Making a graphic statement
By Jayanthi Madhukar
August 25th, 2014
As a multimedia comic book artist, Seth Tobocman speaks out against injustice through his works
The bespectacled Seth Tobocman, with his hair tied back into a neat ponytail, can hold his audience spellbound with a dramatic narration of a story. This kind of narration is usually accompanied by live music. On a screen behind him, appear mostly black and white cartoon panels that he has drawn. It is those visuals and the stories accompanying them that make people sit up and listen. Tobocman calls this kind of audience interaction Cartoon Concert, a form he attributes to Vaughn Bode, an American cartoonist in the 1970s. "Bode would project his panels and perform the text," says Tobocman. "I chose those pieces that work well with a dramatic reading and sometimes also employ musicians to give atmosphere."
Speaking Through ComicsTobocman's love for comics started young. As he says, he could draw before he could read. From a school-going boy who loved Marvel superheroes to a young adult's angst against injustice in society, today, Tobocman considers himself to be a neo-expressionist comic book artist. He has gone through the proverbial struggle, often feeling that "at any minute the ground would open up and swallow me" and has worked as an usher, a messenger and construction worker before finding work as an illustrator for New York Times and other newspapers.
In 1980, along with friend Peter Kuper, Tobocman started World War 3 Illustrated as a response to the Iran hostage crisis. "We were angry about Reagan and the rise of the right (wing). About gentrification. We felt someone had to say no!" he says of the times when no one was publishing serious comic art in the US. Theirs was the only comic book in those days to be sold in record stores as no book stores were interested in alternative comics.
The Inside Story
The stories Tobocman tells are often contained within one panel. Sometimes, within a book. But these stories are real, issues that people face, and very often from his own understanding of ground reality. As an artist and editor of the comic book World War 3 Illustrated, he says that what he really wants to do is to shake people out of their complacency. People, according to him, are way too passive. "They let too much stuff go. They know what is going on is wrong but they don't do anything about it. I also want to give some support and solidarity to those who are engaged in actions."
And that is why during the mid-80s and late '90s, he was part of the squatter movement of New York. Much before he moved with them on the suggestion of the squatters themselves, activists from New York to the African National Congress in South Africa had started using his pieces for leaflets and posters. Tobocman, along with the other squatters, seized about 30 buildings in Lower Manhattan. Thirteen of them were legalised in 2000, and the people squatting there became the owners. Along the way, people had to fix those buildings and defend them from police. He slept under leaky roofs, cleared rubble, lived without heat or hot water. One of the squats, Umbrella House, which he helped save from demolition crew and renovate, where he ran a printing press from its first floor, still remains, inhabited by many people.
Two things stand out. One, Tobocman was personally not in need of a home, since he had already rented an apartment. "I chose to work with the squatter movement because I felt they were addressing the most pressing problem of my community: lack of affordable housing." He was arrested about 20 times and convicted twice. Only an internal disagreement led him to give up the membership and leave the squat.
And that brings the second point to fore. Unlike most squatters, he compiled his experiences in the book War In the Neighbourhood (2000).
A Fighting OeuvreTobocman has several books to his credit, each and every subject picked, being relevant to the people. Understanding The Crash illustrates how Wall Street created an economic whirlpool, while Disaster and Resistance described the first decade of the 21st century including 9/11, George Bush, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine and hurricane Katrina. Three Cities Against the Wall unites artists in Tel Aviv, Ramallah and New York in protest against the Israeli government's building of the wall through the occupied territories. Portraits of Israelis and Palestinians came out of a sketchbook Tobocman carried with him on his travels through the occupied territories in 2002 which saw him teaching art and English to kids in a Palestinian village.
At the time of this interview, he is outraged over the killing of Michael Brown by a policeman on a street in Ferguson, Missouri. "This happens all the f**king time!" he fumes. "American cops just can't seem to stop killing black people. It makes me very angry that there is so little progress on this issue. At least there is more awareness. When I was a kid, I think there were a lot of white middle class Americans who did not believe this was going on. Now, with all the videos and media, there is no excuse for being ignorant." And for that matter, no excuse, he says, for a citizen anywhere in the world to be passive. The best government, the best politicians and laws and Constitution, isn't worth anything if people don't speak up. Taking action on anything, be it art, politics or just paying attention to loved ones, he points out, is a great alternative to depression and despair. "Every day I gotta shake myself, break free of my demons and go for it."
Seth Tobocman was in the city recently for a Comic Conce
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