by Nicholas Jahr
Reviewed in this essay: World War 3 Illustrated: 1979-2014, edited by Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman. PM Press, 2014, 321 pages.
I VAGUELY REMEMBER WORLD WAR 3. Growing up, I was dimly aware of it lurking behind sleek curves and rippling muscles, spandex and tights and capes, the glossy sheen coating it all. World War 3 was all hard angles and contorted bodies, fists and teeth and spraypaint and blood. It was a dispatch from another world, seemingly distant and yet too close for comfort, somehow a lot more immediate than the one right in my face, and screaming for my attention. These days the headlines have made it feel imminent. What better time than now to get it all between two covers.
World War 3 kicked off in 1979, when two young cartoonists launched a sneak attack on Reagan’s America. Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman have been in the vanguard of the vanguard ever since, editing and contributing to the comics anthology they founded after coming to New York from Cleveland. They’re the radical Siegel and Shuster. Now PM Press has published a new collection, World War 3 Illustrated: 1979-2014. Whatever its flaws, it deserves a place on the shelves of anyone who gives a damn about comics or the political art of the last three decades.
“We didn’t begin WW3 with a formal manifesto,” the editors write in their introduction (entitled… “Manifesto”). It shows. There was no house style, no hard line to tow. Instead World War 3 called up a riot of styles, a frenzy of technique and imagery, a lot of brutal black-and-white and the occasional effusion of orgiastic color. The vernacular of mainstream comics was deployed in only the most perfunctory sense; recruits looked elsewhere, borrowing from many of the major trends of 20th century painting: Surrealism, Cubism, expressionism, woodcut, collage, photorealism, airbrush, graffiti… the list probably goes on.
Maybe it’s this adoption of techniques from more static forms which fosters an emphasis on the discrete image, the single panel (sometimes the whole page). If the simplifications of cartooning tend toward the iconic or an esculent abstraction, taken together these two tendencies can make some of the work feel static, as if the panels don’t relate to each other. But even when the panels are stronger than the pages, there are still images of intense power, not simply iconic in the sense that the many permutations of life are distilled into a single, more universal image, but also in the sense that those images convey values and ideas: they’re rallying points.
Relatedly, for self-professed radical artists, there’s very little experimentation in World War 3 with the basic grid, the flow of how a page of comics is read. Even if most of the contributors eschew strict representation to varying degrees, lining up with the 20th century avant-garde, they accept the same basic grammar used in mainstream comics. If it’s the one concession these revolutionaries paid to their ancien regime, its significance is arguable. Revolutionary content doesn’t always mean revolutionary form, of course, and the latter can winnow the audience for the former. At the same time it’s a reminder of how long its taken comics to mature as an art form, of its long and tortured adolescence (which has now seized the culture as a whole).
The collection is organized by topic (“Herstories”, “Autobiology”, “Biohazard”, “New World Empire”, you get the idea), which gives a sense of how consistent the group’s engagement has been on each front (very), although the scheme sacrifices any clear sense of progression and development (if there is one to be sussed out). If the analysis is occasionally simplistic, the agitprop is fiercely agitational. The collective has spent the last three decades drawing on the frontlines: struggles over equality, the environment, censorship, religion; the gentrification of New York City; the cancerous growth of the prison industrial-complex; the rolling catastrophe of U.S. foreign policy; the man-made disaster of Hurricane Katrina; the sheer insidious fear of the AIDS crisis.
But for fucking revolutionaries, the absence of pleasure, of actual orgies, of revolutionary fucking, is striking. We can muster only the No, not the Yes. You can’t help but think that this is the Left at a nadir: all critique and no program, no vision of a better world to rally around, to fight for. World War 3, of course, shouldn’t be blamed for the strategic confusion of contemporary left politics. Looking to comics to lead the way forward is asking a bit much.
WHAT CAN WE LOOK TO COMICS TO DO? Despite its maturation, the medium is still often perceived as innocent, as ‘kids stuff.’ Sure, that quality is in large part nothing more than a matter of perception — this is a medium which spent half a century catering to those kids — but it can still be useful. Readers still underestimate comics. And that means some styles can tunnel under their defenses and assumptions: people a viewer would write off on the nightly news become less foreign, more familiar; perspectives that would immediately be dismissed are given a hearing. Other styles make symbols plausible and systems apparent, even if the appeal is less to reason than to intuition. (Of course it doesn’t help if you’re only preaching to the converted, but transforming the system of distribution is another problem that goes beyond comics, and comics stores are not exactly known as hotbeds of left politics.) The artists of World War 3 get plenty of ammunition from both approaches.
Scott McCloud has reflected on the way comics depend on the participation of the reader:
Both instilling life in an icon and filling in the blanks between panels involve readers to an extent few other mediums rival. Comics are good terrain for political warfare because they force readers to do some of the fighting themselves.
BUT IS IT GOOD FOR THE JEWS? This is Jewish Currents, after all. “Promised Land?”, one of the volume’s penultimate sections, features contributions from all World War 3‘s longest-serving volunteers: Kuper, Tobocman, and Eric Drooker (who’s represented by a first-person essay accompanied by photos, so we’ll set it aside), along with Sabrina Jones. All four examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; all of them show off the possibilities of political comics.
Tobocman’s style is stripped down and iconic, and he uses it to conjure up the universal and systemic:
The transition from the round table in the fourth panel to the snake encircling the peace sign in the fifth to the calcified walls of the sixth gives the images a coherence they wouldn’t have separately. Nor would the text in the sixth panel (“AND WHEN ALL THE WALLS HAVE BEEN BUILT…”) hold up without the image that complements it. He gets across in eight panels ideas that others (myself included) have spent thousands of words communicating.
Jones pulls off the feat of conveying the physical and political geography of Jerusalem’s Old City in a single panel:
The history and veneration and segregation and suspicion and tension are all there in that one image.
Of the three, Kuper’s work comes closest to McCloud’s ideas:
It’s hard not to project yourself into the elation of Kuper’s first panel, to feel how crushed and diminished that sensation is by the end of the page. The ‘terrorists’ are just people he knows at work, and as you transition through the page (even if it doesn’t flow strictly panel-to-panel) you imagine knowing them too.
In different ways all three artists lead readers to see the humanity of people whose humanity is often dismissed.
The volume as a whole offers an implicit rebuttal to the persistent canard that ‘the Left’ (whoever that is, anymore) singles out Israel. There are dispatches from North Korea, Mexico, India; Jones is one of several contributors to take on the war in Iraq. Some will complain that the proportions are off; Kuper’s contribution begins with recollections of his first visit to Israel in 1969, at the age of 10. To the extent that Israel is given more attention, it’s due to a complicated sense of attachment, and of its importance to the world.
THE COLLECTION INCLUDES A TIMELINE OF THE WAR TO DATE, juxtaposing the major political events of the era with the history of the magazine and its contributors. Even after 300 pages, the omissions are striking: Where’s Steve Brodner at the 1988 Republican National Convention? No Brian Damage? None of the Eastern European contributors? No Stephen Kroninger? Not even David Wojnarowicz?! No Brad Will? Which makes the fact that the collection includes ten pages from Kuper’s (gorgeous) journal on the uprising in Oaxaca — given that his rich, gorgeous account received the deluxe treatment from PM in a separate 200-page hardcover — somewhat inexplicable. There’s still an impressive array of work to be found in these pages. Currents readers should recognize Spain, Tom Tomorrow, and of course Kuper himself (who has contributed small illustrations to The Nation, and is now the mastermind behind Mad‘s “Spy vs. Spy”). Everyone you don’t recognize is worth becoming familiar with.
This new collection is still indispensable until a better one comes along. You wish the early years were better represented, wish the cover gallery was full-scale, wish there was more material setting the work in context, wish there was more, wish we didn’t hear the distant echo of combat even in our own words, wish world war 3 didn’t feel so damn close at hand, but if it has to be, this is one of the books you want to have with you in the trenches.