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NOW AVAILABLE: EXTRACTION! Comix Reportage

Ad Astra Comix is pleased to announce that “EXTRACTION! Comix Reportage” 2nd edition is back from the printers!  With a thoughtful combination of research, on-the-ground journalism and original comic art, ‘Extraction’ features stories from major  industries–uranium, oil, aluminum and gold–and their devastating impact on communities and the environment in Canada, India, and Guatemala.

UPDATE: ‘EXTRACTION! Comix Reportage’
can now be ordered through our online store!

 EXTRATION! Comix Reportage | Journalists:  Peter Cizek, Tamara Herman, Dawn Paley, and Sophie Toupin | Artists: Phil Angers, Jeff Lemire, Joe Ollmann, Carlos Santos, Alain Reno, Ruth Tait, Stanley Waney | Edited by Frédéric Dubois, Marc Tessier, and David Widgington

EXTRACTION! Comix Reportage | Journalists: Peter Cizek, Tamara Herman, Dawn Paley, and Sophie Toupin | Artists: Phil Angers, Jeff Lemire, Joe Ollmann, Carlos Santos, Alain Reno, Ruth Tait, Stanley Waney | Edited by Frédéric Dubois, Marc Tessier, and David Widgington

The human and ecological cost of this industry is too often buried in the fine print of annual reports. “EXTRACTION!” can help these stories reach Canadians – the people best positioned to challenge these companies.

In May 2016, we sold pre-orders of “EXTRACTION!” through a 40-day crowdfunder. Organizations, individuals and local book retailers were encouraged to participate. We also offered special “perks”, like sending the Ministry of the Environment a lump of coal for the poor record on holding extraction projects to account, as well as custom-made comics about mining projects.

Ad Astra Comix is an independent Toronto-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.

 

 

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19 Comic Characters Who Embody Women’s Liberation

There are many ways we can envision women’s liberation if we try. Since we total more than half of the world’s population, our experiences as women intersect with almost every other struggle against systemic oppression. The lessons learned are personal and political. Tapping into this well can sometimes seem like an infinite journey: where does one start? Well, with comics, of course! Here are 19 female comic book characters that you need to know about, whether you prefer your heroines fist-swinging, biographical, or of whimsical fantasy. All have earned our respect and adoration!

Contributions by Kate Barton, Kelly Rose Pflug-Back, and Nicole Marie Burton

priya1. Priya, from Priya’s Shakti

Somewhere in rural India, a young girl named Priya turns to the goddess Parvati for help after her life is torn apart by gender-based discrimination and violence. Hiding in the jungle after being rejected by her family, Priya is approached by Parvati, who tells her that she has the power to follow in the footsteps of India’s history of revolutionary women, showing her images of the Gulabi Gang and women who protested for India’s independence. The people in Priya’s village aren’t so quick to mock her when she returns, riding on an enormous tiger and preaching the virtues of gender equality. With the guidance of Parvati and other prominent figures in the Hindu pantheon, Priya sets out on a journey to spread her message to all of humanity.
Priya’s Shakti is currently fundraising to reach a broader audience. You can check out their crowdfunding page for more information!

Red_Tornado_Ma_Hunkel2. Ma Hunkel, from The Red Tornado

Although her place as the world’s first female superhero is in dispute, The Red Tornado (or Ma Hunkel, as she is also known) broke other barriers in 1939, and would aptly be hailed as a progressive comic book character to this day. Like many women of her time in the 1930s, she was a working mother: her first costume consisted of some altered long-johns, a mask, and a frying pan. But like many women who devote their lives to their families and communities, she  carried selflessness and a disdain for injustice in her core. And WHAT a core! Drawn as a muscular, fuller-figured woman, she disrupted gender norms by celebrating her size as a weapon of strength against evil-doers, and by dressing up as men for disguises. So if she doesn’t quite hit the mark for first super heroine, the award for first cross-dressing superhero still sits on her mantel. Hats off to Ma Hunkel: she’s earned it.
RED TORNADO

scout montana shadow eyes3. Scout Montana, from Shadoweyes

Shadoweyes, AKA Scout Montana, is a gothed-out, perpetually grumpy queer black teenager with bad asthma and a pressing social conscience. A shelter worker by day and shape-shifting superhero by night, Scout roams the dystopian streets of a fictional city called Dranac with her best friend Kyisha. Scout may be a powerful, ass-kicking supernatural being, but she’s also very human- she doesn’t have the rippling muscles or Barbie-doll build of traditional superheroines, and the first time she actually tries to fight injustice she gets smoked in the forehead with a brick. Like Campbell’s other works, Shadoweyes is centred around the lives of young queer women and features a beautifully rendered array of different body types, hues, and abilities.

Kamala-Khan-Ms-Marvel-Comics

4. Kamala Khan, from ‘Ms. Marvel

Ms. Marvel’s latest incarnation is Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-­American Muslim teenager from Jersey City, and thanks to a strong readership that has once again proven that the mainstream comics industry has a lot of catching up to do in terms of diversification, the entire universe is now aware of her awesomeness. Kamala engages in conflicts with super­-villains as well as more personal struggles. In many ways, Kamala is a realistic teen: she enjoys superhero culture and writes Avenger fan fiction; she is conflicted by what her parents expect from her, and feels the impact of coming from a Muslim family in a majority non­-Muslim community. When given polymorphic powers, she grapples with whether she truly wants them, offering dialogue on rejecting the prospect of losing one’s true ‘self’. The narrative also echoes of a common theme for children from immigrant families, where one struggles in accepting the privileges that weren’t available to generations before them. Marvel’s first headlining Muslim character relays religion as a positive, helpful guide, creating space for religion within the superhero comic genre, as well as representing Islam in a manner that challenges oppressive media depictions found elsewhere. The power of this kind of imagery in popular culture was exemplified masterfully in a recent guerrilla posting of Kahn over top of anti-Islam bus ads in San Fransisco, much to the delight of the internet.

batgirl and yeoh5. Alysia Yeoh, from Batgirl

Although Alysia is only a supporting character in Batgirl, her mere existence as a transgender person is an anomaly in the world of mainstream comics, and that in and of itself deserves a mention. The artsy young bartender and self-described activist is Barbara Gordon’s roommate after the heroine moves out of her dad’s house, and ends up dating her brother, James Gordon Jr. Unlike other trans characters who have appeared in mainstream comics in the past, Alysia’s persona isn’t laden with stereotypes. With her choppy black hair and downplayed style, she doesn’t conform to the image of hyper-femininity which is often expected of trans women. The fact that she’s trans isn’t tied to a superpower or other supernatural intervention, which has been the case with past comic characters who have switched genders, such as Sir Tristan from Camelot 3000 or Shvaughn Erin from Legion of Superheroes. Other characters are not constantly questioning her gender, as is the case with Wanda from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Chronicles, and unlike Wanda she also does not need to die a tragic death to serve the plot. In a world where the media is crowded with stereotypical and dehumanizing portrayals of trans women, the fact that Alysia is just a cool, likeable young woman who likes painting in her free time and dreams of becoming a chef is pretty groundbreaking.

assigned male stephie6. Stephie, from Assigned Male

Stephie, the cute-as-a-button protagonist of the independent webcomic Assigned Male is a grade school-age girl who speaks with the vocabulary of a womens’ studies major, and vehemently refuses to take any flack from parents, peers, or society at large about the fact that she’s transgender. Caught between a well-meaning yet sometimes misguided mother and a clueless, insecure father, Stephie’s everyday woes highlight the diverse issues faced by trans people in general, and trans women and girls in particular. The fact that Stephie speaks with an adult voice yet still has the desires, interests, and naivety of a child highlights how aggressive and unnecessary enforced gender expectations are. Her perspective challenges the reader to see a world which is not yet coloured by mainstream social mores; when we strip away the assumptions and cynicism of our conditioning, cis-normativity seems just as sad and illogical as many of the other things which adults take for granted without stopping to question why.

qahera

7. Qahera, from ‘Qahera

“I can hear it–the sound of misogynistic TRASH!” That first statement in the first installment of Qahera pretty much sums up what Qahera is all about. On one end of the comic book industry, there is a struggle for the female characters who already exist within largely male-constructed narrative universes to be more complex and less a mere portrayal of sexy body parts. And yet, on another side of this is the push for more content–whatever it may be–from female comics creators, whatever their stories or experiences. One thing I love so much about Quahera is that she actually is a pretty one-dimensional character, but that dimension of kicking patriarchy’s ass is pretty, well, ass-kicking! Qahera also challenges Western/white notions of what it means to be a feminist, by showing that the hijab, like other clothing, is a cultural and religious choice and should not flag an individual for scrutiny any more than any other article of clothing. Quahera dons her hijab and dark robes, and proceeds to prowl the streets of Egypt, hunting down male privilege, wherever and however is may arise. Qahera reminds us that diversifying comics is about diversifying creators as much as characters. We can learn a lot from her short adventures!

tefe holland8. Tefé Holland, from Swamp Thing

Tefé Holland came into being when her father, the earth Elemental known as Swamp Thing, possessed the body of the occultist John Constantine, so that he and his human wife Abby could conceive a child. Tefé is a supernatural being like her father, but being born into a partially human body gives her the ability to control both plant life and flesh. After a long estrangement, Abby reunites with Tefé to find that she has been using her powers to punish humans for their destruction of the natural world. While Abby herself often has to depend of Swamp Thing for protection, Tefé is more powerful than her father. Among other things, she uses her powers to create gory punishments for those who harm the Earth and at one point comes back from the dead to kill her abusive ex boyfriend, who she later replaces with a female lover.

9. Julie Winters, from The Maxx

J WINTERSA tough yet compassionate do-gooder by nature, Julie Winters is a freelance social worker who sticks up for the vagrant population of the dystopian city which she calls home. Her companion, The Maxx, is a quasi-human street person with a lampshade for a head who she often has to rescue from trouble. Julie has a curvaceous yet realistic physique, and often expresses anxiety over her body image. Usually drawn in a tiny crop-top and some ripped up bluejeans, the fact that she has some stomach chub but still dresses revealingly is seldom seen in comics, or mainstream media in general. Julie is also a rape survivor, and one of the main villains in the series is a serial rapist named Mr. Gone, who is capable of telepathically invading the alternate reality which Julie escapes into to deal with her trauma. Julie’s character is groundbreaking in the sense that it humanizes survivors of gender violence, and offers a portrayal which goes beyond the stereotype of victimhood.

equinox10. Equinox, from Justice League United

When DC Comics artist Jeff Lemire learned about the untimely death of Shannen Koostachin, a teenage Cree activist from the Attawapiskat First Nation of Northern Ontario, he felt inspired to create a superhero based on her legacy. Equinox, whose real name is Miiyahbin Marten, is drawn in a blue, black, and white outfit reminiscent of the regalia which Koostachin is wearing in a popular picture of her. Equinox’s powers are based on the seasons, and she has the ability to defeat powerful evil beings by shouting “Keewahtin”, which can be loosely translated as meaning “Northern blizzard”, and creating a blast of blue energy. While Equinox seeks the help of the Justice League in order to learn about and control her powers, she also depends on the traditional knowledge and guidance of her beloved grandparents. Justice League is attempting to avoid the “cookbook” style of creating diversity in comics (“Diversity: Just add people of colour!”) and is actually working to make Equinox’s character the sum of her experience and cultural heritage. We just hope that her character doesn’t fall down the well-worn rabbit hole of indigenous comic book characters designed by settlers.

11. Erika Moen of Oh Joy! Sex Toy!

ErikaMoenOkay, so, Erika Moen is both a character in comics and IRL! But let’s not forget that her illustrated identity, appearing every Tuesday at Oh Joy Sex Toy! does so much to teach us about feminist approaches to relationships and sexual health. Something that makes this web series so important for the genre is that the comic industry has traditionally suffered from sporadic yet pervasive plagues of overt sexualization of female characters. With sex underpinning so much of the female form, how is it that these comics rarely (if ever) touch on any meaningful conversations about healthy sexuality? This problem has created something of a stereotype in feminism that women, and feminists in particular, don’t like sex (WTF, right?) when in fact, we may love sex but question its depiction as simply a mechanical or male-driven act. As feminists, we want our sexual identities to be on our terms, as something that empowers us. With her work in this field, Erika Moen takes on a subject that resists rudimentary generalizations (we’re all different when it comes to our preferences and discomforts), Moen has carefully balanced education with inclusiveness, which means there’s plenty of room for humor and fun! Understanding our bodies and our emotional needs is essential for having healthy sexuality, and healthy sexuality is a big step toward having healthy, fulfilling lives.

12. Alison Bechdel, from ‘Fun Home’, and ‘Are You My Mother?’

alison bechdelAlison Bechdel is a lesbian American cartoonist, with her primary work being the syndicated feminist comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For that ran from 1987 to 2008. Her graphic memoirs Fun Home (2006) and Are You My Mother? (2012) represent the intersections of her personal and familial narratives — the first focusing on her father, and the second, her mother. While dissecting the tangles of her relationships with her parents, the memoirs reveal Bechdel as a deeply reflexive, intellectual character. Bechdel’s self-representation depicts a woman who has a rich inner life, remaining a relatable character thanks to her humble wit peppering serious subject matter. In an increasingly anti-intellectual climate, Bechdel offers a refreshingly expansive analysis of how families affect our identities and how we engage with the world.

13. She Hulk

It can be frustrating as all Hell to revisit some classic comic book characters that you considered revolutionary, only to be… slightly disapointed. I recently looked into the background of Big Barda (who I love for her size and strength) only to discover that she was modeled after a photograph in Playboy magazine. A lot of female comic book characters have similarly disappointing origins, filling X-chromosome quotas in a universe’s character board. But of all of them, I wanted to take a moment to talk about She-Hulk. The name would have you easily dismiss this character as yet another “girl version” of an already established Marvel or DC character. As the cousin of Bruce Banner, Jennifer Walters certainly was an echo of another character when her story began. But unlike most superheroes who hide their true identities during their meh day jobs, She-Hulk embraces both identities. In addition to her super-strength, She-Hulk battles crime with her ideas in New York City’s district attorney office. Her cases form the backdrop of many issues, as she takes on criminal activity in the city.

Like most mainstream comic superheroines, She-Hulk was the creation of male industry writers. Big Barda, Storm, and so many others fall in to this category. But their legacy is not so much their sensational back stories or one-dimensional dialogue as the memories we have of them from our childhoods: these strong, intelligent and assertive women were nonetheless an improvement against the backdrop of other characters we learned about as children: damsels in distress and princesses who waited for a prince to marry them.

Satrapi-Persepolis14. Marjane Satrapi, from ‘Persepolis‘ (Books 1 and 2)

As you’ve probably noticed by now, we feel like some of the strongest female characters in comics are as strong and multidimensional as they are because they’re largely autobiographical in nature! In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (referred to as Marji in the comic) articulates a complex identity beautifully–of growing up as a girl who speaks her mind in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, and later seeking asylum in Europe where she not only has to confront patriarchal norms, but also people’s xenophobia and Orientalist views towards her. Marji’s family raised her to be critical of the state, but nonetheless fear for her safety as she resists the Guardians of the Revolution’s policing of decadence and modesty. The comic’s high­-contrast ink style lends itself to the rigidity of public atmosphere under regime, but also Marji’s perceptive clarity as a narrator. Though she often does not have all the answers to what is occurring around her, her convictions to be herself and resist assimilation persevere in nearly every event that unfolds.

halfrocentric_2

15. Naima Pepper, from ‘(H)Afrocentric’

Naima Pepper is one of the main characters of (H)Afrocentric, a comic that follows a group of undergrads of colour through their time at Ronald Reagan University. The comic describes its characters as each representing political archetypes, navigating issues of identity and gentrification. Naima Pepper self­-identifies as a radical black feminist, and works through the various contradictions in her own life while actively ranting to her friends about racism, apathy, and gentrification. Naima is a strong representation of the critical, politicized undergrad that seeks to resist and overcome the oppressions brought about by white supremacist power structures, not frequently seen elsewhere in the comics medium

16. Kimberly “Skim” Keiko Cameron, from ‘Skim’

skimlittleCousins Mariko and Jilian Tamaki’s ‘Skim follows Japanese ­Canadian, Wiccan teen Kim, as she lets the reader in on her struggle of being different, unrequited love, and depression. The nickname “Skim” is thrusted upon her by schoolmates, a play on her name and also a reference to her, comparatively, not being as slim as the others. Kim shows strength in her introversion, by quietly maintaining independence in her opinions and desires, as well as perseverance through feelings of isolation. This is relevant to anyone who has ever felt overwhelmed by their emotional situation, Kim’s commentary on high school life adds another clear voice to the “coming­-of­-age tale” genre.

17. Suzie, from Sex Criminals

susie sex criminalsSuzie is a cute, nerdy, indie-rock-looking librarian who has the strange ability to freeze time whenever she has an orgasm. When she hooks up with a guy named John who has the same mysterious ability, they naturally conspire to use their powers to wreak havoc upon the world, starting with a bank heist to save her under-funded library. Although her superpower is sexual in nature, Suzie doesn’t come off as a hyper-sexualized character, and her appearance and behaviour don’t cater to mainstream standards of feminine attractiveness. She rocks her nerd-girl style with pride, and has no problem telling John to fuck off if he’s being annoying. Combined with her brash sense of humour and general lack of inhibitions, Suzie is a female figure who’s capable of being brazenly sexual on her own terms, without it detracting from the other facets of her complex and well-rendered character.

michelle rent girl

18. Michelle, from Rent Girl

‘Rent Girl’ is an autobiographical graphic novel by Michelle Tea about her experiences as a young, counter-cultural lesbian woman working as an escort in San Francisco. Beautifully illustrated by Laurenn McCubbin, ‘Rent Girl’ challenges stereotypes of sex workers on a number of levels. Michelle neither loves nor hates her job; she doesn’t consider it to be an empowering or necessarily feminist act, but she also isn’t a victim. Sex work serves as the colourful backdrop to her day-to-day trials and tribulations, including ex-girlfriend drama, social alienation, and searching for meaning as a young queer woman in an urban environment. Because sex work is neither her burden nor her embodiment, Michelle helps folks outside of the field break through the stigmas and even the more positive stereotypes to see that sex workers, like all workers, are so much more than their services or labour.

sandman death19. Death, from the Sandman Chronicles

Finally, in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, the personification of Death is drawn as a moon-faced, eyeliner-laden goth chick with voluminously teased black hair, a classic 80’s death-rock style reminiscent of Siouxie Sioux, and a nearly constant cheerful disposition. The second child in a family of immortal beings who personify various archetypes, Death is often portrayed as being more powerful than her siblings, Destiny, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium. Her character departs from the classic Western image of death as a fearsome, skeletal male figure with a dark robe and a scythe. Death is always genial and funny, and shows compassion for the souls who she guides from this world into the next. She is present when people pass away, but also when they are born. Her almost maternal-seeming nature can be interpreted as a nod to age-old archetypes, from Kali to Mab, of female deities who personify not only the destructive force of death, but also its regenerative power and necessity in the balance of the universe.

To Hell, and Black: The Harlem Hellfighters’ race to the Rhine

A historian, the old joke goes, is someone who chases after you calling out “that’s not how it happened!” Good history sees the devil in the details. It looks past the obvious events to understand the human relationships that lie underneath. But beyond good history, there is great history. Great history links these human experiences to the systems of power and domination that shaped the past and continue to shape the present. In exploring the experience of black men serving in the American army during WWI, ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ achieves both.

HarlemHellfighters

Title: The Harlem Hellfighters
Author: Max Brooks
Illustrator: Caanan White
Published: Broadway Books (2014)
Pages: 272 pages
Other Specs: Colour cover with B&W interior
Purchase: In the Ad Astra Online Store


The Harlem Hellfighters is not about WWII, a fashionable war regardless of your politics. It is about the Great War for Civilization, now often described as World War One, though the first global war was the Seven Years War. There was nothing particularly civilized about it, and ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ does a great job of tracking this from the United States to the artillery-chewed meadows of an exhausted Europe. It follows the eponymous Hellfighters, an all-black combat regiment, at a time when there was a great deal of anxiety that if people of colour were allowed to shoot white people, they might get a taste for it. This racism ran so deep that the army was sending their rifles out to private gun clubs and issuing broomsticks to the Hellfighters. Nonetheless, they made it to the front, and the comic takes us along for a flame-throwing, bomb-dropping, trench digging slaughter of a tour through humanity’s most wretched moments. We see through mud and clouds of poison gas- the death of the romance of war.

harlem_hellfighters1The obvious way to write this story was to showcase the heroic determination of black Americans who enlisted in the US army. Military service and citizenship are tied in a very tight knot in American culture. For black Americans, who were persecuted and marginalized throughout the United States, participating in this ultimate expression of citizenship is easy to hold up as a virtue. There are certainly times when the narrative takes this route. In one instance, a black recruit is walking through a southern American town during training and is attacked by a gang of white racists. Following orders to keep his cool, he endures their violence silently. On another occasion, a black soldier is rescued from a gang of his white ‘comrades’ by a military policeman. When the MP encourages him to drop it rather than press charges for assault, he ends up beaten and imprisoned, but he doesn’t leave the army. All of this is an accurate depiction of the determination that it was necessary for black soldiers to show in the openly white supremacist American army. It highlights the courage, patience and endurance necessary for these men to stay their course.

This kind of easy liberal narrative is a popular one for general histories. Liberal history has no trouble acknowledging that things were bad in the past. But it stops there, often tying up the narrative strings in a neat little package of self-congratulatory nationalism. ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ could have stopped here. But it didn’t, thank fuck. Instead, it calls out the ugly facts of history. It opens by explaining how bloody, how pointless and how ultimately futile the First World War was. It has a character cheekily explain that the cause of the war is that having made a hell for peoples of every colour all around the world, there was nothing left for the white man to do but turn on himself. And it shows, at every opportunity, the shabby treatment of black soldiers in the Army. This goes beyond blacks being second class citizens and actively shows that the Army made policies specifically to keep black people from getting the idea they were equal to whites.

The problem with liberal history is that it stops with the personal. It situates discrimination in the past and leaves it implicit that of course our great, open-spirited democracies have long since overcome the kind of chauvinism that marred the dignity of our otherwise distinguished forebears. It is comfortable with showing the ills of the past, precisely because it needs those ills to tell a story that things are continuously getting better. While ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ does not come out and name colonialism, white supremacy or capitalism as the root cause of the suffering endured by black Americans, that level of explicit political consciousness would seem out of place in the mouths of many of its characters. But they understand these things intuitively from experience, and they offer their own understanding to each other and to the reader. This is a more valuable thing.

There is some worrying sentimentalism towards the end of the comic, with the usual lines about America being founded as the first nation of ideals. But the founding myth of American exceptionalism was often used by black Americans resisting white supremacy, and if it is not politically appetizing, neither is it out of place. The comic tells a story, not only of individual suffering and solidarity, but of the systems of violence that run underneath. It makes it perfectly clear that it is not bad people here or there responsible for incidents of discrimination; it is a system supported by the American government and maintained by the American military for the benefit of white people.

harlem_hellfighters8We talk about visual styles being striking, but in Caanan White’s case it doesn’t strike so much as barrage the reader. The detailed, expressive style can be a bit busy at times and one gets the sense that this is a comic that deserves to be printed in colour. But the faces and postures of the men convey their emotions expertly, and the trenches come to death in gory detail from peeling flesh to rotting corpses. If the style were a little cleaner, it might explode more exactly on target, but I suppose war is a busy, confused business too. This is not to say that it is unworthy of the narrative; far from it. But the devil’s in the detail and I can’t help feeling there’s a bit too much of it.

harlem_hellfighters_panels1

There is something a little bit disturbing about the blood-lust of the soldiers in ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’. The comic does not quite express their motivations for being there, unless we are meant to believe that they share the sentiments of the man who says he couldn’t down an opportunity to be paid by white people to shoot white people. But the eagerness to fight instead of rot in the trenches waiting for a shrapnel squall to shred your flesh was a real enough part of the First World War. Trench warfare traumatized a generation of men who coped in whatever way they could. Displaying the grim brutality of that conflict underscores the moral ambiguity of the story as a whole. For all that ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ is about racism, it is the story of a group of men determined to cross the ocean and kill strangers who have never harmed them. If it is uncomfortable at points, it should be. ★

Mendoza The Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism

By: Jared Ross, Hon. BA. MA in Cultural and Imperial History

Thank G-D! A Jewish comic that isn’t about the Holocaust. I know this sounds flip, but as a “Jewish intellectual”, in Toronto, I’m always enthused when Jewish history isn’t framed though such a narrow lens. There are so many persecutions to pick from, and while I acknowledge that the Holocaust is important to study, Jewish history shouldn’t be just one sad slow train to Auschwitz.

Enter ‘Mendoza the Jew’, a graphic history of a poor Sephardi Jewish boxer in 18th century London. It represents a different story, and a poorly told one. The style of the comic is quite brisk, with bold colours and lots of action sequences. It is heavily narrated with lots of explanation and the modern author showing up to brief the reader on any vague historical points. Each chapter begins with a Hebrew letter that spells out Daniel. The comic is only one part of the piece, with a section of primary sources as well and an explanation of the writer’s process as well.

MendozaTheJew
Title
: Mendoza the Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism: A Graphic History
Author: Ronald Schechter
Illustrator: Liz Clarke
Published: Oxford University Press (2013)
Pages: 240 pages
Dimensions: 25.1 x 3 x 20.1 cm
Other Specs: Softcover, colour cover and interior
Purchase: In the Ad Astra Online Shop

Expelled from England in the 14th century, Jews were allowed back into England by Oliver Cromwell and it became a home for Sephardic Jews who came from Spain via the Netherlands. The Sephardic community was already well established when they were joined by Ashkenazi Jews from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe (Modern day Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Romania) in the late 19th and early 20th century.

It is in part due to figures like Mendoza that the Sephardic community was so successful. Taking advantage of England’s “tolerant” attitudes towards religious minorities and the effects of the Enlightenment, the Jewish community was allowed a degree of integration that was not possible in most of Western Europe. While still suffering persecution, it was as an old prof of mine used to say, “run-of-the-mill 19th century anti-semitism”, in contrast to the race-based dehumanizing persecutions that mark the 20th century.

"What do you mean, 'your people', chump?"
“What do you mean, ‘your people’?”

Daniel Mendoza’s story illustrates the tension between tolerance and assimilation quite nicely. The son of a Schochet, (a kosher butcher), Daniel Mendoza soon discovers that a quick way to acceptance is boxing, a sport that was embraced by both the working class and the gentry as quintessentially English (like tea and sado-masochism). Mendoza wins several high profile bouts, and parlays his success into running a series of boxing academies for both nobles and the working class.

After losing a rather shady match to his old partner, John Humphries, Mendoza agreed to a rematch, with each writing letters to the newspapers of the time challenging each other’s health, manliness and honesty.

dureaux_fisticuffsMendoza won the rematch and with it a princely sum of 2000 pounds. He then went on to beat Humphries in a third rematch (one that took 72 rounds).

The author speculates this was due to either gambling, alcoholism, bad investments or a combination of all three. Defaulting on his debts and jailed in 1797, Daniel took on a variety of jobs including as a publican and pedlar. He continued to box and stage exhibition matches, but died penniless in 1836.

MendozatheJew_engraving
In the words of the author, the story of Mendoza fits into the school of “history from below” and helps to illustrate why Britain avoided a revolution, unlike France. He points to Britain’s religious tolerance, free press and ability to harness a nascent British identity as a reason for its relative political stability. In this the author is right, but he also neglects to mention that Britain was able to co-opt many of its subject people, ethnic minorities like the Irish and Scottish Highlanders into replicating the same structures of rule and control in an Imperial context, and as such use migration as a pressure valve, something that was not done in France.

So let us evaluate the author’s claim. ‘History from below’ in this context is also very much a history of whiteness. The 18th century marked the rise of scientific racism. The work of Blumenbach, dividing humanity into five races, was published in 1779. The idea that each race had a separate origin (polygenesis) was a tool of imperialist expansion and the justification for slavery as an ideology. Jews as a category were always hard to classify. Were they white? Were they intelligent? How could they be separated from the Aryan/ Nordic White Anglo-Saxon?

Interestingly enough, Mendoza also acted as a second for Tom Molineaux, a freed Virginian slave. The author does not mention this.

The push of this ideology of race was stubbornly resisted. Manliness and ideas of masculinity were a weapon that Jews deployed to prove that they were just as manly as the White man. This subverted the ethnocentric language of white supremacy and allowed some Jewish men to express their identity in ways that were culturally permitted. This strategy had a long shelf-life. In the aftermath of increasing anti-semitism following World War One, Jewish veterans used the language of patriotism and masculinity to protect themselves from discrimination. One particular case was the Jewish flying aces, considered among the most masculine of war heros during World War One. In an excellent article by Todd Samuel Presner, “Muscle Jews and Airplanes: Modernist Mythologies, the Great War, and the Politics of Regeneration” there is a discussion about the efforts of Jewish flyers to publicize their deeds and claim that because of their military service, they should be recognized as German nationalists. Unfortunately this was all for naught, as the Nazi’s expunged their service records, and while allowing for special treatment for some, sent others to camps.

In the 18th century Daniel Mendoza and other Jewish men used the language of nationality and masculinity to combat persecution by putting themselves forward as paragons of strength, athleticism and sportsmanship; values dear to the English nationalist project. After World War one, German Jewish veterans tried the same tactic. In England, it was to some extent successful; in Germany, it was not It remains to be seen whether a minority should ever try to embrace the cultural and gender norms of a society to end their own persecution.

* * * * *

Jared N Ross is a museum and history enthusiast who has worked in museums and education for 10 years. Starting as a lowly summer-student playing a 19th century British soldier, he has continued to work at many Museums and historic sites, including Fort York, Mackenzie House and Black Creek Pioneer Village. He has presented to thousands of students on all aspects of 19th century life, from the power of the original mass media (the printing press), to the first waves of immigration in 19th century Toronto. He completed his Undergraduate Honours in History at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, and a Master’s in British and Imperial History at York University. He hopes one day to lead a Klezmer-Celtic Fusion band.

Introduction to Grant Morrison’s SUPERGODS

I’ve just begun reading Grant Morrison’s Supergods and wanted to share the introduction with any non-readers or non-believers. From what seem to be almost arbitrary and even laughable (often laughable) beginnings, the rise of superheroes in comics speaks deeply of the politics and belief systems of our times. Since it’s already available online elsewhere, I thought I’d share with you the book’s introduction–which makes for a great article in and of itself.

supergod_cover

Title: SUPERGODS: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human
Author: Grant Morrison
Published: 2011 by Spiegel and Grau, New York

 

 

Introduction
FOUR MILES ACROSS – a placid stretch of water from where I live in Scotland is RNAD Coulport, home of the UK’s Trident-missile-armed nuclear submarine force. Here, I’ve been told, enough firepower is stored in underground bunkers to annihilate the human population of our planet fifty times over.  One day, when Earth is ambushed in Hyperspace by fifty Evil Duplicate Earths, this mega destructive capability may, ironically, save us all—but until then, it seems extravagant, somehow emblematic of the accelerated, digital hyper-simulation we’ve all come to inhabit.

ctte of 100At night, the inverted reflection of the submarine dockyards looks like a red, mailed fist, rippling on a flag made of waves.  A couple of miles of winding road from here is where my dad was arrested during the anti-nuclear protest marches of the sixties. He was a working-class World War II veteran who’d swapped his bayonet for a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament badge and became a pacifist “Spy for Peace” in the Committee of 100.  Already the world of my childhood was one of proliferating Cold War acronyms and code names.  And the Bomb, always the Bomb, a grim and looming, rain-coated lodger, liable to go off at any minute, killing everybody and everything.

if an a bomb falls

His bastard minstrels were gloomy existentialist folkies whining horn-rimmed dirges about the “Hard Rain” and the “All on That Day” while I trembled in the corner, awaiting bony-fingered judgment and the extinction of all terrestrial life.  Accompanying imagery was provided by the radical antiwar samizdat zines my dad brought home from political book-stores on High Street. Typically, the passionate pacifist manifestos within were illustrated with gruesome hand-drawn images of how the world might look after a spirited thermonuclear missile exchange. The creators of these enthusiastically rendered carrion landscapes never overlooked any opportunity to depict shattered, obliterated skeletons contorted against blazing horizons of nuked and blackened urban devastation. If the artist could find space in his composition for a macabre, eight-hundred-foot-tall Grim Reaper astride a flayed horror horse, sowing missiles like grain across the snaggle-toothed, half-melted skyline, all the better.

Like visions of Heaven and Hell on a medieval triptych, the post-atomic wastelands of my dad’s mags sat side by side with the exotic, triple-sunned vistas that graced the covers of my mum’s beloved science fiction paper-backs. Digest-sized windows onto shiny futurity, they offered android amazons in chrome monokinis chasing marooned spacemen beneath the pearlescent skies of impossible alien worlds. Robots burdened with souls lurched through Day-Glo jungles or strode the moving steel walkways of cities designed by Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and LSD. The titles evoked Surrealist poetry: The Day It Rained Forever, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Silver Locusts, Flowers for Algernon, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” Barefoot in the Head.

On television, images of pioneering astronauts vied with bleak scenes from Hiroshima and Vietnam: It was an all-or-nothing choice between the A-Bomb and the Spaceship. I had already picked sides, but the Cold War tension between Apocalypse and Utopia was becoming almost unbearable.  And then the superheroes rained down across the Atlantic, in a dazzling prism-light of heraldic jumpsuits, bringing new ways to see and hear and think about everything. Te first comic shop in the UK—The Yankee Book Store—opened in Paisley, home of the pattern, just outside Glasgow in the years after the war. With a keen sense of ironic symmetry, the comics arrived as ballast alongside the US service personnel whose missiles threatened my very  existence. As early R&B and rock ’n’ roll records sailed into Liverpool to inspire the Mersey generation of musicians, so American comics hit in the west of Scotland, courtesy of the military-industrial complex, to inflame the imaginations and change the lives of kids like me. The superheroes laughed at the Atom Bomb. Superman could walk on the surface of the sun and barely register a tan. The Hulk’s adventures were only just beginning in those fragile hours after a Gamma Bomb test went wrong in the face of his alter ego, Bruce Banner. In the shadow of cosmic destroyers like Anti-Matter Man or Galactus, the all-powerful Bomb seemed provincial in scale. I’d found my way into a separate universe tucked inside our own, a place where dramas spanning decades and galaxies were played out across the second dimension of newsprint pages. Here men, women, and noble monsters dressed in flags and struck from shadows to make the world a better place. My own world felt better already. I was beginning to understand something that gave me power over my fears. Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea. Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea.

superman strip

It’s not that I needed Superman to be “real,” I just needed him to be more real than the Idea of the Bomb that ravaged my dreams. I needn’t have worried; Superman is so indefatigable a product of the human imagination, such a perfectly designed emblem of our highest, kindest, wisest, toughest selves, that my Idea of the Bomb had no defense against him. In Superman and his fellow superheroes, modern human beings had brought into being ideas that were invulnerable to all harm, immune to deconstruction, built to outsmart diabolical masterminds, made to confront pure Evil and, somehow, against the odds, to always win.

I entered the US comics field as a professional writer in the mid-eighties at a time of radical innovation and technical advance, when the acknowledged landmarks of superhero fiction like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were being published and the possibilities seemed limitless,along with the opportunities for creative freedom. I joined a generation of writers and artists, mostly from a UK working-class background, who saw in the moribund hero universes the potential to create expressive, adult, challenging work that could recharge the dry husk of the superhero concept with a new relevance and vitality.  As a result, stories got smarter,artwork became more sophisticated, and the superhero began a new lease on life in books that were philosophical, post-modern, and wildly ambitious. Te last twenty years have seen startling, innovative work from dozens of distinctive and flamboyant talents in the field. The low production costs (pen and ink can conjure scenes that would cost millions of dollars of computer time to re-create onscreen) and rapid publication frequency mean that in comic books, almost anything goes. No idea is too bizarre, no twist too fanciful, no storytelling technique too experimental. I’ve been aware of comic books’ range, and of the big ideas and emotions they can communicate, for a long time now, so it’s with amazement and a little pride that I’ve watched the ongoing, bloodless surrender of mainstream culture to relentless colonization from the geek hinter-lands. Names that once were arcane outsider shibboleths now front global marketing campaigns.

Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Green Lantern, Iron Man. Why have superheroes become so popular? Why now? On one level, it’s simple: Someone, somewhere figured out that, like chimpanzees, superheroes make everything more entertaining. Boring tea party? Add a few chimps and it’s unforgettable comedy mayhem. Conventional murder mystery? Add superheroes and a startling and provocative new genre springs to life. Urban crime thriller? Seen it all before . . . until Batman gets involved. Superheroes can spice up any dish.

But there’s even more going on beneath the surface of our appetite for the antics of outlandishly dressed characters who will never let us down. Look away from the page or the screen and you’d be forgiven for thinking they’ve arrived into mass consciousness, as they tend to arrive everywhere else, in response to a desperate SOS from a world in crisis. We’ve come to accept that most of our politicians will be exposed, in the end, as sex-mad liars or imbeciles, just as we’ve come to expect gorgeous supermodels to be bulimic, neurotic wretches.

We’ve seen through the illusions that once sustained our fantasies and know from bitter experience that beloved comedians will stand unmasked, sooner or later, as alcoholic perverts or suicidal depressives. We tell our children they’re trapped like rats on a doomed, bankrupt, gangster-haunted planet with dwindling resources, with nothing to look forward to but rising sea levels and imminent mass extinctions, then raise a disapproving eyebrow when, in response, they dress in black, cut themselves with razors, starve themselves, gorge themselves, or kill one another.

Traumatized by war footage and disaster clips, spied upon by ubiquitous surveillance cams, threatened by exotic villains who plot from their caverns and subterranean lairs, preyed upon by dark and monumental Gods of Fear, we are being sucked inexorably into Comic Book Reality, with only moments to save the world, as usual. Towering, cadaverous Death-Angels, like the ones on the covers of Dad’s anti-nuke rags, seem to overshadow the gleaming spires of our collective imagination. Could it be that a culture starved of optimistic images of its own future has turned to the primary source in search of utopian role models? Could the superhero in his cape and skin tight suit be the best current representation of something we all might become, if we allow ourselves to feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project?

We live in the stories we tell ourselves. In a secular, scientific rational culture lacking in any convincing spiritual leadership, superhero stories speak loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations. They’re not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark. They’re about as far from social realism as you can get, but the best superhero stories deal directly with mythic elements of human experience that we can all relate to, in ways that are imaginative, profound, funny, and provocative. They exist to solve problems of all kinds and can always be counted on to and a way to save the day.  At their best, they help us to confront and resolve even the deepest existential crises. We should listen to what they have to tell us.

Political Comics – A Rain Day Reading List

I’ve had a couple of people recently ask me for a list good political comics to delve into as the days get shorter.

Here in Toronto, we were fortunate enough to have warm weather all the way til the end of October – but that seems to be over and done with as we approach Halloween. It’s cold and soggy out- perfect comic book weather (inside…and with soup, of course.)

I’ve found that folks certainly find the genre of political comics interesting, but I will be the first to admit that it can be intimidating at entry level. Comic book stores are difficult places to start, with their tens of thousands of titles that range from action  heroes to historical biographies. Intriguing and artfully-crafted stories hide amid piles of highly-produced junk with polished covers, like so many needles in a hay barn. Unfortunately some of the best artists in the world are then hired to hide these shit-for-plots further with the endless depictions of semi-pornographic female bodies (Alan Moore, on the related subject of writing decent pornography, commented that there is a delicate brain-to-penis blood ratio that makes physical and mental stimulation often mutually exclusive… a side note).

It’s safe to say that I think of the world of comic books in a very similar way as the worlds of music–or art in general. There’s a lot of crap. Hence, a short list below of some of my favourite comics and graphic novels. And while I don’t exclusively read political comics in my spare time, I’ve decided to keep this list within that framework (since that is the scope of this little corner of the World Wide Web).

For a little more detail on a shorter list of comics, I recommend folks check out my Crash Course post on political comics.

Two-Fisted Tales – Early war comic book series that truly endeavoured to tell the whole truth about war – the bravery and courage alongside the fear and ignorance, the death and destruction, the impact of war on soldier and civilian alike.

V for Vandetta – An epic story of a futuristic dystopian England, this story is now not only a classic of the medium but for 20th Century literature in general. Alan Moore (mentioned above) keenly has you observe and then slowly dismantle every major institution of oppression: the state, the mainstream media, the religious establishment, the military, patriarchal marriage, and so on. I read this story when I was 13 over the course of 2 days, and it changed my life. A must-read.

Palestine – Joe Sacco is an incredible comic artist and writer, but he is also a pioneer in realm of comics journalism. Palestine and other books like Safe Area Gorazde, about the Bosnian War, told news stories that the mainstream news wouldn’t touch, from a perspective that they never even thought possible. It’s now because of those books that millions of people were able to know the reality for these victims of military aggression. Total game-changers. His most recent works include Journalism and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt – co-created with award-winning journalist Chris Hedges.

MAUS – A Survivor’s Tale – Perhaps the most significant comic book in terms of its impact on an anti-comic book literary establishment, Art Spiegelman really confused people when this book came out in the 1980s. Not only was is a comic book about the Holocaust, but its main characters were depicted as mice… what to make of it? A lot has already been written about Maus and its impact on comic books and literature. To quote Wikipedia (which is itself quoting numerous academic sources):

It became one of the “Big Three” book-form comics from around 1986–1987, along with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, that are said to have brought the term “graphic novel” and the idea of comics for adults into mainstream consciousness. It was credited with changing the public’s perception of what comics could be, at a time when, in the English-speaking world, they were considered to be for children, and strongly associated with superheroes. (Full entry can be read here.)

I don’t think I have much more to add after that.

The Confessions of Nat Turner – This is surely one of my favorite graphic novels of all time; I can’t believe I haven’t taken the time to review it here yet. Kyle Baker did an incredible thing with this comic, and remained true to the primary source of Nat Turner, the leader of a 19th Century slave revolt, in his last interview before he was executed. As a passionate history buff, nothing speaks with more respect to the people of our past than having them speak for themselves. Editorialized, history slowly but surely erodes the reality that once was.

If you’re looking for other great political comic books, check out the Political Comics menu option on this page – where I’ve reviewed some others in the past few months.

Thanks for reading – and read on!

NMG

Americana Weekend: Looking Back on Banned Books & an Addiction to War

It’s a big weekend in the Motherland.

Today is October 6, the last day of Banned Books Week (as observed in the U.S.), and tomorrow is the 11th anniversary of the U.S. Invasion of Afghanistan.

Opening appeal of a report on the content of comic books in the early 1950s, by Paul Coates – first aired 57 years ago this week. Many of the comics he refers to were in fact used as evidence in the 1954 U.S. Senate Subcommittee hearings on juvenile delinquency–which were televised, and very high-profile. Many of these comics were thereafter banned, and the “Comics Code Authority” was born. For more info: http://www.cbldf.org

To commemorate both occasions, I’ll be looking through some interesting reads – a few quick reviews, a few more graphic samples for you to peruse and consider looking into further. (A side note- The list of political comic books that I’m finding just gets longer and longer… as time goes on, I find that this blog isn’t really the place for long-winded analysis–more, it’s a platform for sharing and promoting political titles. If I ever attract a little more attention to the blog, I may delve further into the regions of research and critique.)

Consider this clip as a bit of an introduction to the role comics have had within the question of banned books.

Comics have been criticized, censored, and outright banned from time to time over the course of their existence… particularly in the U.S. in the McCarthy-Era 1950’s. Nothing can really compete with the dishing of defamation they received as an entire medium for many years. The arguments are as numerous as they are close-minded: comic books cause criminal behavior; comic books encourage drug use; comic books discourage “proper” reading by including pictures to interpret a story in addition to words.

Dateline: OCT 7, 2012 — YEP, WE’RE STILL ADDICTED TO WAR

Consider not only the reality that tomorrow marks the anniversary of the U.S. Invasion of Afghanistan, “Operation Enduring Freedom” (a campaign, which, within the first months of carpet-bombing, was said to have wiped tens of thousands of souls out of existence). It also marks the anniversary of the country’s longest (ever!) war/prolonged military engagement. Longer than WWII. Longer than the Civil War. We are raised considering these conflicts and the catastrophic damage inflicted by them as definitive pieces of our country and its character–so what has been learned from the Global War on Terror?

As an American, I say: We are, as we have never been, truly addicted to war. I’m taking some time to peruse my war comics to show you some of the ways that comic artists and writers have approached this in the past few years…

I’ve held onto this photo-copied zine comic (below) for about 10 years now… it amazes me that it hasn’t begun to disintegrate, although there is some serious creasing and ink erosion. I’m sorry to say that some of the text is now completely unreadable (maybe it always was, and I just didn’t notice?)… Although I know very little about this comic (I can’t find a record of it online), I want to give credit where credit is due: All artwork is (c) D. Ferrera, Amber Mclean & Dan Mchale.

Anyway, I’m a HUGE fan of the illustration style here. There is an obvious realism, some straight-up brutal imagery (the section on depleted uranium and its effect of the Iraqi birth rates is devastating, but certainly not the fault of the artist). Although out-dated, there is a lot of useful information here, good enough to give anyone a crash course on the consequences of the U.S.-led, U.N.-OK’d sanctions against Iraq, which devastated the country even before the 2003 invasion of Baghdad.

I think, despite some really low-rate copy job, that this is (or was, at some time), a pretty amazing indie anti-war comic. Hope to track down its creators some time soon, at the very least to ask for a better copy to post here.

An essential is Joel Andreas’ anti-war comic, Addicted to War–cover image at the beginning of this thread–which first came out, like the above publication, as a result of U.S. aggression against Iraq in the 1990’s. Andreas, who already had experience making political graphic novels, decided it was time to take on America’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for military conflict. He approached this book with the idea that it could be used as an educational tool – in High School and college class rooms, study groups, religious centers, etc. And eventually, it was. After going out of print in the late 1990’s, it was re-printed, given some decent publicity (now available through AK Press, it’s been widely distributed through various grassroots channels) and has since sold over 200,000 copies.

In 77 pages, from ‘Manifest Destiny’ to ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, Andreas covers a lot of ground and strings it together to show the historically documented economic and social interest of war for American men and women of power. There is more educational value in this book than in the four different U.S. History textbooks I was issued as a secondary student – combined.

The book was updated to include information about the Iraq War (the copy I’m holding is a 2003-er), but it’s already so out of date. There was barely time for him to include information about Iraq and Afghanistan… of course this just means we should press him for a revised 20th Anniversary edition.

“WAR” – An anthology to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

My final addition to this edition of Political Comics Review is a bit of both topics – a 2004 anthology printed to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and its theme was “WAR”.

Much more artistically/aesthetically driven than political driven, this volume gives credit to the artists and their work to be able to raise some social commentary without it being outwardly political – and hey, it’s fundamentally political anyway, because it’s funding a good cause that’s solely dedicated to Free Speech and First Amendment protection.

The book is mostly fiction, all short stories, all having something to do with war. I’ve got a few favorites, like a short at the beginning where three guys are holed up in a gunned-down building (they appear to be under siege)… and there’s this great build-up to see the enemy… suddenly, thousands of leaflets fall from the sky, and you see these poorly translated messages, illustrated with PSA-style icons, of alien invaders asking them to lay down their arms and to cooperate “to make a unity planet with happiness people!”

Funny, sad, goofy, serious. The contributions are all diverse and all a good read, approaching the subject of ‘War’ from a multitude of angles. It is a reminder of how varied the scope of “political comics” can truly be.

For more information on the subject of banned comics, please please please check out the CBLDF’s website – some incredible documentation on a subject of which I’ve barely scratched the surface.

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.