This past May, at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (or TCAF), we joined 20,000 other comic and art fans at the Toronto Public Library. Dozens of publishers traded, hundreds of artists talked, and literally thousands of books changed hands… but how many of them were about social issues? Very few. And if that was the case, why? Do people not care about social issues? If they do, which ones to they care about?
What people told us, and how they responded revealed some interesting answers…
It’s safe to say that this past week was one of the busiest for me in recent memory. On top of working a 40 hour week at my day job (in 4 days), the Toronto Comic Arts Festival was in full swing and I was pulling together what I’d hope would be two kick-ass events for the weekend.
TCAF breaks records every year–has since I’ve been attending at least. If this year didn’t reach fire-code-breaking capacity at the Toronto Reference Library (in addition to several off-site satellite locations), and to be sure, they’re still still waiting on the official numbers, then it was awfully close. More notably there was an insane amount of talent at the show: Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly of RAW Magazine / MAUS / New Yorker fame. Jaime + Gilbert Hernandez, Tagame, Matsumoto, Chester Brown, Seth, David B… the list goes on.
Unlike my previous years at the festival, I saw a notable rise in interest (as well as work available) pertaining to political comic books. This is despite the skiddishness that remains around the term “political”. But whatever people want to call it, I found much more to chew on over the weekend than in years past.
Before I go into some books, a note on Comics Journalism.
If there’s one way to get people to talk comfortably about political comics and their viability, it’s Comics Journalism. I think it’s seen as a happy medium for a lot of different interest groups, whether it’s non-comic folk looking for some different non-fiction, or comic fans looking for a different type of page to turn. In turn, the sub genre doesn’t effect the topic. Joe Sacco really birthed the term, from his thumb-to-index-finger loins, with work like Palestine and Safe AreaGoražde, using comics to take on some pretty acceptable topics of intrigue in the journalism community… but since, really, you could do a comics journalism piece on just about anything and it would have the potential to be amazing. I look forward to seeing more and more come to maturity in this genre over the coming years.
…And secondly, a brief note about Art Spiegelman’s MAUS. I did not include MAUS in this list, because 1) I think it’s deserving of a little more commentary than one paragraph, for all it has done to influence the world of political comics… and comics in general. 2) It was put out 20 years ago. I feel like it’s a bit silly to put it among a list of up-and-comers with newly released works. (In other words, there will be more on MAUS as a specific work to come soon on Ad Astra!)
OK. To the books.
LIFE BEGINS AT INCORPORATION by Matt Bors – I’ve never considered myself a fan of editorial cartoons, so when I decided to back Matt’s Kickstarter campaign, that really just meant that I liked his work more than I cared to admit. After a bit of discussion and a lot of planning on both ends, Matt was able to make it up to Toronto to promote his book at TCAF, in the midst of some type of Eastern-Time-Zone-only book tour.
The book is a collection of political cartoons and essays spanning years of wonderful American political drama- from the gay marriage debate that is still somehow being discussed, to the continuing occupation of Afghanistan and the reality that war-time simply seems to be the perpetual reality for Americans, post-9/11. I have plenty to say about this book and have already uttered plenty of niceties here. My recommendation over reading my book-length review is just to buy the book. It’s better.
I will add, however, that Matt gave a great presentation to an engaged crowd at the Comic Book Lounge on May 10, the night before TCAF–despite monsoon thunderstorms and a competing 10th Anniversary TCAF party down the road (we had this shit scheduled MONTHS ago. We’re not the splinter group. THEY’RE the splinter group!). Attendees included at least one other fellow Kickstarter backer, which was great to see.
On Saturday evening, Matt and I shared a table with comic creators Josh Neufeld, Sarah Glidden, and Rutu Modan to discuss “Comics & Politics” at TCAF to a great crowd who asked lots of questions–from comics journalism to comics activism, free speech and “to draw or not to draw” (discussing the Mohammed cartoon), stereotypes, backlash for work done… it was great. And what’s more, it shows a genuine interest in political comics from a variety of entry points.
HOW TO UNDERSTAND ISRAEL IN 60 DAYS OR LESS by Sarah Glidden – Right in there on the topic of Comics Journalism. Sarah Glidden went to Israel on a Birthright trip and came out of it with How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. Not only is it a journalistic piece about the country, it is journalism of herself experiencing it. The artwork is very much a European comic book style, with simple, expressive line work and really nice coloring (these are pretty much the first two things I think about when someone says European Comics). It’s packed with a thousand little stories that maybe tell us more about an American’s viewpoint on Israel than Israel itself, in all its historical and political turmoil. But I like the frankness that Glidden gave when describing the outcome of the book while at the TCAF panel (at the risk of seeming “wishy-washy”), when she said that this place became real when she traveled there, and the people in it became human beings. While I may not agree with Sarah on her political conclusions (and I’ve yet to see, as I’ve yet to finish the book!), it hardly seems relevant when we’re talking about a work of art that is depicting a personal experience.
A.D. NEW ORLEANS by Josh Neufeld – This book has been on my list to pick up for some time, and it was a pleasure to share a stage with Josh and talk to him about this project. I’ve yet to fully pinpoint my thoughts on this, but there is something to be said about a writer’s perception of an experience, and a visualist’s perception of the same thing. Neufeld seems to pick up on details of the Hurricane Katrina disaster that go missing in other accounts–and it’s not just a matter of mainstream vs. independent media. The wreckage, the crowds, the sweat, the loss of cherished items… all pulls at you differently when you are immediately able to absorb the information through a drawn depiction, without the filter or process of language. I particularly like the variety of people interviewed and their respective color palettes in the book’s pages. This will be a great one to finally read cover to cover.
I also got two other books that were illustrated by Josh Neufeld – The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media, and Stowaway, written by Tori Marlan. Both works of comic journalism, although entirely different.
BEST OF ENEMIES by Jean-Pierre Filiu et David – When I first eyed this book at TCAF last year, I’d already spent all my money. Good thing I have a better job this year. Best of Enemies explores the long and complex history of U.S.-Middle East relations. It is part 1 of 3: 1783-1953, and so incredibly fascinating. David B.’s illustrations are absolutely addictive; despite history typically being considered a dry subject matter, he ads enough art and style to the panels to keep even the subject’s most un-enthused reading on. In my limited French comprehension, David had to tell me in English that he and Jean-Pierre, an historian and former diplomat, are busy working on the next book, despite their own crazy schedules traveling around the world. I look forward to reading this one, as well as the coming two.
THE HOMELAND DIRECTIVE by Robert Venditti and Mike Huddleston – One of the few works of fiction that I picked up over the weekend, this self-described ‘political thriller’ is available through Top Shelf Productions, one of my favorite publishers. I always worry about books that look like this one… I don’t want to read a comic book version of the Bourne Identity, although the plot to this one sounds a bit more like the BBC TV show, Utopia. What pushed me over the fence with this one was the attention to detail that I can see–the stylistic and color scheme differences in the artwork as the pages change scenes, the elaborate plot that all ties together at the end (according to the dude from Top Shelf…. who I believe, cause they’re usually believable). Great cover art, too. I will get to this one, albeit a little later than some of the others. Suspicion ensues….
HARVEY PEKAR’S CLEVELAND with art by Joseph Remnant – In hindsight I’m trying to remember the reason I purchased this comic. It may have been the incredibly detailed pen and ink cross-hatch artwork, or the wonderfully vivid content of working class history in the Midwest, or the introduction by Alan Moore. All are good takers; combined, they won me over. It looks like a great read that most people would greatly under estimate.
SEVEN STORIES PRESS at TCAF
Was so psyched to see Seven Stories Press –traditionally not a comics publisher–at TCAF this year. What a great addition to the exhibitors list. Tons of historical and political comics to choose from. I would place them as pretty much the only contenders to have stocked radical comics at the festival. Kudos to them coming and to TCAF for welcoming change and getting them on-board!
THE BEGINNING OF THE AMERICAN FALL by Stephanie McMillan – Yet another work of comics journalism, documenting the nature and relevance of the Occupy Movement in the U.S. This book was the 2012 winner of the RFK Center for Justice & Human Rights Journalism Award – not an award that I’m familiar with, but impressive nonetheless for a type of journalism not yet fully grasped. I am particularly interested in this because it is a political comic that isn’t afraid to take a side- it clearly sees its prerogative as educating a broader audience about the Occupy Movement and inciting a greater level of political participation in the world around us. Can’t wait to read.
AS THE WORLD BURNS by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan – Also at the Seven Stories Press table was this title, also one that I’d never heard of. This book teams McMillan up with notorious deep ecology activist Derrick Jensen to make satirical play on the impending environmental and ecological crises of out time. While it is fictional (perhaps allegorical?) it is undeniably meant to shock people at just how close we’re getting to a great collapse. Looking forward to the read.
PARECOMIC by Sean Michael Wilson and Carl Thompson – Also by Seven Stories Press, about Michael Albert and his development of Participatory Economics. I will probably pair this one up with another comic I plan to review about capitalist economics and see how many of you are still awake at the end. Introduction by Noam Chomsky. See, now you have to buy it.
CANADIAN POLITICAL COMICS at TCAF
If political comics can be construed as typical, then it is assumed that the great bulk of them at the festival would be from the U.S. Despite TCAF being a Canadian event, there’s just more of everything coming from the U.S. in comics. But to my delight I was able to find some great work available through Conundrum Press, a publisher based out of Nova Scotia.
THE HERO BOOK by Scott Waters – Not so much a graphic novel or comic as an illustrated memoir (it says that right on the cover), The Hero Book is an artistic yet journalistic look at the culture and psychology of Canadian soldiers. At least, that’s as far as I can tell. Sorry, I was too busy looking at the ABSOLUTELY JAW-DROPPING artwork to read any more than a couple of sentences. Holy shit, this book is beautiful. And from what I can tell, the content is right up my alley. Looking forward to the read.
CHIMO by David Collier – While dealing with the topic of Canadian soldiers like the work above, Chimo appears to be much more comic book-y. As a part of the Canadian Forces Artists Program (seriously, I was surprised as well to hear that such a thing existed), Collier actually went through basic training to be able to write this book. As far as I know, he was in his early 40’s at the time. Impressive, David! It makes drawing out 100 pages sound pretty damn easy!
PAUL JOINS THE SCOUTS by Michel Rabagliati – This book fascinates me. The folks at Conundrum described it to me as something from their ‘Young Adult’ section, but pointed out that it covers a lot of the FLQ crisis in Quebec during the 1970s. What an interesting combination! I love the idea of mixing political and non-political plot lines (isn’t that more like real life?). Paul is the author’s semi-autobiographical character, so it would appear that the work draws from a lot of first-hand experience. Looks like a great piece – can’t wait to pick it up.
Hey Y’all – It’s official. I will be moderating a panel of incredible artists on at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) – this next weekend. The panel is a presentation and discussion on Political Comics, and features Matt Bors, Josh Neufeld, Sarah Glidden, and Rutu Modan. Here are the deets:
Political Comics Panel Saturday, May 11 at the Marriott Hotel 90 Bloor St. East (Around the corner from the Toronto Reference Library) 5pm – 6pm
Let’s Meet the Panelists!
MATT BORS is a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist and editor based in Portland, OR. He was a 2012 Pulitzer Prize Finalist for his political cartoons, which appear regularly in The Sacramento Bee, Portland Mercury, Pittsburgh City Paper, and on Daily Kos.
In the summer of 2010, Bors traveled to Afghanistan to draw comics and serves as the comics journalism editor for Cartoon Movement where he is currently editing a project on reconstruction efforts in Haiti.
In 2012, Bors was the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award for his editorial cartooning. His first graphic novel, War Is Boring, a collaboration with journalist David Axe, was published in 2010. His latest book is a collection of cartoons and essays title Life Begins At Incorporation.
SARAH GLIDDEN’s first full-length book, a graphic-memoir was How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, based on a Birthright trip she took and was published in 2010 by DC Vertigo.
She is currently working on her second book, a work of graphic journalism following reporters into Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon and Syria. Her short pieces of graphic journalism have been published on Cartoon Movement, Ha’aretz, and the Jewish Quarterly. You can find more of her work at sarahglidden.com.
JOSH NEUFELD is a comics journalist known for his graphic narratives of political and social upheaval, told through the voices of witnesses. He is the writer/artist of the best-selling non-fiction graphic novel A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (Pantheon). In addition, he is the illustrator of the best-selling graphic non-fiction book The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media (W.W. Norton). He is currently a 2013 Knight-Wallace fellow in journalism at the University of Michigan. Neufeld is a Xeric Award winner, and his work has been nominated for a number of other awards, including the Eisner and the Harvey. Usually based in Brooklyn, N.Y., he currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with his wife and daughter.
RUTU MODAN was born in Tel-Aviv in 1966 and is now one of Israel’s best known cartoonists. She graduated from art school in 1992 and quickly established herself drawing strips for Israeli daily newspapers. In 1994 she was offered to job of editing an Israeli edition of MAD magazine with her classmate, Yirmi Pinkus, featuring reprints of US material supplemented with local originated material. The magazine shut down after 14 issues, but undeterred, Rutu and Yirmi founded Actus Tragicus in 1995, an internationally acclaimed collective and independent publishing house for alternative comic artists, including Batia Kolton, Mira Friedmann and Itzik Rennert. Rutu has worked as an illustrator for magazines and books in Israel and abroad, and has taught comics courses in Israel. She currently lives in Sheffield, England.
Modan’s newest work, The Property, is debuting from Drawn & Quarterly at TCAF this year.
For more information about TCAF 2013 – including a full list of all the kick-ass artists coming to town – head on over to http://www.TorontoComics.com
Between May 9 – 11, political cartoonist Matt Bors will be in Toronto showcasing his new book, Life Begins At Incorporation: Cartoons and Essays. In addition to exhibiting his work at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) May 10 – 11 at the Toronto Reference Library, Bors will be presenting his work on Friday evening, May 10 at 7:30PM at the Toronto Comic Book Lounge.
Matt Bors is a nationally-syndicated political cartoonist, editor, and writer based in Portland, Oregon. In 2007 at the age of 23, he was the youngest nationally-syndicated cartoonist in the United States. Since then his work has graced the pages of WIRED Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, Village Voice, and The Nation.
Life Begins at Incorporation is Matt Bors’ second book. It received 170% funding on the website Kickstarter in 2012, and was released to funding backers and pre-orders in April 2013. It features cartoons and essays on a variety of topics, from gun control, women’s rights, and the environment to the Global War on Terror (a segment of Bors’ talk is devoted to his trip as a comics journalist to Afghanistan in 2010).
In 2012, Bors was both a Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Editorial Cartooning and the first alternative-weekly cartoonist to win the Herblock Prize for Excellence in Cartooning. At a time when political cartooning is widely considered to be a ‘dying art’ by the journalism industry, Bors’ cartoons have received significant mainstream political traction. In 2012, one of his works was presented by U.S. Congressman John Larson during a house floor debate on the Affordable Care Act, while another piece about Osama Bin Laden’s driver, Salim Hamden, was smuggled to him while he served as a detainee of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.
Bors is available to interview in-person during his stay in Toronto May 9-11, or by phone at the interviewer’s convenience.
Interested parties can find examples of his work and more information on his website, www.MattBors.com. A .PDF copy of Life Begins At Incorporation is available for review upon request.
“The Political Comics of Matt Bors,” is organized by the website Ad Astra Comix, which reviews, researches, promotes and distributes political and historical comic art.
What People Have Said of Bors’ Work
(Quotes From the Back Cover of Life Begins):
“Life Begins at Incorporation is equal parts maddening and hilarious. Matt Bors reminds us that in an unjust world, laughter is an absolute necessity. The only disappointment in this book is that despite my wishes to the contrary, ‘The Avenging Uterus’ is not in fact real.” – Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing.com & author of The Purity Myth
“Bors embodies the highest virtues of political cartoonists: fearless, provocative satire and cutting, acerbic insights. He’s also unfailingly funny.” – Glenn Greenwald, columnist for The Guardian
“Able to eviscerate a target with a single panel. You never want to end up on the wrong side of his pen and ink!” – Markos Moulitsas, Publisher, Daily Kos
“Bors has the right stuff and then some.” – Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great
“A bunch of cunty liberal garbage.” – Person on the Internet
Fellow Torontonians, I hope you’ll join us on Friday May 10 for an incredible presentation on political cartooning, political comics, comics journalism, and more at Ad Astra Comix’s first event: The Political Comics of Matt Bors. Matt will be in town for the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) happening that weekend at the Toronto Reference Library, and to promote his new book, Life Begins at Incorporation.
Here is a copy of the poster we’ll be putting up beginning this week:
In conjunction with the event, Matt has agreed to have his book distro’d by Ad Astra Comix here in Canada, which is pretty exciting. So the event is also a launch for Ad Astra to begin actively distributing political comics!
I’m also extremely grateful to the kind folks at the Comic Book Lounge for inviting us into their space. It’s so nice to have comic shops that are not only supplying me with my next fix of comics, but also see themselves as an integral piece in an active and vibrant community- and Comic Book Lounge is an enthusiastic believer in this.
In addition to a presentation, where will be a book sale and signing, a bar lovingly stocked with local beer and wine, and free snacks. I can’t emphasize enough that there will be free snacks.
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:
This post is a bit of a precursor to my two-day jaunt through Toronto’s most exciting celebration of the comic book medium, the 2012 Toronto Comic Arts Festival. I’ll explore some of the reasons why I think TCAF is such an incredible event to visit in a moment, but first…
I’ve skipped around on my previous posts about some of my favorite political comics, but I don’t think I’ve yet given much analysis on why I think they’re so useful. It’s difficult to make generalizations in a medium that exercises its talent so broadly; what I will say first is this: political comics were instrumental in my coming of age and social awareness. I was 12 years old when I ordered MAUS from my school’s Scholastic Books bi-monthly order form, and I just knew it would be worth the money, because I needed my Mom to ‘sign off’ on the PG-13 parental discretion slip. Hell yes.
What became of that comic–and a small collection of others shortly after–was a quiet awakening. Instead of reading about an issue in a book (or worse, as is the case for many young adults, a simplified, opinionated ‘topical essay’), and feeling the words of the subject thrown at you as a speaker would throw to his audience, comics felt more like a conversation. A back-and-forth as much with speech as with the eyes. I liked the freedom to be invited to explore subtleties and complexity… a double-entendre, a hypocrytical narrator, a message that is a simple thing to say, but is seemingly a whole new world to look at. It is one thing to read a description of an Orwellian dictatorship; it’s quite another kettle of fish to feel the personal and social tensions rising up around you, unpredictably, in a story such as Alan Moore’s V for Vandetta.
Tomorrow, as hundreds of comic book writers, artists, and publishers descend on Downtown Toronto, I’m reminded of what I found last year at TCAF–my first since moving here in 2009. Or rather, what I didn’t find. It was such an incredible turnout–hundreds of artists, writers, and publishers, thousands in attendance. And unlike the corporate ComicCon’s, of which there are plenty in Toronto and charge a good $20 to get in–you trade line-ups for signatures with fading Hollywood Sci-Fi stars for table after table of artists and writers, who will talk to you, in person, no time limit, about… well, whatever. Folks are totally open and amazing. In general, the Fest caters much more to the alternative / indie comic book scene, and that in and of itself is something great worth mentioning.
…. So why did I start writing this post about what I didn’t find at TCAF last year? What I mean was, cough, Where the hell were all the political comics? I met some amazing folks from all over North America, who had incredible talent, and came from some incredible backgrounds and experiences. But not one of them, among hundreds, focused on political comics. Now, for sure, for whatever reasons, the political / educational comic was not anyone’s vehicle choice, and I respect them–I especially respect artists on this, whether they are writers or illustrators–because when you’re an artist you’ve just got to do what feels right. But really…. Not a one?
I wasn’t shy about asking them about this last year, either. I heard a lot of different reasons, but the general consensus is that people really aren’t interested in political comics (or at least–“they don’t sell.”) As a side note: if you were at TCAF last year with your political comics and I didn’t see you and give you a high-five, come and find me. My bad–I’ll buy you a slice of pizza for lunch this year.
One exception to this that I remember was Eric Kostiuk Williams and his incredible work in Xtra Magazine illustrating the history of the Toronto Bath House Riots. Looking at his work (which made the front cover of this issue) shows some of the true dynamism of the comic medium–the entire feel of this article is changed by his illustrations. The article was worth reading, anyway… but seeing his work, you actually feel like you’re missing out if you aren’t reading it.
With so many changes happening in the world right now, and the multitude of experiences and history that we are all tied to, I can’t believe that artists and writers wouldn’t want to hone in on this corner of comics–especially the alternative and indie crowd. What’s even harder to believe is that people wouldn’t pick up those works, buy them, and learn something they didn’t know about a subject–any subject–the history of slavery in Canada. The Iranian Revolution. How Wall Street crashed the U.S. economy. Fuck, the history of sugar is political. And I promise you people would buy that. People love sugar.
So, here is hoping that this year I find a few diamonds in the rough and can chat with them about their work. (And then publicize it here.)
I’m reminded, in closing, that one of my key reasons political comics are so dear to me is that they’re utterly trap-like: that is, most people (who aren’t comic book nerds) think of comics as dumbed-down versions of books. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons a political comic book on the Holocaust would get picked up more than a written novel on the same subject (“Why would I read Number the Stars when I can read MAUS? With pictures?”)…. before you know it, someone who thought they found a way to just fast-track through a history project has been educated on a subject, and straight-up schooled on the awesomeness of comic books. It’s such an incredible opportunity to open someone up to a new idea–while going above and beyond their initial expectations from the medium.
A Maus-trap, if you will. That was the first one I walked into… and I hope to find a few set up in the Toronto Reference Library tomorrow.