Who is Ana Mandietta? by Christine Redfern and Caro Caron

Title: Who is Ana Mandietta?
Author: Christine Redfern
Illustrator: Caro Caron
Got my copy: from creators @ TCAF  (2012)
Published: 2011 by Feminist Press (originally published in French in Montreal – now also available in English and Spanish)

It seems like the life of Ana Mandietta was social commentary from start to finish.

Although born in Cuba, she was brought to the United States as a child, one of thousands under the CIA campaign Operation Peter Pan in the early 1960’s. Over the next decade, like Ana, the world around her was coming of age: U.S. political movements, Latin American revolutions, as well as the cultural worlds of music and art. She began a rise of notoriety in the U.S. as a new kind of modern artist (a feminist), where she embraced and confronted tumultuous times, applauding the opening of minds while pointing out the hypocrisy of where they stayed closed. This was especially the case around the question of women–our rights as well as our popular representation.

In the 1980’s, just as Ana’s work was gaining exciting new attention, she died under mysterious circumstances–having apparently jumped out of her apartment window while arguing with her husband.

This book is not only the story of Ana’s life, but a histroy of the dismissal of women in the art world, as well as the scene’s suspicious apologism for domestic violence at the hands of male artists.

Even as a 27-year-old enthusiast for a lot of art, music, and political movements that arose in the 1960’s and 70’s, a lot of what is in this book is new to me. Even though I’d read William S. Burroughs and Henry Miller, I didn’t know that they both had serious histories of violence against women (Burroughs killed his wife by accidentally shooting her in the face, Miller stabbed his wife in the back; she survived, and tried to cover it up.) I first read it months ago, right after I picked it up at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. I finished it over the course of an evening (it’s relatively short, at 84 pages), but found it too overwhelming in the first read to really get out a notebook and jot down my ideas. It’s amazing, intense, angering, saddening…

Christine Redfern and Caro Caron are both hard at work here, emersing you into another world–the world of American art and politics of the era. I really appreciate a lot of the imagery here, seeing as I wasn’t around to witness any of these iconic events first-hand. Pages are densely packed with information that isn’t always explained, (faces, sayings, music lyrics, historical venues) and I like being given the space to explore, wonder, and look things up (I will add, to their credit, that Christine and Caro did do a lot of work for the reader: the inside cover of the book is a portrait gallery of “who’s who’s” of the contemporary scene, as well as a glossary in the back).

The style of the art itself, although not Ana’s style necessarily, is nonetheless a nod to her ethos and carries a lot of feminist undertones–there is a lot of symbolism mixed with a lot of reality, if that makes any sense. For example, her body is shown being figuratively impaled by tree roots in one scene, to describe a deep emotional connection with nature–but the illustration of her dead body after she, according to her husband, jumped out of her apartment window, is so sadly realistic. Her face is crushed, her underwear is wrinkled, her body is contorted.

Unlike many comic book artists, who strive to make a woman to look perfectly beautiful even after a violent death, Who is Ana Mandietta?  is a continuation of one of the legacies of feminist art: to diametrically portray more of how women [really] feel inside, hand-in-hand with with how things [really] are on the outside… a magical realism of sorts.

This is one of my favorite political comics yet, and one that I highly recommend, but readers should be warned: you need an open mind in order to appreciate the full power of Ana’s artwork, as well as this monumental book.

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“EXTRACTION! Comix Reportage”: A Gallery of Radical Canadian Comics Journalism

Title: EXTRACTION! Comix Reportage
Authors & Illustrators: Listed below
Additional Artwork: Jeff Lemire, Alain Reno, Carlos Santos
Got this copy: from The Beguiling, Toronto (You can download a free copy here, too)
Published: 2007 – One of 500 copies in a limited printing by Cumulus Press (2007)

My initial purpose for creating this blog was to write about political comics. What makes the project challenging (and fun) is the following, among other things:

A) Political comics don’t present themselves as a huge swath of the graphic novel market–you have to hunt for them!
B) Despite my great love for the category, making a good political comic book is very hard.

Here we have a a 4-piece showcase of comic book journalism intent on unearthing the dirty side of mineral extraction around the world. All focus on Canadian companies–with two of the four stories focusing on sites in Canada. The book was put together relatively quickly (in about a year–wow, they got to work!), and the credits listed show you what a collaborative effort it was.

The chapters highlight four key players in the world of non-renewable resources: Gold, Uranium, Bauxite, and Tar Sands Oil. The stories are loosely confederated, serving a common purpose but wholely autonomous in style and approach. Hence, an independent mini-review of each… These are my thoughts…

1) GOLD: Taking the Heart of the Land
(Story by Dawn Paley | Illustrations by Joe Ollmann)

We follow the author, Dawn Paley of Vancouver, B.C., down to Guatamala where she interviews locals about the impact of GoldCorp’s  open-pit mine on people of the region. Dawn feels that if she can get enough information about how the local [mainly Indigenous] population is being coerced and get it back to the Canadian public and shareholders, perhaps she can begin to break down the company’s unjust practices. (Or, at the very least, expose the blatant greed that drives them? It’s difficult for me to prioritize her motives without asking her. Since she is an activist journalist, I’m assuming a bit of both.)

The artwork is straightforward, using a more casual, bubbly style than a lot of serious comics out there. Not a lot of symbolism or figurative illustration happening here. On first glance as a reader, it feels so first-person that it makes me think that maybe this was, along with the story, the work of Dawn over the course of her trip. The style of the quotations is inconsistent, also like a first-person narrative. Some dialogue seems to have been made up on the spot, where other pieces are probably verbatim from a voice recorder (like the history of GoldCorp in the area and other highly detailed information).

Although I don’t like personally this, I think it was probably intentional, right? It highlights some information over other ‘less important’ information. For example, at the end of the story, she is attending a GoldCorp shareholder meeting, and the chairman’s quote is written almost as if he were a robot, repeating over and over what has been good for the company’s profit margins. Surely, as Dawn conveys, this was his intent, but that’s exactly why I want to know precisely what he said. After all, he is the missing puzzle piece to me–as a reader who is against the kind of greed that drives a company like GoldCorp, he’s the one I don’t understand–he’s the one I want to see cross-examined on the page.

Looking at it from this angle, I think that the best parts of Taking the Heart of the Land are unfortunately brief sequences. The last 3 pages really heat up as Dawn and a Guatamalan anti-mine activist enter a GoldCorp AGM in Vancouver to voice their findings. When Dawn gets the AGM speaker to admit that they will not be respecting the democratic process of the Guatamalan Consultas, I can feel the tension in the room just from reading these two panels. I would’ve loved to have seen the entire last page stretched out over 2 or 3 times as much space.

I think the lack of attention to this scene, in fact, reflects a bit of the cynicism of the author: I hear in its curt presentation the opinion of the writer: “Who would expect anything more from a GoldCorp executive?” To be sure, again, she’s probably right… but when you’re in the business of raising awareness and changing opinions, these are the elements that I think should be given the most attention.


2) Uranium: Highway of the Atom
(Story by Sophie Toupin | Illustrations by Ruth Tait)

Journalist Sophie Toupin investigates Uranium extraction in and around the town of Mont-Laurier, Quebec. Together with the artist, Ruth Tait, they explore Uranium’s impact on local communities, the illusion of nuclear energy as “Green” or sustainable energy, the pro-mining culture of Quebec, and the subsequent up-hill battles that critics in the province have in front of them.

Personally, I never knew of Canada’s “secret uranium history”, as it is opened in the chapter. Selling uranium to the U.S. for Project Manhattan in a secret deal with the United States… now that I know, I guess it’s not too surprising. From the history of Indigenous interaction with uranium in North Bay (where the high concentrations in the soil would have toxic effects on native men who went there for their vision quests) to the sketchiness of uraniun surveying teams who are, today, the modern-day equivilants of dirt-poor pioneers with Gold Rush fever, the story has some of the building blocks of a blockbuster Hollywood thriller. With a well-rounded cast of interview sources, Sophie Toupin tells a good story by allowing the sources to tell it in their own words, then arranges all of the details in a coherent order (albeit still a bit of an information overload).

I get more out of the visuals in this one, too. The illustrator is drawing more than what she herself was able to witness (and that was a lot, apparently: of all the writer/artist combos, Ruth Tait was the only one who was able to accompany her co-hort… Not sure, but maybe this gave her some extra imagination when drawing everything up). But to be sure, awesome illustrations. Even though one or two of the graphics are a little amateurish with their Photoshop airbrush techniques, the spirit of what is depicted sets the tone of this story: artistic yet serious, factual yet emotional.

3) Bauxite: The world’s unluckiest people
(Story by Tamara Herman | Illustrations by Stanley Wany)

Tamara Herman goes to Kashipur, India to interview villagers who have stood up against the mining of bauxite on their sacred hill of Baphlimali, where their ancestors fought for and won the land from foreign colonials years ago. Bauxite is mined in the production of aluminum, and the owner of this venture was largely Canadian company Alcan, whose products most of us carry in our kitchen drawers next to seran wrap and freezer bags.

I appreciate the different style of art and writing in this chapter. The drawings look like they were partially traced over photographs, then modified and given textured shading with lots of cross hatches. I think it gives appropriate emphasis to folds of cloth as well as skin texture, giving each person interviewed a look of protraiture.

Despite some nice imagery, ‘Bauxite’ seems a little cut-and-paste, as if the quotes were superimposed on the images with little communication between the two. Everything is very text-heavy, and it gets hard to follow after a bit (I think a map and a little more general history at the beginning would have been really useful). As with all of these stories: with all the information, there is more pressure on both the artist and the writer to orchestrate a synchronized, well-crafted delivery. The details of politics are not easy things to present artistically.

I am also reminded of a bit of a flaw in all of the comics here: With the inclusion of most of the writers visually in the comic panels, I would have liked to know a little more about them. How did they get involved in these issues? What are their backgrounds? If they are included as visuals, they should have a story to tell in the larger story, right?

4) OIL: From the bottom of the pit
(Coverage by Peter Cizek | Illustrations by Phil Angers | Script by Marc Tessier and Phil Angers)

‘Oil’ takes you on a tour, by way of some mind-blowing mathematical gymnastics, of just how much energy must be consumed in order to extract what is hiding down in the Tar Sands.

Peter Cizek reports on the size and scope of the Tar Sands project in Northern Alberta. The story begins with a man on a soap box (the writer or an anonymous voice of opposition?) talking about the history of the Tar Sands, how extraction and processing is being funded, and ultimately how the net worth of the project is in the negative. It wraps up with the speaker amassing a large crowd who are outraged at the information,  the speaker walking away.

The real winner of this story is Phil Angers’ artwork. Some of the pages here are really detailed and impressive (Not all–the characatures of ducks and bears at the end kind of escapes me). It’s hard to depict a project as big as the Tar Sands, but I think you get a better picture with this comic than you would with only text, and that’s a major goal with political comics: through the medium, you bring out a something of a new dimension to the issue.

All of these stories are relavent to Canadian politics. ‘Uranium’ and ‘Oil’ get extra points for establishing a strong historical context at the beginning of the comic–the reader feels less like they’re just being dropped in on a subject that they know nothing about. (In their own ways, both also include the history of the pre-Columbian Indigenous relationship to the resource: their material use or, in the instance of uranium, its toxic effects.)

The book as a whole outlines the social and economic costs of these “extraction” adventures, and ultimately their lack of sustainability. I admit that this review has come a little late in the game to be timely print-wise… (EXTRACTION!  hit store shelves in 2007, and their publisher, Cumulus Press closed their doors shortly after).

But this book is the real deal: a self-proclaimed political comic in approach and cause–and certainly still relavent… all of the companies they highlight are still in business, making record profits. Likewise, many of the authors and illustrators involved here are still in their respective games of art and activism, doing impressive and important work. (Toronto’s own Jeff Lemire, who did beautiful illustrations for the chapter title pages, is doing quite well for himself with the critically-acclaimed Sweet Tooth.)

EXTRACTION! takes us back to an old debate in the question of comics as a category of literature: How factual–how real–can a story told through the comic narrative be? Surely this is nowhere more relavent than in the category of ‘Comix Reportage’.

I love how David Widgington, EXTRACTION! editor frames it in the Introduction:

“The craft of comix journalism does not stem from the combination of text and image, content and structure. It is the added meaning derived from the interaction between the symbolic and the realistic, the literal and the figurative that gives it strength.”

Ultimately, I think this project suffered a bit from an overabundance of content that the form had trouble holding up. Additionally, when the symbolic or figurative could have leant a helping hand, the writers and/or artists often didn’t take it as often as they should have. As I said in the beginning, balancing cause with quality of content is so difficult in political comics.

Political comics in general are faced with many of the same challenges this book took on. How do you put in the time and money to a project like this when you know it only appeals to a small audience? (The limited printing of 500 copies attests to this concern). Does the inclusion of the images assist or hinder the delivery of information? Do symbolic images muddle the “realness” of the story down to art or poetry, or can it elevate the truth and make it easier to understand?

What EXTRACTION! probably needed was a bit more time, money, and experience. And really, what cause can’t relate to that…

NMG

Any Empire, by Nate Powell

Title: Any Empire
Author: Nate Powell
Publisher:  Top Shelf Productions (2011)
Bought this copy: from Nate @ The Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF)
More Info: Top Shelf’s synopsis, ordering info, and more reviews

What It’s About:  The story follows the life, in several parts, of rural American Lee Powell against the influential backdrop of militarism in America. Jumping around to different points of the boy’s life in a complex (and somewhat transparently autobiographical) way, Powell is confronted at different times in his life with the purpose and meaning of violence in society—from childhood social groups to the maintenance of modern nation states.

Lee begins to hang out with a group of neighborhood boys who have a “gang”. In order to get in the club, Lee is told, he has to do some bad things. He and the other boys are challenged with the acceptance of their peers or the pull of their conscience. For some, their decision leads to love and happiness—for others, anger and despair. But the road is longer for some than others.  Sorry, I just realized how much of a spoiler this review could be.

Thoughts:   This book comes across as a touching small-town story that observes as much as it tells of the impact militarism on American society. On a technical level, ‘Any Empire’ is a testament to author and illustrator Nate Powell’s capacity for narration. He frequently allows a series of panels to pass in the middle of the story without a single text bubble. I love this—it makes me think that the story, instead of being told by someone, is telling itself. Suitably, the subject matter Nate often chooses is fitting for this layout, whether it’s in the socially awkward interactions of his work Swallow Me Whole, or racism and its effect on children, like in The Silence of Our Friends (this story, illustrated by Powell, was co-written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos).  Silent images truthfully convey that these social idiosyncrasies rarely interact with words when we are in those situations, which makes the comic narration all the more touchingly real.
What’s more to appreciate, the dialogue–when it comes around, that is–is so believable, lending one to be sure that at least part of this comic came from real conversations in Powell’s personal history.

The boy, ‘Lee’ Powell is such a typical American boy. Raised by a veteran, he reads G.I. Joe comic books, plays with toy soldiers with a deadly seriousness, and dreams of fantastic combat.  Even his “anti-social behavior” seems normal to me as someone who also grew up in the Midwestern U.S.—despite the comic showing his parents worrying over the matter.

Contrast this with the depiction of Purdy—who, on the outside, appears to be no different than Lee. But then the layers begin to unfold. Purdy has a rough family upbringing; raised on fast food and poor parenting, picked on by an asshole brother, his pull towards the fantasy of militarism is stronger and more distorted than Lee’s. He truly believes that being a soldier will bring to him honor and dignity where he has only felt shame and embarrassment his whole life. This ultimately affects his most crucial decisions. The two boys go down very different paths as young men, only to meet up at the crossroads.

CRITIQUES (Spoiler Alert):

Some things in this story aren’t clear to me. I often give a book or movie the benefit of the doubt on this point, and just chalk it up to me not being observant enough. But now that I’m doing reviews, I guess I should be honest when I read something and just don’t get it.
Most importantly, I didn’t understand how this comic ended.  How did Purdy decide to go AWOL so easily, after so little contemplation? He had so much wrapped up in being a soldier, and arguably, no reasonable cause was offered/depicted in the story to make him think otherwise. Do the twins go AWOL as well? In one scene, they are shown diving off a cliff with Purdy, absent without leave. In another, later on, they have guns pointed at Purdy, Lee, and Sara. This conflict doesn’t seem to reach a conclusion.
Is the story really set up to be 99.9% realistic—only to have 3 people (who didn’t used to get along) team up and flip a tank with their bare hands at the very end?
Lastly, what’s in the damn Turtle Killers box? It drove me crazy. Seriously, it doesn’t matter?

Favorite Spreads:

There is so much social commentary in each of these pages… from Sara as a young girl doing her best to save the turtles just as the boys carelessly destroy them; Sara’s mom coming home from work and, exhausted, trying to offer her daughter the best advice she can. Nate took on a lot of different ideas to put this comic together, but that’s how we should be looking at the issue–with multiple adjoining parts.
An excellent scene is when Purdy meets up with his younger self and tells him that he’s an AWOL soldier. I only wish that this conversation was elaborated upon a bit further—meeting up with a younger version of yourself is something that so many of us recognize as a powerfully meaningful vision. What would be the most important thing you could say? Would the younger you listen? I wish this had lasted a little longer.
My most favorite layout, however,  is relatively early on when Lee and his sketchy new friends go to an army surplus store to buy old defective grenades. As Lee is handed his very own almost-ish-explosive, he takes note of his surroundings: above his head hang a variety of flags. There is the standard U.S. stars and stripes, but also the Confederate Stars and Bars; and also a Swastika of the Third Reich. It brings the name of the title home—all violence, weapons, and war… are vehicles, vessels, and empty shells. There is nothing inherently patriotic (or revolutionary) about a weapon. Their content and purpose is the property of the intent—any intent, any empire—that they serve.

Day One

I have so little time to put down thoughts on TCAF at this exact moment. What I will say is CONGRATULATIONS: this year’s festival has some amazing political comic offerings compared to last year. I have already read one book and will definitely be doing some reviews in the coming days. Until then, a few snaps, subtly edited but not as well as they would have been with Instagram:

NMG

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.