Tag Archives: historical comics

Rock, Roll, Rumbles, Rebels, Revolution: The Life of SPAIN!

spain mural

A couple of weeks ago, some good friends of mine in Toronto, also Americans, invited me to join them in a trip over the border to New York to check out the exhibit of Buffalo native, Spain Rodriguez: “Rock, Roll, Rumbles, Rebels, Revolution”.

On Sept 2012 - January 2013 at the Burchfield Penney Gallery in Buffalo, NY.
The Exhibit contains some 50 hanging pieces, in addition to original comic book copies of Spain’s work, and runs from Sept 2012 – January 2013 at the Burchfield Penney Gallery in Buffalo, NY.

Both my friends Nick and Tanya are themselves bikers, rebels, and surviving witnesses to that mythological time, the 60’s and 70’s (not to mention their occasional run-ins with Spain and folks he knew back in the days he rode with the Road Vultures and drew for now-legendary underground comic publications like Zap!). Going to the exhibit with them was as close as I would get to having Spain there to explain some of the nuances and timely political/cultural references.

Sadly, only a few days before we visited the exhibit, Spain passed away. He was 72, and had been battling prostate cancer for about six years. It became especially poignant to understand the legacy of this artist, who was a pioneer of indie comics, a pioneer of comics journalism before the term was even coined, and a pioneer for political comics and historical comics. What’s more, his career wasn’t 3 or 4 ‘golden years’ nestled in a lifetime of mediocrity. His cutting edge work ranges from the early days in underground comics, unbridled by still-McCarthy-Era censorship rules, to just before he died.

Comic book eccentric, Art school nerd, Tough-ass biker, leftist shit-disturber | Spain was an in-betweener, and these are always the folks who make incredible art. Their creativity isn’t confined to one genre, one subculture, one ideological viewpoint of the world. As a biker, Spain scared his comics compatriots and offended some of his lefty comrades: after all, these were three typically segregated subcultures within a man’s world of the 1960’s (none would even begin to include women as anything more than decoration for a few more years…a sidenote). For this overlap, we have some incredibly enlightening artwork depicting the era’s biker culture, general drug and counter-culture, and, more crucial for me and this blog, political happenings of the day.

DNC Chicago 1968Before drawing for Zap! with Crumb in San Francisco, Spain covered the Democratic National Convention in Chicago for the East Village Other (a publication described by the New York Times as being so left-wing it made the Village Voice look like a church circular). This was the home of his other early work, Zodiac Mindwarp.

Above, we see some of the spirit of what went down.


There’s no argument that Spain was an expert brawl-drawer. From his days with the Road Vultures to his activist scuffles, the man had a talent for laying out scenes that generally pass most of us by in blurs if and when we experience them.

These illustrations, when compared to photographs or even video of the protests and police repression, give you more of the feel of the surroundings, and vividly so.  I’ve postulated that he had a tendency to compile several visual records in one large frame. Taking these many single instances he saw–he not only depicts what was in front of him, but he describes the scene and tells a story with it.

tumblr_m0vpq38z071qzhoqfo1_1280Spain went on with his occasional comics journalism, and much to my liking, even delved into historical comics. The book “Devil Dog” illustrates the life of one of my favourite American military figures, Smedley Butler. My friend Nick also told me of a piece he did on the Chaco War fought by mercenary pilots in Bolivia in the 1930s that I’ve yet to see, but I can’t wait to inspect. Untold American history is the bloodstream of my own comic series, so, needless to say, this interests me. His most notable political work is probably Che: A Graphic Biography, published in 2009, which he wrote with the editorial assistance of Paul Buhle, a radical history and comic book expert (best combination–ever).

Young comic lovers should appreciate the fact that, in addition to all his other work that had given him a legendary status in indie comics, Spain never stopped paying attention to political causes around him. The exhibit even included some work depicting the Occupy Movement, that he drew mere months ago.

On November 29, comix artist Def Backderf tweeted, “On the day he died, Spain Rodriguez was inking a poster. Died with a pen in his hand. Hell yeah, amigo! You’re a legend.

Everything else that he so wonderfully was–all aside, this fact alone commands my respect.

spain portrait

Good night, Spain. Your work will forever have a place in my heart.

NMG


Review of Penney Art exhibit:
http://artvoice.com/issues/...

Good informative video about Spain and his political work:
http://www.revelinnewyork.com/videos/spain-rodriguez

Great article from his good friends over at Salon.com:
http://www.salon.com/2012/12/01/death_of...

Pulp History trailer (Devil Dog part of this series)
http://pages.simonandschuster.com/pulp...

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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

Political Comics Review ~ Willow Dawson’s "Hyena in Petticoats"

I first picked up H.I.P. at the 2011 Toronto Comic Arts Festival, but I didn’t buy it. However wrongful it is to judge a book by its cover, I quickly surmised that “Hyena in Petticoats” was A) a comic for kids and therefore not for adults, and B) an ‘historical’ as opposed to ‘political’ comic, and within that, just another entry in the Canadian corner of the fad that is historical graphic novels… All  pop, no substance… ‘meh’ was my initial response….

Title: Hyena in Petticoats: The Story of Suffragette Nellie McClung
Author + Illustrator: Willow Dawson
Published by: Puffin Canada, 2011
Got my copy through: Online Order

…And here I am over a year later, having read the comic and feeling a little humbled, thinking back on that initial assessment. But before any more of that, an introduction:

“It is the writer’s place to bring romance to people, to turn the commonplace into the adventurous and the amusing, to bring out the pathos in a situation … Words are our tools and must be kept bright … I refuse to be carried through the sewers of life just for the ride … I write if I have something to say that will amuse, entertain, instruct, inform, comfort, or guide the reader”.
– Nellie McClung, Canadian Suffragette

Nellie McClung was one of Canada’s foremost women’s rights suffragettes in the 1910’s and 20’s. As a Christian woman who witnessed how naughty Christian men became after getting tanked on whiskey, she first felt mobilized by the campaign for prohibition–which, across the English-speaking world, was the issue that really begat the 20th Century women’s suffrage movement.

The essential logic was that if the ladies shared the vote and elected offices with men, then the benchwarmer issues condemned to women’s church groups could begin to get some much-needed air for discussion—surely, there was the issue of temperance, but also the working conditions of women and children (especially inner-city immigrants), as well as a woman’s right to protection and refuge against abuse and assault (formerly totally OK if that dude was your husband or father.)

hyenainpetticoats

She doesn’t have the iconography dedicated to her like some other women of the time—Emma Goldman comes to mind—but Nellie McClung was a pretty profound woman. She led marches, organized political campaigns in several provinces, and fought with former Manitoba Premier Rodmond Roblin on a few occasions.
The book title, “Hyena in Petticoats” can be attributed to Premier Roblin’s declaration of McClung’s doggedness. It was his insistence that “nice women don’t want the vote.” (How nice of him to speak for them since they don’t want to!)

hyena in petticoats_frame

She also helped to write, produce, and act in a play called “Women’s Parliament”, which not only showed what women could bring to the table in politics, but took the behavior of male politicians at the time and turned it on its head. According to the comic, it looked like offensive satire at its finest. I would LOVE to see someone re-create this play.

The simple, smooth paint-brush strokes of the pages were what initially gave me the impression that H.I.P. was just for a younger audience. In the past I’ve found comic books with this kind of art to be difficult to dive into, feel submerged by (Chester Brown’s Louis Riel is another [sad]  example for me, despite its incredible narrative). I guess I just have an aversion to minimalism. Comics, to me, is all about conjuring—reaching into the very essence of the creator’s idea, and trying to mimic that headspace on the page. But I was pleasantly surprised at how easily I slipped into the world of Nell. There is a charm in the day-to-day interactions that Dawson chose to include in the storytelling, and the little drawings that decorate the page numbers, that puts one at ease—the same charm that draws us to, say, entries in a young artists’ journal. It was enough to help me reassess my bias… minimalism is, after all, a style that superficially implies effortlessness, and yet there is a perfectionism that is needed for that to be realized.

I also appreciate the political context that Willow Dawson adds to this inherently historical comic. This is, again, where I thought I would have beef with H.I.P.—mainstream histories that are simplified (as a kids’ book, a comic book, an article in a high school history book) generally neglect a movement or individual’s shortcomings, for the betterment of an ‘idealistic’ story. Dawson doesn’t do that. In fact, she goes out of her way to point out a few truths that, to some, may seem like unnecessary details, but to someone like me, give me a better-rounded picture of Nellie McClung: her fight was that of a white, middle-class Christian women’s movement. The gains of this movement did not extend to Asian-Canadians or Native women, who would not get the vote for another staggering four decades.

I am grateful for Willow Dawson including this information, which is provided in a way that is informative and intriguing to me, but would also be totally up the alley of my 8-year-old niece (who will surely inherit this copy, come Winter Solstice.) In fact, I feel more comfortable giving her a book that points out a prejudice that was/is more deeply-seeded in the Canadian power structure than sexism: the question of Indigenous rights.

This obviously isn’t a review that everyone would write about Hyena in Petticoats. But coming from the perspective of a political comic book collector, these are the points that matter to me. And maybe this is a kid’s comic…but not only a kid’s comic, and it is secondary to the fact that it is a great little book.

Day One

I have so little time to put down thoughts on TCAF at this exact moment. What I will say is CONGRATULATIONS: this year’s festival has some amazing political comic offerings compared to last year. I have already read one book and will definitely be doing some reviews in the coming days. Until then, a few snaps, subtly edited but not as well as they would have been with Instagram:

NMG

Two Fisted Tales, Harvey Kurtzmann and the Birth of the Anti-war Comic

When Two Fisted Tales first hit the presses in the 1950s, comics were the medium of choice for kids all across North America. They came after radio, but before television was a common household item, and so held the attention of young people as something new and exciting, all for 10 cents a copy. Although the art was often very good, the writing was largely composed of short, campy stories with horrible dialogue. The artistic layout as well (including the interplay between the images and their captions) had yet to really mature.

Issue # 25 is used on Wikipedia and in other sources to exemplify TFT’s ‘anti-war’ leanings. The soldier on the left comes running, yelling, “Guys! I just got word they’re arranging an armistice!” His comrade answers back, “Yeah! Yeah! Tell Jonesy here about your armistice! He’ll be glad!” The third soldier, to the right, lies face-down in mud, recently killed. Just to put this into perspective—Hollywood had yet to barely begun showing dead bodies in war movies. Putting one on the front cover, of a kid’s comic, during war-time, in a way that questioned the price of war, was largely unique.

At this time, the ‘war comic’ was at its peak in popularity. Comic historian and lecturer Roger Sabin writes:

“During the war years patriotic superheroes were sent off to fight for their country, and the conflict was polarized into one between supermen and supervillains: Tojo, Hitler and Mussolini stood no chance. These comics were unashamed morale-boosters, and retailed in unprecedented numbers: by 1943 it is estimated that they were selling nearly 15 million copies a month, thereby totally dominating the industry.”

Enter a young up-and-coming Harvey Kurtzman:

“When the Korean War broke out [in 1951], I naturally turned to the war for material. But when I thought of doing a war book, the business of what to say about war was very important to me and was uppermost in my mind, because I did then feel very strongly about not wanting to say anything glamorous about war, and everything that went before Two Fisted Tales had glamorized war. Nobody had done anything on the depressing aspects of war, and this, to me, was a terrible disservice to the children. In the business of children’s literature you have a responsibility, and these guys feeding this crap to the children that soldiers spend their time merrily killing little buck-toothed yellow men with the butt of a rifle is terrible.”

It’s really difficult to sum up Harvey Kurtzman’s life, and how it influenced such a leap forward for comic books, but it’s impossible to talk about TFT without him. Although his career began earlier, he is largely credited with the success of Two Fisted Tales and its companion comic, Frontline Combat, as the editor of the pair. In this time, he also went on to be the founding editor of MAD Magazine, among other projects. The contribution MAD has made in comedy cannot be overstated. Some have even suspected that it’s impossible to think of anything within American satire today that hasn’t somehow been influenced by MAD, and therefore, by Harvey Kurtzman.

That being said… what made Two Fisted Tales a good political comic? And Harvey a good writer?

Two Fisted Tales did two incredible things for comics, concerning both form and content. Stylistically, Harvey pushed the envelope in creating amazingly detailed layouts, stronger dialogue, and a text-and-image interplay that seemed much more seamless than work before it (I dare call it ‘cinematic’, even though cinema hardly had this down yet). Qualitatively, he told war stories that were researched and historically accurate, with realistic characters engaged in purposeful dialogue. More importantly, the stories would show blood, grit, death, destruction, civilian casualties, people losing parts of their bodies along with their minds. He showed the things that weren’t supposed to happen in war, but always do. In essence, amidst piles of war-time comics being published, TFT and FC were the first to properly convey that “War is all Hell.”

“I think the best way to look at the war stories, both historical and contemporary, in these comics is to think of them as attempting a previously unseen level of realism and historical accuracy,”  says Peter Birkemoe of The Beguiling comic shop—and a big fan of Harvey’s work. “Since Kurtzman and most of the artists were veterans of the Second World War, it is easy to see any attempt at realism ending up showing the actual horrors of war.”

Kurtzman was drafted in 1943, but he never did go overseas. I mention this, because if he had in fact seen combat, I would have more easily attributed his qualitative difference with what he may have seen/experienced in war himself.

Since this isn’t the case, then we might conclude that even more influential than his time in service was his liberal/radical upbringing (his step-father was a staunch trade-unionist, his mailbox the receiver of the People’s Daily World of the Communist Party.) Kurtzman never considered himself a socialist or communist, but he had made his opinions clear on several occasions about war, racism, and religious intolerance.

Still, accuracy does not indicate political leanings–just honesty. Saving Private Ryan wasn’t an ‘anti-war film’, even though it was arguably the most accurate depiction of war in film when it was released. …So is Two Fisted Tales “anti-war”?

Relatively speaking, yes, according to Peter. “Other war comics that rushed to the market when the Korean War started were decidedly jingoistic and make Kurtzman’s work seem politically ‘anti-war’ in contrast.”

When compared to comics and even film of the time, it was definitely an opposing view politically. TFT was so much more multi-dimensional than anything else out there, in terms of both style and content. Specifically, the constrictions within the Hollywood film industry—thoroughly in bed with the U.S. government and military in the 40s and 50s—were so confining graphically and stylistically that films had to fit into the confines of 6 predetermined topics, according to the Office of War Information (OWI): The Armed Forces, The Enemy, The Allies, The Production Front, The Home Front, and The Issues (whatever that means–I don’t seem to remember any poignant films about fascism, Antisemitism, or imperialist rivalry). Obviously, showing civilian casualties, the ‘enemy’s’ perspective, or even blood was out of the question…

I agree with Peter in that these were not “anti-war” comics per se in their agenda—but they were anti-war as a result of their accuracy. This again goes back to the type of person Harvey was.

“I think Kurtzman’s message on war is not entirely different than his message on culture that comes through in his issues of MAD,” says Peter. “[That is,] ‘If you step back and look at this clearly, it is really quite absurd’.”

I will also add that it falls into Harvey’s habit of not being categorized easily. As a political comics enthusiast, I have yet to find a good ‘political’ comic that placed a political agenda before the telling of the story, and I think Harvey understood that well, having worked with comic artists who published everywhere from Marvel to the communist party newspaper. To begin, you create uncompromisingly, and in doing so, you largely defy (or re-define) categorization in your work.

… And yet, perhaps it was even a little bit more than that. I quoted Harvey earlier speaking to a certain “responsibility” in children’s literature. It is possible that Harvey felt a responsibility to show young people an opposing view of war as well as history (including Custer’s Last Stand and The Alamo—not how you learned them in school, kids!). That’s not just a strive for accuracy; that’s pro-actively seeking out an improperly remembered event or ‘hero’ of American history, and trying to set the story straight. In my opinion, that makes Two Fisted Tales not just an anti-war comic relatively speaking, but anti-war and political at its core.

[LEFT: Two Fisted Tales Issue #23 “KILL!” includes some interesting examples of TFT’s superior story-telling skills, as well as the recurring theme that these are war stories being told from someone who abhors war.]

Whether you see it as a bittersweet rite of passage or as a cannon fodder-drive for the imperialist war machine, there is no denying that war is a horrible thing. And sometimes telling it like it is will be enough to set you aside from everyone else. It was a bit of star-crossed fortune that Harvey made TFT at the time that he did… everyone had their gaze fixed so tightly on Hollywood films as the next big medium that comics fell under the radar as an unsophisticated business of “kids’ books”. As such, comic book writers had more freedom—intellectually and politically—to spread their wings. If Two Fisted Tales had been a TV or film series, you can bet Harvey Kurtzman would have been thrown into some Red Scare kangaroo trial. And the world would have been shorted a creative genius.

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.