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World War 3 Illustrated 1979-2014

World War 3 Illustrated 1979-2014

by Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman, Editors, with Introduction by Bill Ayres
PM Press, Oakland, CA, 2014
320 pp. Trade, $$29.95
ISBN: 978-1-60486-958-3.

Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


A high school friend who liked the cartoon flyers I spent time drawing for another friend's band, when I should have been paying attention in the class we three shared, sent me this fine anthology of a notable long-running political comic book. Political comics and cartooning as we know it, an major part of the medium's history, began with 17th and 18th century political broadsides combining words and pictures, often in sequence and richer than the single-panels that became standard with the rise of daily newspapers in the 19th century. These ephemeral milestones of material culture are documents of social science, of political science. And this volume joins them in that history.

As a periodical comic book, World War 3 Illustrated is a rich and colorful confluence of art and political science. Its editors and faithful contributors Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman were high school friends in Cleveland who (like many of their, our, generation) had grown up with Marvel comics, then, discovered the lush psychedelic, sexy and critical content of underground comix by artists like Robert Crumb and Spain Rodriguez. The rollback of 1970s progress and Ronald Reagan presidency spurred their World War 3 Illustrated project, and a variety of politicized comics creators found their way to it and helped them sustain it for three-and-a-half decades.

Like the old ZAP Comix, World War 3 Illustrated is distinguished by the different styles of its artists. Early on we're struck by Tobocman's powerful stencil art and the reductive, stylized angular look of his comics. Peter Bagge's characters are all exaggerations, Chuck Sperry channels surrealism, and there are uncharacteristic collages by Aki Fujiyoshi. Sabrina Jones' maps especially powerful, innovative form to indignant content.

Several comics take on the Religious Right: a Jerry Falwell sermon quoted verbatim, a community's frightened opposition to AIDS patients, a frightening vision of what might happen if Christ returned to brutal New York. There are women's stories of torment, of challenges to reproductive rights, and K-9 and Fly-2K's story of a sexually active 9-year-old.

There are comics on the incarceration of Mumia Abu-Jamal and on police abuses like the shootings of Eleanor Bumpurs and Amadou Diallo, those inexplicable police killings that remain all too familiar (in Eric Garner's New York; in Ferguson, Missouri; and also Saginaw and Ann Arbor, Michigan). Violence and injustice in Oaxaca, Mexico is contemplated in Peter Kuper's sketchbook, which makes use of various media (colored pencil, pen, photographs). Kevin C. Pyle's illustrates the terrible Tuskeegee Syphilis Experiment in "Pink Medicine." C. Sperry's reveals his mother's death from industrially-caused cancer. Sue Coe, remembered for powerful work on South African apartheid in 1980s, expresses outrage on the 2010 BP oil spill, and there are fine illustrations "Moloch" and "The Jungle" by Eric Drooker. After Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Mac McGill gives personality and intelligent agency to the roiling water, and Seth Tobocman draws the jubilant survivors' parade.

New York, New York... Seth Tobocman educates us on the forces behind urban housing prices; dark visions of their crisis are conjured by Eric Drooker. Mac McGill's applies fine penwork upon personified buildings, and caricaturist Steve Brodner swirls around the politically pliable face of Mayor Ed Koch. There are first-hand 9/11 New York stories, as Mac McGill returns with the anguish of the falling towers, screaming souls within. Spain Rodriguez on Faith-Based Terrorism, covering the gamut of Islamist, Israeli, and home-grown Christianist. In protest of America's Middle Eastern wars, Peter Kuper responds to the 1st (1991) Gulf War in stencils and spray paint. The grimly gleerful (yeah, that's his work) Tom Tomorrow comments a decade later with cheerily repurposed 1940s clip art, and Art Spiegelman and others see the connection to oil behind all the sword-, gun- and flag-waving. It's also good to see photos of the artwork produced for New York's anti-war march. But despite large protests internationally, the US invaded Iraq, and the Saddam-less nation (as it was, cobbled together after World War I) fell apart and bred ISIS...but don't get me started...

Regarding one part of the Middle East in which the United States is involved, Eric Drooker presents King David's land as behaving like Goliath, and Seth Tobocman's "The Serpent of State" questions the walls built around Israel. Sabrina Jones recounts travel in Israel, but Peter Kuper visited repeatedly, the first time with his parents at age 10. The artists struggle with the contradictions of a "promised land" with which they have a personal connection, and its visibly abusive treatment of Palestinians.

The "Autobiology" section contains self-referential comics, manifesting the feminist affirmation "the personal is political". This is the territory that was explored in the 1970s by Melissa Gebbie, in the 1990s by Aline Kominsky, and since then by Alison Bechdel and Phoebe Gloeckner (whose "Diary of a Teenage Girl" was recently made into a feature film that debuted at this year's Sundance). One powerful autobiography is a comment on Globalism; Carlo Quispe's tale of a Salvadorean immigrant whose life stress actually bursts out of the comic's panels. Reflecting the contradictory reception the comics medium in America, "Sunshine State" recounts Peter Kuper's testimony at the 1994 trial of Mike Diana, prosecuted for obscenity in Florida for publishing a puerile comic book about Jesus Christ. I thought about this case following the murder of the Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris in January 2015.

The most recent--and perhaps most optimistic--section in the book documents the festive artwork created for Occupy Wall Street, and Susan Simensky Bietla shows protesting crowds of educators and working people massed in the Wisconsin state house.

My criticisms of the book are of things that should have been corrected in reprinting these comics and stories. Gregory Benton's #AM-8335 is the prisoner's own tale, well-drawn but sadly diminished by muddy colors; I wish PM Press' production staff had cranked up the colors' brightness and tweaked the contrast to make Benton's art more readable. In the "Promised Land" section, Eric Drooker tells of a mural project in Palestine in whose painting he participated, led by muralist Susan Greene--not Green--of the Break the Silence project. Since this artist has prominent public works in Oakland and environs, PM Press really should have caught Drooker's typo.

And it's a shame they didn't catch Robert Desmond's allusion to "Boris Batinov," a misspelling of Boris Badenov, in an early issue. What made Jay Ward's Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons (much like MAD magazine satires) cultural educators to our generation of American kids was clever puns like Boris Badenov, a riff on the opera Boris Godunov; the diminutive villain is Bad rather than Good Enough. But it's because Comics still fights for legitimacy (at least in MY university Art department) that publications like World War 3 Illustrated should be most attentive to details like these.

Kuper and Tobocman would probably shrug and say, "Hey, we're comics artists, bro, not proofreaders." And maybe my cavil is like a methodical Marxist griping that Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napolean, quickly written during France's 1851 coup, feels hurried. This is history, man, and even in an elegant 35-year chunk between hard covers, it's hot off the presses.

Last Updated 9 April 2015

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