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Gender, Race, Forgotten Pasts and Hopeful Futures: The Best of Political Comics in 2013

Who Were the Movers and Shakers in Comics for 2013?

In and out of the comics world, it’s been quite a year! For Ad Astra Comix, it was a year that we came to be. But how was our own growth reflective of the rise of political comics elsewhere? Listed below are the people, projects and titles that our contributors believe made the absolute best of the past twelve months, in many different ways. Follow the links to find out where you can purchase their work and learn more about them!

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The Ladydrawers Comics Collective

sexmoneyracegenderTwo Thousand and Thirteen was a big year for comics introspection. At the forefront of alternative comics, comics activism, and raising awareness about some of the deficiencies of the industry is the Ladydrawers Collective, who have gained a wider audience from their contributions to the progressive website Truthout.org.

“We are not just readers and fans of comics; we are also creators and active participants in comic book culture,” they explain in their Kickstarter project last summer, which successfully raised over $15,000 for a documentary film about diversity in the industry. “…[A]s a medium as well as a mass cultural instrument, comics should not only represent our society by mirroring genuine aspects of human thought of emotion, but also nurture critical thinking and creativity.”

In addition to creating original works on topics as wide-ranging as feminism and unfair labour practices, the collective has curated comic art exhibitions, interviews with others in the comic industry around these issues, and given much-needed fuel to the fire calling for nothing short of a revolution in comics and the way we use them.cartoon-ladydrawers


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Black Mask Studios

Although founded in 2012, Black Mask Studios really heated up this year with a full slate release of titles from this new indie/political/punk publisher. Primary titles of interest: Occupy Comics and Liberator.

Occupy Comics (with 3 issue releases this year) has done much more than just tell the story of Occupy Wall Street. The series captures the feel of the movement. By reaching out to artists and writers from around the genre (Frank Miller need not apply). Occupy Comics offered powerful stories of struggle from early labour history, to OWS, Occupy Sandy, and other elements of the world wide movement for economic and social justice.
Liberator, written by Matt Miner in New York City, has taken an often marginalized sector of the activist community, the animal rights movement, and brought it into a powerful story that can be appreciated by both supporters of animal rights and everyday fans of good storytelling. This story from the political margins earned 4 out of 5 stars from Comicvine, and was described on the website Bleeding Cool is “A fiercely strong book that refuses to preach”. Speaking to the busy year he’s had in comics, (he and his family were still recovering from Hurricane Sandy when he launched his Kickstarter campaign for Liberator–since then, he’s released a first volume of four issues, and is collaborating on a project in the new year with the hardcore band Earth Crisis):

“The launch of Black Mask Studios has certainly helped bring political issues into comics in a bigger way.  I feel that as comics continue to grow and expand we’ll continue to see new and different types of stories that are relevant to the society we live in.”
“…I mean, Liberator isn’t Batman but it’s out there being read and enjoyed by a bunch of people who read Batman.  10 years ago the idea of an animal vigilante justice book never woulda happened.”

Certainly there are “non-political” titles that Black Mask is investing in, such as Ghostface Killah’s and RZA’s Hip-hop crime drama 12 Ways to Die, or Ballistic, a futuristic adventure about a man and his pet gun. But perhaps one of the most innovative and notable actions of the studio is its distribution strategy. Actively seeking out an alternative audience as well as traditional comic fans, Black Mask has placement in record stores, alternative book stores and uses an online subscription model to reach their audience. Black Mask has brought a slate of avant guard and openly political offerings into the wider marketplace.
Imagine: any average kid walking in to pick up the latest X-men or Batman (let’s face it: Superman fans probably weren’t interested) could see titles that made no bone about their politics of Animal Liberation, punk rock anarchists or the 99% sitting proudly beside old favourites. The times, they are a-changin’!

But the evolution of political comics is certainly not limited to North America, or to the new issues rack at the local comic shop.


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So Close, Faraway!

If you live homeless in 2013 Brazil, you face extreme risks. The country has an incredibly high murder rate for its most vulnerable citizens, and they aren’t getting a lot of help. A true case in point: last year, eight homeless people were poisoned when a passerby gave them a bottle of water spiked with rat poison.

Shedding light on this dark and treacherous life, Brazilian creators Augusto Paim, Bruno Ortiz & Maurício Piccini created an interactive webcomic that–for a day–puts you next to Jorge, a 43-year old homeless man from Porto Alegre, Brazil.  So Close, Faraway! a self-described “interactive piece of comics journalism,” is a pioneering effort that stretches the capabilities of the comic medium while forcing us to look at a social issue we often ignore.
Vigorously researched by Paim, the SCF! combines the story of Jorge’s life with real statistics about homelessness in Brazil, like those mentioned above. Ortiz’s art reminds us of the tropics in that it seems almost two bright, yet startlingly accurate, even in the blur of the final page. There are also multiple photos that demonstrate that the artwork rarely takes any liberties, and the harsh conditions on each page accurately reflect the harsh reality of homeless life in Brazil.
Bringing the story of Jorge to the online space is computer science graduate Piccini, who creates each page in layers that let you add or remove statistical or story dialogue boxes to give you some freedom as to how you read the comic. There’s something empowering about having control over the text on a comic page, allowing you to appreciate the art, and giving you the chance to read as deeply into the details of the story as you like.


From left to right: Nate Powell, Congressman John Lewis, and Andrew Aikin standing on the bridge where police had beaten Lewis and his comrades decades before. The scene is depicted in March: Book One.
From left to right: Nate Powell, Congressman John Lewis, and Andrew Aikin standing on the bridge where police had beaten Lewis and his comrades decades before. The scene is depicted in March: Book One.

MARCH: Book One

John Lewis is perhaps one of the few members of American Congress who deserves to be there. As a leader of the Civil Rights Movement and the only person still alive to have spoken alongside Martin Luther King at the Washington Monument rally in 1963.

march__mlk_600px_lgAnd so kudos to him, Andrew Aikin, and the rest of their team for recognizing that the way to pass on this important chapter of American history—a history so often white-washed and told to have a happy ending—is to tell it as children and young adults like to learn it: with comics (electronic orders of this title, available through Top Shelf Productions, even include an electronic copy of vintage comic Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a 1950’s-era title that inspired Lewis to re-visit the medium). March: Book One shows us that our history is beautiful, terrifying, and can be powerfully relevant to our own lives. And who else could illustrate this with more grace than comic artist and illustrator Nate Powell?

If a comparison is acceptable, Powell is also another hard-working person who uniquely deserves every ounce of credit for what he has achieved in his life. After self-publishing comics since he was 14, Powell completed a few critically acclaimed and award-winning works like Swallow Me Whole, The Sounds of Your Name, and recently more politically-charged work like The Silence of Their Friends, and Any Empire. In 2011, he appeared at the United Nations alongside the world’s foremost writers of young adult fiction, to present on his contribution to the anthology What You Wish For: A Book For Darfur.

As John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell so eloquently show us in MARCH, the Civil Rights Movement was a bloody, uphill battle, and should be remembered that way. The struggle and its gains were not the results of a few actions by those now famous historical figures; the movement moved and shaped by thousands of committed activists, many of whom were students, and many of whom lost their lives.


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Boxers and Saints

Gene Luen Yan’s Boxers and Saints is a hugely innovative and visionary dual graphic narrative for all ages, from First Second Books. Using cutting-edge creative technique, we can now begin to think about history (and comics) in a very different way.

They are in fact, two separate but complementary graphic novels, Boxers, and Saints, that challenge a traditional black & white world-view.  They are also available together as a boxed set and share trade-dress (including connecting imagery on covers/spines), and the reading of both is highly recommended to fully appreciate the richness of the larger world and the historical backdrop of China’s Boxer Rebellion.

Even though Boxers is the heftier of the two physical volumes, both are balanced in substance. Yang has tackled the problem facing anyone trying to fairly depict two sides of a conflict, and finds a rather eloquent solution: each is given it’s own stand-alone (albeit interrelated) story, and it’s own protagonist.

Boxers tells the story of Little Bao, an ignorant farm boy turned rebel leader, while Saints follows a young Christian girl, whose lowly status does not merit a proper given name until she chooses her vocation.  The two meet only briefly, but with significant repercussions on the lives and ultimate fates of both.

In addition to being a critically acclaimed and award winning Graphic Novelist (American Born Chinese won an Eisner and other honours in 2007), Yang is a high school teacher. He shows deftness and ease at breaking complex concepts and events into accessible, yet entertaining, ways for his primary audience of children and youth.

He crafts fictionalized version of very real events, using what we as adults might liken to “Magic Realism”.  It’s not surprising that Yang also writes the graphic novel adventures of Avatar: The Last Airbender. He has essentially turned his protagonists into superheroes, while the very human reactions of his adolescent characters remain easily relatable to young readers.

Yang’s work pushes the boundaries and demonstrates the potential of the medium. Boxers and Saints highlights the complexities and ambiguities of political/social/economic conflicts, and illustrates to his readers that the world isn’t cleanly divided into “good guys” and “bad guys”.


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Symbolia – A Periodical of Comics Journalism

Symbolia Magazine started out this year doing something that seemed very logical: an electronic periodical composed entirely of comics journalism. In fact, it seemed so logical that many of us forgot that this had never been done before. Celebrating the genre in and of itself and not merely as decoration for other more “legitimate” pieces of print journalism, the periodical format reminds us that this category of work is alive, kicking, and packs a healthy dose of diversity (and punch, in case anyone’s wondering). The latest instalment just came out on December 24. and the electronic-only format means that the editorial board can focus on quality content and not pinching pennies to make the next full-colour print run (electronic comics also mean interactive comics, of which the magazine takes full advantage!)


femalesuperheroesTom Humberstone and Female Superheroes

For those unfamiliar, Tom Humberstone is an award-winning comic artist and illustrator based in London. This year, he launched the platform Female Superheroes on femalesuperheroes.nl (with access in English and Dutch), featuring inspiring stories about ordinary women from around the world, who face great adversity and overcame it to do extraordinary things with their lives. The platform is unique because, “it showcases how Comics Journalism can be combined with a game-like interface, 360-degree photography and video to create an immersive experience”. Pretty awesome.


Screenshot of the interactive Female Superheroes website, available in English and Dutch.
Screenshot of the interactive Female Superheroes website, available in English and Dutch.

Tess Fowler, Mari Naomi, and the “Open Letters” to the Comics Community of 2013

Similar to this last project was some of the initial work released by Tess Fowler, who gained recognition for her modern remix of Disney heroines, called “Apocalypse Princesses.”

For better and for worse, Fowler arguably made less waves with her incredible artwork this year than for her calling sexist foul on Brian Wood, a leader in the mainstream comics industry for sexually harassing her during a comic convention social. Open letters such as hers and other women in comics (most recently comic artist Mari Naomi re-lived, in comic form, how she was repeatedly sexually harassed during a panel at a comic convention) are pointing to a deep and powerful undercurrent of male chauvinism in comics.

Certainly, these talented women would like to focus on what they love doing most, which is telling stories and drawing comics. But for the purpose of this post talking about who has had the most significant impact on comics from a political perspective, their public positions against harassment in the industry have been huge. The ripple effect of these public-yet-very-much-“inter-community” criticism is going to be felt for years to come, and has very likely changed the titanic course of the comics industry as we know it. The letters, each as they pop up, have obviously been constructed with great caution and forethought, but ultimately released for the betterment of the comics community, and are therefore courageous and worthy, more than any other buzz news or gossip, of our time to read.

Contributing Writers:
Zachary Dunlop-Johnson
José Gonzalez
Raisha Karnani
Sam Noir
Nicole Marie Guiniling

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Liberator #1

The series opens with one of the main characters taking down a dog fighting ring. It’s a feel-good moment where a few horrible people are given their just desserts, and some dogs get the justice they deserve.

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Title: Liberator
Issue: #1
Writing: Matt Miner
Art: Javier Sanchez Aranda
Published: in 2013 through Black Mask Studios and a successful Kickstarter campaign
More infohttp://mattminer.net/

Liberator is a series that tells the story of two animal liberation activists who save dogs and other animals from abuse. While one has a long history of making a public presence in activism, the other chooses to work in the shadows, taking direct vigilante-style action against abusers, most of whom are themselves breaking the law with their activities. Each issue comes in at about a dozen pages of full-colour graphics, and is coupled with literature (located in the back) on animal rights work.

I do tend to approach my comic reviews in two ways. One is aesthetic: is the story good? Does the art kick ass? The other side of my reviews tends to focus on political/social relevance and its method of delivery. Like the Bechdel test, a comic that is most politically relevant doesn’t make it a good story—nor are the two mutually exclusive. They embody separate goals, hopefully ones that work together.

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Aesthetically I think Liberator is pretty impressive. It is more or less self-published under the new label of Black Mask Studios, after a Kickstarter campaign that brought comic and animal lovers together quite successfully. Key points in the comic show some really nice artwork with great colour schemes.  I don’t quite feel a connection to the narrative yet, but it is only Issue #1.. (I point this out because Matt Miner made me cry within about 6 pages of his story “Light” in the Occupy Comics Issue #2 that just came out– so my standards are high with him. Great comic, by the way. Read it. Read it now.)

In only a dozen pages, the comic nonetheless makes lots of commentary, and not just on animal rights. One is that a lot of people who literally devote their lives to helping others (humans or animals) work the crappiest of minimum wage jobs to get by. (Check). Another is that men who encounter other men’s disrespect of women should call that shit out. (Check). I think there is also more subtle commentary here, like when a black man refers to a dog he is abusing as “his property” (irony?) –or the never-ending activist debate with regards to making effective change by political protest vs. other more creative, even illegal forms of resistance.

(All of this is hypothetical in a comic book, of course. Which is what makes it so great.)

Liberator clearly has an agenda. Guess what? Everything does, including comic books. My opinion is if you’re pouring your life/money/job into creating something and you’re not using it to say something meaningful, you’re making a bad investment  There is a self-awareness in political comics that the project’s completion will be able to further assist with a topic that generally lacks creative avenues of discussion–like animal abuse, or violence against women, or mistreatment of prisoners. For a long time the comics community and activists of varying causes have waved the other away–“No one will buy that.” “Sounds campy.” “What’s the difference between a comic with a political agenda and propaganda?”…..and vice versa, “A comic dumb’s down the topics we’re trying to discuss,” “Comics take time and money,” and again, “No one will buy it.”

To fit a lot of potential discussion into such a small space is indicative of the medium’s ability. So even if I’m not totally compelled by the narrative just yet, my hat goes off to the Liberator team, and I look forward to picking up the next copy.

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Additional Notes:

I have funny, petty criticisms of Liberator (like, No one wearing a Conflict shirt would wear blue cargo pants) that boil down to me thinking/writing out loud. But I also felt it was honing in (maybe too much?) on a small minority of psychotic animal killers and abusers. I mean, how many of those can there be out there?

The day after I read Liberator, my husband wouldn’t stop talking about Mike Vick’s dogfighting bust, and I just couldn’t get it out of my mind that this was a man who obviously didn’t live in the shadows, and he has a thing for training dogs to kill other dogs, and motivating them through methods like pressing a hot iron against their faces. He was a superstar football player with thousands of people following him on social media, laughing at his jokes, and ready to buy whatever he endorsed. And he killed animals for fun.

Is the animal-abusing psychopath …common? Or perhaps regardless of its frequency of occurrence, does that make it any less real or disturbing where and when it happens? Maybe there are issues that effect a larger swath of our population, like the number of homeless pets out there, but comic books focusing on extreme crimes and abuses is nothing new.

…as a side note, the special edition cover of Issue #1 absolutely wins my heart over. I will be following this comic closely, and I encourage others to do the same.

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Preview: Liberator #1

Some of you will remember when I blogged about Liberator during its Kickstarter campaign. Looks like that money went to some good use – holy smokes, that artwork in this is amazing. Congratulations to writer Matt Miner and the Liberator team.

Graphic Policy

Liberator #1

Writer: Matt Miner
Pencils/Inks: Javier Sanchez Aranda
Colors: Joaquin Pereyra
Edits/Letters: Vito Delsante
Publisher: Black Mask Studios

Standard Cover: Tim Seeley, with Rod Reis colors

A hard-edged vigilante series about two young heroes who avenge the torture of animals, created by writer and real-life dog rescuer Matt Miner (Occupy Comics).

All of Miner’s personal share of profit goes to dog rescue work.

There’s a release-day signing event at JHU Comic Books in NYC, June 19th at 6PM, https://www.facebook.com/events/133499776849210/

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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.

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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:
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