Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Activist Week: Ethan Heitner and Kevin C. Pyle

Ethan Heitner and Kevin Pyle have long been mainstays at the seminal political comics anthology World War III Illustrated. Each has also done their share of solo work, much of which is in the category of direct action literature.

Pyle's Wage Theft, co-written by Jeffry Odell Korgen and flip-booked with a Spanish-translated version, is a deft, fast-moving and highly persuasive tract aimed at workers who have suffered from the title phenomenon. The comic, drawn in Pyle's scratchy line with a huge emphasis on greyscaling to add tone and depth to each page, focuses primarily on undocumented/illegal workers in service industries like cleaning. The practice of wage theft can involve being paid less than minimum wage, of failing to pay wages or paying them on a consistently late basis, ignoring overtime, making illegal deductions, etc. Some employers feel they can get away with this by threatening to report their employees to immigration, threatening to fire them or using some other form of illegal intimidation. This comic is full of cases of workers who fought back, the resources they used and the outcomes they achieved. Pyle and Korgen aren't practicing pie-in-the-sky activism here, as they acknowledge that there's a risk of businesses going bankrupt as a way of dodging their debt obligations and of course the difficulty of losing time and wages. That said, by giving a clear idea of what resources do exist and how people have used them, this comic is meant to be a seed that provides support and a means of resistance to exploited workers across the country.

Heitner's comics focus on Palestinian rights and divestment away from Israel. Nothing "Normal About It was written by Tanya Keilani and speaks to the idea of false equivalency of "dialogue" between Palestinians and Israelis, given the idea that the Israelis booted out the Palestinians in 1948 and currently practice what is roughly the equivalent of apartheid. Keilani's comic details some Palestinian students being invited to dialogue and eventually walking away after realizing that for groups to come together as equals, the two groups actually have to be equal. The writing is strident and without the faintest sense of subtlety, and the Israeli supporters here are portrayed as little more than straw men (curiously illustrated to look like stuffy Archie-adults). Tara Tabassi's writing is similarly one-note in There Is A Checkpoint Around This Center!, which is about a protest about the clash between Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA) in New York being denied space at the NY LGBT Community Center. The central idea that oppression of Palestinians is not something separate from queer issues is one that makes sense, but this is less a story than a series of shouted slogans. That has its place, and documenting this issue makes sense, but comics like these are merely preaching to the converted.

More effective are Heitner's own comics. Old Abdullah Had A Farm, for example, is a perfect example of effective and memorable political comics. Drawing his characters as anthropomorphic mice, he detailed the ways in which settlers, soldiers and the Wall pushed out farmers from their land, and how this has led to a movement. With a scratchy, cross-hatching heavy line, the comic has the proper amount of pitch-black humor and serious commentary. The Power of Our Voices uses Joe Sacco-style interviews with Palestinians and tells their stories, building a powerful case for the cultural boycott of Israel. Interviewing artist Samia Halaby, for example, she makes the point that art cannot transcend politics, that it either passively or actively supports oppression even if it claims to have nothing to do with it. That's the crux of the argument in favor of the cultural boycott, especially since an argument is made that Israel's cultural exports are very much a propaganda exercise in improving their image around the world. If Halaby is perhaps too much of a firebrand for one's tastes (she comes out in favor of violence as one means of resistance, which is unusual in these comics that call for protests, boycotts and divestments), then AnneMarie Jacir's story of not being allowed to film a documentary in Palestine, nor being allowed in is even more powerful. Trying to navigate a brutal, impersonal and frequently nonsensical bureaucracy frustrated the filmmaker. When told she'd be invited into a festival in Haifa, she refused because her own father wouldn't be allowed access. Another artist, Larissa Sansour, had her work censored in France because it was too "pro-Palestinian". Letting people tell their stories is the most effective way of getting a greater point across, and Heitner then takes that opportunity to lay out the specifics of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement.

Heitner's own Empire State of Mind has two stories: an adaptation of a Kafka story that touches on jackals and Arabs, and the sticky relationship between the Middle East and the West. "Stick and Stay, "They're Bound To Pay" is about the big union strike in Flint, Michigan that led to the rise of United Auto Workers. They struck for better working conditions and fair wages, and their commitment and togetherness--especially with the quick-witted support of their wives--won the day for them. Like Pyle, Heitner is skilled at creating a narrative out of primary sources. He adds a sense of suspense and drama to events that certainly didn't lack it and is careful to let his pages breathe with the occasional silent panel that is worth the proverbial thousand words. Heitner is careful not to write this with a sense of starry-eyed nostalgia of triumphs past, but rather as a call to arms for protesters and occupiers everywhere. That mix of fact, reasoning and passion is what makes his narratives so compelling. It's not just relating that the personal is political, but trying to explain precisely how and why this is so in such a way that anyone can understand it.

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