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Open Letter to President Obama: A Pardon for Oscar Lopez Rivera

By Guillermo Rebollo-Gil
November 28th, 2014

Dear President Obama:

Here in Puerto Rico, your lunch with now Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla is commemorated by way of a small plaque on the table in the restaurant where you paid cash for a sandwich in a button-down white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I presume that restaurant owners placed the plaque there because customers might want to sit at the same table where the President of the United States ate a sandwich—they might even want to have their picture taken there. They’re probably right: people often enjoy imbuing everyday activities with historical significance, even when the historical event in question here was not all that significant, when compared to the kinds of things that usually make up the history of nations and so forth. Several months after you left, the island government unveiled a statue of you across the street from the Capitol building in San Juan, next to statues of all the other Presidents who had visited Puerto Rico in the history of American colonial rule over the island. They’re not that many. And there’s no record of what they ate, I don’t think.

I share this because, like so many here, I have a somewhat distorted notion of history and of the events that comprise it. For example, I know that you are the 44th President of the U.S. and that you were first sworn into office on January 20th, 2009. I know this because I turned 30 years old that day and was standing in a crowd of hundreds of thousands in Washington D.C, overwhelmed by the sight of you on the big screen approaching the podium to address the crowd as President for the very first time. I remember thinking “this is historic” and I even managed to convince myself that although I had stood in the middle of a crowd before, that particular occasion was significant. To commemorate it, I bought and kept a copy of the New York Times. However, by the time you made your first visit to Puerto Rico in June 2011, I, as perhaps others around the world, was already significantly underwhelmed by the moral character of your presidency. I sometimes wonder whether it will be those feelings of deception, disillusion and supreme disappointment experienced by millions that will define you historically. Sometimes I hope so. Sometimes I hope not.

Anyway, I’m writing because this past Saturday, I was standing in the middle of a crowd of tens of thousands in front of the Federal Court Building in San Juan, and I was overwhelmed by the sight of so many diverse groups of people, set to march through the city to demand the liberation of Oscar López Rivera, who has served more than 32 years in federal prison for conspiring to oppose U.S. authority by force. At present, he is one of the longest held political prisoners in the U.S., although he was never convicted of directly harming anybody. During his incarceration he has been subjected to behavioral modification programs, kept in isolation. He is 70 years old, has a daughter and a granddaughter whom he met through the glass in a prison visiting room. He deserves to be back home.  Although, to be honest, on January 20th 2009, I was unaware of the particulars of Mr. López Rivera’s incarceration. I was aware, of course, of the historical struggle in Puerto Rico for  independence from the U.S. and of the many men and women who have been imprisoned by the federal government in the history of U.S. colonial rule over the island for attempting to liberate our country—an at once beautiful and nefarious legacy, no doubt. This notwithstanding, it was your name (and not Oscar’s) that I learned to say first, as an affirmation of hope for more progressive politics, individual liberties and social justice—an unfortunate but typical effect of colonialism, no doubt. Thankfully, I don’t say it that way any longer. Instead, I write down the name OSCAR in big, black letters on a poster board and, like thousands upon thousands inside and outside the island, I hope against all odds that you pay attention to a place where people are expected to pay you homage simply because you dropped by and ate a sandwich. I’m writing because I, like so many of us here, would like to have Mr. López Rivera back on the island so we could run into him casually at lunch time and have the opportunity to shake his hand and thank him for doing something as significant as fighting for the liberation of his country, and enduring so many years in prison, all the while giving us hope for more progressive politics, individual liberties and social justice. But I digress.

This is just to say that your lunch here in June 2011 is not significant. Nor is your statue, really, as it does not commemorate anything historical you might have done here. People do insignificant things every day, even Presidents. It’s a historical fact. Some facts, however, stand out more than others. The fact that Oscar López Rivera has spent the last three plus decades in prison stands out the most around these parts. Over the last three plus decades, five different Presidents have been sworn into office. I wonder if it would be possible for you to consider standing out amongst them. I wonder if you would be interested in imbuing your presidency with historical significance in the form of a direct action to assuage this injustice perpetrated by the American government. I wonder if you would be interested in affirming the fundamental American principle of freedom and grant a pardon to Mr. López Rivera. I really hope so. At all times.

On Saturday, students at the march were chanting in unison: “Obama can’t talk about freedom, if he keeps brother Oscar incarcerated.” Thousands upon thousands agreed. And now I am tempted to ask, can you?


Guillermo Rebollo-Gil
San Juan, PR

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Little Known Black History Fact: Russell 'Maroon' Shoatz

by Erica L Taylor
January 6th, 2014

Russell “Maroon” Shoatz  is a former Black Panther Party (BPP) member now serving two life sentences. Shoatz helped to found a revolutionist organization called the Black Unity Council in 1969. From August 1970 to January 1972, Shoatz was an active underground member of the Black Liberation Army, born from the BPP.

Then in 1970, Shoatz was convicted of murdering a police officer in Pennsylvania. He was part of an attack on a Philadelphia police station, leaving one officer dead. Seven years later, Shoatz escaped from a maximum security prison.

He had stolen a gun from a prison guard, Dale Rhone, later abducting him and his 5-year-old son. Rhone’s family was found physically unharmed later, tied to a tree. It was reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette later that Shoatz had built a wooden barrier in the street, to hide himself from unsuspecting drivers, one of which he would take hostage.
He “lived on the land” for 27 days, finding food wherever he could. On October 11th, Shoatz took 27-year-old Calvin Reddings hostage, forcing him to drive him to a new location.

Shoatz was eventually located by his arresting officer, State Trooper Lawrence Szabo. The officer arrested Shoatz at gunpoint while standing on the hood of Redding’s car.

Shoatz attempted another escape from a Fairview prison after another priosoner obtained a machine gun and revolver for him. His attempt was unsuccessful and he was once again captured.

In 2005, Shoatz was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He is now serving two consecutive life sentences and has been held in solitary confinement since 1991. The lights in his cell never turn off. The prisoner has appealed his prison dwellings, the latest in May 2013. Rapper MI from the group Dead Prez has held a benefit in his honor to help Shoatz’ defense.

In April 2013, Russell Shoatz released “Maroon the Implacable: The Collected Writings of Russell Maroon Shoatz” with a foreword by Chuck D.

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All Power to the Councils: A Review in Insurgent Notes

by Gary Roth
Insurgent Notes
December 24th, 2013

Review: Wild Socialism: All Power to the Councils!

Workers’ councils have been something of an embarrassment for the left ever since they first appeared in the early 1900s.

With the exception of a few key moments, they have never attracted much interest either. Two new books by Martin Comack and Gabriel Kuhn focus on the German workers’ councils that developed at the end of the First World War. That the recent Occupy movement dealt with many of the same issues as the councils—direct democracy, popular governance, and general assemblies—makes the appearance of these two books all the more timely. But whereas the Occupy movement confounded people because of its refusal to articulate immediately obtainable goals, the councils threatened pre-existing institutions and newly-established modes of governing. What’s more, the immediate danger for the councils came not from the bourgeoisie and the reactionaries but from the left itself.

Nothing about the councils seemed to make sense, even at the peak of their influence. If they were essential to the unfolding of the German revolutionary developments, the councils were equally responsible for their own demise. They were all-powerful and yet freely ceded that power to groups who then neutralized their effectiveness. This is a less complicated story than is often assumed. Comack’s Wild Socialism: Workers Councils in Revolutionary Berlin, 1918–21, condenses the main threads of this history into a short, lively, and highly readable digest of less than 100 pages. It has the additional value of focusing exclusively on the councils rather than the various left political parties and organizations which have obsessed chroniclers ever since. Kuhn’s All Power to the Councils!: A Documentary History of the German Revolution of 1918–1919 is an excellent accompaniment, with translations of original documents, short biographies of key figures, and introductions of a page or two in length for each major phase of these tumultuous years. The translations are of exceptionally good quality, with many moving accounts. For Kuhn, “readability has been a priority,” rather than the wooden, literal translations that mar previous attempts to bring the German developments to the attention of the English-language world.[1]

By some estimates, 10,000 or so councils were scattered throughout Germany in late 1918.[2] Just about every sizable workplace and military garrison had one. Other than the vague rumors that filtered through about developments in Russia the year before, the councils seemed to materialize out of nowhere.[3] They were formed within the space of a few days, so contagious were the events that constituted the German revolution. The same circumstances that catapulted the councils into existence also elevated Germany’s socialist (Social Democratic) party into a position of dominance, thereby realizing a decades-old ambition. A limited franchise had kept the pre-war socialists marginalized politically despite their great popularity, with over one million members and one-third of the vote nation-wide. The movement had grown rapidly during the previous decades because no other political entity within Germany was as willing to represent working class interests, whereas the socialists were quite aggressive in getting their ideas into the public realm, with hundreds of newspapers and publications, frequent meetings, and a huge roster of public speakers who toured the country.

These background developments are a particularly strong aspect of Comack’s Wild Socialism.

With Germany’s defeat imminent, the military authorities essentially handed the socialists the keys to the capital building and fled the scene. The Kaiser had abdicated, the aristocracy was in hiding, the military in near-complete disarray, and the middle classes in shock and fearful of the popular outcry against the war. For a brief period, no one except the socialists was willing to take responsibility for what came next. The immediate situation was quite dire, and the socialists voluntarily embraced the tasks that their previous oppressors had deserted—to demobilize and send home the returning troops and, even more urgently, to ensure that the municipal authorities had adequate food supplies now that the war was over.

If the socialists owed their ascension to the councils, they also understood that the councils were a threat to their newly-acquired status. This was not immediately apparent, as the councils were easily mollified in the weeks following the collapse of the monarchy. The introduction of an eight-hour working day and plans to introduce universal suffrage seemed to presage the start of a new era. True, the radical takeover of buildings in the center of Berlin produced a bloody reaction on the part of the socialists, who paid decommissioned soldiers to put down the rebellion. But the radicals had misread the readiness of the working class for revolution. Afraid that events had stalled already, and prone to their own ultra-left forms of mystical thinking, the radicals imagined that their actions might prompt a still-wider response within the working class. They were wrong about this and paid dearly for their mistake.

That the socialists resorted to violence against members of their own movement stunned everyone on the left, including the socialists’ closest followers. It wasn’t the radical rebellion, the so-named Spartacist uprising at the end of December 1918, which produced the leftward lurch sought by the radicals, but the use of paramilitary forces and wanton killing of well-known and beloved figures like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht after their arrests. One merit of Kuhn’s documentary collection, All Power to the Councils!, is the republication of editorials written by these two figures during the few short months that separated the outbreak of the revolution from their deaths.

The councils, however unclear they were about their own power and intentions, wanted something more than just a democratic version of the previous status quo. A major rethinking about the goals of the revolution began, now that the space for such activity existed. Egged on by the radicals within its own ranks, the working class lurched leftwards. The working class thought in terms of the socialization (nationalization) of the means of production, especially the nationalization of the mining industry in the Ruhr region’s industrial belt, where low wages and brutal working conditions continued to prevail. Nearly a half century of socialist propaganda had had an impact.

The socialists were caught in a tremendous dilemma. Wedded to the idea that elections were essential to their own success, they introduced universal suffrage and thus undercut the councils whose base was overwhelmingly working class. This was obviously the case in the factory and workplace councils. The soldiers’ councils, on the other hand, had initially served as a brake on the revolutionary developments because they included lower-lever officers (enlisted men) alongside the working class draftees, but these councils were in a process of rapid dissolution because of demobilization and played a diminished role precisely as the working class began to radicalize further.

By suppressing the radicals (Spartacists) only six weeks after the overthrow of the monarchy, the socialists had in effect signaled that they meant no harm to, and were even willing to protect, the middle and upper classes. It was only then that these other social groups reappeared on the political scene. In the elections that followed in January—a short two and a half months after the overthrow of the monarchy—the socialists were surprised when less than half the electorate voted for them. Thus began a decade of coalition governments that continued until the Nazis finally abolished the democratic system, and with it, the need for coalitions. As the socialists moved right and lost ground, the working class was radicalized anew, with a newfound embrace of the councils. Throughout the spring months of 1919, the socialists, sometimes in conjunction with their coalition partners, used government resources to fund an ever-expansive paramilitary force to quell the radicalization.

Both Comack and Kuhn expand what is known about the radical left by including information about “unionist, syndicalist, and anarchist influences” in their accounts.[4] Still other groups could be mentioned, especially from northern seaports where radical Social Democrats maintained their independence from all party-oriented politics during the war (in distinction to the Spartacists who joined the newly formed anti-war party, the Independent Social Democratic Party). In the accounts by Comack and Kuhn, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards receive special mention. These were the shop floor delegates (radical trade unionists) who created an underground network during the war and played a leading role in Berlin as the revolution unfolded. In most historical accounts, only the Spartacists are mentioned. But if the Spartacists tended to run ahead of the working class and were thus decimated by the socialists for doing so, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards were guilty of just the opposite problem. Their sense of realism led to a cautiousness that prevented them from ever getting in front.

From the vantage point of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, the Spartacists were guilty of “revolutionary gymnastics,” a slight that is repeated by both Comack and Kuhn.[5] In truth, neither the impatient tactics of the Spartacists nor the prudent policies of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards were successful. During the critical opening weeks of the revolutionary period, both groups were defeated, but each for different reasons. The Spartacists were turned into martyrs, while the Revolutionary Shop Stewards were outmaneuvered by the vastly shrewder and politically-experienced socialists. To favor one group over the other, as do Comack and Kuhn, seems gratuitous. Neither group could figure out how to advance the revolution. Besides, when only a few short weeks separated the defeat of the Spartacists from the marginalization of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, why bother to talk about tactics at all? All the radicals, no matter what their ideas or actions, wound up on the losing end.

Comack and Kuhn might have made more explicit the crucial role played by new organizations which would not outlast the revolutionary wave. Both the Spartacists and the Revolutionary Shop Stewards fit this bill, as does the Independent Social Democratic Party, forced into existence when the anti-war faction within the Social Democratic Party was expelled midway through the war. A bit later, many radicals clustered in the Communist Workers Party (KAPD) and the General Workers Union (AAUD), until they too were outflanked and overwhelmed by organizations more adept at refashioning themselves for non-revolutionary times, like the original Social Democratic Party and the hastily-convened but long-lasting Communist Party, both of whose adaptive strategies were helped along by ample financial resources.

Notwithstanding these criticisms of Comack and Kuhn, their treatments are vastly superior to several recently re-published accounts of the German revolution, in particular Pierre Broué’s exhaustive 1000 page tome, The German Revolution: 1917–1923, originally published in 1971, and Chris Harman’s The Lost Revolution: Germany, 1918–1923, dating back to 1982.[6] Both books are classic accounts of who did what wrong when, as if a historically-vindicated politics might have been possible. In neither account are the councils of real interest, pushed aside in a rush to judge the errors committed by the Communist Party (KPD). The focus on great men (and a few women), political ideologies, and organizational trajectories mirrors in an uncanny fashion an older, stodgy form of historiography, a merger of politics and methodology that has been out of vogue, even if still widely practiced, for some time now. Form and content merge into one, all in the name of a vanguard politics that focuses on leadership and the elite.[7]

The inability to treat the councils as something fundamentally different from the left political parties is as true for Broué and Harman as it was for the early twentieth century radicals. The German Social Democrats referred to the councils as ‘wild socialism’; hence, the title of Cormack’s book. The Russian Bolsheviks weren’t much different; once in power they reassessed their relationship to the councils, and council advocates were denounced as ‘infantile leftists.’ Even Rosa Luxemburg, whose eventual embrace of the councils was all-consuming, spent a decade juggling the relationship between spontaneity, mass strikes, and socialist political parties before accepting councils as the logical endpoint towards which radical activity should strive.

For left organizations like the Social Democrats and Bolsheviks, the councils were stepping stones, not the final outcome.[8] Socialist organizations were expected to provide both form and content for the unpredictable outbursts that every so often overtook the working class, lest these dissipate into something ephemeral and ineffective. So fixated were these ideas that newly-conquered political power in both German and Russia led to the violent repression of radicals who thought otherwise.

But of what relevance are the councils to the contemporary world, given their location a century ago within the factory system? And what about the relationship of the workplace councils to other forms of councils—neighborhoods, consumers, municipalities and regions? Some analysts have been misled by the events described in Comack’s book into positing that the councils were the preferred organizational form for skilled, well-paid workers who feared mechanization within Germany’s metal industry.[9] Comack provides the information needed to rebut these charges, although he does not make the arguments explicit.

Inside the factories, the councils served initially as grievance and strike committees, either because union representation was lacking or because the unions, including the socialist unions, cooperated with civil and military officials to suppress wage demands and protests about harsh working conditions. Coordination throughout a locality, like the factory districts of Berlin, likewise required a council of delegates. The workforce had changed considerably during the war, with women and adolescents drawn in as auxiliary employees. The links between working women and housewives’ protests against food scarcities helped draw the councils into action. This was the situation in both Germany and Russia. Women were key. Responsible for the well-being of their families, they also had fewer roots in the cautious and conservative labor movement, and because of gender, were somewhat less subject to police violence, so much so that they generated sympathy within the population at large, including members of the middle classes. The women’s actions goaded husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers to follow suit.

Very little attention has been focused on the connections between gender and forms of protest, something true not just for Comack and Kuhn but also for other chroniclers of the German events. If the councils represented an anti-politics, they were rooted nonetheless in workplaces, neighborhoods, and families, situations mostly beyond the purview of anyone obsessed with politics and organizations as levers of social change. In this way of thinking, if something doesn’t acquire a fixed institutionalized presence, it doesn’t really exist.

The councils could be revolutionary, or they could be nothing much at all—a temporary means to hold society together during a time of crisis and collapse until some facsimile of the old order reconstituted itself. In Germany, they were primarily workplace councils, some of which served as grievance committees vis-à-vis management and the government, while in other places, they took over managerial functions directly. Soldiers also had their version of councils. In Russia, poor peasants and sharecroppers had theirs too. In both places, councils took on responsibility for municipal and regional affairs. They established committees to run police departments and security agencies, regulated public transportation, arranged food shipments and the distribution of essential consumption items, produced theater productions and public service announcements, and more.

Councils were easy to form and had enormous potential. They were flexible and democratic. They presupposed cooperation and coordination, and they extended notions of popular governance and grassroots participation. For council members, neither pre-existing organizations nor a background in socialist theory were prerequisites. Councils made the unions and political parties redundant. They could embrace as much of the population as prevailing political understandings and cultural prejudices made possible. Because of the councils, society was both thrown into chaos and was susceptible to a thorough and radical reorganization. If councils are still relevant today, it’s not because they imply a particular solution to humanity’s problems, but because the need for something new in both form and content grows ever more pressing.

The German Revolutioni—A Timeline

1912—As Germany’s largest political party with nearly one million members, the Social Democratic Party receives one out of every three votes in the national elections.

1914—Soon after World War I begins, the Social Democrats agree to suspend all strikes and take punitive action against any job actions.

1915—Revolutionary Shop Stewards, Spartacists, and other independent groups begin to meet illegally.

1916—Food protests begin in earnest. A widespread strike wave startles the county and emboldens the anti-war movement.

1917—The anti-war faction is expelled from the Social Democratic Party and eventually forms the Independent Social Democratic Party.

February: Russian Revolution begins, characterized by workers,’ peasants,’ and soldiers’ councils on the local and municipal levels. In place of the monarchy (Tsar), a series of coalition governments form which include the various liberal, socialist, and populist political parties.

November: The Bolsheviks piggyback on the councils and seize power.

1918–October: German Social Democrats invited as junior partners into a ‘peace’ cabinet.

November: Revolution spreads throughout Germany. Councils formed in workplaces, municipalities, and in the armed forces. The monarchy (Kaiser) abdicates, and military rule ends. Social Democrats and Independent Social Democrats jointly form an all-socialist government. An eight hour day is negotiated with leaders of the country’s business community.

December: Social Democrats open negotiations with remnant units of the military. Independent

Social Democrats resign from government in protest against repressive actions. National Congress of Councils endorses elections with universal suffrage.

1919–January: German Communist Party founded by Spartacists and other groups. Spartacist uprising in central Berlin suppressed by paramilitary forces at the behest of the Social Democrats. Luxemburg and Liebknecht arrested, tortured, and killed. National elections force Social Democrats into coalition with bourgeois political parties.

Spring: Major strikes and council republics are suppressed in Berlin, Bremen, Upper Silesia, the Ruhr industrial region, Württemberg, Magdeburg, Leipzig, Brunswick, and Munich.

October: Reformist wing of German Communist Party purges over half the membership.

1920—The Communist Workers Party (KAPD) and General Workers Union (AAUD) form as radical alternatives to the Communist Party.

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Interview with SFWA Grand Master Michael Moorcock

by R.K. Troughton
Amazing Stories
January 22nd, 2014

Today we are joined by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) Grand Master Michael Moorcock. Simply put, Michael is one of the most influential figures in the history of science fiction. As a writer, editor, musician, and publisher, he helped shape the industry. Some might suggest that if Hugo Gernsback gave birth to science fiction and John W. Campbell gave it life, Michael helped make it human. When he took over editing New Worlds magazine in 1964, he helped start a revolution. The revolution, later tagged the New Wave, has forever left a mark on the science fiction industry.

Michael’s boundless imagination as an author produced Elric of Melnibone, one of the most iconic characters in the history of fantasy, as well as Jerry Cornelius and countless other memorable characters. His fiction explores the limits of traditional genres, challenging the boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and popular literature. His creation of the Multiverse and his examination of the Eternal Champion has entertained, enlightened, and inspired readers across seven decades. He even managed to translate his fiction into music, collaborating with the bands Hawkwind, The Deep Fix, and Blue Oyster Cult.

Michael has won four August Derleth Fantasy Awards, a Nebula, a John W. Campbell Award, a Guardian Fiction Award, and a World Fantasy Award. He has received the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, the Prix Utopiales “Grandmaster” Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Bram Stoker Award for Life Achievement in Horror. Michael has also been inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. When not staring reality in the eyes, Michael spends his existence surfing new waves across the strands of Radiant Time.

Michael Moorcock

Photo by Betsy Mitchell

Welcome to Amazing Stories, Michael. You started editing and publishing your own fanzine as a teenager. By the age of seventeen you were editor of Tarzan Adventures and soon after coeditor of Sexton Blake Library. Please tell us how you came into editing as a teenager and what life was like for you back then.

MICHAEL MOORCOCK: Well, I think my story is a fairly familiar one in that I started by publishing fanzines. My first fanzine was called Book Collectors’ News and was mainly for collectors of what in England are called ‘story papers’ and in terms of basic content were not all that different from the US pulps except ours were weeklies and often contained (as British comics would later) a variety of serials but could be focussed on a particular series. In the UK this was often that oddly British phenomenon the school story in which a group of regular schoolboy characters at a boarding school modelled on Eton or Rugby interacted or else had adventures off-campus.  My favourite magazine was Union Jack which had come, by one of those strange but familiar processes, to feature only long weekly stories about the detective Sexton Blake.

The second fanzine, which I published concurrently, was called Burroughsiana (actually misspelled Burroughsania by my 14-year-old self and appearing thus for its early issues). That was an Edgar Rice Burroughs fanzine. I knew nothing at that point about the world of SF fanzines and it was only through SF fans hearing about Burroughsiana that I came to discover those fanzines and, of course, a whole world of SF and fantasy. I made many new  friends through the SF fanzines but at first had no interest in science fiction, apart from Burroughs. It took quite a while before I found a kind of SF I liked and that was typically in the pages of Galaxy where I discovered writers like Dick, Bester, Sheckley, Pohl and Kornbluth and so on.
When I was 16 I interviewed for Burroughsania the editor of Tarzan Adventures, a weekly magazine using both strip (from the US Sunday pages) and text stories and features. The editor didn’t like my piece but the assistant editor contacted me when he was promoted to editor and asked me first for some articles about ERB and then for some fiction in the manner of Burroughs. He then told me he planned to leave the magazine. If I would like to join as assistant editor, when he left I would automatically have the chance to be editor and try out my own policies.

By 17 I was the editor, producing what was effectively a young adult pulp magazine with the Tarzan serial at the front and a lot of sf and fantasy, as well as features, in the second half!

The circulation rose dramatically and I still know people today who were introduced to SF and fantasy through TA. Meanwhile, in BCN, I had supported a policy change by the editor of the last remaining publication to feature Sexton Blake, publishing two book-length magazines a month, Sexton Blake Library, published by the vast international publishing empire IPC.

Eventually that editor, Bill Baker, invited me to join as assistant editor. By the age of 19, I was a fully experienced editor but also involved in The National Union of Journalists who didn’t really know how to classify me. I had enough years to qualify serving as an officer on the local chapter committee but wasn’t technically old enough! While there, I began to sell shorts to the New Worlds group, including SF Adventures and Science Fantasy. I had a strange time at IPC.

The final blooming of magazine publishing as the dominant form of entertainment. I eventually left SBL to work on Current Topics, a Liberal Party policy magazine, when I was 21. At the same time I freelanced, writing features on almost every topic and comics and juvenile fiction of almost every kind. I sold my first Elric story when I was 21 but was somewhat frustrated with the general approach of most SF and fantasy, although the quality in Galaxy was I thought, generally high. I began to think, along with my friends Barry Bayley and J.G.Ballard, that a new form of fiction could be developed from SF which would engage with reality in a way which contemporary literary fiction did not.

ASM: Before your 25th birthday you were named editor of the British magazine New Worlds. Since that day, science fiction has never been the same. Until that point the industry had predominantly held to the Campbellian blueprint. You, along with some of your contemporaries, decided it was time for change. Some might suggest that it wasn’t a conscious decision at all but rather an organic difference in artistic tastes and sensibilities. Together you incited a New Wave of science fiction. Please take us back to that first day on the job. What was going through your head, and what did you hope to accomplish?  

MM: Yeah, it wasn’t long after my 24th birthday actually that Ted Carnell, the editor for whom I was writing (Elric, The Eternal Champion, The Sundered Worlds) told me the magazines were folding. I had already written several articles for Carnell in which I suggested where sf/fantasy could go, so when Science Fantasy and New Worlds were bought, by Compact Books, Carnell suggested I take over from him (because of my editorial experience). Meanwhile Kyril Bonfiglioli, a friend of Brian Aldiss and the new publisher, asked to become editor. He had no experience. I was allowed first choice and to some peoples’ surprise chose New Worlds. I felt there was more I could do with the title. I wanted a large size magazine on art paper so I could publish contemporary painting and sculpture as well as scientific features to produce a blend of art, science and fiction. Compact told me they couldn’t budget for anything more than a paperback size on fairly pulpy paper! It was probably for the best! My first editorial referred to William Burroughs, whose own fiction drew on SF, and whom I knew by that time. A  New Fiction for the Space Age, I believe it was called. I got Ballard to write our first serial and a guest editorial. Barrington Bayley, who later became a sort of icon for cyberpunks, also contributed. I soon realised there were not many writers out there ready to produce the new kind of fiction I visualised. I had to proceed slowly to develop not only the fiction I wanted but also the kind of readership I needed. Much of the early work in my New Worlds was fairly conventional, if aspiring to a slightly more ambitious level of writing. Gradually new writers began to emerge an old ones became increasingly ambitious. I published a lot of young Americans who had been given their first breaks by Cele Goldsmith at Amazing and Fantastic.

Rather innocently, I had thought most SF readers would welcome the idea of a new kind of literary fiction coming out of science fiction! Fandom, at least, didn’t. Neither did the likes of Fred Pohl, then editing Galaxy, whom I admired.

ASM: Famously, lines were drawn between the science fiction traditionalists and the revolutionaries. Editorials, reviews, and speeches were devised to both condemn and support the New Wave. What was life like in the trenches during the early years of the transformation?

MM: Schizophrenic was what it was like! I thought SF readers, of all people, would be open-minded and welcome innovation! At first most of my support came from the non-fandom world of regular newspapers and journals. As I said, I was a little surprised. I received quite a lot of negative mail from ‘old guard’ SF readers who felt we were somehow attacking ‘their’ SF.  At a big conference about what was being called ‘The New SF’ in 1968 attended by philosophers, poets and arts professionals as well as writers, Mike Kustow, the former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who had brought in innovations during his term there, said he called it the ‘anxious ownership’ syndrome. People somehow thought we were trying to ‘take away’ the SF they enjoyed. Of course this was not the case. What we were trying to do was broaden what could be done in fiction by using some SF conventions. I certainly didn’t want to see ‘old school’ SF writers, many of whom were my friends, put out of work and that of course didn’t happen. Far from it. In fact we were a bridge from conventional fiction to SF.

But tempers were raised at SF conventions to the point where I stopped going. Don Wollheim, a friend of mine who published me, one year delivered my Nebula award for Behold the Man at my house where we had a long, friendly chat. A couple of days later I was in the audience at a convention when he condemned me as a ‘pseudo-intellectual’ bent on destroying SF. I got up and left and thereafter wouldn’t take part in any further debates. We weren’t trying to take anything away from readers. In fact we were  adding to the tool box, broadening what sf could do. General readers became interested. Our circulation rose considerably. We helped improve the image of SF, so everyone benefitted. By the time I went to large format we had substantially broadened our readership. My main interest was not so much to change SF as to use SF to improve what fiction could do. Contemporary ‘litfic’ was bogged down in decayed modernism. SF had developed alongside modernism, occasionally borrowing its techniques.

Now so many SF methods are used in the ‘mainstream’ that it seems everyone benefitted. We brought new techniques and improved levels of ambition to SF and SF did the same for literature in general. Who lost ?

ASM: The previous editor of New Worlds, John Carnell, had published some of your stories and letters in the magazine. Many considered Carnell to be a well-respected editor with an eye for a good story. How exactly did the editor’s chair pass from Carnell to a young visionary? 

MM: Sorry, I jumped the gun on this question. See above. I had a very amiable relationship with Ted (from his middle name) who had recommended me as his successor, presumably agreeing in general with my ideas published in New Worlds and Science Fantasy! That’s why he recommended me as his successor.

ASM: The 1960s were a period of change and of questioning the old guard. What influence did the culture of the day have on what you were trying to explore as both an editor and an author?

For us it was considerable. But it went both ways. Cross pollination. Thanks to Brian Aldiss, we received a grant from the prestigious Arts Council (equivalent to the National Endowment for the Arts). The British pop art movement, which began a little sooner than the American movement, drew considerably on SF. Those artists were appearing in New Worlds, too, as soon as we had the size and paper quality (by 1967). We shared contributors and facilities with the ‘underground’ press — IT, Frendz and Oz in particular. The same poets, like D.M.Thomas, Peter Redgrove and George MacBeth, were appearing in NW as in the avant garde journals of the day. Contributors who appeared in New Scientist appeared in New Worlds and so on. One of the leading art magazines of the day, Ambit, shared many contributors with us. Experimental film-maker Steve Dwoskin was a guest editor. Eduardo Paolozzi, the sculptor and print-maker was on the masthead as Aeronautics Advisor. Many of us were open to all the ideas in the atmosphere in those days. At a party you would find Arthur C. Clarke deep in conversation with William Burroughs, Judith Merrill talking earnestly to Angus Wilson (then considered a leading literary novelist of the day), the poet Christopher Logue talking to our science editor Christopher Evans etc. etc. Musicians, painters, writers were constantly meeting (at the New Worlds lunches for instance). For some reason there were fewer barriers than seemed to exist in the US at the same time.

ASM: Your passion for New Worlds led you to take over publishing the magazine when the owners ran into financial difficulties. As the 1970s began, the magazine industry shifted and New Worlds, along with countless other magazines, was forced to end regular publication. After one of the most influential decades in any magazine’s history, the New Wave’s standard bearer was lost. Looking back on your run at New Worlds, how do you view the success of the magazine compared to your original goals?

MM: The original publishers’ distributors went bankrupt. That’s when I saw the chance to take over (with the Arts Council’s help) and use the format I’d first visualised! It’s very hard to say, of course, what our success was because you don’t know what would have happened anyway.

But it did seem that by the 1980s many of our goals had been met. SF and popular culture were interacting considerably with academia as well as ‘high’ art. The barriers were often down. By the 1970s books by Ballard and myself, which might once have been marginalised, received literary prizes. Books by literary writers increasingly contained SF elements. Would that have happened anyway? Who knows?

ASM: How do you view the impact of the New Wave on today’s science fiction?

MM: As I say, I think we added to the toolbox quite a bit and we set higher standards so that much that is published as sf could easily have been published as literary fiction and vice versa. Everyone benefitted. Authors’ ambitions rose all round.

ASM: My first introduction to your fiction was through Elric. From the very first novel I picked up, I recognized there was something different and remarkable in your writing. I could sense a depth and richness that I found rewarding. You have described yourself as someone who is not a world builder. You are hesitant to put labels on your fantasy, resisting some of the labels pushed on you by others. What are the origins of Elric, and how would you describe the tales you’ve written about him?

MM: The Gothic novel was a big influence — Maturin, in particular. Dissatisfied with where it seemed to be going I went back to the roots of fantasy, before it became a genre just as I’d done with science fiction (see my book Wizardry and Wild Romance).  I’d recommend the process to any writer wanting to produce a particular kind of fiction. The problem with any genre (and I think ‘litfic’ is just as prone to this) is that you get a kind of xerography going on, because one author is inspired by and imitates the authors they admire,  whereas the further back you go to roots the greater the likelihood of your creating something fresher. I was influenced by mythology and the great Romantics, Wordsworth, de Quincey, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Mary Shelley, the Brontes and so on, using techniques where for instance the landscape and the weather is carefully employed to describe and illustrate internal conflicts within a character. I don’t build worlds because the worlds I describe reflect the character.

Landscapes are there to reveal what’s going on in the characters’ minds. On a melodramatic level you find it in all James Whale’s fantastic movies. I’m not very interested in, say, the GNP of Melnibone!  I don’t mind if others enjoy playing that sort of game but it’s not of much interest to me. Characters and their moral conflicts interest me.

ASM: Some may not know that across much of your fiction you have created a Multiverse, an existence that transcends place and time. In many of these stories, you have introduced the Eternal Champion in one form or another. For those not familiar with your work, please explain this overarching story line and what they might discover.

MM: Well, it goes back to two of my earliest stories for Carnell around 1962/3— The Sundered Worlds in which I introduced the term ‘multiverse’ to describe multiple universes existing as it were intratemporally and a human champion who is constantly reincarnated across that multiverse, over and over again. The third idea, from the Elric stories, is that of a ‘Cosmic Balance’, a regulating system in which the opposing forces of Law and Chaos are in conflict. I don’t use ‘Good and Evil’ as terms in this struggle. The eternal hero or heroine exists to fight either for Law or for Chaos so that neither ever gains ascendancy. These forces also struggle within them. I also introduced in later books the notion of Radiant Time and of Space as a dimension of Time. In the first Eternal Champion story the hero is an ordinary man, John Daker, called across the multiverse to fight for the human race. In the course of the story he discovers that the human race has committed a great sin against a non-human race and so changes sides in order to set matters right. This in turn causes him great guilt. At other times some version of Daker fights for Law or Chaos in order to set the balance straight. The story can be a supernatural adventure, a ‘surreal’ story as in Jerry Cornelius, a piece of modernist fiction or an ‘ordinary’ story with few imaginative elements. The story can be symbolic, realistic, allegorical or, as in The War Amongst the Angels stories any combination of those elements.

ASM: When I read your fiction, I always feel like I should be looking out of the corner of my eyes to glimpse the unseen—to find that hidden treasure meant to reward the truly diligent. What extra dimensions are hidden within your fiction that you feel have largely gone unobserved?

MM: Oh, there are always little extras in almost everything I do, whether it’s simply a name or two or a bit of parody or whatever. One of my other ambitions doing New Worlds was to pack as many narraties as possible into one piece of fiction. The Cornelius stories do that. Ballard’s ‘condensed novels’ in The Atrocity Exhibition did that. There’s also a certain amount of game-playing between myself and the reader I have always written ambitious fiction on the assumption I’m being read by a smart, imaginative reader. I like to offer a sort of reflecting crystal ball into which that reader can stare and use their own creativity to add further dimensions, extra narratives to what I’ve done. Reference to one character bring up all the stories associated with that character. The character can be mine or a real person. Writing fiction is, like writing music or films,  always a collaborative process with the audience. The simpler stories don’t offer as much as, say, the Jerry Cornelius stories, but there’s always a certain amount of material intended to mirror the readers’ own inventiveness and refer to multiple narratives.

ASM: Many of us can point to a single story or book that hooked us on science fiction for life. What was your first introduction to imaginative fiction?

MM: The Master Mind of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. When my father fled the family home Christmas Day 1945 he left five books behind. One was that ERB book, another was Son of Tarzan and another was The Apple Cart by George Bernard Shaw. The others were boys’ books he’d won as school prizes. One was The Constable of St Nicholas by Edward Lester Arnold. For years I thought to be a proper writer you had to have three names. My early work was always signed ‘Michael J. Moorcock’… The first book I bought with my own money was The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Reading that made me think a book had to provide at least two meanings and not just be ‘a story’. The first ‘modern’ SF book I read was The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. That was when I realised what SF could do. I bought it in Paris when I was 16.

ASM: What authors and editors have most influenced you?

MM: Well, obviously the ones listed above. Mervyn Peake and his wife Maeve all but adopted me when I was young. He was a massive inspiration. I can’t think of an editor who influenced me. Prose writers include Maturin, Dickens, George Meredith, R.L. Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, H.G.Wells,, Aldous Huxley (though I’ve never read his SF), Elizabeth Taylor,  Elizabeth Bowen (never read her supernatural fiction!), Angus Wilson, Albert Camus, J-P Sartre, William Burroughs, Ronald Firbank, Celine, Boris Vian, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Leigh Brackett, Gerald Kersh, John Lodwick… I feel as though I’m an accumulation of all those and more.

ASM: You’ve mentioned previously that Mother London is the favorite novel you have written. Many consider it to be a literary masterpiece. It was even short-listed for the prestigious Whitbread Best Novel Award given to books that exhibit literary excellence. Please share with us your view of Mother London, and describe the elements which make it so powerful.

MM: I wrote that novel between volumes 2 and 3 of my ambitious literary sequence known as the ‘Pyat Quartet,’ an attempt to expose the many elements which created the Nazi holocaust.

Concentrating on that subject had made me so depressed I decided I needed to write a novel which celebrated the things I loved in life, especially London, the city of my birth. To describe the many elements from the whole world which went into the creation of modern London I used the device of characters who could, perhaps, pick up telepathically all the voices of the city. That is really the only imaginative element of the novel and some people have chosen therefore to describe it as an sf novel, which it isn’t, though it does precisely what I had always wanted to do with modern fiction and that is incorporate elements taken from sf into its general structure. The other imaginative element is the reference to the ‘miraculous’ and how it has affected the lives of the three main characters (defusing an unexploded bomb during the Blitz, escaping a burning building, also during the Blitz, escaping a V2 rocket during the final Nazi bombardment of London etc.) but essentially the book is a celebration of ‘ordinary’ human courage, love and resilience and covers the same period of London echoing my own life until the abuse of those qualities during the post-war world I knew by those elements represented by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, leading particularly to the commercialisation and consequent simplification of our history. When history is used to ‘sell’ a city or place as a product, then simplification and sentimentalisation necessarily come into play to abuse memory. Real myth is the opposite of that abuse. It enriches and perpetuates memory, it helps us survive. I think people pick up on the resonances in the novel and that’s why it seems to have kept an audience. I think one of the other two novels nominated for the Whitbread in 1988, which won, Satanic Verses by Rushdie reflected on similar themes.

ASM: As someone who has worked across seven decades in the science fiction and publishing industries, how have science fiction and publishing changed during that time?

MM: Not as much as I hoped SF might in 1965. I wanted more experiment. Others wanted to see SF brought into line with modernism. That’s probably happened. As for the majority of sf writing there was a period when publishers were far more willing to try all kinds of off-beat titles, back all experiment, but you don’t get best-sellers that way. Once they, and certain authors, understood what was popular with the average middle-brow reader you started getting a lot more average titles published. Average is always rewarded in the arts, popular or otherwise. This might make good money but rarely makes outstanding SF. Publishers now have rules about what constitutes SF. Idiosyncratic editors are increasingly discouraged. The off-beat finds it harder to be published by powerful publishers. The discontented reader starts looking elsewhere for what is original and different. The standard of writing and characterisation in generic science fiction has risen high enough to interest the middle-brow reader but in the main (and there are of course exceptions) if it’s going to be a generic best-seller it’s unlikely to be a very original book. I was attracted to SF for its potential to do something amazing. Too little generic SF amazes, these days, at least in the long form. But it hardly matters, I think, because, as I’d hoped, so much literary fiction utilises SF elements that much of the best imaginative fiction isn’t published as genre (Atwood, Chabon, McCarthy etc).

Indeed, in reality the distinction between literary fiction and science fiction has disappeared and the demanding reader is certainly less likely to be put off a book by the category in which it’s shelved.

ASM: With the sheer volume of imaginative fiction being published today, do you think it is possible for a single author, editor, or publisher to have as much influence over the industry as John W. Campbell or New Worlds once had?

MM: I think an academic like Leavis or a magazine like Scrutiny had a huge influence on fiction in general so there’s no reason another academic, editor or publisher shouldn’t emerge to influence non-generic imaginative fiction. But I doubt that a magazine published in the SF genre is likely to have as great an influence on that field in these times, partly because the commercial circumstances have changed. In that sense, I think, the revolutions were successful and certainly did what I set out to do, which was to incorporate the best elements of SF into the mainstream.

ASM: If you could outline and define the next wave of science fiction, what would it look like?

MM: I suspect we’re reduced to little more than fashions, like steam punk, which I enjoy. And maybe none the worse for that. But who can accurately predict fashion?

ASM: Your novel The Final Programme was made into a feature film in 1973. Famously, you had some disagreements with the producers over the direction of the film. Later, in 1974, you collaborated on the film The Land that Time Forgot. Again, your views were not shared by the filmmakers. More recently, Paul and Chris Weitz optioned your Elric stories for what they plan to be a trilogy of films. What is the status of the Elric films, and how have your experiences in filmmaking prepared you for this latest undertaking?

MM: My disagreements had to do with the dumbing down of both movies. For years I refused to let anyone consider making a movie from my work. At present there are several people currently interested in taking Elric to the screen. Until recently I wasn’t altogether happy with what was presented to me as a way of adapting Elric or any of my other fantasy characters to film or TV. If I were involved I would concentrate on the characters and the interplay between them since we are now able to achieve pretty much anything we want in terms of effects. I would put a stronger ‘back story’ into Melnibone and its inhabitants. If Game of Thrones has shown us anything, it’s that ‘the marvellous’ is no longer enough to hold an audience. The human element is just as important. Happily, I always tended to concentrate as much on personalities as marvels, so I’m currently looking for a producer and/or director willing to deal with character at least as much as the imaginative elements. I have talked to one or two. I think we might see some interesting developments in future.

ASM: Recently Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds has emerged on the internet as a new source for everything science fiction. What is your involvement in the project, and how are things going with this new endeavor?

MM: Honestly, I have no idea! I didn’t know they were going to call it ‘Michael Moorcock’s’ New Worlds. I gather there were disputes between those who wanted to launch the project and I haven’t seen the result. I suspect there won’t be a second issue. Magazines like New Worlds are created by a perceived need, not from nostalgia for a better time! A few years ago I satisfied my own editorial instincts by being one of the editors of Fantastic Metropolis. I was still interested, as now, in creating that cross-pollination. By the likes of Alan Wall, for instance, a modernist novelist and academic who studied physics and recently began to publish in Asimov’s. Currently, I advise the odd publisher and promote the odd book or author that I admire and that’s all I need to feed my inner editor! If I did NW now it would take advantage of everything we can now do. I would love to produce a magazine publishing the likes of Wall, Iain Sinclair (who appeared in the last issue of NW I produced in 1996), Alan Warner, Steve Aylett, China Mieville and some of the younger experimenters whose work I occasionally see.

There are poets and graphic artists I would include. If I did it online I could produce graphics, film, music and speech, too, all combining to produce original and stimulating kinds of fiction, but I’d need very good tech help, financial backing and probably a lot more time than I’ve been allotted! And it probably wouldn’t be fiction as we know it, Jim.

ASM: Fans have always played such an important role in the development of science fiction. Having grown from a young fan with your own fanzine to one of the icons of the industry, how do you view the importance of science fiction fandom?

MM: Well, when I was producing fanzines sf conventions used to be attended by scores or at most a few hundred people. I was recently looking at my programme for the 1957 world convention. The list of events filled half a page! Now the size is so much greater, with thousands attending and events streamed across dozens of pages. That means there are a number of different ‘fandoms’ within the greater one. As anyone who visits my website will see, I still think readers are of paramount importance, but increasingly the emphasis is on media other than text and I find it hard to comment on those. I doubt if modern fans see themselves as being a tiny marginalised minority the way they did in 1960. They could hardly do so since it seems most of the movies made in Hollywood and most network TV series launched are fantastic in nature. I suspect ‘fandoms’ of the kind I started in will continue to emerge but they might not coalesce around science fiction in general (just as cyberpunk or steampunk don’t). I suspect the new fandoms will be characterised much as the preRaphaelites or Dadaists were defined, as small, influential groups initially in the margins. As such they’ll continue to be very important.

ASM: You were a member of the Swordsmen and Sorcerers’ Guild of America. The other founding members included Lin Carter, Poul Anderson, L. Sprague de Camp, John Jakes, Fritz Leiber, Andre Norton, and Jack Vance. How did this group come about, and what was your experience with it?

MM: I wasn’t really a founder. I was told I was a member by Sprague, whose brainchild it was! I don’t think it did much but occasionally meet at conventions. I never attended a meeting because most of them were in the US when I was in the UK!

ASM: Looking back on your career so far, what makes you most proud or satisfied?

MM: Maybe that I appear to have written a couple of decent books, put a few new words or phrases into the language, created a few enduring characters and had a minor influence on the direction of imaginative literature. Mostly I’m proud that I haven’t screwed up too badly as a father to my children, a husband to Linda, a loyal friend to my friends. I encouraged and promoted some very talented writers. I’m proud of some of the music I’m still doing, recording these days in Paris. I feel I could have done a lot better in all those areas and I’m going to keep on trying.

ASM: Over the years you have created so many memorable characters and stories. Some of your fans are urging me to suggest more Bastable stories. What are you working on now that we can look forward to seeing in the future?

MM: Those characters all live on in my head. Their stories continue to resonate through the multiverse! The eternal struggle is never over! With The Whispering Swarm, my new novel, I’m trying to investigate the appeal of fantasy and the way I might have used it to escape from moral responsibility as a young man. The book is also a memoir and has historical elements.

I’m not likely to revisit old characters in entire novels, but I do bring them back where their particular narrative can improve the general one. I did that with Bastable in the last Elric/Eternal Champion novel which began with The Dreamthief’s Daughter (Daughter of Dreams). The fiction I’m currently writing tends to emphasise character and moral examination. Stories, which appeared in Stories, edited by Gaiman and Sarrontonio, is closer to much of what I’m writing apart from Jerry Cornelius stories like The Grenade Garden which I’m still writing in direct response to current events. This includes two recent stories in the ‘Third World War’ sequence I began with Crossing into Cambodia. They are Kabul (set in the near future) and Staying in Rome (set in the near present). Another short novel I’m working on, Stalking Balzac, also deals with my life as it actually was rather than the one I imagined! But I have so many stories still crowding to get out of my head, I can’t say there will never be another Bastable novel, or indeed another Elric story (in fact I’m currently planning one to be done as a comic). My new songs refer to The War Amongst the Angels and the Game of Time.

ASM: Thank you for joining us today. Every fan of imaginative fiction cannot help but glimpse your fingerprints all across the industry. We are grateful for your courageous efforts in discovering new pathways for our minds to explore. Before you go, is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of Amazing Stories?

MM: That’s very kind of you. Thanks. All I have to say is that while imaginative fiction supplies us with great escapism, which we all need to take our minds off the daily grind, I have always believed that the best science fiction and fantasy is most valuable when it confronts important issues of the day. It isn’t surprising that we are currently living in a world imagined by the great sf writers of the 1950s and 1960s who concentrated on contemporary issues of their time and by doing so were able to anticipate so many of the social and moral problems we face today. They achieved what they did by looking at reality with a hard, critical eye and I think we need to do that even more today. From H.G.Wells onward the best sf has refused to turn away from reality. To remain vital and worthwhile it has to continue to expand its range, maintain its critical and analytical qualities, and, where possible, to improve its techniques, which is frequently achieved through experiment as well as spirited debate. It is up to editors and publishers to encourage and applaud innovation. In that way SF will continue to make its creators and writers proud of their chosen form.

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For All the People in Science and Society

By Steve Dubb
Science and Society
Pg 138-140

John Curl provides a valuable, nearly encyclopedic account of worker coop- eratives, communal movements, and their intersection with labor union and social justice movements in the United States. In twelve chapters, Curl traces cooperatives from pre-revolutionary times through the rise of 19th-century populism to the present. The book also includes two case study chapters and four chapters on communes.
The second edition adds a preface that highlights worker co-op growth since 2008 and a case study chapter that discusses the rise and fall of worker grocery co-ops in the 1970s in the San Francisco Bay area and the Twin Cities.
While Curl ably chronicles worker cooperatives, the book’s title is mis- leading. a better title would have emphasized his worker-cooperative focus. The distinction between consumer and worker cooperatives is important. while both are democratically governed, ownership differs. In worker coop- eratives, workers are owners. In consumer cooperatives, buyers are. (a few hybrid co-ops do mix elements of each). when Marx wrote in Volume III of Capital that cooperatives illustrate how a “new mode of production de- velops and is formed naturally out of the old,” Marx was describing worker, not consumer, cooperatives. Certainly, Curl could have written on worker cooperatives alone. But for a history of cooperatives as a whole, there is an odd mix of inclusions and omissions.

The numbers help tell the tale. Curl estimates that at their peak in 1979, U. S. worker cooperatives had 17,000 worker-owners (241). By contrast, more than 120 million americans are presently member-owners of consumer coop- eratives. Curl’s history leaves many of these 120 million out of the story. So, for example, Edward Filene, founder of the U. S. credit union movement, is not mentioned, even though today U. S. credit unions (the most common type of consumer cooperative) have 92.5 million member-owners and over $1 trillion in assets. rEI, the largest U. S. consumer co-op, with 4.5 million member-owners, is also nowhere to be found.

Page length need not be proportional to membership numbers, but even from a social justice standpoint, Curl’s choices lead him to underestimate the political importance of consumer co-ops. Over the past two years, for example, a national “Move your Money” campaign shifted billions of dollars from banks to credit unions. This was only possible because of a century of U. S. credit union development.

By selectively analyzing consumer co-ops, Curl draws misleading lessons. For example, the Berkeley food co-op, once the largest U. S. consumer co-op grocery, gets an entire chapter. Curl sees its demise as the outcome of outsized growth (membership peaked at over 100,000). yet far larger co-ops have succeeded economically.

These matters aside, Curl’s history is a story worth telling, bringing historical perspective to help us understand the roles played by worker coop- eratives today. Indeed, worker cooperatives are enjoying increased visibility due to the release of three documentaries this past year. a new partnership between the Steelworkers union and the Spanish-based Mondragón network of worker cooperatives to create “union–worker co-ops” also portends the possibility of more rapid growth in the near future.

Worker cooperative history is also important for another reason. Often, when we study labor, we understand the story from the more recent past. we all, for example, “know” that trade union representation was better than worker co-ops at improving the wages and working conditions of the mass working class, because, by 1945, there were 15 million union members in the United States, while the number of worker cooperative member–owners was utterly marginal. But labor unions in the 19th century used a range of tactics, including forming worker cooperatives.

The Knights of Labor are the most famous case. Curl tells the story of how Knights’ chapters operated as many as 200 worker co-ops in the mid- 1880s. Nor were the Knights exceptional. Union efforts to create worker- owned enterprises date back to the 1830s. Curl also uncovers other gems that highlight the link between co-ops and social justice movements. For example, who knew that abolitionist Horace Greeley was a leading worker co-op activist?

Curl’s history helps us consider how our economy, and indeed socialism itself, might have developed differently had worker cooperatives become the U. S. norm. and, because some unions, notably the Steelworkers, are beginning to entertain the worker co-op model anew, this question is not merely of historical interest.

In fact, Curl himself is not just a historian, but also a protagonist. Curl was a member of a commune in the 1960s, was active in worker coopera- tives in the 1970s (and remains active today), and was active in the Berkeley food co-op. This “I was there” aspect, which pervades the later chapters, contributes to the richness of empirical detail, but is also a weakness. First, Curl might have edited more and not felt the need to name seemingly every person of every faction if he weren’t a personal observer of the events. But more importantly, Curl’s on-the-ground vantage point (and knowledge of the players) would appear to have made him overly cautious in moving beyond the cases to consider more systemically how a democratic economy that valued workers in the workplace might be built.

Notwithstanding these concerns, Curl has created an invaluable resource and historical timeline regarding worker cooperatives and communes. This book will surely be of interest to students and activists in these fields for years to come.

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Catastrophism: A Climate Justice Activist's Perspective

By Harold Lavender
New Socialist Webzine- Canada
January 17th, 2014

Images and talk of catastrophes are pervasive in today’s world.

Much discussion of the subject ignores issues of social justice and is not very favourable to a left-wing perspective. Yet the spectre of catastrophic climate change haunts the future.

Climate change is wreaking destruction on many, is getting worse and poses a potential threat to life on the planet. This raises many serious questions about how the Left should respond.

I read one recent effort to discuss these issues, Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth. This is a short and very thought-provoking collection of essays that has generated both praise in some circles and criticism in others.

In her introduction, Sasha Lilley writes “Catastophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as a great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber -- if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.”

The book is written as a critique of many different forms off catastrophic ideas and politics. Eddie Yuen’s essay deals with catastrophism within the environmental movement. James Davis writes about catastrophism and the Right. Sasha Lilley writes about catastrophic politics on the Left. David McNally uses a critique of popular culture as a means to explore capitalism and the catastrophes of everyday life. Doug Henwood contributes a forward, “Dystopia is for Losers.”

Davis offers a useful exploration of different types of right-wing catastrophism. He shows how these ideas have helped generate a climate for draconian state responses, including tighter border controls and a growing “security state.”

Eddie Yuen acknowledges that we are in “what is unquestionably genuinely a catastrophic moment in human and planetary history.” He adds “of all the forms of catastrophic discourse on offer, the collapse of ecological systems is unique in that it is definitely verified by a consensus within the scientific community… In addition to the well-known crisis of climate change, leading scientists have listed eight other planetary boundaries that must not be crossed if the earth is to remain habitable for humans and many other species.”

This raises the huge question of how we can rapidly change the direction of human society. Yuen and other authors in the book chose to intervene at the level of how we think about and communicate a vision of transformation that will inspire people. For Yuen, “the foundational problematic of this book is the question of politicization: what narrative strategies are most likely to generate effective and radical social movements?”

Yuen’s chapter is a detailed critique of the way mainstream and some radical environmentalists have fallen into catastrophic discourses. These are not helpful and often hinder efforts to build a mass movement. He argues that liberatory politics do not flow out of dire predictions of disaster even in the cases where they may well be accurate.

Catastrophism relies heavily on fear, which can often be paralyzing and lead to inaction. The politics of fear do not serve the long term interests of the Left, since they can all to easily be captured and manipulated by right-wing racist anti-immigrant nationalist forces.

While some on the pro-corporate right continue to deny or greatly minimize climate change, other mainstream environmentalists acknowledge the problems but offer woefully inadequate solutions. These range from future technological fixes to inadequate injunctions for green consumption.

Meanwhile contemporary capitalism has shown a real capacity to exploit disasters and use them to implement its agenda, which includes increasingly brutal forms of austerity and authoritarianism.

Yuen directly challenges primitivist notions that have arisen within some radical sectors of the green and anarchist movements. These see the collapse of civilization as inevitable and something to be welcomed. However, his piece doesn’t critically examine discourses about “civilization” which can be very problematic in the light of colonialism, imperialism and a history of barbaric wars fought in the name of civilization) or fully examine what is worth preserving and not preserving from the industrial capitalist world we live in.

Yuen seeks to make a positive appeal to community and solidarity, suggesting that  through organizing against climate apartheid and the enclosure and commodification of nature we can create compassionate, egalitarian and radical movements that can bring a new world into being.

In her chapter, Sasha Lilley offers a very wide-ranging critique of left-wing catastrophism (primarily covering Marxism and anarchism). She frames things in a dense and boundary pushing way I haven’t thought about in my many years as a socialist and activist. I partially agree with what she writes. I agree with Lilley in rejecting both  mechanically determinist approaches – like those that predict the inevitability of the collapse of capitalism followed by revolution -- and voluntarist approaches that assume that people can change society regardless of the objective conditions.

Lilley cites and criticizes a lengthy list of groups that believed that degraded conditions and intensified state repression would create better conditions. She shows how heightening the contradictions can just as easily lead to defeat as victory.

However, her sweeping generalization approach tends to ignore the specifics of each situation.  I believe the ways groups act in the world are very much shaped by context and I am quite reticent to pass broad judgment on decisions which have been stripped of their context. I am not convinced a schema about catastrophism is the most useful way to understand history and what it can and can’t teach us.

David McNally’s contribution does not seem to directly connect to the question of  ecological catastrophe raised by Eddie Yuen. But he does include important points about the nature of popular uprisings. In his essay McNally writes, “However extraordinary a popular uprising may be, it is nonetheless a product of decidedly mundane activity -- strikes, demonstrations, meetings, speeches, leaflets, occupations. The apocalyptic scenario, in which a complete collapse of social organization ushers in  a tumultuous upheaval, is ultimately a mystical rather than a political one. It is much more helpful to think about revolution as a dramatic convergence of real practices of rebellion and resistance that, in their intersection, acquire a qualitatively new form.”

The Limits of Critique

Catastrophism is a dense and engaging book which is well worth reading. The framework of what this short book seeks to address is clearly defined. Within that framework, the book works quite well. If one is reading the book primarily for a critique this is more than enough. However, our reactions to a book are influenced by what we are looking for. I didn’t find the book fully or adequately dealt with the questions that most concern me as an activist currently working in the climate justice movement. The framework of the book leaves out too much that is highly relevant to the issues raised.

Most of the contributors focus primarily on the importance of narratives. They argue strongly in favour of narratives that generate hope and against catastrophic narratives that inspire fear.
Yuen see narratives as key to politicization.  Questions of how we think and communicate our ideas are quite important. However, for me Yuen’s approach seems a bit reductionist.  There is no single formula for how people politicize and people don’t all politicize in the same ways. I see radicalization as the result of the intersection of multiple factors (including ideas, historical memory, the lived experiences of oppression , witnessing global injustice and environmental destruction , the living laboratory of self-organization and collective actionand resistance, spaces for dissent and organizing, the creation of an alternative culture, the state of movements of resistance, inspiring examples of action, and the lessons of victories and defeats).

A key underlying factor is the belief that another world is possible. This requires a vision that can see beyond the constricted present and the lack of alternatives to neo-liberalism. But a radical movement also requires some practical methods to advance towards its goals – otherwise many people will deradicalize and drop out when impasses are reached.

Yuen and other authors are faced with a very difficult situation in the US and the Canadian state. The state of mass politics, social atomization and lack of broad public understanding of climate change issues create an unfavourable overall context (although  there is ongoing grassroots organizing, often localized).

Yuen clearly acknowledges that the work of environmental activists and the growth of the climate justice movement create hope. However, this is a completely undeveloped side note to the book. This is unfortunate. I think a case study of the climate justice movement and its potential to fundamentally transform the way we collectively understand and act would have greatly added to the book.

The authors do a very good job of explaining what approaches they reject. But it is much harder to decipher what they are in favour of. They have many often brilliant insights that could contribute to the development of alternatives. However, such ideas are presented in a manner which is completely buried and submerged within a critique. I would have found it much easier to understand the perspective(s) of the book if some of the ideas had been developed and elaborated upon in a separate chapter on alternatives.

What Action?

We live in perilous times in which what to do is not self-evident. Yuen shows how the failed approaches of the mainstream environmental movement can turn people away. This is particularly true if issues of social justice are ignored or if the voices of people who bear the worst consequences of the environmental crisis are ignored or marginalized.

However, we need to respond to the climate crisis directly. What can be said with certainty is that the less that is done collectively at a global level now, the more widespread and catastrophic the consequences will be in the future.

The book doesn’t directly address this problem. But it is clear that the root of the problem is that way too much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse  gases are being put into the atmosphere, completely destabilizing climate patterns on which ecosystems and life forms depend and triggering feedback mechanisms (such as the melting of permafrost) that will release even more greenhouse gases. There is no viable alternative to climate change other than a rapid process of reducing these emissions and transitioning to alternative forms of energy.

The antidote to pessimism and fatalism is effective mass human action. But what makes action effective? Strategy plays a key role.

If one believes that the capitalist system is the root cause of the ecological crisis and many other ills then it needs to be abolished. It won’t collapse of its own accord and a process of disintegration is more likely to have devastating consequences than lead to a better world.

However, abolishing capitalism seems extraordinarily far-fetched and remote for most of us who live in non-revolutionary times. So it is important to develop a transitional  and even immediate set of goals and objectives.

For example, one could take on the huge capitalist fossil fuel and extractive industries (including their transmission systems). These companies do untold damage to the earth and have sometimes generated intense opposition from local communities who experience the damage they cause but only receive a few tiny crumbs of benefits from developments that generate huge profits for the owners. Campaigns around these industries intermingle issues of solidarity, social justice and protecting the earth.

In many places, including where I live, indigenous people are defending their lands against resource extraction projects and playing an essential role in the environmental justice movement. Our movements need to stand in full solidarity with defenders of the land and their struggles against the colonialist Canadian state.

In becoming involved in a movement it is important to survey the terrain for resistance.
Strategically we may wish to align with other progressive forces on the Left. However, this can be very difficult. Around the world social democratic parties have capitulated to neo-liberalism and in large measure Green parties have adapted to and made similar accommodations. The workers’ movement and unions are strategically important. However, too often they are missing in action from major environmental struggles. Union leaders often seek to defend their members’ immediate interest in jobs (sometimes falsely understood or portrayed as being in opposition to environmental protection) and fail to promote a larger social and environmental justice agenda.

Struggles against austerity can also unfold in ways completely apart from environmental justice concerns. However, there is an underlying connection in that austerity policies promote all sorts of wrong spending choices which harm people and other living things.

However, certain specific issues – such as pipeline building in British Columbia -- open a space to reach far more people.  In engaging in a specific campaign, such as to ban fracking, one may find common cause with unlikely allies coming from very different places.

It is very possible to agree with people around specific goals while disagreeing with them about wider political agendas and ideology. For me, the idea of -- to use old left language -- the united front or unity in action is central to the process of mass movement building.

In any major movement radicals face the dangers of sectarianism and also of absorption into the agenda of others which we don’t share. There is much to disagree with in the mainstream environmental movement. As a result there is a temptation to not work with them. This can mean refusing to participate in the broader movement at all or going off in a completely separate corner. If one rejects this temptation one has to deal with agendas which one disagrees with: green capitalism and the prominent role of environmental NGOs which seek to dominate the field, often using left-wing environmental activists simply as foot soldiers.

It is impossible to navigate these problems as an isolated individual. One requires the aid of organizations with common purpose. Working together, people are better able to balance the different imperatives of having very firm and uncompromising long-term goals and the capacity to connect to people’s lived experience and create broader networks and alliances which can alter the course of events that is creating ecological catastrophe.
Harold Lavender is a member of Rising Tide Vancouver Coast Salish Territories and an editor of New Socialist Webzine.

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Live Review: Mat Callahan sings James Connolly

By Nicolas Grizzle
City Sound
January 18th, 2014

Live Review: Mat Callahan sings James Connolly

Mat Callahan at the Arlene Francis Center

The cyclical nature of revolution songs is undeniable. Take a song from 100 years ago and it will be, at least in part, relevant today. Take, for example, the songs of Irish revolutionary James Connolly.

Mat Callahan, who fronted the San Francisco political punk/worldbeat band the Looters in the 80s, has compiled a book of Connolly’s music from original publications long thought lost to history. The book is put together well, with just enough history to give a sense of Connolly’s importance but relying mostly on the man’s own words from his music, all of which was written over 100 years ago. Connolly, a leading Marxist theorist in his day and was executed by the British in 1916.

Callahan and his wife Yvonne Moore, who now call Switzerland home, performed about a dozen songs on acoustic guitar and vocals at the Arlene Francis Center Friday night. The performance was the most punk rock thing I’ve seen all year, and will hold that title for at least a while. The duo sent a frozen shiver down my spine with lines like, “The people’s flag is deepest red, it shrouded oft our martyred dead; and ere their limbs grew stiff and cold, their hearts’ blood dyed its every fold.”

Santa Rosan Robert Ethington opened the show with original songs on acoustic guitar, accompanied by his wife Amy on vocals. They played a handful of powerful songs, suggesting they’d be a treat to see as a headlining act.

The album, “Songs of Freedom,” includes fully orchestrated versions of the songs Callahan and Moore played Friday night. It’s got Callahan’s worldbeat sensibility and arrangement, with guitar, bass, drums, Irish whistles, pipes, vocal harmony, fiddle, accordion and harp. The production is excellent, and the arrangements are updated to modern sensibility without losing their original feeling. Some tunes to Connolly’s songs were lost, so Callahan wrote original music to his lyrics. It serves to note that Connolly’s main purpose of putting these revolutionary words to music was for people to sing them and remember them, so many of the tunes are actually traditional country songs or somewhat hokey, simple melodies. They sound best when sung with 100 of your closest, most fed-up-with-the-system friends.

Get the book and CD here. It’s perfect for fans of history, revolution and Mat Callahan, each of which is equally important.

Here’s where you can catch this great show:
B350917F-3B9ACA00-1-Songs of Freedom 8x11

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None But Ourselves Can Free Our Minds: Chris Crass' "Towards Collective Liberation"

By Dr Zakk Flash
January 18th, 2014

More than just an anthology of essays, Chris Crass's Towards Collective Liberation is a coming-of-age tale for the modern activist. Crass chronicles his growth as an organizer, illustrating how the rewards and challenges of being a college-age activist with Food Not Bombs has shaped his current endeavors in feminist work with men and anti-racist work with majority white groups. In tracing his own evolution as an activist, Crass examines his involvement in half a dozen activist groups, showing how current sociopolitical issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and US wars abroad are linked to struggles at home.

Crass's book serves two main purposes: as the memoir of an activist fighting racism, sexism, classism and homophobia, and as a self-help book for the beleaguered social justice organizer. Pairing tales of personal development with movement moments, Crass tells the story of his growth in wisdom, and the integration of that wisdom into an intersectional praxis for effective social change. That word, praxis, is one that appears time and time again. Praxis, practice-driven theory, is the engine that drives successful struggle. As Crass tells it, insight isn't enough; moments of sudden inspiration and new understanding can provide momentum, but sustainable change requires analysis, planning, organization, integration and reflection.

Chris Crass's life story provides a lens through which to view his take on the birth and death of popular struggle. In organizing against imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, Crass is organizing against himself. As a white man, raised in capitalist America, the author is granted multiple measures of privilege. In examining the strengths and contradictions inherent in anarchist activism, Crass is dissecting himself, refusing that privilege and questioning its origin. These motivations are what make the book so useful in discussing contemporary activism.

In his long and fairly venerable career as a rabble rouser, Crass has made a lot of friends. He brings them along in Towards Collective Liberation, drawing judiciously from interviews in constructing his narrative. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz - historian, writer and professor emerita in Native American studies at California State University - lends academic weight in the foreword; her contribution from a dedicated Marxist revolutionary with extensive radical credentials in feminism and anti-racist work serves to bolster the author's message. Chris Dixon, fellow at the Institute for Anarchist Studies, brings along his own experiences in the book's introduction. Well-known in anti-authoritarian and indigenous solidarity organizing circles, Dixon's recommendation of the book adds to its gravitas.

Emotionally honest, Towards Collective Liberation deals with the stress, disillusionment and everyday difficulties of social change work. The self-replicating social dynamics of hierarchy pop up even in the most dedicated of revolutionary lives; if we're working for radical political, economic and cultural changes, we must remember that this work is called "struggle." And while it seems simple, addressing feelings, communication, conflict and resistance in day-to-day interrelations can make a serious difference. Crass's book illuminates the means by which oppression is reinforced by hierarchies of hegemonic groups. In doing so, he provides opportunities for reflection on how that oppression might be lessened.

Empire is not inevitable. Racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia are not the natural order of things. In putting this book together, Chris Crass has created a compelling volume with a simple message: Our personal and collective liberation is bound up in the liberation of others.

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Peter Kuper: Drawn to an International Comic Art Career

By Michael Dooley
Print Magazine
June 3rd, 2013

Peter Kuper’s seen it all. And he wants us to see it, too. So he draws it for us. His visits to Latin America, the Middle East, and beyond have been providing him with perspective and inspiration for World War 3 Illustrated – America’s longest-running radical comic book anthology, since 1980. His various comics autobiographies include ComicsTrips: A Journal of Travels Through Africa and Southeast Asia. And his graphic novel adaptions of classic literature by authors such as Franz Kafka and Upton Sinclair have been translated into French, German, Swedish, Portugese, Greek, and several other languages.


photo by M. Dooley

photo by M. Dooley

Peter’s accomplishments include creating the New York Times‘s first regular comic strip feature. With his mastery of multiple art media and a flair for rendering powerful, riveting images, he’s produced award-winning covers for Time, Newsweek, and numerous other publications. And he’s most known to the public for “Spy vs. Spy,” which he’s been drawing for Mad since 1997.

This summer, you can find Peter at his regular spot in San Diego Comic-Con’s Artists’ Alley, selling his original “Spy” artwork and rare collector’s items. He’ll also be promoting Drawn to New York: An Illustrated Chronicle of Three Decades in New York City, which just released this week.

Our conversation begins with his views of Manhattan and Mexico and covers a lot of ground, including his comics class at Harvard, his success at gaining a broad readership and reaching foreign markets, and his thoughts about print vs. digital media.

Unless otherwise noted, all images copyright © Peter Kuper.





How would you describe Drawn to New York and Diario de Oaxaca?

Both books are odd birds, falling between categories. They’re more like visual diaries of time periods in my life, reflecting the influences of specific locations.

And how are they different from each other?

New York, relatively speaking, seems to be in black and white, with its towering modern steel and glass structures in stark contrast to the humans who inhabit the city. Compared to most other places in the world – especially the laid-back nature of Mexico – the pace in Manhattan is intense – which I love – so the books reflect those vast differences.

Drawn to New York illustrates 30 years, including an era when the city was much more dangerous, down and dirty, then later, as it was gentrified for better and worse, through 9-11 and other stormy experiences – literally with Hurricane Sandy.

Diario de Oaxaca is a sketchbook journal primarily about a town in Mexico where I lived from 2006 to 2008. Oaxaca is an incredibly colorful place, sunny and warm 90% of the time, with 16th century architecture and nearby ruins of ancient civilizations. There was a huge teachers’ strike, people killed and a military presence during the first six months of my stay, which added a dark dimension, but that left the remaining year and a half to draw the glorious details of life in Mexico.


The pages of both these books appear quite vivid and luminous on electronic devices; do you see this as an advantage?

For the limited way I’ve used eBooks, this is the main benefit. It is really striking to see the pages illuminated this way, but not worth the loss of the tactile experience of a print book. I haven’t taken advantage of all the things that can be done within the form of eBooks, like open sources, linking to videos, or adding animation.

So, print’s your personal preference?

I’m really a print person, and need the feel of a book in my hands. I feel obliged to explore the options of digital since it’s clear that this is a direction books are headed. And of course, there are, and will be, many exciting things to be done in that medium, too.

Like many people, I have a real love/hate relationship with computers and everything that they’ve changed.





What’ve been your most successful works in foreign markets?

My adaptation of The Metamorphosis, thanks to the popularity of Kafka, has been translated in ten countries – including Israel, Turkey, Brazil, and the Czech Republic – so that’s the winner. But since I lived in Mexico I’ve done five books with my Mexican publisher, Sexto Piso, and that’s opened the door to a much wider relationship with Latin America, which is another kind of success. It’s also translated into many invites to book festivals throughout South America.

And what’ve been your experiences with overseas printing and publishing?

At this point most of my books are printed in Asia, and working directly with those printers and seeing what’s possible has given me many ideas for more elaborate printing: debossing, tipped-in plates, paper-wraps, etc.

As far as working with foreign publishers, it’s been generally fantastic, but the pay is much smaller than the bigger US publishers. Still, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to reach new audiences with my work. And my relationships open other doors as well, with illustration work. I’ve been art directing and illustrating a weekly political piece for the French paper Liberation, which came through one of my publishers there.


Liberation illustration copyright © Peter Kuper

copyright © Steve Brodner

Liberation illustration copyright © Steve Brodner

copyright © Edel Rodriguez

Liberation illustration copyright © Edel Rodriguez


What did you learn from the reception that Stop Forgetting to Remember: The Autobiography of Walter Kurtz received?

Avoid faux autobiographies!

I had the “clever” idea of making it the autobiography of a fictitious cartoonist. This seemed reasonable, since I wanted to make adjustments to my story without cheating the truth. It seemed that the play was the thing and it was less important that it was my story. But some people were flummoxed by this.

It was later published in Spanish and French and I decided to drop the doppelgänger in those editions.



How will your approach to Ruins be different?

Ruins is a very different book for me. It will be my longest graphic novel, at about 300 full color pages. And it is a work of fiction, though I’m applying my experiences in Mexico and my interest in entomology. Nobody will mistake it for autobiography.



What first motivated you to express your political beliefs through visual commentary?

Fear was a big motivator. Ronald Reagan was about to become president when I was in art school, with a hostage crisis in Iran and his itchy trigger-finger ready to launch the bomb. I was desperate to have some kind of response, which was a big reason my friend Seth Tobocman and I started publishing World War 3 Illustrated. That title choice says it all!

How has WW3 Illustrated evolved over its 34 years?

Kuper20_WW3 One of the ways our magazine has expanded has been through bringing in younger people, including some of the students Seth and I have had at the School of Visual Arts. They bring a whole new set of ideas and connections. As a result we’ve ended up with more contributions from abroad, like cartoonists from Egypt. Many of these artists have never been seen in the US and they’re bringing stories based on first-hand experience, which is an area of journalism ideally suited to comics.

I’m currently editing a new issue, with dozens of contributors and a rotating group of editors.

What topics will it tackle?

This issue has an unusually light, upbeat subject: death.

We have stories ranging from the history of hell to a personal account of life on Death Row. There are comics about losing family members, and a look at how other cultures view death, like Mexico’s Day of the Dead. And there will be a series of photos of murals in Egypt commemorating people who died during the Arab spring.

Mortality is something we all face and comics are a great medium to express all the angles.

What makes a successful political cartoon?

One that stops you in your tracks, enlightens, and makes you consider a perspective you hadn’t previously entertained – maybe even to the point of taking some positive action steps. If it can also have humor, it’s win-win.

copyright © Jonathan Finn-Gamiño

copyright © Kayla Escobedo

copyright © Kayla Escobedo

copyright © Kayla Escobedo

copyright © Kayla Escobedo

How did you come to teach at Harvard?

There were enough students interested in comics that Harvard was pushed to include a course. How my name got thrown in the hat is still a mystery to me. Once I was asked – even though it’s a daunting commute from New York City to Boston and back every week – I couldn’t say no.

What was the nature of your class?

It’s really the same class I teach at SVA. It gives students all the building blocks necessary to create a solid comic page, from the most basic aspects of page design and lettering to the elements of a solid visual narrative.

All the assignments are strictly in black and white and complete beginning-middle-end in one page. I help them find stories worth telling based on personal experiences, dreams, adaptations, and journalistic approaches. I include a lot of comic art history through presentations and get them to each give a talk on an artist of their choosing.  I also bring in guest lectures; Steve Brodner and Ben Katchor visited Harvard last semester. And at SVA over the years Peter de Sève, Gabrielle Bell, Seymour Chwast, and Matt Mahurin, among others, have given presentations to my students.

How did your Harvard students differ from your SVA students?

copyright © Kayla Escobedo

copyright © Kayla Escobedo

Generally the SVA students are all cartoon or illustration majors. On rare occasion they’re in film, but all related in one form another to art.

Of my Harvard students – 23 applied and I had to select 12, the maximum per class – only half were coming from an arts background.

I had an economics student and an English literature major and one who was doing medieval studies. They brought some interesting ideas to the table even though they were sometimes artistically starting from scratch.

Students like Jonathan Finn-Gamiño and Kayla Escobedo were in Harvard’s art program, so they were already producing developed work. For the ones that were first-timers I help them hone their skills through inspiring assignments and Gulag-esque critiques. They were all pretty responsive to this approach, though several said it was the most demanding class they took at Harvard!

How would you evaluate your course’s success?

Some of my students formed a comics club and began publishing a magazine when class ended, so my enthusiasm for the form must have rubbed off!




Which art media do you feel most comfortable with?

I like media that allows me direct contact with materials and that has an unpredictable outcome. Stencil and spray paint has that in spades, so I spent several decades working in that approach. Until I lifted the stencil, I wouldn’t know exactly what the result would be. Unfortunately, I do have a pretty good idea about the long-term effects of working with toxic materials, so I stopped using spray paint.

I also love scratchboard since it, too, has surprising results, like a fluid form of woodcut. Quality scratchboard, however, has been difficult to find, so I’m finding myself forced to dig up new mediums that will bring that element of mystery.

One of my recent favorites is a multicolored pencil with seven different colors in the tip; always an unexpected color with each scrawl.


How do you feel about the “cartoonist” and “graphic novelist” labels?

It used to be I’d rarely mention I was a cartoonist since it brought calls to reproduce some kind of “Superman” style. That used to be the main way people viewed comics. These days I’m able to refer to myself as a cartoonist without people presuming superheroes. And it’s a great conversation-starter at parties!

We still haven’t really found the right title to describe what we do. “Graphic novelist” is just the one we currently agree on. In the future it may be another moniker like “People of cartoonal” or “Comic-con Americans.” I don’t care, as long as I get to ply my trade.


What’s your advice to cartoonists who want to reach a broader readership beyond the usual fan base?

First advice is: learn about the history of the form. There are so many old masters to be discovered that serve as inspiration beyond the flavor of the moment: Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Lyonel Feininger, Harvey Kurtzman, etc. I’ve found, consistently, all successful cartoonists know their history.

Next – as much as I hate aspects of computers – the Internet provides many opportunities to reach a wider audience. Or so I’ve heard.

Third, it’s unavoidable – unless you win the art lottery – to end up doing a lot of free work. This is hard to face, but to create work that demonstrates your abilities often requires producing without remuneration. Most of my early comics – and plenty of recent ones – were done without pay, at least initially. WW3 Illustrated has never paid anyone, which may be the secret to our success!

I’m not glorifying poverty: it’s just important to not give up if the money isn’t there. If you do work from the heart that you really enjoy, fandom – and hopefully, filthy lucre – will follow.

Speaking of fans, do you have anything to say to yours?

I was as surprised as anyone to be chosen People magazine’s “Sexiest Cartoonist/Illustrator Man of the Year,” so thanks for all your votes.


Drawn to New York in Boing Boing

by Brian Heater
Boing Boing
June 28th, 2013

This book is, frankly, just too large to attempt to read on a crowded downtown “6” train on a Saturday night -- the guy leaning off the pole next to you will keep bumping into you as he sways slowly, back and forth. And all of a sudden you’re the asshole, because you’re trying to read some beautiful, hardcover graphic novel on a too hot and sticky early night in June. And then maybe a fight will break out in the next car over, between two women. You can’t hear a word of it, but it’s a sort of delicate dance of hand signals and bobbing heads still visible through pollution-frosted windows. And then a man will apologize to the car before telling the sad story of the family he’s trying to support on an income of change and crumpled dollar bills, and some break dancing teens will flip to Michael Jackson songs, their flying sneakers repeatedly coming far too close to your downward-facing head for comfort.

I don’t know that it was the best way to enjoy such a thing. Peter Kuper packs a million shapes and colors and emotions into a page, and if you look up for a moment at the two young women have a loud conversation about their sex lives, you’ll probably miss a solid 100 thousand. But it’s a book that can be taken in pieces, a wide-ranging collection of comics, sketches and commissioned illustrations lacking in an over-arching narrative arc (if that’s what you’re in the market for, I’d nudge you toward the largely autobiographical Stop Forgetting to Remember). It’s fractured and chaotic, and for those looking in from the outside, the grime may well have all the tourist appeal of Penn Station.

Unlike the stylistically similar Diario De Oaxaca, Kuper doesn’t offer the added context of a visitor to the strange land -- and, really, the New York City tourist board isn’t likely to adopt this text any time soon. But who knows, maybe by the time you reach the first stop in Brooklyn, you’ll find a thing or two that will put you back on the right side of your perpetual love/hate relationship with this city.

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