Feeling adventurous I journeyed out to an unfamiliar part of Bushwick last night for an opening night party for the new issue of World War 3 Illustrated. Founded in 1980, this comics magazine has been charting politics, struggle, and social causes around the world for more than 30 years. The latest issue’s theme is “The Other,” surely a propitious one. I’ve yet to read the whole issue but the parts presented last night were quite striking.
The new issue was edited by Hilary Allison and Ethan Heitner, two recent SVA grads. Part of the WW3 process is getting new cartoonists involved, and it wouldn’t have lasted this long with it, said co-founder Peter Kuper, who showed a slideshow covering some of his cartooning life. The evening started out with Sabrina Jones talking through “Kemba Smith” an excerpt from her just released book Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling an adaptation of Marc Mauer’s book on America exploding imprisonment rate. “Kembra Smith” is about a 24 year old pregnant woman from a good family with no previous record who was sentenced to 24 years in prison for various offenses related to her boyfriend’s drug dealing, such as owning the car he used for deliveries. Smith’s family mortgaged their house to pursue some justice for her, and after 7 years in prison, she was was pardoned by Bill Clinton—it’s the kind of tale of injustice that comics can present in quickly relatable fashion.
Cartoonist/filmmaker Sandy Jimenez read “Single Lens Reflex” a story from his childhood in the devastated South Bronx about two foreign exchange students who came to take pictures of him and his friends. Jimenez did something I’ve never seen at a comics reading before: at the climax of the story—the two youngsters barge into an exhibit of the photos of them—and stopped and said “What did they see? To find out you’ll have to buy the issue!” Needless to say, I was glad I had a copy! His story was powerfully written, the art just along for the ride to get the point across—a fairly common style for WW3.
Kuper’s slideshow was a whirlwind tour through 30 years of political unease, from the dread of impending nuclear disaster that gave the book its title to 9/11 to Occupy. Kuper is currently teaching a comics course at Harvard University—surely the most expensive comics class in the world.
Next, another comics event innovation, an interview via Skype with Ganzeer, an Egyptian cartoonist and muralist who has been involved with the continuing political unrest in Egypt. It was a fascinating look into a world where your art can not just draw nasty comment threads—it can get you arrested or worse. His art appears in small zines but much of it is street art—political graffiti. Ganzeer said he grew up reading American superhero comics but “I would go to the store one month and there would be one issue of Spider-Man, and the next month one issue of something else. I never knew how the stories came out!” He’s currently involved in distributing thousands of posters spotlighting sexual harassment. Asked about th dangers of his job, he said he had been arrested once but the worst was when an angry mob had been drawn to a mural criticizing the military he was putting up. “I got away but the mural didn’t,” he said.
There were further readings by Kuper and Seth Tobocman, but I had to depart due to an incipient allergic reaction to something in the sprawling art space that housed the event. (About that art space, The Silent Barn, I wandered around some of the other rooms and there was one piece that actually made me scream aloud in fright: a garbage bag full of mysterious pink liquid that suddenly began shaking when I walked over to look in it! Good one! it’s also home to the D!tko Zine Lbrary. )
All in all another night in the vital tapestry of the New York comics community. WW3′s comics don’t fall into the beautiful or striking schools of indie comics—a lot of the art is raw and emotional, which gives it power. It’s very much in the underground tradition of the just collected Anarchy Comics. As rough as it sometimes is, it’s still a vital example of comics’ ability to influence and editorialize.
Before I left I got a chance to chat with Jones, a longtime cartoonist whose day job is as a scenic painter for the stage. Her current gig is working on Saturday Night Live—only two days a week but a frantic two days.
As I waited for the train home on the bitter cold platform, an icy snow swirling around me, I thought about how SNL and WW3 are both long running examples of New York’s creative scene (granted one is big and commercial, one barely makes money), and how both have seen constant change and evolution in their creative line-ups. Perhaps my biggest takeaway of the evening was gratefulness that Allison and Heitner have stepped up to keep WW3′s unique legacy relevant.