Friday, October 10, 2014

Activist Week: World War III Illustrated #44, World War III Illustrated 1979-2014

Issue #44 of World War III Illustrated was one of the quieter, more reflective entries in the long-running magazine's history. Billed as "the Other issue", the stories are about the experience of being made to feel the other,and there are some remarkable stories built around this theme. First and foremost is Sandy Jimenez's piece on growing up in the burned-out South Bronx and being photographed by some art students as a child. Thinking they were friends, he eventually sneaked into their show and saw himself as they saw him: the Other. As a poor, dirty waif. That betrayal set the stage for his later difficulty taking photos when he got to art school and his later, painful understanding that it's not the camera that exploits its subjects, it's the photographer. The way he draws his eyes as black saucers is especially affecting and attention-grabbing. This is a raw, powerful story that I wish had gotten wider recognition when it was published; it's certainly one of the best things I've ever read in WW III Illustrated.

That said, this is an unusually strong and coherent issue overall. Sabrina Jones' account of a young woman caught up in harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws is notable because of her expressive pencils-only style. A report from activists in Quebec about the student protests is as measured and even an account that I can imagine, as it takes aim at both right-wing scorn toward Quebecois as well as the racist and anti-immigrant tendencies of some from the left. Leila Abdul Razzaq's comics about her father's experiences growing up after his family was thrown out of Palestine are superb; the drawings are lively and expressive and the narratives are personal, detailed and passionate. Carlo Quispe, who's become one of my favorite personal/political cartoonists, uses his expressive scrawl of a line to relate a story about trying to reconcile his dating life with his political life as an activist. Tom Keough and Seth Tobocman have pieces about resisting bullying and the possibility of new communities in the face of disaster, both of which have a more hopeful character than the usual sort of WWW III Illustrated article.

The magazine has been one of the very few places where American readers can gain access to translated work by Middle Eastern cartoonists. In addition to Razzaq, there was work by Egyptian artist Ganzeer (though I found its sentiments rather pat) as well as a dream comic from Barrack Rima. That one was especially interesting, because it was very much about being the other as a foreign immigrant, and the page composition was fascinating. Many of Rima's pages looked constructed rather than drawn, and other pages had drawings with a remarkably sensitive and fragile quality. In an issue where co-founding editor Peter Kuper had a few pieces, they wound up being among the least compelling material in the issue. This speaks to the overall health and vitality of the anthology, as its younger caretakers have done a fine job in maintaining its voice.

Speaking of its founders, PM Press recently published World War 3 Illustrated: 1979-2014. This is the third time in its history that a collection of the best from the anthology has been collected, but this is a definitive and beautifully well-produced 300-page volume. Reading this book is quite a different experience from reading the average issue of the magazine in that the charmingly ramshackle DIY feel of the magazine is not really in evidence here. This is both a good and bad thing, as some of the pieces published in the magazine over the years weren't really of a high enough level of quality to merit reprinting, and the somewhat slapdash nature of the editing and construction of each issue sometimes inhibited the flow as a reader. Of course, that also meant wonderful surprises popping up in each issue as well in addition to the contributors who have been with the magazine throughout its run. The book is well-organized, with fourteen different subsections grouping together different kinds of stories. While there are about forty artists represented, much of the book focuses on a small group of regulars.

Of course, when those regulars include Peter Kuper, Seth Tobocman, Fly, Eric Drooker, Sabrina Jones, Sue Coe, and Nicole Schulman, there's not too much to complain about. There are also oddities like an early Peter Bagge strip, a piece by occasional contributor and cause celebre Mumia Abu-Jamal, and contributions by artists known for their work in other venues like Art Spiegelman and Tom Tomorrow. Still, the regulars do most of the heavy lifting and document thirty-five years of government oppression, police brutality, oppression of women and spirited resistance across the globe. While both Kuper and Tobocman have both clearly been inspired by street art in their use of stencils, bleeding images, etc, Kuper's work has always been more polished and more in the tradition of political cartooning. Even his autobiographical strips, like when he went to testify on Mike Diana's behalf at his obscenity trial, have a slightly amused, detached and self-deprecatory air.  He uses powerful and blunt images and satire as his weapons. Tobocman's work has always been more emotional and on-the-ground, detailing events as he experienced them. It's speaking truth to power in the most direct way possible.

Drooker and Coe's best-known work consists of single images on covers or as illustrations, using rich colors and lots of ink to get their points across poetically but bluntly. Jones and Schulman are superb storytellers with naturalistic styles. Fly has always been the secret MVP of the magazine whenever she's appeared; there are few artists who are as adept at writing biographical details with as much visceral punch as she can, and her own street-level approach to life and art give her comics a powerful sense of authenticity. The nice paper and use of full color makes this book an eye-popping read, and the editors do a great job of using interesting interstitial material to stitch together the differing chapters. Sandy Jimenez notably updated one of his old stories, "Skips", in full color, and it added a lot to the reading experience. Reading this book is reading a history of opposition and of artists grappling with their role in that resistance. It must be noted that there's a solid representation of artists who are women and artists of color, and this was so long before that was a commonplace event in alternative comics. There's little in the way of self-congratulation; instead, their helpful timeline at the end of the book just underlines how it's simply time to get back to work.

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