The Lessons “War in the Neighborhood” Could Have Taught Us at Occupy

000 introductionThe struggles we find ourselves in –for justice, equality, and a democracy worthy of the name– are not new. Yet we’re endlessly forming new groups, writing new charters, experimenting with new tactics as though we were the first people ever to struggle against injustice.

Driving across North America in the past year, we were struck by the profound lack of institutional memory in radical communities wherever we went. People doing work that was important, even essential, could often tell us nothing about what their organization had been like 10 years ago, if it had existed at all.

The left leaves few records and most of these are hagiographies–saintly accounts of the lives of larger-than-life heroic figures that read more like myths than histories. It is a rare book that transcends this shallow style and speaks frankly about the painful difficulties encountered by social movements. That kind of book is full of important lessons for us. ”War in the Neighborhood’ is that kind of book.

I wish I’d had a chance to read it before walking into that Occupy camp, 5 years ago. It would have saved me a lot of headache. Here’s why.

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1: You aren’t the first people to take public space

‘War in the Neighborhood’ is partially about the struggle to protect the public’s right to use Tompkins Square Park. One of those uses, dating to before the struggle, is as the site of a tent city for the homeless. In the course of the struggle to preserve the park as a place to drink and hang out, conflicts with the cops made it an unsafe place to sleep.

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Confrontations between cops and activists would raise the emotional temperature of the park, but while the activists could go home, many of the people living in the tent city were home – and had nowhere to go when the cops came to work out their frustrations.

000 homeless already lived there

“Reclaiming” urban space is always more complicated than it looks. In North America particularly, that space is always colonized land. In a more immediate sense, the space is often being used by people who don’t want to see it ‘reclaimed’. During the era of the Occupy camps, we dropped into that park without any notion of this. We were bringing media and police attention to a space that homeless people had been living in quietly for years.

000 homelessness is a problem of capitalism

I wish we’d all known a little bit more about past struggles like ours, and known ahead of time that we needed to be mindful of the needs of the folks already living in the park. They are capable of doing their own very powerful organizing if they choose, organizing we could have supported if we had treated them with respect.

 

 

2: The police are not your friends

Alright, there are plenty of people who know this, and I can hear them into the peanut gallery rolling their eyes at the obvious point and congratulating themselves on how on-point their politics are. Good for you.

000 the cops are not your friends

The trouble is, not everyone knows this, and vague denunciations of authority from angry punks do not always persuade the larger group. The police are tricky, and they know how to present a friendly face as well as their real one. In ‘War in the Neighborhood’, we see the cops put pressure on squatters by offering them a deal. The squatters, divided by the proposal, eventually accept. Needless to say, they are betrayed by the police.

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Some of the people at Occupy knew better than to waste time talking to the cops, but many did not. The police could make little demands about where we put our tents or how we hung our tarps, and sow division without working very hard– these petty demands caused us to turn against each other. They were going to evict us eventually either way but the conflict over whether or not to comply with these petty demands created real conflict between us.

The police are not all billy clubs and tear gas. They will make little helpful gestures to win your trust. At one Occupy march, I remember them sharing bottled water with us. But by then we were wise – “Ew, cop water,” was how one friend put it. Earlier we had not always been so savvy. The police’s polite request to ‘liaise’ (read: pump us for information) or offers to protect our marches (read: control and contain our protests) convinced some people that they were on our side. When they swept into the camp in the middle of the night, tore down our tents and brutalized one of our friends, they made it perfectly clear whose friends they were.

I wish we had all known well enough to be on the same page, and understood the role of the police in suppressing resistance.

 

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3: Outside organizations will try to control your politics

The left is full of self-appointed leaders and self-anointed messiahs. Academics, vanguard parties, one-man black blocs and all kinds of people whose analysis is so pure that they get high on the fumes. These people will show up at your movement and tell you where it’s going, what path it’ll take to get there, and what kind of clothes you should wear for your media appearances. What they won’t do, generally, is the dishes – or anything else useful.

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This isn’t so much a problem of ideology as of personality. Some people know how to be humble, pull together as a team and do their share of every kind of work. Some people are so convinced of their special genius that they think they are making the most important possible contributions by telling everyone else what to do and think.

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‘War in the Neighborhood’ shows us both kinds of people. Luna, a member of the RCP, becomes one of the most persistent and dedicated squatters. An angry anarchist denounces her participation and the squat as a whole because they are, presumably, guilty by association. Eventually, Luna herself leaves the party over its homophobic views and controlling nature.

000 luna and rcp

When Occupy enjoyed its brief historical moment, plenty of groups wanted to control it. They showed up with their critiques, their literature, sometimes even with printed t-shirts. They would try to change the way Occupy was governed, or how it framed its messaging. Some were a problem, but others weren’t. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter so much what group they were from. What mattered was how willing they were to set their personal politics aside and work for the collective good of the group, instead of trying to co-opt it to serve their own purposes.

It can be a lot to keep track of, especially for folks who are new to activism. But I wish I’d known then what I know now – people show you how much you can trust them based on how respectful and committed their participation is.

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4: But you never know who your best comrades will turn out to be…

…but you can find out, easily enough! People vote with their time and energy. Look to see who’s putting in the work and who’s standing around talking shit. In ‘War in the Neighborhood’, we see a variety of people, including communists, ex-cons, teenage anarchists, people with active addictions and the homeless prove to be the best of comrades.

That is not always intuitive. It is easy to be drawn to the most articulate people, or the ones who seem to have the most support in the group. You can be taken in by people’s charms or by the appearance of experience. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter how articulate someone is, how experienced they are, or how great their analysis is, if they can’t put their own agenda aside and work as part of a team.

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At Occupy I definitely had a preference for people who shared my politics and cultural values most closely. But I learned in time that I valued the friendships of all kinds of people – liberals, social democrats, other anarchists and even 9/11 truthers (thanfully, those guys came around).

Of course, we were working inside an anarchist framework, with a set of anarchist assumptions. Over time, I watched a lot of those folks evolve into the best anarchists I know. But I think this point holds true no matter what the ideology of your group. If people focus on the work, it doesn’t matter where they’re coming from. You’re headed the same way.

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5: Holding space may be the only thing you agree on

This is a much less universal lesson than some of the others, but I think that you can apply it pretty broadly. Groups form around particular issues, and people may not agree on much else. Holding space was at the centre of the Occupy movement’s politics, and applies equally to the struggles for public space and homes depicted in ‘War in the Neighbourhood’.
000 tea party

Rules are a recurring theme for ‘War in the Neighborhood’. Should this squat be drug free? Should we negotiate with the cops? Are we prepared to tolerate sexism? In different ways these questions are all part of the bigger question: “How will we make this space our own?” and “What is this space for?” But while everyone agrees with ‘making this space our own’, they can’t even agree what that looks like.

000 disputes

At my Occupy camp, and I suspect at many others, the problem was worse, if anything. Should we march? Should we build the camp? Should we make signs? Should we make dinner? Again, holding the park was just about the one thing we all agreed was necessary.

This was a real shock to me. I arrived thinking that people would more or less be there for the same reason I was – tired of the growing power of the rich and ready to hold them to account. The reality was not so simple. I wish I had been able to better anticipate that.

 

6: People whose help you might hope for will sit on the sidelines and criticize

There were some people who were not so ready to accept the riot of ideas and ideology on display at Occupy. I couldn’t believe them. I was putting aside a lot of my own ideas about how the world should work out of some abstracted sense of the common good. Why couldn’t they do the same?

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People have agendas. They look at social movements and they ask themselves if these social movements serve those agendas. Then they decide if they are going to participate, criticize, or both. If your revolution doesn’t look like it’s going to serve their purposes, don’t expect to see them frying tofu in the kitchen tent.

“War in the Neighborhood” shows us that people have different reasons for wanting you to fail. Maybe they don’t like some of your members. Perhaps they disagree with your group’s tactics. Maybe they didn’t get their way in your group and so they left.

Sometimes people who should be comrades simply aren’t. It’s easy to take that personally, but you shouldn’t. It happens every time. All you can do is to keep doing your best to be honest, persistent and fair.
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7: There are no easy answers

Maybe I should have known this one before Occupy started. I thought I knew it, really. I thought I knew that things were so close to hopeless that it would take a change in world conditions to create an opportunity for change. But then in Occupy I saw that opportunity.

In a way, all social struggles have the potential to make us feel like everything has changed. ‘War in the Neighborhood’ shows impossible victories – people taking over abandoned buildings, neighborhood people fighting back against police violence, homeless people winning the right to maintain a tent city in Tompkins Square Park.

But even when all the rules of normal life seem to be inverted, there are no easy answers. You can fight like hell and do everything right only to watch it all fall apart because of some unhappy accident. We are still learning, all of us struggling to build a better world. I don’t think anyone has all the answers. But if we could get better at telling stories about what went right – and what went disastrously wrong – we might not be quite so completely doomed to repeat our history forever.

 

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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.

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

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – PLEASE SHARE WIDELY

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.

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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.

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‘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!

 

 

 

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An Interview with Cape and Cowl owner Jay Roy

As part of our crowdfunder for ‘Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back’, Ad Astra Comix agreed to do a workshop in Halifax, Nova Scotia. One of the attendees was Jay Aaron Roy, who runs Cape and Cowl, a comics shop in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia. We visited C&C on our way back to Ontario and were so impressed that we decided we wanted to do an interview featuring Jay’s work there. The results are below.


Q: First off, let’s have the basics: How long has Cape and Cowl been open? Where is it located? What’s the neighbourhood like?

jay aaron roy croppedA: Cape & Cowl has been open since September 28th, 2014, and we are located at 536 Sackville Drive, in beautiful Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia, Canada! The neighborhood here is warm and welcoming. I am from this town (well, Fall River, which is about ten minutes away), so many community members here have known me, or who I am, for a long time.


Q: So when we visited, you told us about the role the shop plays as a community space. Could you tell us a little more about that?

A: When I was searching for a location to open, my goal was to specifically open in this rural area to offer the local youth something new to see and do. I have much youth work in my background, and there is hardly anything around here for youth do, so I knew a drop-in center would fit perfectly. I have big ambitions (which I will get to in question #9!), so having a space where I could host game days, movie nights, youth drop-in times, birthday parties, and the like was always an integral part of my business plan.

Q: So you’ve got signs up making it clear that Cape and Cowl is a safe community space. What does that mean in practice? What moved you to do it?
A: Safe spaces are so important, especially for the lgbtqi community. Youth desperately need spaces where they feel comfortable and respected. Making my shop a “safe space”, and then advertising that out there to the world, lets all local youth know, and really everyone else too, that this space is protected. Protected by me. Locally, people tend to know that I am an activist who is quite outspoken about the things that I believe in. So, in practice, I offer volunteering opportunities for youth to help me run parties and events, and in return they know that whatever their gender identity or sexual orientation, they will be respected here. And, not only that, but I will make sure that everyone else in the shop respects them as well, and act as a moderator when a person needs to be gently corrected. I basically like to take the stress off the youth and help validate their identity and worth. I have a no-nonsense, zero tolerance rule about bullying.
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I think it is just a part of who I am, to make a space like this, because I was bullied a lot when I was young, and as I have come out in my adulthood as a transgender man, that bullying hadn’t totally stopped. I don’t know if safe spaces will always be needed, and in some part, I hope we don’t need them forever, but I do know we need them right now.

Q: This is an interesting time for nerd culture, with the ugly underbelly of toxic masculinity being dragged out into the light for all to see. Comic book shops are probably the primary physical gathering spaces for people interested in comics, gaming and this kind of stuff – Cape and Cowl is definitely set up like that. But there’s a tension for store owners who have to be careful not to alienate any part of their clientele, while also being pressed to pick sides in an increasingly polarized battle. How do you negotiate that tension at C&C?
A: That’s a great question, and certainly something I pay very careful attention to. Every single move I make with the shop is super-meticulously thought out. Where I am the 100% sole proprietor, I feel more free to “do what I want” when it comes to political stances. My shop would never have the chance to be any sort of “boys club”, that’s just not how I operate. I get Sailor Moon toys that have “for girls” printed right on the box…I take a black marker and cover that up right away before they go on the shelf. MY Sailor Moon toys are for EVERYONE. I also reflect my feelings for particular creative teams, in my orders. If I don’t like what a writer/comic is saying to my shoppers, I don’t order it, (unless someone orders it by special request). I really like to showcase representation though, so I’ll still order Superman and Iron Man, but I have way healthier stock of Jem and the Holograms, Ms. Marvel and Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. In regards to gathering the local nerds, (and I use that term in a loving way), it is all about timing. I have many community events like craft fairs and bbqs, where the larger community comes out to an event, but also gaming days, where my local Magic: The Gathering players can gather and play tournaments in the drop-in, so I can run my business at the same time. I just make it known to the players that I have a business to run, and for the most part they respect that. I’ve only had to tell a few guys to watch their language, haha.

Q: So you used to work at Strange Adventures in Halifax, right? What kind of lessons did you learn there about running a comic shop? Has Callum (the owner of Strange Adventures) been supportive of Cape and Cowl?

A: I did used to work at Strange Adventures, and even a few other comic shops as well before that! I learned so much from my time at Strange Adventures, though, for sure. Calum Johnston runs an amazing business, at all three of his shops. I learned a lot about the comic industry from him and Dave Howlett, the manager of his Halifax location. Cal was an awesome boss, and has been super supportive of Cape & Cowl. I am always lead to quote him when he said many years ago to me, “a rising tide floats all boats”. In other words, more people reading comics is a good thing. Also, I’m way out in the rural area, so I don’t hurt his business too much, I imagine. 😉 I still talk to him all the time about lots of different aspects of the business, he has given me some great advice, and brought me gifts of shelving to the shop.

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Q: What’s your favourite part of running a comic shop?

A: What a tough one! First of all, I love being the boss! Haha! I am a pretty creative fellow, so being able to concoct my own sales, events, ideas, etc. has pretty much been a dream come true. I love having the freedom to run my own business the exact way I want to. The most rewarding part of my work is seeing people enjoy the shop, and the space. I also just plain LOVE comics! So, it’s always fun being in the comic industry and seeing what is coming out, the day it comes out!


Q: (You can skip this one if you don’t wanna make trouble with your landlord) You mentioned something about the landlord jacking up the rent massively. I think the price you mentioned was comparable to commercial rents in Toronto, and you live in rural Nova Scotia! What the hell are they thinking?

A: I will answer anything! Haha! I have NO IDEA what they are thinking, other than probably “This lake-of-fire front property is too hot, let’s invest in new A/C and charge it to the small business owners in our rural buildings”?, because they are, collectively, Satan. Seriously though, with companies like the one that jacked up my rent, (through loopholes, two months after I moved in, with an increase of $600 a MONTH!), I’m sure all they care about is the bottom line. They are so disconnected from the communities they own in, and they could care less. The community at large, along with myself, emailed, sent letters, called, did everything we could, and the owners still did not care. They stood their ground on the increase, and as a result I have almost gone out of business four times. In fact, they only sent me back one email saying “I’m not sure why we got these emails…”. I offered them some reading lessons. They didn’t answer back, haha. My building has since been bought by another company, who have their heads in the sand just as deep. We need locally owned, reasonably priced business buildings desperately in rural Nova Scotia. Or at least ones not owned by the four horseman of the apocalypse.

For anyone who wants to get in touch with Jay’s landlord about his outrageous rent, he pays $3345.70 a month for 1610 sq. ft. You can reach them at

BANC Group
1 Craigmore Drive, Suite 201
Halifax, NS  B3N 0C6
P (902) 832-8930

Q: What’s the hardest part of running Cape and Cowl?

A: The hardest part of running Cape & Cowl, is doing it all by myself. Although, it makes me quite proud to see all I have done. I certainly couldn’t have done it at all without the incredible amount of help I get from local community members, and volunteers for parties and events, but the daily grind can certainly wear on me from time to time. I am good at practicing self care, though, so I make sure to get the rest I need. When the shop closes up at 6:00, I go home. I don’t let anyone make me feel guilty for not being open past that. If they want to shop comics in the evening, they can do that in the city, or wait a few years until I have a staff to allow me to do so. The only other part that was difficult, was dealing with ALL the companies that call you to set up debit/credit payments with them. Boy, those companies are all headache-inducing, but only were so in my first year of business. I can tell them where to go pretty fast, these days, haha.


Q:Do you have any big plans for the future?

A: I have SO MANY big plans for the future, but I can’t tell anyone about them yet! Isn’t that awful?! haha All I can say is, stay tuned to the website, and you’ll see every big idea as I implement them!

Q: What advice do you have for folks around North America interested in starting their own comic shops?
A:  Oh my gosh, I could write an hour’s worth of material here, but what I’ll say is this: do it. If you want to own a comic shop, go do it. Save as much money as you can, do your research about the comic industry, and how to order from your distributors. Go nuts on social media. Listen to everyone’s “advice”, but only use the advice you want. Comic shops work much better if you involve the community, so create events where the geek community can gather and cross promote with other local small businesses. Find small business meet-ups in your area, and get connected! And most importantly, remember that COMICS ARE FOR EVERYONE.

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Catching up – An Interview with ‘Extraction’ contributor Dawn Paley.

As we’ve mentioned before, a number of the folks involved with
‘Extraction! Comix Reportage’  have gone on to do other important work. One of the most interesting and accomplished of the Extraction contributors (not that they aren’t all just fascinating) is journalist and activist Dawn Paley. We caught up with Dawn via phone call, since she’s currently living and working long term in Puebla, to find out what she’s been up to since the comic came out. Here’s how that went:

Ad Astra: Could you tell us a little bit about your history as an activist?

Dawn :I grew up in the lower mainland of British Columbia, on Coast Salish territory. I grew up in a pretty isolated area, this is pre-internet, so my first entry into activism was through environmentalism, eventually I started working as a journalist, doing media activism and grassroots journalism. Over the years, I’ve written about environmental and land issues ranging from the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement to the impacts of US foreign policy and the expansion of capitalism on communities in Mexico, Central and South America.

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Worth fighting for.

I’ve been working as a journalist now for a little over 12 years, largely focused on Mexico, Central and South America, but especially Mexico. The piece I did for ‘EXTRACTION!’ [Gold: Taking the Heart of the Land] was the result of one of my first trips to Central America, and over the last decades I’ve continued to cover the ongoing dispossession, violence and colonialism taking place in Mexico, Central and South America. In my work I strive to explore the nature of the violences of capital and states, part of the work is to expose the connections between the global north and the violence that so deeply impacts so many folks in the global south.

 Ad Astra: How did you first get involved in ‘EXTRACTION!’?  How did you settle on the Goldcorp mine in Guatemala as the subject of the comic?

Dawn: I became involved with Extraction! because I had previously collaborated with [editor] Frederic Dubois, and later became friends with [editor] David Widgington of Cumulus Press as well. They asked me to do a chapter. They initially asked me to write about Barrick’s Pascua Lama mine in the high Andes in Chile and Argentina. I countered with a proposal to write about Guatemala/Goldcorp, suggesting that it would be a stronger piece because I’d already done interviews and research in the area. Plus, comics being a more visual thing it made sense to be working on a project about a place I’d seen first hand.

 

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The Marlin Mine

I knew the comic was going to be good as soon as I found out Joe Ollmann was working on the project. I immediately liked Joe’s style and his approach. We didn’t get to see a whole lot with each other – it was a long distance working relationship, but it was a nice experience. Joe has a fabulous sense of humor, and the final experience of seeing my words through Joe’s illustrations was incredible. It’s just totally different than print reporting.

Ad Astra: What was your collaborative process with Joe Ollmann like?

Dawn: It might be a bit passé for someone my age, but I confess, I’m a dyed in the wool print journalist. Obviously all journalism is teamwork, and sometimes I’ll work with a collaborator, like a photographer. Sometimes with print, you’ll write the piece and the photographer will send a cutline or two to go with their images, or your editor will suggest some changes to a piece. But with comics, the artist does so much work. Drawing, inking, and lettering takes so much time and skill. I don’t want to diminish what editors  or photographers do…there’s a lot to it. But with this comic, it felt really different. It was an even longer process. It was interesting to have the surprise of seeing how he drew the things I saw and talked about, how he represented them. Workflow wise, we went back and forth long-distance, I compiled a script that included all kinds of visual clues I would leave out of a regular, reported piece, and went from there.

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Extraction!’ artist Joe Ollmann meeting with Dawn, along with publisher and co-editor David Widgington and co-editor Frédéric Dubois. Photo by co-editor Marc Tessier.”

Ad Astra: Have you stayed in touch with Héctor and other people you met on the trip? What’s going on around the mine more recently?

 

 

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Hmm. They’re pseudonyms in the story, so I needed to think about which person “Héctor” was. Yes, I’m still in touch with him. We G-chat sometimes. I saw him a couple of years ago when a serious earthquake hit the department of San Marcos; he took me around and brought me up to speed about what was happening in the region at that time. Goldcorp’s Marlin mine is in the process of closing, and they are doing a lot of public relations to make it look like they did a great job. I was in Guatemala in April and I saw a full page ad in the national newspaper, showing employees planting a bunch of trees in the area, you know, showing us that everything’s hunky-dory!  But there’s a lot of ongoing health and environmental issues with contamination from the mine, and people are still facing charges for their role in resistance from years ago. I remember maybe five years ago, folks who survived the internal conflict pointed out to me how there were no basically no political prisoners in Guatemala until after the peace accords were signed in 1996. That was because the state didn’t take prisoners, rather it killed dissidents, activists, organizers, and entire Indigenous communities.

But today in Guatemala there is a HUGE amount of criminalization of community organizers. This criminalization specifically targets Indigenous communities and land defenders. People are thrown in jail, accused of huge list of charges, serving months and sometimes years for resisting dams, mines, highways, cement plants, palm oil, and so on. There are a lot of incredibly brave lawyers and activists fighting against the criminalization of land defenders and political prisoners in Guatemala, fighting for their release. I think this is really crucial context today that we need to keep in mind in looking at this comic from almost 10 years ago.

Ad Astra: Would you work on another comics journalism project, given the appropriate resources and journalistic freedom?

Dawn: I’d love to do another comics journalism project, connected to the research I’m doing with families of people who have been disappeared in Mexico. I’m doing a multi-year investigation into this issue as part of a dissertation, and what I hope will be my next book. When I can, I have been walking with family members on weekends, when they convene to look for bodies. It is a very intense experience–people using little more than sticks and shovels to search for missing daughters, sons, brothers, sisters… This is an entrenched reality in Mexico today and yet I think for many it is something that is still difficult to imagine. I think comics could be an important avenue to communicate this experience.

Ad Astra: How have things changed for mining activists since ‘EXTRACTION!’ was first released?

Dawn: Well, Indigenous land defenders across so called Canada have come out strong using a whole range of strategies to fight against destructive extractive industry projects throughout the entire last century and into this one. I think it is important to start by acknowledging the importance and the continuity of those struggles.

Specifically, EXTRACTION! first came out almost 10 years ago, and I think it’s still really relevant. As for differences between 2006 and 2016? There’s a lot more solidarity and visibility for these struggles, actually, including some really amazing organizing in Toronto and Vancouver. And urban activists are not just connecting the actions of Canadian companies in Guatemala or elsewhere with their headquarters in Toronto or Vancouver, but also looking at the activities of mining companies, sometimes even the same mining companies, on stolen Indigenous land in Canada. In my opinion, activism against destructive mining has gotten smarter, more intersectional.

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We’ve seen huge amounts of community organization against mining happening, from the community level to the international level. In 2006-2007, I was reporting on a fairly nascent struggle in Guatemala… Now Goldcorp and gold mining has become a landmark issue in Guatemala. Folks all over the country know about it, they are prepared to fight against it and are pre-emptively declaring their communities free of mining… In general more and more folks and communities in Mexico, Central and South America are weary of Canadian or other mega-mining projects. People are mobilized against the damage that these companies are doing/can do to their water supply, their communities, and increasingly that organization is taking the form of international coalitions, groups that can represent hundreds of struggles. Over the past 10 years, many people resisting mining have been threatened, murdered, and displaced, but there have been huge strides around these issues in terms of awareness and preventative action, and it’s important we take note of the gains.

Ad Astra: What have you been up to since ‘EXTRACTION!’? What are you working on now?

Dawn: Well, I’ve continued to work as a journalist, in 2009 I helped found the Vancouer Media Co-op and was involved in various media projects in Canada for a few years. 2010 was a big year, we helped cover resistance to the Olympics in Vancouver and later to the G8-G20 in Toronto. At the year’s end I left Vancouver and started researching for my first book, Drug War Capitalism, which came out with AK Press in late 2014. Since the book came out I’ve been doing lots of speaking events in the US mostly, and we’re working to try and get a Spanish version of the book out soon. I also started a doctorate at the Autonomous University of Puebla in Central Mexico, where I am based.

At this very moment, I’m working on an investigative piece about families of the disappeared in Mexico, about the folks I mentioned who have started searching every every weekend for clandestine graves that may contain their family members. I’m writing about what it is like to walk alongside them as they search for their loved ones. I think that the movement of searchers is one of the most significant social movements in Mexico today, and one that urgently merits our attention.

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Copyright Dawn Paley, 2016

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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(Source)
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.

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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.

‘EXTRACTION!’ Pre-Ordering is Now OPEN

Ad Astra Comix is pleased to announce that our crowdfunder for a classic work of Canadian comics journalism is now live. “EXTRACTION! Comix Reportage” is an anthology of journalistic comics about the damage caused by different sectors the Canadian mining industry around the world and within the nation state’s own borders. Using research, on-the-ground journalism and original comic art, the work features stories about the extraction of uranium, oil, aluminum and gold and their devastating impact on communities and the environment.

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The human and ecological cost of this industry is too often buried in the fine print of annual reports. ‘EXTRACTION!’ can help stories from India, Guatemala, Alberta and the Northwest Territories reach Canadians – the people best positioned to challenge these companies.

‘EXTRACTION!’ touches on a number of issues of interest to our readers including colonialism, indigenous rights, ecological devastation and corporate malfeasance. It also features work by a number of contributors who have gone on to do exciting things, including journalist Dawn Paley and artist Jeff Lemire.

Ad Astra Comix is an independent Ottawa-based comics publisher. We believe in the power of comics to share the stories of regular people and speak truth to power. We have no investors, stockholders or friends in high places – just an enthusiasm for comics and social justice.

Organizations, individuals and local book retailers are encouraged to participate in the crowdfunder. Funding rewards range from a copy of the book before it’s available in stores, to custom-made comics about the mining issue of your choice, to a lump of coal delivered to the Canadian Government, on your behalf.

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EXTRACTION!’ has already been published once and has sold the entirety of its print run. By republishing it, we hope to share these stories and help Canadians understand the high cost of cheap commodities. By contributing to the project or simply sharing it with people you think may be interested, you can help us reach that goal.

If you’re interested in contributing to the publication of ‘EXTRACTION!’, or want to know more about the project, you can check out our crowdfunding campaign. For information about Ad Astra Comix, including other titles we carry, workshops we offer and critical coverage of political comics, check out the rest of this website. To get in touch, please e-mail adastracomix@gmail.com. You can also follow us on Twitter @AdAstraComics or like our page on Facebook.

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.

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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).

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

 

the panel is political.