Thirty-Five Years of Bashing Stereotypes, Tearing Down Walls, Smashing Icons and Visionary CartooningBy Bill Berkowitz
July 5th, 2014
In 1979, in the wake of a meltdown at Three Mile Island, the founding of the Moral Majority by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the murder of gay politician Harvey Milk in San Francisco's City Hall, the Iranian hostage crisis and the impending election of Ronald Reagan, Seth Tobocman and Peter Kuper, two art students at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, decided the time was ripe for an antiwar comic book.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two guys from Cleveland, had revolutionized comic books in 1938, with the publication of a story called Superman: Champion of the Oppressed, in Action Comics #1. Forty-one years later, Tobocman and Kuper, who grew up in Cleveland and knew each other since the first grade, were ready to create a home for political comics, graphics and stirring personal stories.
Tobocman and Kuper constructed a relatively simple, yet monumentally difficult game plan: Develop an outlet for their own work that emphasized their politics; and create a space for like-minded artists and politicos whose voices needed to be heard; and, of course, make enough money to keep the presses rolling.
"The undergrounds were mostly gone, and the alternative movement didn't exist yet. Since we'd done zines, the idea of self-publishing wasn't remote. Beyond publishing our own work, we also wanted to print work that moved us - much of it was on the street posted on walls and lampposts," Kuper said in a recent interview posted at comicbookresources.com. "It was work that was talking about our reality in 1979 with a hostage crisis in Iran, the Cold War in full swing and a B-actor about to have his itchy trigger-finger on the nuclear launch button."
It is now 35 years later, and the Oakland, California-based PM Press has just published an elaborately designed, full-color anthology titled World War 3 Illustrated 1979-2014 (PM Press, July 2014, 328 pages, $29.95). The collection contains creative, hard hitting, and issue-oriented content, covering such subjects as police brutality, feminism, the environment, religion, political prisoners, housing rights, globalization and depictions of conflicts from the Middle East to the Midwest.
In their Editors' note, Tobocman and Kuper point out that once they began publishing their magazine, "all sorts of people were drawn to that banner: punks, painters, graffiti writers, anarchists, photojournalists, feminists, squatters, political prisoners, and people with AIDS."
The Comic Book: Through Golden Age of '60s & '70s
Flash back to the mid-1950s: Raye Ellen, one of my downstairs Bronx apartment building neighbors, set up a comic book lending library. The process was simple: Fill out an index card with your name, phone number and apartment number; choose the comic books you wanted to borrow; list them on your index card; and take them home for up to two days. If you didn't return the comics on time, there'd be no more comics.
It's been a long time since I've been a dedicated a comic book fan. These days, I read the San Francisco Chronicle's Sunday comics section and its two pages of comics just about every day. Over the years, I've read and reviewed a handful of graphic novels and graphic journalism. The late Bob Callahan, who edited several cartoon anthologies, most notably The New Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Stories from Crumb to Clowes (2004), taught me a lot about the history and value of comics.
In his Introduction to The New Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Stories, Callahan discussed the rise of America's comic book industry: "The current era in American comic book history swung boldly into place one brilliant San Francisco morning in the late 1960s, when an odd-looking man [Robert Crumb] . . . began to sell his own self-published comic book, Zap Comix. . . . The comic book itself was only about 30 years old when Crumb came along and rearranged it."
Comic books about fighting the Nazis and Japanese during World War II - read by millions heading off to war - were a new development as "Over the years, the comics more often responded to the spirit of disorder - to the divine virtues Sedition, Anarchy and Mischievous - than to the need to put anybody's house back in order."
Many modern-day comic-book illustrators and writers stand on the shoulders of Harvey Kurtzman, who is known for his "pioneering antiwar stories," and brilliant "send-ups and parodies that made MAD Magazine the most celebrated comic of all time. Kurtzman stood up against Senator Joseph McCarthy's anticommunist witch-hunts.
In 1954, The Comics Code Authority, a result of almost daily newspaper tirades "connecting crime comics to juvenile delinquency," led to publishers dumbing down the comic book. A seal on a comic book's cover stating "Approved by the Comics Code Authority," was aimed at protecting America's youth from smut, profanity, obscenity, and/or communism. Comics were forced underground, and, according to Callahan, "it was 12 years . . . before open, smart and adventurous comics surfaced again."
By the mid-1960s, alternative newspapers across the country "threw open their doors to certain new and radical perspectives in art and politics." From New York's Lower East Side to San Francisco, from Crumb's Zap Comix to artists such as Bill Griffith, Rick Griffin, Frank Stack and Joel Beck, young artists and illustrators pursued their passion with a free hand and, well . . . an unbridled passion. Through the work of Justin Green, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, Kim Deitch, Carol Tyler and Harvey Pekar, "the undergrounds discovered their own literary destiny."
From the earliest days of comics, numerous women artists have been integral to growing the art, working as editors, inkers, storytellers and artists: Emma C. McKean was a contributor to New Comics #1 and was the first woman to contribute original comics material to a comic book; Elizabeth Holloway Marston helped create Wonder Woman; the work of Roz Chast, a New Yorker staff cartoonist can be found in The Party After You Left: Collected Cartoons 1995-2003; Alison Bechdel created the long-running comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For"; and the alternative comic world is full of women storytellers and artists.
Stan Lee's brigade of Marvel superheroes, - the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and so many others - led Marvel to "become the most popular comic book company in the world." Art Spiegelman's brilliant Maus:A Survivor's Tale, "which dealt with his father's tortured memories of life in Hitler's concentration camps," won Spiegelman a Pulitzer Prize.
World War 3 Illustrated
Peter Kuper told comicbookresources.com that when he and Seth Tobocman arrived in New York, they "were still fans of comics and had become serious about creating them, but there were few venues to get our work published."
Seth Tobocman was "spurred" on by the Iran hostage crisis: "I knew a lot of Iranian students who were at school with me. So I knew about how the Shah of Iran was put in by the United States and how my Iranian friends were afraid of the Savak, the Iranian secret police, even while walking around NYC. So when the Shah fell and Iranians took over the US embassy, I understood why they did that. But for many Americans this was an outrage, like 9/11, and there was this wave of patriotic hysteria. So I felt, if all these ignorant people can express themselves, so could I. I decided to throw my hat in the ring."
Both Kuper and Tobocman are accomplished artists. Kuper has produced more than 20 books, and his work has been featured in Time, The New York Times, and MAD Magazine, for which he has written and illustrated "SPY vs SPY" since 1997. Tobocman is the author of five graphic books and he has participated in exhibitions at ABC No Rio, Exit Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art.
World War 3 Illustrated 1979-2014 is a beautifully crafted, full-color anthology that is not solely politics: There are personal stories about life, death, love, hate, growth, stagnation and the horrible loneliness of staking out positions you believe to be right.
Bill Ayers, the 1960s radical, cofounder of the Weather Underground and respected educator and author, who is perhaps best known today for being the "pal" in Sarah Palin's oft-repeated 2008 Presidential Election meme about Barack Obama "Palling around with terrorists," in an Introduction titled "In Cahoots!" writes: "The artists of World War 3 have forged a space by turns harsh and exciting, honest and rowdy, boisterous and straight-forward, always powered by the wild and unruly harmonies of love. It's a space where hope and history rhyme, where joy and justice meet. Their voices provoke and sooth and energize."
Reading through this strikingly designed book, one cannot help but admire those many young, often obscure and struggling, courageous comic book artists and cartoonists who, with unbridled passion, took on unpopular issues, bashed stereotypes, tore down walls and smashed icons.
As Kuper and Tobocmen point out in their Editors' note, "In many ways WW3 represents a microcosm of the type of society we'd like to see - a place where people of various backgrounds, sexual orientations and abilities, pull together to create something that benefits the whole."
With Iraq in chaos and the same tired and discredited voices trucked out by the mainstream media, a surveillance state run amok, income inequality continuing to peak, prison privatization, climate change, unabated gun violence and Tea Party madness, it's important to have sharply honed, no bullshit, critical perspectives to antidote mainstream blather. World War 3 Illustrated contributors, new and old, are now hard at work cooking up their next issue.