Tag Archives: activism

The Dudes Behind the Mask: An Interview with Matt Pizzolo, a Founder of the new Black Mask Studios

Artwork courtesy of Guy Denning
Artwork courtesy of Guy Denning
logoNicole: Who is the group behind Black Mask Studios? Did you all know each other before Occupy? Through comics? Through activism? Through the art / music scene? 
Matt: Black Mask is founded by Steve Niles, Brett Gurewitz, and me. I’ve known Brett for a pretty long time, but I’d only met Steve shortly before Occupy. We were on a horror comics panel together at San Diego Comic Con, and I accidentally insulted him during the panel… which is always the start of the best friendships. We got along pretty quick though because we both come from the punk scene and bring that sensibility to our work, both in terms of integrating social issues into the content and in terms of producing through the DiY ethic. It was a few months later that Occupy Wall Street began and I had the idea for Occupy Comics–Steve was one of the first people I reached out to about it and he helped me get the whole thing rolling. Brett was quick to help support the Kickstarter and when that was done he asked how he could help with the project as it moved forward beyond the Kickstarter. So we all met up and Black Mask was born.
N: How did Occupy seem like a movement special enough to have a comic book dedicated to it?
M: Occupy is really special because it’s a social justice movement that transcends party politics, which is particularly critical these days when bitter partisanship prevents pretty much anything at all from getting done. What excited me about Occupy is that it quickly spread to all different types of people coming from diverse backgrounds and banding together around an idea rather than an ideology. The very earliest iteration of the Tea Party was similar in that it sprang up from non-partisan populist rage, but it was quickly co-opted. I felt anything we could do in our own small way to help try and prevent Occupy from being co-opted was important because it’s a really unique movement and needs to be protected from entrenched political groups.
occupy cover 1N: Conversely, why did comics seem like the art medium to go with for a political art project?
M: … Comics are a very personal, hand-crafted art form (usually created by just one or two people) and the anthology format expands that into a chorus of individual voices… which is precisely what Occupy is: a chorus of individual voices. That’s why the news media didn’t know how to cover it, the news format requires a leader or representative with a list of talking points or demands. A movement like Occupy doesn’t function that way, so comics seemed like the ideal medium to reflect it.
N: Beyond Occupy Comics… what decision brought about the larger vision of creating Black Mask as a publishing body for multiple bodies of work?
M: Well initially I didn’t want to be responsible for distributing Occupy Comics; it was enough of a colossal task to organize and produce it as a volunteer effort. I’d hoped I could then just bring the book to a publisher who would connect the dots getting it to an audience, after all the project was very hot coming off its Kickstarter. And certainly publishers were really aggressive about wanting to take it on, if for no other reason than the amazing roster and tremendous press coverage.
But, nonetheless, the offers from the publishers were all pretty awful… and I realized that if the offers were that bad for a project with people like Alan Moore, David Lloyd, Art Spiegelman, Ben Templesmith, Charlie Adlard and all the other dozens of amazing creators on the roster, then it must be nearly impossible to try and get a decent deal for anything that’s not superheroes or zombies. I’ve always been a fan of the more transgressive, confrontational, socially-conscious comics, and there’s a great history of those themes in comics, but not so much these days. So I decided I’d put the additional work in on building a pipeline for Occupy if we could sustain the pipeline and use it to support other outsider-type comics. Luckily Brett and Steve and all the awesome creators who’ve joined the team agreed with me. It’s unintentional but not by accident that every book on the initial slate [includes at least one person] who contributed to Occupy Comics. Darick Robertson on Ballistic, Matthew Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlon on 12 Reasons To Die, and Matt Miner on Liberator. The people who joined Occupy Comics all share a certain unique sensibility and that’s what holds Black Mask together.

<br.

N: And I’m sorry to be that shitty journalist, but… where are Alan Moore and Art Spiegalman fitting into all of this? I see their names getting mentioned in the press but I don’t see anything on the website…
M: Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman are both contributors to Occupy Comics. They’re both giants, of course, so they get a lot more attention than the rest of the team when headlines are being written.
N: Favourite comic book (preferably political comic book, but I can’t really force that on you) and why?
M: The obvious thing would be to say V For Vendetta or Maus (both of which are favorites), but for a deep cut that blew my mind as a kid I’d say The Realist by Joseph Michael Linsner (an Occupy [Comics] contributor as well) in Cry For Dawn #7 (1992) collected in the Image Comics trade Angry Christ Comix. It’s kind of an inversion of American Psycho, about a guy who kills corporate suits and hangs their ties on his wall. Cry For Dawn was a self-published black & white comic with gorgeous, evocative art and powerful, angry storytelling–so unique to comics. That’s the type of thing that burned a correlation between punk and comics into my young mind. For something more contemporary, I’d say I’m really looking forward to Molly Crabapple’s Shell Game, which I backed on Kickstarter–her work is just incredible.
Thanks so much Matt – looking forward to Occupy Comics and all the rest from Black Mask!
Black Mask and Occupy Comics can be found on Twitter and Facebook:
You can check out their website here:
occupycomics-cover_artby-guy-denning
Advertisements

Eric Drooker’s FLOOD!

It’s been argued into a cliché that one is the product of their surroundings—and to say as much about Eric Drooker would be an acknowledgement that his artwork is as much about New York City as himself. Maybe more.


Title: FLOOD! A Novel in Pictures
Author: Eric Drooker
Published: 2001, by Dark Horse Comics, Inc.
Bought this Copy: @ Hairy Tarantula Comics
For More Info: Check out Eric Drooker’s Website


The images he depicts in such stark contrast—whether it’s the linocut, scratchboard, or stencil art, all of which he’s known for—all present the same city, seemingly, at war with itself, constantly and eternally.

Eric Drooker was probably one of the first political artists that I discovered. I was 13-ish when Rage Against the Machine put out their single, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and the artwork of that album is Eric Drooker – from the graphic novel, FLOOD!, to be precise.

After that single came out, I looked for more of his stuff. Something in the pictures had a real distinct emotion and humanity behind it–I would say everything in his work had soul. I bought a book of posters and other “street art” by him (this was the late 90’s, back in the days before “guerrilla art/marketing” was a household term, and work by Bank$y wasn’t being bought for $1 million by the world’s rich and famous). Eric Drooker’s art centered around the issues that the people of the city—the city itself—struggled with: police brutality, poverty, affordable housing and tenants’ rights, the freedom to assemble, etc.

In this story, Drooker depicts the epic story of a man struggling for a modest existence with only a handful of text. On most of his journey, he finds little more than bad options after he is laid off. From there, life in the city becomes a downward spiral; he seemingly bounces off of its edges as he falls, the rain pouring harder and harder in the streets. He wants work but can’t find anything that pays enough or is within his skill-set. He wants to feel comfort and love from another human being, but in the night only finds human beings more emotionally starved than himself.


The panel sequence that I find most powerful is when he finds his troubles compounding—bad news over and over and over again. The panels get smaller and smaller, the graphics more and more crude. It’s the perfect depiction of when a bad day just keeps piling up with unfortunate events, until you sit down and try to vent to a friend or in writing… and by then, so much garbage has piled up that it all feels petty.

FLOOD! sharpens the over-arching message that Drooker presents to us in all of his work depicting New York City:  It’s not just about one or another character and his or her stories–morality–or soul, as I mentioned earlier. Fundamentally, the “soul” in question appears to be the city itself. By the end of this story, you feel convinced of this idea that New York (and maybe all of our hometowns) have souls, and somewhere in the Heavens of the ether is a grand scale, precariously balancing all of the good (community, humanity, love, compassion, potlucks, free concerts in the park, dogs and cats, children playing in their neighborhood) with the bad (muggings, eviction notices, police violence, drug rings, gangs & crime syndicates, alienation, selfishness, and all that noise, noise, NOISE!). We wait in hoping that, should it ever be finally and resolutely judged, the number of good deeds will outweigh the bad.

… One can’t help but think about these things, especially when the streets of New York City really are a-flood. Even atheists and agnostics can’t avoid the mental exercise of imagining a natural disaster as an ethical and artistic expression of causality–from divine intervention, to karma, to some other simple form of poetic justice.

-NMG

“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

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.