. People love sugar.

So, here is hoping that this year I find a few diamonds in the rough and can chat with them about their work. (And then publicize it here.)

I’m reminded, in closing, that one of my key reasons political comics are so dear to me is that they’re utterly trap-like: that is, most people (who aren’t comic book nerds) think of comics as dumbed-down versions of books. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons a political comic book on the Holocaust would get picked up more than a written novel on the same subject (“Why would I read Number the Stars when I can read MAUS? With pictures?”)…. before you know it, someone who thought they found a way to just fast-track through a history project has been educated on a subject, and straight-up schooled on the awesomeness of comic books. It’s such an incredible opportunity to open someone up to a new idea–while going above and beyond their initial expectations from the medium.

A Maus-trap, if you will. That was the first one I walked into… and I hope to find a few set up in the Toronto Reference Library tomorrow.

NMG

Two Fisted Tales, Harvey Kurtzmann and the Birth of the Anti-war Comic

When Two Fisted Tales first hit the presses in the 1950s, comics were the medium of choice for kids all across North America. They came after radio, but before television was a common household item, and so held the attention of young people as something new and exciting, all for 10 cents a copy. Although the art was often very good, the writing was largely composed of short, campy stories with horrible dialogue. The artistic layout as well (including the interplay between the images and their captions) had yet to really mature.

Issue # 25 is used on Wikipedia and in other sources to exemplify TFT’s ‘anti-war’ leanings. The soldier on the left comes running, yelling, “Guys! I just got word they’re arranging an armistice!” His comrade answers back, “Yeah! Yeah! Tell Jonesy here about your armistice! He’ll be glad!” The third soldier, to the right, lies face-down in mud, recently killed. Just to put this into perspective—Hollywood had yet to barely begun showing dead bodies in war movies. Putting one on the front cover, of a kid’s comic, during war-time, in a way that questioned the price of war, was largely unique.

At this time, the ‘war comic’ was at its peak in popularity. Comic historian and lecturer Roger Sabin writes:

“During the war years patriotic superheroes were sent off to fight for their country, and the conflict was polarized into one between supermen and supervillains: Tojo, Hitler and Mussolini stood no chance. These comics were unashamed morale-boosters, and retailed in unprecedented numbers: by 1943 it is estimated that they were selling nearly 15 million copies a month, thereby totally dominating the industry.”

Enter a young up-and-coming Harvey Kurtzman:

“When the Korean War broke out [in 1951], I naturally turned to the war for material. But when I thought of doing a war book, the business of what to say about war was very important to me and was uppermost in my mind, because I did then feel very strongly about not wanting to say anything glamorous about war, and everything that went before Two Fisted Tales had glamorized war. Nobody had done anything on the depressing aspects of war, and this, to me, was a terrible disservice to the children. In the business of children’s literature you have a responsibility, and these guys feeding this crap to the children that soldiers spend their time merrily killing little buck-toothed yellow men with the butt of a rifle is terrible.”

It’s really difficult to sum up Harvey Kurtzman’s life, and how it influenced such a leap forward for comic books, but it’s impossible to talk about TFT without him. Although his career began earlier, he is largely credited with the success of Two Fisted Tales and its companion comic, Frontline Combat, as the editor of the pair. In this time, he also went on to be the founding editor of MAD Magazine, among other projects. The contribution MAD has made in comedy cannot be overstated. Some have even suspected that it’s impossible to think of anything within American satire today that hasn’t somehow been influenced by MAD, and therefore, by Harvey Kurtzman.

That being said… what made Two Fisted Tales a good political comic? And Harvey a good writer?

Two Fisted Tales did two incredible things for comics, concerning both form and content. Stylistically, Harvey pushed the envelope in creating amazingly detailed layouts, stronger dialogue, and a text-and-image interplay that seemed much more seamless than work before it (I dare call it ‘cinematic’, even though cinema hardly had this down yet). Qualitatively, he told war stories that were researched and historically accurate, with realistic characters engaged in purposeful dialogue. More importantly, the stories would show blood, grit, death, destruction, civilian casualties, people losing parts of their bodies along with their minds. He showed the things that weren’t supposed to happen in war, but always do. In essence, amidst piles of war-time comics being published, TFT and FC were the first to properly convey that “War is all Hell.”

“I think the best way to look at the war stories, both historical and contemporary, in these comics is to think of them as attempting a previously unseen level of realism and historical accuracy,”  says Peter Birkemoe of The Beguiling comic shop—and a big fan of Harvey’s work. “Since Kurtzman and most of the artists were veterans of the Second World War, it is easy to see any attempt at realism ending up showing the actual horrors of war.”

Kurtzman was drafted in 1943, but he never did go overseas. I mention this, because if he had in fact seen combat, I would have more easily attributed his qualitative difference with what he may have seen/experienced in war himself.

Since this isn’t the case, then we might conclude that even more influential than his time in service was his liberal/radical upbringing (his step-father was a staunch trade-unionist, his mailbox the receiver of the People’s Daily World of the Communist Party.) Kurtzman never considered himself a socialist or communist, but he had made his opinions clear on several occasions about war, racism, and religious intolerance.

Still, accuracy does not indicate political leanings–just honesty. Saving Private Ryan wasn’t an ‘anti-war film’, even though it was arguably the most accurate depiction of war in film when it was released. …So is Two Fisted Tales “anti-war”?

Relatively speaking, yes, according to Peter. “Other war comics that rushed to the market when the Korean War started were decidedly jingoistic and make Kurtzman’s work seem politically ‘anti-war’ in contrast.”

When compared to comics and even film of the time, it was definitely an opposing view politically. TFT was so much more multi-dimensional than anything else out there, in terms of both style and content. Specifically, the constrictions within the Hollywood film industry—thoroughly in bed with the U.S. government and military in the 40s and 50s—were so confining graphically and stylistically that films had to fit into the confines of 6 predetermined topics, according to the Office of War Information (OWI): The Armed Forces, The Enemy, The Allies, The Production Front, The Home Front, and The Issues (whatever that means–I don’t seem to remember any poignant films about fascism, Antisemitism, or imperialist rivalry). Obviously, showing civilian casualties, the ‘enemy’s’ perspective, or even blood was out of the question…

I agree with Peter in that these were not “anti-war” comics per se in their agenda—but they were anti-war as a result of their accuracy. This again goes back to the type of person Harvey was.

“I think Kurtzman’s message on war is not entirely different than his message on culture that comes through in his issues of MAD,” says Peter. “[That is,] ‘If you step back and look at this clearly, it is really quite absurd’.”

I will also add that it falls into Harvey’s habit of not being categorized easily. As a political comics enthusiast, I have yet to find a good ‘political’ comic that placed a political agenda before the telling of the story, and I think Harvey understood that well, having worked with comic artists who published everywhere from Marvel to the communist party newspaper. To begin, you create uncompromisingly, and in doing so, you largely defy (or re-define) categorization in your work.

… And yet, perhaps it was even a little bit more than that. I quoted Harvey earlier speaking to a certain “responsibility” in children’s literature. It is possible that Harvey felt a responsibility to show young people an opposing view of war as well as history (including Custer’s Last Stand and The Alamo—not how you learned them in school, kids!). That’s not just a strive for accuracy; that’s pro-actively seeking out an improperly remembered event or ‘hero’ of American history, and trying to set the story straight. In my opinion, that makes Two Fisted Tales not just an anti-war comic relatively speaking, but anti-war and political at its core.

[LEFT: Two Fisted Tales Issue #23 “KILL!” includes some interesting examples of TFT’s superior story-telling skills, as well as the recurring theme that these are war stories being told from someone who abhors war.]

Whether you see it as a bittersweet rite of passage or as a cannon fodder-drive for the imperialist war machine, there is no denying that war is a horrible thing. And sometimes telling it like it is will be enough to set you aside from everyone else. It was a bit of star-crossed fortune that Harvey made TFT at the time that he did… everyone had their gaze fixed so tightly on Hollywood films as the next big medium that comics fell under the radar as an unsophisticated business of “kids’ books”. As such, comic book writers had more freedom—intellectually and politically—to spread their wings. If Two Fisted Tales had been a TV or film series, you can bet Harvey Kurtzman would have been thrown into some Red Scare kangaroo trial. And the world would have been shorted a creative genius.

Introduction to a Crash Course

August 31, 2011

It was the 1980’s in Britain, the proverbial midday of the Thatcher-Reagan era, when comic author Alan Moore extended the logic of the right wing’s rhetoric to envision a Britain of the future, under the complete subjugation of a dictatorship. It went beyond the beginnings that had already been seen, of cutting down unions, banning gay marriage, and cutting off immigration. This Britain–racist, misogynistic, unloving, fearful of the very cameras on every street corner that citizens insisted they couldn’t live without—was the stage for one of the greatest stories of the late 20th Century.

It is at the foot of an Orwellian statue by the name of “Lady Justice” that the regime’s nemesis lays a final gift to this ‘betraying lover’ (“You always did have an eye for a man in uniform,” he says.) Before destroying the gilded monument, the man known only as “V” utters of her replacement:

“Her name is anarchy. And she has taught me more… than you ever did! She has taught me that justice is meaningless without freedom. She is honest. She makes no promises and breaks none, unlike you, Jezebel. …Goodbye, dear lady. I would be saddened by our parting even now, save that you are no longer the woman that I once loved.”

It wasn’t the first political comic I’d read, but V for Vendetta was my political comic baptism: no medium would ever beat it.

Like George Orwell’s 1984, or Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, or any of its many pictureless literary siblings, V for Vandetta was a barometer for me to know how sick my society was. (Moore himself would quip years later, that someone must have liked those cameras in the streets: now they’re everywhere).

It is well known that Moore, as a comic book writer, would prefer the medium of comics over books or film. But apparently others thought so, too: it became one of the most popular and meaningful works of modern literature, and it still sold over 20,000 copies just last year, two decades after its original publication (a long time in the comics world–although now it is compiled in one volume). For millions of people, something resonates between the text-and-paper story, already heavy with meaning, and the graphic images that make it—and graphic novels in general—especially moving works of literature and art.

At a comic book store, among many more men-in-tights titles than you will ever care to read, you will find a countable few. If you go down the street to your local bookstore, you can find a smaller but nonetheless interesting collection of graphic novel fiction. On the rise now are also works of historical and biographical comics—libraries and classrooms can’t seem to get enough of them. But nestled here and there, in-between these surely enjoyable pages are the books I am writing about today: the political comics. V for Vandetta was surely an excellent work of fiction, science fiction, and social commentary. But it was also a political comic that spoke to real issues effecting an iron-fisted, Thatcherated Britain. It was a warning. And to this day, the Guy Fawkes mask worn by  “V” has adorned many a protester, and is even the avatar of the worldwide ‘Anonymous’ internet movement associated with Wikileaks and social media-assisted uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

“But wait,” you may be thinking… “Aren’t graphic novels just comics? And aren’t comics just… cartoons? Aren’t they supposed to be the opposite of serious?” How, then, have they been used so successfully to publicize the discussions of some of the most serious topics—from slavery and the Holocaust to modern warfare and political struggles? And let’s not forget that political comics themselves are older than the newspapers that first published them in the 19th Century.

The political comic—or graphic novel—is not a homogenous creature. Encompassing a veritable pantheon of different subject matters, authors come from a variety of backgrounds using many different formats and styles for different reasons. Allow me to give you a quick crash-course of some of the world’s most notable political comics.

In 1950’s America, Korean War vet Harvey Kurtzman was the editor and co-creator of “Two-Fisted Tales,” an anthology of war stories that was surprisingly anti-war for its time; no-where else in McCarthy-era United States would you find a publication so widely distributed, calling bullshit on Hollywood’s romantic notions of no-blood combat scenes and racist characterizations of enemy soldiers. Canadian journalist Mitchell Brown would write that Kurtzman,

“who had been drafted in 1942, knew warfare firsthand, and he was outraged by the gung-ho war comics that made war look like a glorious thing. In his stories, there were no heroes — just soldiers trapped in situations beyond their control. Often, his stories weren’t about soldiers at all, focusing instead on the lives of innocent people scarred by war…”

In 1986, Art Spiegelman created Maus (or “Mouse” in German), a two-part story of his father’s account as a Jew during the rise of Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust. Despite the serious subject matter, Spiegelman helped to illustrate the social polarization and predatory nature of Nazi society by drawing Jews as mice, and Germans as cats. He initially faced a lot of scepticism for his decision to make a “holocaust comic,” especially from fellow Jews; however, his work would end up as a classroom essential. Reporting on the story’s winning of a Pulitzer Prize, the New York Times explained that Maus was selected under the category of “Special Award” because “the Pulitzer board members … found the cartoonist’s depiction of Nazi Germany hard to classify.”

Joe Sacco took a new spin on the political comic as a “comic journalist” in the 1990’s, travelling to war zones and… well, drawing everything. Among his prize-winning works were “Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992–1995”, and “Palestine”. In both, he highlights the apparent lack of world interest in these millions of people suffering the ravages of war and military occupation because of their unfortunate geographical locations. He interviewed hundreds and drew thousands, but genuinely let the subjects speak for themselves, even when they made him look bad (maybe this is why he draws himself like a cartoon, even when everyone else in his illustrations looks realistic.)

Many more have been published since: “Uncle Sam” written by Steve Darnell with art by Alex Ross; “The Confessions of Nat Turner” written and drawn by Kyle Baker; “Louis Riel” by Canada’s own Chester Brown. But my current favourite is “Bayou,” an unfinished three-part (maybe four?) work by Jeremy Love. While fantastic in nature, there is little doubt in categorizing Bayou as political fiction: set in the Depression-era Deep South, a young black girl named Lee must rescue a white girl from the Bayou swamps to prove her father’s innocence. Through this eerie landscape, Lee slips into a parallel world of Southern folklore and political anthropomorphism—an “Alice in Dixieland”, if you will—where the she must outrun and outwit characters of a racist imagination: murderous flocks of Jim Crows and minstrel show monsters, to name a few.


It reminds me (again) of something Alan Moore said in reference to his take on the comic classic Swamp Thing: why only look to the supernatural to find horror? There are truly horrific things happening all around us here and now–racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia–that is much more scary when you consider the greater possibility of it affecting your life than, say, zombies. And, in a well-told story like Love’s or Moore’s, it will send prickles down your spine.

If you’re intrigued, Jeremy will probably be pleased: he’s got another edition of Bayou on the way needing your attention. And I’m pleased as well, because there should be more people going into comic book stores and asking for political work. I was amazed this year at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival—an incredible amount of talent under one roof, thousands and thousands of writers and artists—but so few political causes using the medium, and none exclusively so. When progressive and Left issues are so often marginalized or simply misunderstood, the medium is incredible for spreading awareness without being condescending or preachy. Political comics are a huge untapped resource, but they require research, time, and talent. More than anything, they require talent committed to progressive causes.

In the coming days, I will be listing and reviewing some of my favourite political comics, with a few image panels for you to see the work for yourself. I hope you enjoy what you find, and pass the work on. Feel free to send me your feedback, as well as any suggestions for new or overlooked work: I’m always looking for more.

the panel is political.