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A Nickel's Worth with Stephanie McMillan

20 Questions with Stephanie McMillan
By Scott Nickel
A Nickel's Worth

Stephanie McMillan is the cartoonist behind the thought-provoking, funny and wonderfully subversive comic strip, MINIMUM SECURITY, which you can read daily at the comic.com site or on Stephanie’s own site.

Be sure to check out Stephanie’s blog and pick up the MINIMUM SECURITY books.


1. When you were a kid, did you want to be a cartoonist? Did you draw?

My earliest drawing memory is from age three. I drew a stick figure with hands that were little circles with many long lines radiating from them. I proudly showed it to my dad at the breakfast table. He tried his best to be encouraging, but informed me that hands have only five fingers each.

When I was about 10, I fell in love with PEANUTS and traced them over and over. I read comic books like RICHIE RICH and ARCHIE, but it was PEANUTS that I became obsessed with (an obsession that shaped the dreams and future careers of many of my generation of cartoonists -- we were hopelessly brainwashed in our formative years).

I loved learning art in school, from finger-painting in pre-school through anatomy classes in college. In fifth grade my wonderful art teacher Mrs. Lihan taught us how shading works, and I still remember the thrill of learning that secret.









2. What was your first paying cartoon job?

In the late 1980s, when I was still in college, I got a job painting cels for short animated cartoon that was intended to motivate the sales team of Huggies diapers in their competition with Pampers. We got $4 an hour and worked 14-hour days. In 1992 I was offered a part-time job at a weekly paper, and the editor, Stephen Wissink, offered me the opportunity to draw a regular editorial cartoon. I did that for years before it ever occurred to me to try to self-syndicate.

3. Describe the process you went through when you created your comic strip, MINIMUM SECURITY.

When I started the strip in 1999, I didn't want to just to "be a cartoonist" in the abstract. I'd been an activist/organizer since high school (and the system didn't crumble, damn it!) After 15 years or so, I finally got tired of handing out leaflets on street corners -- I wanted to encourage resistance in a more efficient manner, and one more suited to my personality.

MINIMUM SECURITY started as a political/editorial comic, formatted in the style of my favorite alt-weekly comics: a multi-frame slightly vertical rectangle, once a week, no recurring characters, very wordy.

When the U.S. started the war against Iraq (despite the largest global protests in history), I fell into a period of despair. It seemed that nothing I or anyone could do would make any difference. I stopped drawing and started gardening. After nine months I got over it, and started again with a single-panel editorial cartoon.

Soon I started toying with the idea of having regular characters and continuous story lines. I figured that they might make the comic more appealing, bring readers back to find out what happened to characters they might grow to care about. I switched to a strip format, and Kranti first appeared in 2004, saying something sarcastic to Uncle Sam about using napalm. She looks a lot different now than she did then!

4. MINIMUM SECURITY is syndicated on United Media’s website. How did you hook up with them?

Over the years I received many form rejection letters from all the major syndicates. When Ted Rall became Editor of Acquisitions at United, with the mission of bringing a new generation of cartoonists onto the comics pages, he told me MINIMUM SECURITY was on his short list. I was thrilled, of course. It started running on comics.com, and I increased the pace to five days a week. It was in line to be syndicated in print when the economy fell into decline, and newspapers began dropping more features than they were buying.











5. Where do you stand in the print comics vs. web comics debate?

Squarely on both sides. I want my cartoons to be everywhere.

I'm not going to reject methods of making a living from my work -- I try it all. I've sold artwork on eBay. I have a website with advertising and stuff for sale, and I'm striving to increase the income from that, learning as much as I can from successful web cartoonists. At the same time, print might be dying or it might not, but as long as it's still around, I want my cartoons to be there. My comics appear in several print publications, including a daily paper. I'm also negotiating right now with another daily paper to run a regular editorial cartoon. I draw original cartoons for magazines, and sell reprints. Presently I'm working on coloring the pages for a French edition of my graphic novel. After that I have another graphic novel in the pipeline, and illustrations for two other books.

I think the "print vs. web" comics debate is ridiculous, frankly. Some people obviously make money in each realm. Most don't. It's the work that's important -- why would anyone want to limit where it appears?

6. The web affords a great deal of creative freedom. Would you be interested in doing a traditional newspaper strip?

I've been drawing MINIMUM SECURITY in the visual style and form of a traditional strip for more than two years, so absolutely yes. In spite of the condition of newspapers, I still have the goal of getting it onto the comics pages. I'm stubborn.

7. What’s the future of comics? The Internet? iTunes? The Kindle?

It could be any or all of these (and definitely cell phones), except that we're in the process of not only an economic collapse, but also a catastrophic ecological collapse -- which means human civilization is going down too. In the future, when electronics are nothing more than heaping mounds of toxic junk, the few survivors will draw cartoons on the crumbling walls of abandoned houses.

In the meantime, though, people want to read comics online and on their phones and ipods and everywhere they read everything else. People have a primal need for jokes and stories. Of course, as a cartoonist I would like more mechanisms to develop that would make it a paying profession for more than a few people, no matter what the venue. Otherwise, as we see with the decline of journalism, we'll end up with an endless cycle of young hopefuls who struggle to squeeze a bit of coin from the vague promise of "exposure" (or do it for love after earning money elsewhere), before giving up in frustration and the next wave of young hopefuls takes their place.

There are good and bad things about that cycle, which is already in play. We gain an endless variety of comics blessed with freshness and enthusiasm, but must sift through a lot of crap to find the good ones. The art form has become more accessible and democratic, but we're losing some of the pros who have spent years honing their craft. Some of the pros had become lazy and deserve to fail; others will be missed.

All of the independent cartoonists I know, whether they focus on the web or on print, talk and strategize endlessly about how to make a living. It takes iron discipline and a lot of slogging hard work. They must develop good business skills and configure multiple revenue streams. On the web, it's advertising and merchandise (including books). In print, it's cultivating clients, and doing illustration work or graphic novels on the side. Usually (certainly in my case) it's a blend of everything, whatever works. In either realm, making a living usually means that we have to spend more of our time marketing and selling than actually creating comics.

A lot of us didn't realize this when we decided to become cartoonists. In our daydreams, we sit at our desks, left alone in peace to create soaring works of genius while cash magically appears. Sadly, it's easier to win the lottery than to achieve that glorious condition.

Comics as an art form is in transition, and flowering. There's so much great work everywhere, and so much stupid crap as well. People will try everything, display comics in a million places. I don't know what will end up working and what won't -- the evolution of media is rapid and unpredictable. With persistence, luck, and a determination to hone business skills whether we like them or not, those who draw good comics will find their audiences.









8. Tell us about your graphic novel, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial.

I worked with the amazing writer Derrick Jensen. He wrote the bulk of it, using the characters from MINIMUM SECURITY, and I illustrated it and wrote a few of the sections.

It's a response to the lie that individual lifestyle changes are the solution to ecocide. For example, Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth lays out the problem very well, but at the end is the usual tired "what you can do" list that everyone pushes because they don't impinge too much on our "non-negotiable way of life." These lists always include things like taking shorter showers and changing light bulbs to more energy-efficient ones, and never include things like stopping industrial production and overthrowing the system that puts profit ahead of a living world.

In spite of its serious subject matter, As the World Burns is very funny and involves space aliens who arrive to eat the planet and bunnies rounded up and locked in detention centers.

9. Name five of your favorite cartoonists or comics.

Five that immediately come to mind (there are many more that I love also):

All of my Cartoonists With Attitude comrades, Matt Groening, Rene Engstrom (ANDERS LOVES MARIA), Winsor McCay (LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND), Alison Bechdel (DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR), Steven Cloud (BOY ON A STICK AND SLITHER), Jim Meddick (MONTY), and Kate Beaton (HARK! A VAGRANT).

Oh, is that more than five? Oops.

10. How do you develop ideas? Which comes first, words or pictures?

I think about where I want the story to go, break it down into small steps, and then write jokes around each step. I work on them in batches of five. Sometimes I have to lie down and take a nap for the ideas to develop -- it's easiest when I'm about to fall asleep or when I just wake up. Taking a walk sometimes helps too. I write out detailed scripts and then edit them down as short as possible. Usually a few days later I draw the whole batch at once.

11. Do you ever worry about running out of ideas?

I'm not worried about running out of topics and stories -- those are infinite -- but I do often have trouble coming up with ways to make them funny. Jokes don't come easy for me. Sometimes it's just impossible and I have to take a break and come back another day.

12. What’s Ted Rall really like?

Ted is one of the best people I know, and I'm honored to call him a friend. He has integrity, and has sacrificed personal gain for his principles many times. He doesn't just care about art or writing for its own sake, but strives to make a difference in the world. He cares about, and constantly finds ways to assist, cartooning as an art form and cartoonists as individuals. He's a brilliant editor, as everyone he's worked with in that capacity would attest. He works incredibly hard -- I have no idea how he finds time for everything he does. He has an extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge of history and current affairs. And he loves a good argument, which may not be a huge surprise to many who've come in contact with him!










13. The web provides instant feedback from readers. Do comments influence the direction of the strip or the subjects you write about?


Once in a while a reader will send me a great idea that I use. I always give credit when that happens. Some people hate the politics of the strip and send criticism that is not constructive, and I just ignore and delete that. Occasionally someone will make a point that makes sense, and I might think about it and take it into account, but I prefer to receive critical feedback from people I know, when I ask for it. I respond best (as most everyone does) to encouragement. My favorite comments come from people who tell me that they've been strengthened by my work. That inspires me to make it sharper.

14. What are your favorite books, TV shows, songs and films? (Yes, that counts as one question.)

I won't say all of these are absolute favorites, but ones I love and can think of right now.

Books:
Derrick Jensen's Endgame, A Language Older Than Words and Culture of Make-Believe
How the Steel Was Tempered, Nikolai Ostrovosky
Mother, Maxim Gorky

TV shows:
Family Guy
The Sopranos
Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Songs:
"Paris Match," The Style Council
"Nothing Can Stop Us Now," St. Etienne
"Steppin' Out," Kaskade
"One More Time," Daft Punk
"Simply Beautiful," Queen Latifah and Al Green

Films:
Fun with Dick and Jane
Asoka
Lal Salaam
Reds
The White Rose

15. What are your tools of the trade?

I draw on smooth Bristol board, starting with a non-photo blue pencil. I use a cut-out paper template to draw the strip's outline. The size is 9.5 x 3, so I can fit two on a sheet of 9x12 board (I draw kind of small so I can take my materials anywhere without a lot of hassle). I use a varying combination of pens that include Gelly Roll (medium for lettering and drawing), Micron (05 for boxes, 005 for details), Faber-Castell brush (for filling in black), and random ones like Le Pen. I've tried so many kinds and they are all flawed. For example, the tips of Microns bend too much, brush pens only look good if you draw huge, and Gelly Rolls skip over pencil. I'm never satisfied with pens.

16. What’s the best part about being a cartoonist?

The absolute best thing, and the reason I do this, is when readers tell me I've helped clarify issues for them, or have bolstered their strength to resist the system. I love drawing cartoons, but if I could better assist resistance by writing, I'd write. If I could better assist resistance by washing windows, I'd wash windows.

The second best thing is to be in charge of my own work. I hated having a job and being told what to do. I'm highly motivated and work hard, but if someone with authority over me tells me what to do, I automatically don't want to do it. I've always been contrary that way.










17. Have you met any of your cartoonist idols? Under what circumstances?

I've met cartoonists and others in the arts whose work I very much admire. I go to conventions and discuss things with a group of lefty political cartoonists called "Cartoonists With Attitude" (cartoonistswithattitude.org), and I feel lucky to count them as friends.

Their work inspires me, some for many years.

18. What advice would you give aspiring cartoonists?

If you want to make a living at it, be prepared for a hard road. You must be driven, determined, and love to write and draw. You should be willing to learn business and marketing skills, and be flexible enough to adapt to a constantly shifting media landscape. If you can be persistent, it's incredibly rewarding to look back on a body of work that you can be proud of.

Most importantly, make cartoons that give voice to what you most care about. The world needs more art of all kinds created by people who are passionate about their issues, and less meaningless crap created to target the latest trendy marketing niche.

19. How important are awards?


Some editors like to know that the content they choose has been pre-validated. If their boss complains the cartoon sucks, they can say, "But it won a Magnificent Humor Quality Award!" and thus avoid responsibility for making a bad decision.

20. What’s something that nobody knows about you?

Awhile back, trying to make enough money to quit my job, I tried day trading and made a whopping fortune of $250 in only one year.
 
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Union Democracy Starts at Bottom

By Seth Sandronsky
The Progressive Populist
June 1, 2010

This is a small book about a big subject: union democracy. California is the site of the conflict. But its meanings for organized labor, in a painful downward spiral, are national.

Author Cal Winslow, an historian, draws in part on original reporting, in making a case against the recent actions of the Service Employees International Union leadership. This, in turn, spawned the creation of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which emerged from the demise of California’s SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West local. Winslow details the whys and wherefores of this David-and-Goliath conflict and what is at stake for workers across the US as employers run roughshod over them, a rout underway for three decades, with grievous impacts on millions of families.

For Winslow, the public stance that SEIU executives take as a progressive labor organization belies the union’s corporate governance structure. That is, its power over members, namely dues money and autonomy generally, causing contrary impacts on them. This framework was central to the SEIU growth strategy under the tutelage of Andy Stern, the former president who just retired, but not before his simmering conflict of interest with the SEIU-UHWW, a 150,000-member California affiliate, erupted into open battle three years ago.

Winslow brings life to the roots and shoots of this dispute with accounts of workers’ fighting for their rights to act and speak on behalf of themselves and the patients they serve. This is no mean feat, given the paucity of labor reporting and that nine of 10 workers in the private-sector, where the vast bulk of US workers toil, are union-free.

Winslow illustrates with verve the SEIU leadership and UHW affiliate’s different approaches to employer bargaining. The former preferred what the author terms class collaboration, which disempowered the rank-and-file. Sal Rosselli, former UHW president and current NUHW head, publicly criticized Stern in January 2007 for agreeing to a pact with the Tenet nursing-home chain in California that in part barred workers from striking for 10 years and limited their ability to publicly report resident-care concerns.

UHW’s approach empowered the rank-and-file to contest the privileges of employers such as Kaiser Permanente and Catholic Healthcare West to unilaterally control wages, benefits and working conditions. UHW shop stewards were elected by their co-workers to be involved in contract talks with employers in the private and public sectors. UHW was part of a third-party mediation structure to judge members’ claims of employers’ compliance with legal staffing levels for patients.

In January 2009, Stern, after hearings paid for by SEIU, placed UHW in trusteeship, taking over the union. SEIU suspended the union’s constitution and bylaws, snatched its financial assets and fired 100 elected union officials, including Rosselli. The NUHW formed later in the month.

SEIU responded to this challenge by bringing its vast resources to bear against NUHW, which bid to decertify SEIU as the collective bargaining agent for 10,000 homecare providers in a Fresno County election. This drive continues in other workplaces up and down California. Winslow’s on-the-ground interviews with these healthcare workers illustrate what motivates working people to stand their ground when faced with the power of appointed union leaders who replaced elected shop stewards and trusted co-workers.

It is noteworthy that Mary Kay Henry, the SEIU executive Stern appointed is poised to succeed him as president of the 2.2 million-member union, led the Oakland take-over of SEIU-UHW last year, which Winslow chronicles. She and other $200,000-per-year SEIU elites based in Washington, D.C., evicted rank-and-file members of UHW from their union hall with backup from the Oakland police force. Winslow, whose book preceded Stern’s departure, sees in Henry the continuation of SEIU leadership’s approach to union democracy.

Much is at stake for the class that lives on its labor from wages, Winslow writes. With no end in sight to 30 years of upward income distribution from the middle and bottom to the top of American society, his is an inspired tale of NUHW’s rise against the money and power of SEIU’s leadership, chronologically told and jargon-free. All those concerned about the US labor movement getting off its deathbed should read Winslow’s book.

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Banksy: Locations and Tours Book Review

Book Legion
May 2010
 
About the Book: When it comes to art, London is best known for its galleries, not its graffiti. However, not if photographer Martin Bull has anything to say about it. While newspapers and magazines the world over send their critics to review the latest Damien Hirst show at the Tate Modern, Bull, in turn, is out taking photos of the latest street installations by guerilla art icon Banksy.

In three guided tours, Martin Bull documents sixty-five London sites where one can see some of the most important works by the legendary political artist. Boasting over 100 color photos, Banksy Locations and Tours also includes graffiti by many of Banksy's peers, including Eine, Faile, El Chivo, Arofish, Cept, Space Invader, Blek Le Rat, D*face, and Shepherd Fairey.

US edition has locations updated and 25 additional photos.

Our Take: Banksy is one of the best graphitti artists of our time.  He is an innovator and a rebel.  His social and political satire is amongst the best I've seen.  He manages to create some of the most provocative and interesting imagery possible with his stencils and a can of spray paint.  Its really quite remarkable.  Most of these works can be found in London and, in our opinion, it only added to the city.  Unfortunately, the officials don't feel that way and many sites have been painted over or just plain removed.

  
This book takes you all around London to 65 sites and shows you an image of the original work and what the site looks like today, along with a written status of the artwork.  This small-sized book is a fantastic and handy guide for anyone wanting to do a tour of London and see the sites of Banksy's historic work, or just a fan that wants to flip through it for the sake of knowlege.  Either way, I cannot recommend this title enough! 

 

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The Red Army Faction from Book Legion

RAFBook Legion
May 2010
 
About the Book: The first in a two-volume series, this is by far the most in-depth political history of the Red Army Faction ever made available in English.

Projectiles for the People starts its story in the days following World War II, showing how American imperialism worked hand in glove with the old pro-Nazi ruling class, shaping West Germany into an authoritarian anti-communist bulwark and launching pad for its aggression against Third World nations. The volume also recounts the opposition that emerged from intellectuals, communists, independent leftists, and then – explosively – the radical student movement and countercultural revolt of the 1960s.

It was from this revolt that the Red Army Faction emerged, an underground organization devoted to carrying out armed attacks within the Federal Republic of Germany, in the view of establishing a tradition of illegal, guerilla resistance to imperialism and state repression. Through its bombs and manifestos the RAF confronted the state with opposition at a level many activists today might find difficult to imagine.

For the first time ever in English, this volume presents all of the manifestos and communiqués issued by the RAF between 1970 and 1977, from Andreas Baader’s prison break, through the 1972 May Offensive and the 1975 hostage-taking in Stockholm, to the desperate, and tragic, events of the “German Autumn” of 1977. The RAF’s three main manifestos – The Urban Guerilla Concept, Serve the People, and Black September – are included, as are important interviews with Spiegel and le Monde Diplomatique, and a number of communiqués and court statements explaining their actions.

Providing the background information that readers will require to understand the context in which these events occurred, separate thematic sections deal with the 1976 murder of Ulrike Meinhof in prison, the 1977 Stammheim murders, the extensive use of psychological operations and false-flag attacks to discredit the guerilla, the state’s use of sensory deprivation torture and isolation wings, and the prisoners’ resistance to this, through which they inspired their own supporters and others on the left to take the plunge into revolutionary action.

Drawing on both mainstream and movement sources, this book is intended as a contribution to the comrades of today – and to the comrades of tomorrow – both as testimony to those who struggled before and as an explanation as to how they saw the world, why they made the choices they made, and the price they were made to pay for having done so.

Our Take: The RAF is an infamous group that formed back in 1970.  The Red Army Faction is associated with Baader and Meinhof, two of the groups organizers.  A recent film, the Baader-Meinhof Complex, brought this legendary revolutionary group to light for many of us in the west that many not be as familiar with it as those in Germany.  This book represents volume one of a two volume set.

To say this book is comprehensive is an understatement.  This softcover book is almost 700 pages full of information!  The RAF was a group of young revolutionaries that went underground in the 70s and revolted against the post-WWII still largely nazi-controlled West German government.  The group quickly lost sight of their goals and tore itself apart, but not before becoming a cultural icon and a symbol for revolution in Germany more powerful than Che Guevara is to the rest of the world. 

The RAF, their actions and symbolism has inspired countless youth and even popular music, like Atari Teenage Riot.   This volume was very enjoyable, and I look forward to checking out volume 2!  The Red Army Faction, A Documentary History Volume 1 is a fantastic look into the world of grass roots revolution and the complications of the human factor.
 



Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism Book Review

Book Legion
May 2010
 
About the Book: Navigating the broad 'river of anarchy', from Taoism to Situationism, from Ranters to Punk rockers, from individualists to communists, from anarcho-syndicalists to anarcha-feminists, Demanding the Impossible is an authoritative and lively study of a widely misunderstood subject. It explores the key anarchist concepts of society and the state, freedom and equality, authority and power and investigates the successes and failure of the anarchist movements throughout the world. While remaining sympathetic to anarchism, it presents a balanced and critical account. It covers not only the classic anarchist thinkers, such as Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Reclus and Emma Goldman, but also other libertarian figures, such as Nietzsche, Camus, Gandhi, Foucault and Chomsky. No other book on anarchism covers so much so incisively.

In this updated edition, a new epilogue examines the most recent developments, including 'post-anarchism' and 'anarcho-primitivism' as well as the anarchist contribution to the peace, green and 'Global Justice' movements.

Demanding the Impossible is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand what anarchists stand for and what they have achieved. It will also appeal to those who want to discover how anarchism offers an inspiring and original body of ideas and practices which is more relevant than ever in the twenty-first century.

Our Take: Any book with a chapter on Emma Goldman is okay in my mind.  This History of Anarchism is 818 pages (including indexes) FULL of detailed information.  This is no dummies guide to Anarchy, this is a thorough and complete text that will keep you intrigued.  The author couldn't have squeezed more information into this book.

Anarchy is a concept that is often misunderstood.   Its often associated with violence, chaos and revolution.  The hilarious part is that all political systems come into power through violence, not the least of which is democracy, which continues to employ violence to spread it's wings throughout the world.  In all reality, very few Anarchists have turned to violent protest. 

This book covers everyone from Tolstoy to Goldman and Stirner.  The range of Anarchy is vast, easily as vast as any other system.  It ranges from right to left on the political scale and can appeal to everyone from a socialist to a libertarian!  If you have any interest in learning about the true Anarchism and it's history, this is definately the book for you.  Its insightful, interesting and delightful.
 



Desde lo mas bajo del monton

reseña de la autobiografía de Robert Hillary King
By Carolina Saldaña
Noticias de la Rebelion
April 19, 2010

"Soy libre de Angola, pero Angola nunca será libre de mí", dijo el ex Pantera Negra y ex-preso político de "los 3 de Angola" al salir de la notoria plantación de esclavos en Luisiana en 2001. 

A las 4:12 de la tarde el 8 de febrero de 2001, los presos igual que los familiares y simpatizantes de Robert Hillary King, también conocido como Robert King Wilkerson, gritaron su apoyo cuando él salió del infame penitenciario de Angola después de estar encerrado ahí durante más de 31 años. Desde entonces, no ha dejado de trabajar por la libertad de sus compañeros Albert Woodfox y Herman Wallace; juntos, se conocen como “los 3 de Angola”. A principios de los años ’70, estos Panteras Negras organizaron a los demás presos a resistir la degradación, violencia y muerte en “la prisión más sangrienta de Estados Unidos”, ampliamente reconocida como una moderna plantación de esclavos en el estado de Luisiana. Convencidas de que lo harían de nuevo, dada la oportunidad, las autoridades han optado por mantenerlos aislados durante décadas. King pasó 29 años solo, y hasta la fecha, Woodfox y Wallace han vivido más de 37 años en estas condiciones de tortura.

King empieza su autobiografía, Desde lo más bajo del montón (PM Press, 2009), con estas palabras: “Nací en Estados Unidos. Nací negro y pobre. ¿Es de extrañar, entonces, que he pasado la gran parte de mi vida en prisión?” Cuenta su historia personal de manera directa y sencilla, con muchos detalles y reflexiones que nos dejan saber que también está contando la experiencia diaria de millones de sus contemporáneos.

Agradece a su mamá biológica haberlo dejado con su abuela, quien lo amaba igual que sus otros nueve hijos e hijas. Para él, ella era Mama, la que los cuidaba aunque “trabajaba en los campos de caña del amanecer al atardecer por menos de un dólar diario y en temporada baja lavaba, planchaba y limpiaba el piso para los blancos” del pueblo de Gonzales, Luisiana, “por unos centavillos o por las sobras de la mesa”.

Se acuerda que cuando tenía cuatro años, pasaba con Mama por la cárcel del pueblo, donde un primo lejano trabajaba como custodio. Cuando el hombre le ofrecía comida, nada más le miró fijamente. No quería nada de esa comida. Se fijó en otro hombre negro en un rincón, tras mucho “hierro flaco” y sentía una afinidad con él. Dijo Mama que el hombre era un “cornvicto” y que ha de haber hecho algo mal para estar ahí. Al buscar el por qué, el niño se acordó de que hubo muchas milpas de maíz (corn en inglés) alrededor del pueblo y razonó que el hombre probablemente vivía ahí entre las plantas y “fue considerado malo por hacerlo”.

Lloró cuando uno de sus parientes ejecutó a su querido perro Ring, un pastor alemán muy inteligente que “encontraba” cosas ––“¡hasta zapatos en pares!” Pero un día Ring mordió a su hermano James. Estaba babeando y tuvo “una mirada feroz en sus ojos”. Se consideró que “se había vuelto loco” pero al reflexionar después, King recuerda que tenía remordimiento y que pidió disculpas con los ojos antes de recibir un disparo.

En 1947, la familia cambió de casa y de ciudad, llegando a Algiers, la parte de Nueva Orleans al otro lado del “lodoso Río Misisipi”. Ahí el pequeño Robert conoció a Mule, quien quería a Mama y se responsabilizó de ayudarle a mantener la familia, trabajando duro cuando había trabajo. Amenizó sus días con un poco de Muscatel, y los días de Robert con su buen sentido de humor y su cariño. Dice King: “Lo pinté padre”.

Robert también empezó a conocer las calles de Nueva Orleans y aprendió a pelear para sobrevivir y convivir ahí. En estos años la familia supo que dos de los hermanos mayores, Houston y Henry, estaban en prisión en otras ciudades, algo que a Mama le causó gran tristeza.

A la edad de 13, conoció a su padre natural, Hillary, y se fue a vivir con él y su esposa Babs en el pueblo de Donaldson durante un par de años. No lo trataban bien y su papá le pegó con frecuencia. Por otro lado, le iba bien en la escuela y al pasar por los antros del pueblo, tuvo la fortuna de conocer los sonidos de Big Joe Turner, Chuck Willis, Big Mama Thornton, Ruth Brown, Jackie Wilson y muchos otros, pero su cantante favorito era Sam Cooke. Por fin Robert regresó a Nueva Orleans, dejándoles a Hillary y Babs $50 (que había robado) y una nota diciendo que esta cantidad de dinero “debe ser más que suficiente para cubrir todo el cariño que ustedes me han mostrado”.

Al no encontrar trabajo en Algiers, tomó la decisión de ir al Norte—a Chicago–, con sueños de ganar miles de dólares para enviar a Mama. En camino conoció a dos vagabundos blancos, un encuentro poco usual en el mundo de apartheid del Sur de Estados Unidos. Corrió suerte. Ellos permitieron que los acompañara y compartieron la nada que tenían con él. Pero en Chicago también las puertas le estaban cerradas, y Robert se cansó de dormir en calles cubiertas de hielo. Regresó a casa con la ayuda de otro vagabundo, pero no antes de que un oficial de la YMCA le tendiera una trampa, haciéndolo pasar tres semanas en un centro de detención. Al regresar, sus pies le dolían tanto que no pudo caminar. Según el diagnóstico de Mama, fue un caso de congelación, y ella le curó con cataplasmas de nabo sueco.

En 1958, su hermana compasiva Ruth murió en un aborto mal hecho que ella se sintió obligada a pedir porque para recibir la asistencia social que necesitaba, tenía que prometer no tener más hijos. Ésta fue la política del Departamento de Servicio Social durante décadas. Un poco después, Mama se fue al hospital y la familia supo que ella tenía cáncer. Después de varias visitas la enviaron a casa a morir.

Cuando tenía 15 años, Robert fue detenido porque cuadraba con la descripción de alguien que había robado una gasolinera. Lo enviaron al reformatorio de Scotlandville. Sintió que dentro de lo que cabía, no le fue tan mal. De hecho, no pudo creer su suerte al encontrar que ¡hubo chicas en la misma institución! Al enamorarse de Cat, se encontró en violación de un código callejero que prohibía a una chica andar con alguien mientras su ex novio todavía estaba en el reformatorio. Un chavo podía hacerlo, pero una chava, no. Esto no le pareció bien a Robert, quien siguió con el romance. El otro, que se llamaba Pug, tenía fama de boxeador y quería arreglar el asunto en el ring. Dice King: “Sus movimientos mecanizados y predecibles no estaban al nivel de mi estilo callejero.…Él se fue al hospital durante tres días y cuando salió, muy amablemente me dio su bendición para seguir mi relación con Cat. Se rompió el código. Éramos amigos, más o menos.”

De ahí en adelante, las cosas fueron de mal en peor para King con respecto a sus problemas con la ley. Unos cien años atrás, cuando los estados sureños reemplazaron sus “códigos de esclavitud” con “los códigos negros” para restringir la libertad de la población negra, las leyes contra la vagancia proliferaban. Durante la juventud de Robert, todavía estaba en efecto una ordenanza que requería que una persona llevara consigo pruebas de sus medios de apoyo. Si no tenía el requerido boleto o un recibo, podría ser encarcelado durante 72 horas. La ordenanza “72” fue especialmente aplicada contra los jóvenes negros, y a King le tocó la cárcel varias veces, incluso cuando pudo comprobar sus ingresos.

Una tarde en 1961, Robert andaba en una carcacha con unos amigos de Scotlandville, cuando fueron detenidos bajo sospecho de robo por el mismo policía que lo había enviado al reformatorio. Sus tres amigos fueron identificados por las víctimas, pero como nadie señaló a Robert, las autoridades decidieron que él ha de haber manejado el coche en que huyeron. Dice King: “Esta teoría podría haber sido fácilmente rebatida si yo hubiera tenido el dinero para contratar a un abogado, porque yo ni siquiera sabía cómo manejar un coche”.

Sin embargo, el joven de 18 años fue enviado al penitenciario de Angola por la primera de tres veces. Cuando los 12 presos encadenados juntos, todos negros, bajaron de la camioneta y entraron por la puerta de la prisión, Robert sintió que “había sido arrojado para atrás, hacia el pasado”. La manera en que los custodios hablaban, caminaban y trataban a los presos era “de otra época”. También hubo muchos presos que funcionaban como guardias, quienes compartían el mismo desprecio para los presos y los golpeaban y perseguían con ganas si intentaban escapar. En aquel entonces, alrededor de 4,000 presos trabajaban en la plantación de 7,400 hectáreas por dos centavos y medio cada hora. Dos tercios eran negros, de los cuales casi ninguno trabajaba en las oficinas; estos puestos fueron reservados para los presos blancos.

Angola nació como una plantación de esclavos a mediados del siglo diecinueve. Era una de las muchas plantaciones del Sur convertidas en prisiones después de la Guerra Civil, una maniobra que permitió que la clase dominante siguiera sacando ganancias del trabajo no remunerado de los Negros. Hoy en día, 5,000 presos, 80% de los cuales son negros, trabajan las mismas tierras por entre dos y cuatro centavos la hora.

Al entrar en el dormitorio de Angola, fue una grata sorpresa para Robert encontrar ahí a su tío Henry; no lo había visto desde hace seis años. En lo que el joven describe como una “zona de guerra”, donde vio a los presos atrapados en un desastroso patrón de “fratricidio”, “suicidio y auto-destrucción”, su tío le ayudó a calmarse para poder sobrevivir. En Angola, Robert aprendió todos los aspectos de cultivar, cosechar y procesar caña. Su tío le instruyó en el boxeo, y un amigo llamado Cap Pistol le enseñó a hacer pralines ––dulces de azúcar y nuez.

Cuando salió del penitenciario bajo libertad condicional en noviembre de 1965, a la edad de 22, sintió que fue un logro haber salido vivo de ahí. Trabajó en el boxeo unos meses, se casó y estaba para ser papá cuando fue atrapado en una operación encubierta. Su libertad condicional fue revocada, y fue enviado a Angola de nuevo, donde trabajó en el campo y en la cocina. Conoció a su hijo en el cuarto de visitas. Ya no vio su encarcelamiento como su destino, como antes; sabía quién lo había enviado ahí pero aún no sabía por qué.

Cuando salió en enero de ’69 sintió que la situación en Angola era peor que en ’61 –más homicidios, más esclavitud económica, más esclavitud sexual. Pero también había ocurrido un dramático cambio en la ciudad, y el impulso a la “Consciencia Negra” estuvo fuerte en Nueva Orleans. Robert se identificó con esto y le gustaba decir “Soy Negro y soy orgulloso”. No quería que su pequeño hijo sufriera lo que él había sufrido y trabajó duro para mantenerlo. Disfrutó enormemente del tiempo que pasó con él.

En febrero de 1970, a la edad de 28, King fue incriminado por un robo cometido por Wortham Jones y alguien descrito como un señor de 40 años. Jones nombró a King como su cómplice, pero durante el juicio retractó su testimonio de manera enfática, acusando a la policía de torturarlo. Ya era tarde. No hubo una sola prueba contra King, pero el fiscal convenció a sus amigos del jurado a encontrarlo culpable y sentenciarlo a 35 años. Aunque a King le costó trabajo no guardarle “una rabia asesina” a Jones por colaborar en robarle la vida, pasó muchas hora reflexionando sobre sus motivos y su retractación. Por fin tomó la decisión de dirigir esa rabia contra el sistema.

King ya consideraba las apelaciones presentadas por su abogado una mera formalidad. Quería “apelar” de otra manera, y con otros 20 reos que también sentían la necesidad de “apelar sólo a sí mismos”, salió corriendo de la cárcel. Dice que aunque la fuga fue bien planeada, descuidaban los detalles de cómo mantenerse invisibles fuera de los muros. Sólo tres lograron evitar la captura inmediata. Unas horas después, uno de ellos recibió una bala fatal, otro negoció su entrega, y solo King se mantuvo “invisible” durante dos semanas antes de que alguien lo delatara. La fuga le costó una sentencia de ocho años adicionales.

King había estado consciente de la tremenda transformación que estaba ocurriendo en el país, especialmente con respecto a los Africano-americanos, pero su despertar definitorio ocurrió cuando se enteró de la presencia del partido Panteras Negras ahí mismo en Nueva Orleans. Esto ocurrió cuando vio en la tele la balacera sin precedente entre la policía y un grupo de hombres y mujeres negros en la Calle Desire. No tardó mucho en conocerlos personalmente en la cárcel de Nueva Orleans.

Se acuerda de una Pantera que se llamaba Cathy, quien “dio fuerza a muchos de los presos” y “fue la inspiración más grande” para él. En sus pláticas con Ron Ailsworth, llegó a entender la grave situación colonial de los negros y también la situación de otra gente pobre en Estados Unidos. Los dos platicaron también de la colectividad y de los medios y métodos de lucha. El aprendizaje no quedó en palabras. Para lograr un cambio en las horribles condiciones de la cárcel, que incluía grandes ratas y aguas negras que inundaban los pasillos donde los presos dormían en el suelo, los Panteras en una sección de la cárcel retuvieron dos guardias, mientras en su sección, King participó en una huelga de hambre con cientos de presos. A pesar de las represalias, tuvieron éxito en llamar la atención pública a las condiciones.

Para King, la ideología de los Panteras Negras “definió la experiencia pasada y actual de los Negros en América” y ofreció maneras alternativas de resistir la represión “política, económica, racial y socialmente por los medios que fueran necesarios” en la tradición de Malcolm X. Lo importante era trabajar con la gente desde abajo y que “la gente fuera su propia vanguardia”. La organización buscaba “libertad, justicia, tierra, pan, educación, vivienda y un fin a la brutalidad policiaca y la ocupación policial de la comunidad negra”. King estaba de acuerdo con la idea del nacionalismo negro, es decir, con la lucha de su pueblo africano-americano, y, a la vez, con el internacionalismo. Le pareció lógico que los cambios necesarios vendrían a través de una revolución.

Fue en la cárcel de Nueva Orleans que King recibió la trágica noticia que su hijo tenía un tumor cerebral. Un poco después, el pequeño Robert murió a los cinco años, dejando a su papá devastado, llorando, pero con un compromiso renovado de comprender todo.

“Al estudiar y conocer a mi enemigo, también me conocí a mí mismo y mi lugar en la historia…Vi que todos somos prescindibles para el sistema. Vi el sufrimiento de mi mamá y de su mamá y de la mamá de su mamá. Vi como despojaron a mis antepasados de sus tierras y los llevaron aquí en cadenas, por la fuerza. Les quitaron todo sentido de responsabilidad; su única obligación fue a su servidumbre. Vi como la madre se volvió la figura paterna dominante dentro de la unidad esclava mientras el padre no conocía a sus propios hijos. Logré poner en perspectiva algunas de las acciones de mi papá Hillary. Nacido en un mundo blanco y dominado a cada paso, él sintió la necesidad de dominar”.

En 1971, King fue trasladado a Angola de nuevo. El mismo año, Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace y Ron Ailsworth, entre otros afiliados con el partido Panteras Negras, habían llegado ahí y establecido una agrupación del partido dentro de la prisión. King llegó justo después de que alguien había asesinado a Brent Miller, un guardia blanco. Durante días, la prisión estuvo cerrada. No hubo visitas. Hubo castigos masivos contra los presos negros. King fue enviado a la mazmorra con cientos de otros presos bajo “investigación”; fueron golpeados salvajemente, obligados a correr desnudos entre dos filas de guardias que los azotaron y echados en celdas vacías y frías. A King y a varios otros les encontraron “culpables de fingir de ser abogados” y los enviaron al pabellón de la muerte, donde vivieron condiciones de hambruna.

Después, King fue enviado al aislamiento de la unidad de Celdas Cerradas y Restringidas (CCR). En esta unidad de siete pisos, los presos estaban en sus celdas 23 horas diario, 7 días a la semana. Durante años no pudieron salir al patio. Sólo pudieron salir de sus celdas una hora diario para bañarse. El 10 de junio de 1973, un preso fue asesinado, y los once presos que se encontraban fuera de sus celdas fueron acusados de su muerte. Sólo King y Grady Brewer fueron encontrados culpables debido al testimonio falso de dos “testigos sorpresivos sobornados”. Los dos fueron enjuiciados en cadenas, con cinta que cubría la boca; los sentenciaron a cadena perpetua.

Durante estos años Albert Woodfox y Heman Wallace enfrentaron acusaciones de haber asesinado a Brent Miller aunque ellos no se encontraban remotamente cercanos al lugar donde el guardia fue asesinado. Sin embargo, fueron acusados, enjuiciados y condenados por su muerte como represalia por ser Panteras. El fiscal contaba con el testimonio falso del reconocido soplón Hezekiah Brown en el caso de Woodfox, y con la cooperación de Chester Jackson en el caso de Wallace. Dice King que la corte ignoró el testimonio de un preso que estaba limpiando el piso la mañana del asesinato, quien testificó que la única persona que él vio cerca de la escena fue “un muchacho blanco”. También menciona la “evidencia” que se rumora en la prisión –– que el mismo Subdirector Hayden Dees “hizo lo impensable” y ordenó el asesinato de Miller debido a su rencor por no haber sido nombrado Director. Dice Robert: “Si esto es cierto, Dees, siendo el racista que es, nunca hubiera enviado a un preso negro a asesinar a un guardia blanco”.

En un momento King logró ser transferido al “piso de los Panteras” con Woodfox y Wallace, donde pudo avisarles que hubo un plan para romper la unidad de los presos en el piso y enviar a los Panteras a distintos lugares. Hicieron preparativos y batallaron durante toda la noche antes de que las autoridades por fin lograran sacarlos de ahí.

Desde 1974 hasta 1978, cuando se encontraron en el mismo piso de vez en cuando, usaron su hora fuera de las celdas para comunicarse, compartir materiales de lectura y organizar unas protestas. Tuvieron éxito en lograr unos cambios, incluso el poner fin a la práctica de recibir su comida en la suciedad del suelo debajo de las rejas, y el restringir las denigrantes revisiones rectales. Tomaron la decisión de poner resistencia. “No seríamos participantes voluntarios en nuestra degradación”. Sabían que habría graves consecuencias y que los iban a separar; por eso, intercambiaron direcciones y números de teléfono de parientes fuera de la prisión. Dice King que lo llevaron a una oficina en cadenas donde hubo filas de guardias con bates, toletes y otras armas. “Me negué a doblarme. Peleamos. Por fin me sometieron.” Lo llevaron al Campamento J, el centro de castigo, y lo acusaron de atacar a los oficiales. Pero “esa noche no hubo revisión rectal”. Woodfox llamó a los familiares de King, quienes hablaron por teléfono a la prisión. “Esto me ahorró más lesiones y posiblemente la muerte”. Los presos ganaron una demanda civil en la cual la corte prohibió las “rutinarias revisiones anales”. Dice King que ahora las revisiones sólo ocurren cuando se puedan justificar, “lo que sea que eso signifique”.

King pasó dos años en el Campamento J, donde la tortura física y psicológica de los presos no se frena. Dice: “Fui informado por unos oficiales del campamento que lo que ellos hacían fue aprobado por personas en posiciones de poder”. Reporta que construyeron toda una unidad psiquiátrica en la prisión, principalmente para las víctimas de las atrocidades perpetradas en el Campamento J.

Con respecto al terror que vivió durante sus años en aislamiento, King dice que sin la valoración del partido Panteras Negras, “no pude haber sobrevivido esos 29 años…es la verdad que me ha sostenido”. Explica que la consigna del partido “Todo el poder al pueblo” viene del concepto que “el poder en realidad reside en el pueblo” pero que la gente “ha entregado ese poder a un pequeño grupo llamado políticos” y de esta manera “queda a la merced de las siempre cambiantes restricciones definidas como leyes”.

Para King, es primordial reconocer la prisión como una perpetuación de la esclavitud. Supuestamente abolida por la Enmienda 13 a la Constitución, la esclavitud está permitida para “personas debidamente condenadas de un crimen”. Menciona que Mumia Abu-Jamal está en prisión porque la esclavitud nunca fue abolida. También Jalil Al Amin, antes H. Rap Brown, los 8 de San Francisco, Herman Wallace y Albert Woodfox. “Hay que reconocer la prisión como esclavitud y dejar que los políticos sepan que nosotros sabemos esto”, dice King. “Nosotros mismos, la gente, somos nuestro mejor recurso”

En 1988, el preso que había testificado contra King en su juicio se arrepintió de haber colaborado con el Estado. Deseaba declarar públicamente que había mentido. Le dio a King una declaración jurada al efecto y un poco después, otro preso también se retractó, abriendo una nueva avenida de apelaciones.

Dice King que en 1998, gracias al ex Pantera Malik Rahim de Nueva Orleans, un movimiento conformado principalmente de anarquistas y ex Panteras empezó a organizar apoyo comunitario para “los 3 de Angola”, un esfuerzo que también atrajo apoyo internacional y ayudó en lograr su libertad en 2001.

Desde su salida de prisión ese año, King gana la vida haciendo dulces de azúcar y nuez llamados freelines. Pero su verdadero trabajo es ganar la libertad de sus dos compañeros y ayudar a poner fin a la tortura y esclavitud en la prisión más grande del país, una prisión que no es una aberración, sino el prototipo del moderno complejo industrial carcelario en Estados Unidos ––Angola.

Dice King: “Soy libre de Angola, pero Angola nunca será libre de mí”.


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Feminist Review on 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance

By Lesley Kartali
Feminist Review
May 21st, 2010

We are all familiar with the smiling happy portrayals of pilgrims sitting down to dinner with Native Americans, or perhaps the slightly more critical viewpoint from many of our high school history books of the Indigenous people being simply helpless victims to European colonization. However, neither of these views is, in reality, very accurate.

500 Years of Indigenous Resistance was originally published in 1992 by Gord Hill, the native artist, activist, and at the time, member of the revolutionary Indigenous newspaper, OH-TOH-KIN. The book is in a pamphlet style with artwork throughout its pages. It starts with the arrival of Columbus in the Americas and goes up through history to chronicle native resistance in North and South America until after WWII, even up through the 1960s. It was originally published just before the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994, and so was extremely relevant and insightful both then and now.

Even though I was aware that the history of the Americas many of us were taught growing up was very skewed towards celebrating white European colonialism, I hadn’t read anything, until this, that so clearly shows all the various Native American resistance movements that have existed. Lacking from most of written American history of the past 500 years is a detailed exploration of the resistance of native peoples and how they influenced and limited the colonialism to which they struggled against. 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance fills in this gap in an extensive way. It also records all the horrendous and calculating strategies of colonization employed to destroy native people, wipe out whole cultures, and steal land.

While many people, including myself, could probably not give names of more than a few tribes, this book speaks of all the millions of indigenous people there were 500 years ago, an estimated 70 to 100 million people. Even now after hundreds of years of colonization there are still an estimated forty million indigenous people. The book chronicles the various resistance strategies that native peoples utilized: demonstrations, festivals, violent uprisings, the creation of alliances with other tribes or nations, protests, occupations, road blocks, forming organizations to oppose governmental policies, and most recently, organizing around international bodies.

In a country that still has offensive caricatures of Native Americans on display for sports team mascots, it is easy to get discouraged that there will be any real recognition of the magnitude of the American Indian Holocaust, the mass genocide of Native peoples that has run rampant the past 500 years and continues on today. But books such as 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance which don't glorify, romanticize, or just plain omit all the horrors that abound throughout this history of colonization, stand to give us some hope. For they just give us the facts, but, more importantly, the ones we most likely have never heard before.

It would be an amazing thing to make copies of this work and slip into every school in America and slide it into every history book for children to read. Well, it is no less crucial and eye-opening a book for existing simply on its own. It is a rare event to read books that really have the potential to change the way that you think about things, that help you unlearn many lies and find yourself faced with honest truths. It always gives me the chills to read something from a new perspective and to know that this information is being let loose in the world, seeking to help us to open our eyes, to learn from the past, and to ultimately change for the better.

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Derrick Jensen: Lives Less Valuable

By David
WritersCast
April 4, 2010

Derrick Jensen is one of the most intelligent nonfiction writers around.  His intellectual ability, brilliant writing and passionate voice for nature, for the powerless (not just people, but our fellow plant and animal species), and for the wounded, have made him a hero for many who oppose the structures of modern society.  I was not familiar with his fiction before reading Lives Less Valuable.  It’s very difficult to write fiction with a political message, but Jensen succeeds here.  Even though the reader knows there is a political subtext, the story and the characters work well, they’re both believable and instructive.

The story centers on Malia, an environmental activist in a modern city where people are dying from a toxic river.  The corporation that is at the root of the problem does everything possible to maximize its profits and does not care about the environmental cost borne by the poor people of the city.  She is drawn into a complex web of events that forces her to make choices about her beliefs and what she must do to make meaningful change, and when she does, the effects of her choices resonate through the lives of many others.  And they do make a difference.

Talking to Derrick Jensen was a great experience for me.  He has so much to say about human beings, our relationship to nature, and the meaning of political action, not to mention writing and story telling.  In this interview he talked about many subjects, including the nature of activism, the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction, and the details of the writing of this book.  He’s as eloquent and brilliant a speaker as he is a writer.  Derrick Jensen truly is one of our great public intellectuals.  Please note that this interview is longer than usual at 32 minutes, but should reward the listener with a worthwhile experience.

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Outspoken Authors in Short Takes

Left Left Behind

By Gary K. Wolfe
Locus
April 2010

PM Press is a small, radical Oakland publisher which seems to be striving for a vaguely samizdat ambience and whose mission statement is so idealistic it almost sounds nostalgic ("We seek to create radical and stimulating fiction and nonfiction, books, pamphlets, t-shirts, visual and audio materials...We aim to distribute these through every available channel," etc.). In recent months they've begun a series of short books highlighting "Outspoken Authors", often featuring one or two stories plus an interview, and among the first authors featured are Terry Bisson and Kim Stanley Robinson. SF has always had its share of committed leftists, but -- as with talk radio and TV -- the most visible ideologues in the genre have tended to be Libertarians or conservatives (or in some cases, advocates of bizarre political philosophies of their own making). Bisson and Robinson, though, have never hesitated to make their positions clear, and it would be hard to think of two better choices among living SF writers for this series. Bisson is the more aggressively anarchic and broadly satirical of the two, and it's likely the story and short play in his The Left Left Behind are less familiar to SF readers than Robinson's selections ("The Lucky Strike" and "A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions"). Bisson leads off with a sharp parody of the "Left Behind" series of fundamentalist apocalypses, showing how -- tribulations notwithstanding -- the world is actually better off after the believers get sucked out of their plane seats (neatly folded clothes left behind). The style of the piece is so bluntly simplistic -- tiny chapters with headings like "Moments Later" or "Suddenly" -- that it takes a few beats to realize he's parodying LaHaye and Jenkins, who he seems to have actually read (I haven't, which is why it took me a bit to catch on). The second piece is a play called Special Relativity, in which Einstein, Paul Robeson, and J. Edgar Hoover somehow get resurrected during preparations for an anti-Bush rally and are stunned to learn what the world has become. As funny as both these pieces are, it's not all comfort food for liberals; in both pieces, for example, Bisson includes Israeli militarism among his targets.

Robinson's "The Lucky Strike" and its semi-nonfiction companion piece "A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions" are more widely familiar, with "The Lucky Strike" having achieved near-classic status among alternate-history fictions and "A Sensitive Dependence" remaining one of the most incisive and provocative discussion of what alternative history is good for in elucidating our understanding of historical processes. The lynchpin event (or "divergence point," in Connie Willis's term) of "The Lucky Strike", and the central hypothetical example of "A Sensitive Dependence", is an aircraft welder whose faulty weld on a B·29 causes the plane that was to be the Enola Gay to crash, killing Paul Tibbets and the crew and resulting in the Hiroshima mission being given to a crew that includes Frank January, who in turn decides to delay releasing the bomb, causing it to explode away from the city itself and radically affecting the next few decades of history. It's still a compelling story, but so widely available that the chief attraction of the book is likely the interview that takes up nearly a third of the volume and includes some provocative points, such as a ringing defense of what Robinson sees as the badly misnamed infodump (Bisson's interview is quite a bit shorter, and seems to be conducted by someone not deeply familiar with his work, though it does add usefully to our understanding of his political background and brief imprisonment.) Both compact and attractive volumes also include bibliographies which seem to be reasonably complete.

For more on Bisson's Left Left Behind | For more on K.S. Robinson's Lucky Strike




Peter Kuper’s Oaxaca Diary

By Kevin McCloskey
CommonSense2 Journal
April 2010

As a kid, my favorite part of Mad Magazine was a miniature comic relegated to margins called Spy vs. Spy. For years the dueling spies were drawn by the late, great, Cuban cartoonist, Antonio Prohias. Since 1997, Spy vs. Spy has been drawn by Peter spy-vs-spy.jpgKuper. Prohias’s Cold War satire was literally, and metaphorically, a black and white affair. Kuper has maintained the classic spies’ wide-brimmed hats and their manic energy, but he’s added shades of gray to the endless duel. Kuper’s gritty shadows look as if they were stenciled on the page with a half-empty can of spray enamel.

Kuper is a writer, educator, graphic novelist, and successful illustrator. His best known works include a graphic novel version of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the award-winning children’s book, Sticks and Stones. He’s done covers for Time and Newsweek and won a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators in 2004. He was also among the first cartoonists to draw a comic strip for the New York Times.

At the top of his game in July, 2006, Kuper decided to take a sabbatical. Few illustrators, apart from those who are also academics, take sabbaticals. His father was a university professor, however, and Kuper had fond memories of living abroad during his dad’s sabbatical year.

He chose the beautiful city of Oaxaca, Mexico for its colonial charm and history. He also wanted his nine year-old daughter, peter-kuper.jpgEmily, to be immersed in another culture. He had no idea Oaxaca would be convulsed by strikes, barricades, riots, mayhem, then a crackdown by the ‘federales’ that would leave at least 20 protesters shot dead.

“I wasn’t looking for trouble. On the contrary, I was hoping for some escape. Escape from the United States under Bush’s administration, escape from my workaholic schedule, escape from the consumer culture and a ceaseless barrage of depressing news stories. ”

Kuper and his family were in Oaxaca through the most tumultuous days of 2006 and 2007 and he kept a remarkable sketchbook diary. The full title is Diario de Oaxaca: A Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico. Mostly pictures, it is perhaps 15% text, and the text is presented in both Spanish and English. Diario is being simultaneously published in Mexico, so there is a practical reason for the bilingual format. The format, however, also demonstrates Kuper’s evident respect for the language and culture of Mexico.

Kuper became a cartoonist imbedded in history. Oddly enough, there is a tradition of cartoonists as witnesses to history. Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Starapi’s Persepolis, graphic memoirs based on their own familiy histories are well-known. Joe soldiers.jpgSacco’s Palestine is first-rate cartoon reportage. Readers should search out the work of the British cartoonist, Ronald Searle, who at age 20 was interned in a Japanese POW camp. Keiji Nagazawa drew Barefoot Gen based on his childhood memories of the atomic bomb blast in his hometown of Hiroshima. These examples, with the exception of Searle’s work, were published in traditional graphic novel format. Kuper’s Diary is not your typical graphic novel, a few pages do contain comic strips, but more overflow with impressions, sketches, color notes, even some photos and photocollages.

Kuper writes, “My eyes constantly watch for new subjects, and drawing in my sketchbook has become a daily obsession.” He describes how his senses became heightened by the experience of being a witness, not just his vision, but his hearing, even his sense of taste and smell.

One might ask, what is the point of sketchbook journalism in a digital age? Fair question. As an illustrator myself, and familiar with Oaxaca, I found Kuper’s diary profound and moving. One day in 2008, when I was in Oaxaca, there was a small demonstration on a street corner. I watched it unfold. David Venegas, a charismatic young radical, was denouncing injustice to about thirty people through a bullhorn. Two blocks to the east, pickup trucks filled with armed riot police were at the ready.  A few graffiti.jpgyards in the other direction was a covey of photojournalists. The photojournalists wore their standard uniform, multi-pocketed khaki vests, shoulder bags, and cameras with enormous telephoto lenses. This was a tiny peaceful demonstration and it ended without incident, nothing like the chaos Kuper witnessed in 2006.  An American standing near me gestured toward the press photographers and said, “This will look like a hell of a confrontation in tomorrow’s newspapers. With those telephoto lenses it will look like the police were toe to toe with the demonstrators.” He was right.

The camera’s image, even without Photoshop, can distort the truth. An artist’s sketch, on the other hand, makes no pretense of objectivity. Seeing the actual marks a person makes on a page alongside their written words affords the reader a special insight.  We get the sense that we know Peter Kuper, that we are in the company of a friend, and that our friend is a reliable witness to history.

At one point Kuper experiences an earthquake and notes “Living in Oaxaca during the political upheavals of 2006, and seeing how those events were covered by major news outlets, I’ve come to believe that most news is all sizzle without the quake. If we are not witnessing an event first hand, then we have to accept hearsay and a tremendous amount of that hearsay is misinformation and sometimes even outright lies. Yet we clutter our minds and discussions with the endless stream of inaccurate or useless information we receive.”

Kuper’s Oaxaca Diary isn’t news. It is something different, an intense meditation, a fascinating testimony, and work of art.

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