Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Personal Is Polemic: The Real Cost of Prisons Comix

Rob reviews a collection of comics drawn by artists from WORLD WAR 3 ILLUSTRATED about certain injustices in the US prison system called THE REAL COST OF PRISONS COMIX (PM Press).

The philosopher & historian Michel Foucault wrote a number of books that tended to have the same core idea: that the nature of human relations, stripped bare of idealistic constructs, is one of power relationships. In HISTORY OF SEXUALITY, Foucault makes a case that sexual relationships are entirely based on power and hierarchy. In DISCIPLINE & PUNISH, he gives us a history of prisons and pushes the idea that the Enlightenment Project did nothing to make the concept of the prison more humane, and in fact made it less so in certain ways. In MADNESS & CIVILIZATION, he lays out the history of the treatment of mental illness. He exposes the curious phenomenon of madness "rising" in certain areas during certain eras, which he posits is again a rationalist position of defining certain behaviors or groups of people as insane. The writers and artists behind THE REAL COST OF PRISONS COMIX use aspects of all three of these arguments to aggressively push for a total reform of not just the prison system, but the entire justice system that surrounds it.

The marriage of art and polemics is often a tenuous one. The history of that marriage finds art usually getting short shrift, or downright exploited, for a particular political end. The more dogmatic a point of view, the more likely artists are to be exploited. The relationship between Communists and Surrealists is a telling example, as the former eventually declared the latter to be decadent despite having similar sympathies. The genesis of the comics in this collection came from the director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, Lois Ahrens, who was seeking a way of quickly and easily disseminating information about the injustices she saw. She was inspired by ubiquitous fotonovellas in Mexico, by trade unions putting out information in comics form and by a couple of economists trying to explain complex information in simple pictorial form. Comics were an especially compelling way of putting a human face on a systematic and institutional set of exploitative structures; tugging on emotions became much easier in comics form that with a dry set of statistics or charts.

Ahrens didn't mention a couple of other sources that seemed every bit as inspirational: the way Mao Zedong used comics for propaganda and the manner in which fundamentalist Christian cartoonist Jack Chick creates his cartoon tracts. There's no question that these comics, and the "reader's responses" that go with them, are nothing short of propaganda. But that, I mean that they are carefully crafted to forcefully articulate a particular point of view and set up opposing viewpoints as easily disposed straw men.

The good news for these comics is that they were illustrated by cartoonists well-versed in balancing polemics and art. The magazine WORLD WAR 3 ILLUSTRATED has been relentlessly bombing away with its progressive agenda for nearly thirty years. Artists like Peter Kuper and Eric Drooker have been balancing art and politics for a long time; for them, the political is also personal, and has led to some striking art. In THE REAL COST OF PRISONS COMIX, cartoonists Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones and Susan Willmarth collaborated with various personnel associated with the project to illustrate the ways that prisons exploit the small towns they're built in, the way that the so-called War on Drugs has destroyed lives, and the ways in which the justice system affects poor women and children in particular.

The collaborations are not always entirely successful as works of art or propaganda. I think that owes much to the fact that the artists had to adapt a lot of dry information in a way that was interesting. Kevin Pyle, the artist behind the excellent book BLINDSPOT, particularly struggled in adapting the most abstract of the three stories, "Prison Town". Part of this was in the visuals: Pyle's work takes on a different life in color, and the greyscale art here looked muddy. His collaborator, Craig Gilmore, is clearly an information man, not a storyteller.

The overarching argument of this book is that there is money to be made in building prisons; in order to justify them being built, there have to be prisoners to put in them. This became easy with the War on Drugs, criminalizing behavior that is essentially a victimless crime to an absurd degree. Increasing police presence in high-risk blocks served to also add to the pool of prisoners. The problem with "Prison Town" is that I would have liked to have heard a bit more information from other prison towns on what effect having a penitentiary institution had on their communities. This starts with a conclusion and works its way back with some supporting details, rather than building an argument in the opposite way.

More successful is "Prisoners of the War On Drugs", which talks about not only the ways in which a young and naive person can wind up in prison but also the ways in which race affect sentencing (most famously, possessing crack cocaine inexplicably leads to harsher sentences than possessing powder cocaine) and the ways in which the system stacks things against those who get out of prison in terms of being denied public assistance. This section is more successful because it's more episodic and Sabrina Jones' thick black lines expressively get points across. It is still pretty text-heavy, with some pages looking more like illustrated text than comics.

The best of the three stories is "Prisoners of a Hard Life", which is the most focused and expressive of the bunch. Willmarth integrates text and image on the page that makes the lettering look like part of the art, making this possible with a heavy black & white set of contrasts. This story is the best mix of emotional and statistical appeal, bombarding the reader with example after example of lives being shattered--both of women and their children. The way that the prison-industrial complex exploits the poor, the disadvantaged and the desperate is presented in such a way that one's reaction to these stories is visceral. The creators (Susan Willmarth, along with Ellen Miller-Mack and Lois Ahrens) are careful to buttress their anecdotal (and emotional) argument with carefully placed statistics and even provide alternatives to what's being done now.

The creators of this book are careful not to condemn prisons per se, nor do they call for the abolition of prisons. They instead focus on victimless crimes, non-violent crimes and institutional poverty, and especially how the latter is informed by the former. Incarceration (and the death penalty) is an extremely emotional issue for many when it comes to violent crimes. The creators tacitly acknowledge that there probably are some people who need to be locked up, but that the number of dangerous individuals didn't exponentially increase in a short period of time, any more than "hysteria" became an epidemic for women in the latter half of the 19th century. Just as certain behaviors were labeled as insane during that time, it was easy to criminalize certain other behaviors now. The Real Cost emphasis on how economics drives this process makes it seem all the more insidious and cold-blooded; in the end, all we have to do is follow the money to understand why it's being done. I only wish that the approach of the book was slightly less sledgehammer, since it really does bring to mind Jack Chick's methodology.

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