Tag Archives: American politics

From ‘It’s All Over’ to ‘Your Black Friend’: the anarcho-comix of Ben Passmore

dayglo ahole its all over

Hours before I met Ben Passmore for the first time, I’d been informed that it was the first night of Mardis Gras in New Orleans. My partner and I were on tour in the American South and had not made any definitive plans for the space on the map between Atlanta and Houston.  A friend of a friend put us in touch, and we gathered in a small group waiting for the Krewe du Vieux parade to start. The night’s theme: “politically incorrect”.

I could hear wooden chips and beads crunching under my shoes as I struggled to distribute the seven jell-o shots I’d just purchased from a nice old lady pushing a cooler through the crowd along the sidewalk. We stood, drinking, smoking, and watched the floats pass: a pair of queens with enormous falsies, an old white man from the ‘NOLA for Bernie Sanders campaign’ wearing a fake indigenous headdress and throwing candy. It was somewhat surreal, somewhat entirely foreseeable.

Mardis Gras continues like clockwork every year, but a lot of New Orleans has changed since Hurricane Katrina. The largest residential building in the city is abandoned. Entire neighbourhoods are boarded up, next to other neighborhoods peppered with colourful and chic low-income housing built with donations from celebrities like Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. In many ways, post-Katrina NOLA became the poster city for explaining concepts like disaster capitalism, neo-liberalism, and gentrification.

dayglo landscape

It’s hard not to notice elements of this un-done landscape in Passmore’s online comic, D A Y G L O A H O L E, which he worked on for years while living in the city. Characters wander around a mysterious post-civilization wasteland. There are semi-familiar objects everywhere, but ‘civil society’ and all that phrase entails is gone. Washed away. Each new comic extends further into this post-apocalyptic future, and deeper into Passmore’s mind we go.bens mind

“Daygloayhole has consistently been too ambitious for my level of talent, but I think that’s what makes it fun. I’m not a huge sci-fi nerd, but what little of it I’ve consumed and enjoyed consistently pairs the recognizable with the fantastically alien.”

Passmore spent several years working on daygloahole, living in New Orleans. Life was a mix of work, going to shows, and fostering a burgeoning indie comics scene through the NOLA zine and comics fair. Of course a city known for its history of parades and grassroots activism will attract its share of artists, hippies, road punks, and anarchists. When I suggested that New Orleans appeared to solve the age-old mystery of where crust punks go to die, he said it was “more to become undead… There’s a lot of lumbering soulessness [here].”

dayglo portland douche

And the anarchists were having a moment. Abandoned buildings were being squatted and used for political organizing or art projects.

The phrase ‘It’s all over’ appears again and again in daygloahole, which was funny because that’s all I could think when I was in New Orleans. And then, it doesn’t seem quite as funny anymore.

dayglo nightclub

“I think that’s something that I enjoyed at first, the culture of collapse in New Orleans, until I really realized the toll Katrina took on people’s minds and lives, and the disparity it underlined.”

food trucks for antigravity
“Food Truck” illustration for Antigravity Magazine

That disparity is one drawn clearly around race in New Orleans and Louisiana as a whole, whether we’re talking about segregation of schools and neighborhoods, police violence, or the state prison system. It was only in the last year that New Orleans removed several Confederate Monuments, which Passmore documented for the comics journalism website, The Nib.

The Confederate Monument fights became a flashpoint in the South for confronting fascist and white supremacist forces, who were being emboldened by Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” (a perfect dog-whistle for the South’s “Lost Cause” sentiment, which sticks around like 100% humidity). From inside a jail cell for confronting the KKK at Stone Mountain, to the streets of New Orleans where a masked Mardis Gras parade took to a Confederate statue with paint and sledgehammers, Ben took names, covered it, drew it, and showed the rest of us what was going on.

ben passmore taken em down
“I’ve been really excited about doing pieces for the NIB,” Ben says. “It’s good to have to explain your ideas with pictures and words if you’re politically wing-nutty. I assume the majority of the NIB readership is liberal and prolly not very into most of my Anarchist politics.”

“New Orleans created a feeling of urgency about white supremacy as a societal poison that I didn’t feel as much before I moved there.”

“And it for sure burned me out on white people.”

your black friend

In 2017, Ben Passmore made international news for having his work, a short 16-page comic called “Your Black Friend,” nominated for an Eisner Award. For those of you not in the comics industry: that’s kind of like being nominated for an Academy Award. Needless to say, as an anarchist, but more as a political comic enthusiast, I was pretty stoked about the news.

‘Your Black Friend’ is a comic for that person who wants you to know they’re not a racist. It’s a comic about micro-aggressions, cultural appropriation, and lefty-progressive virtue-signalling. It is a short but poetically full-circle sampling of how annoying, depressing, terrifying, and frustrating it is to share space and community with white people (even those nice ones) in a white supremacist world.

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Passmore’s first 20 years were in and around Great Barrington, Massachusetts. “My mom was/is an artist and she encouraged me to draw a lot. I think she would’ve liked me to draw trees… I drew a lot of muscle guys in spandex covered in spikes.”

Ben would eventually go on to art school and major in comics with a minor in illustration.

Passmore seems somewhat surprised that younger people are inspired by his work.

“I get messages from other weird black cartoonists and people that get stuff out of my comics. A couple times people have told me that they’ve been “reading my comics for years” and they’re in their early twenties which is such a crazy thing to be a part of someone’s cultural scenery when they’re turning into an adult.”

There’s a lot being processed in Passmore’s comics, from the low-key racism of his friends, to his Mom voting for Trump, to his own relationships with addiction, depression and impulses to self-harm. Ben has made space for it all, while never taking himself too seriously.

dayglo whatever hippie

A current project of Passmore’s –not yet released– deals with identity, inspired by the pronounced dysphoria he experienced during the last two years’ living in NOLA. I’m looking forward to seeing that, given the nuance he gives to subjects like blackness and queerness. “I’ve never subscribed to the ‘destroy everything/destroy my body’ that characterizes some queer nihilism. Not because I don’t think that strain has validity, it’s just it feels complicated to be black and to desire physical deconstruction.”

black people have been gaslighted
From “Fighting For a Better History” about the call to remove Confederate monuments in New Orleans

Leftist comics – much like “the Left” in general– have a tendency to forget the nuance in their attempt to promote a cause. And that’s a fine strategy, if you’re designing lawn signs for an election.

Passmore’s work shows us that a comic is capable of something infinitely more sophisticated.

His advice to folks who want to make political comics: “Don’t be preachy… if peeps don’t at least recognize your point of view, it’s cause you didn’t make your case well enough.”

Your Black Friend‘ is available now from Silver Sprocket. Follow Ben’s adventures on Twitter and Tumblr, and if you want to show Ben some support, throw some pocket change at his patreon page.

antifa chasing richard spencer

 

 

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Any Empire, by Nate Powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

CRITIQUES (Spoiler Alert):

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

Favorite Spreads:

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