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Seth Tobocman

Photo: Kathryn Geurin

The Revolution Will Be Illustrated

America’s longest-running political comic celebrates 30 years of graphic rebellion in Troy

By Kathryn Geurin

On a tired block of North Troy’s 6th Avenue, the double doors of a modest church open onto an unusual sanctuary. Empty of pews, the dim front room is lined with folding chairs, the pillar of a lectern stands silhouetted against an expansive white movie screen. A portrait of a woman peers down from the wall, clutching a swaddled baby in her arms, but she is not your typical Madonna, and her words, which hang in a speech bubble beside her open lips, are not scripture; they are a cry for change. The iconography of this curious refuge is arresting: the snarling jaws of a police dog, trumpeters facing down tanks, a cowering skeleton, an open hand.

This is the Sanctuary for Independent Media, the community media arts and telecommunications production facility of the New York Media Alliance. And on this night, beyond the quiet entry, the historic building is humming with the murmur of creative chaos. The air is rich with the mingled smells of a recently devoured potluck dinner, as artists and activists ease into coffee and discourse. They are preparing for their own brand of services: the 30th anniversary celebration of World War 3 Illustrated, the nation’s longest-running political comic. The founders of the magazine, and a handful of artists from the collective it has grown into, are on hand for a weekend of performance, music, art and workshops.

Their work, and the work of dozens of other World War 3 contributors, is on display throughout the building in a retrospective exhibition that includes original art and prints cataloging 40 issues and three decades of creative dissent. The church has been repurposed into a new kind of sanctuary, and from its walls, the diverse voices are coalescing into a celebration of spirit, a cry to action and a prayer for peace.

But this prayer is not a gentle one. It’s assertive, abrasive even. A mural, still drying on the brick wall behind the tables, re-creates a WW3 cover from two decades past. The dove of peace stands on the dome of earth, legs wide, wings crossed, feathered brow furrowed. He grinds his beak into an olive branch. We are failing. He is pissed.

“This is not just art for art’s sake,” says Branda Miller, the Sanctuary’s arts and education coordinator. “This is art to drive a change in people—to call people out of their chairs and to action.”

Photo: Kathryn Geurin

Before kicking off the evening’s performance, Peter Kuper sits down on a stool beneath the mural he finished earlier that day. One half of the magazine’s two founders, Kuper is tidy and softspoken in black slacks and a button down. Today, the artist is renowned for more mainstream work, including regular contributions to Time, Newsweek and The New York Times, a shelf’s worth of graphic novels, and “Spy vs. Spy,” his monthly comic in MAD magazine. But WW3, for which contributors have never been paid, continues to be a labor of love, passion and free expression for its founders.

Kuper and cofounder Seth Tobocman grew up together in Cleveland, where the young artists immersed themselves in reading comics and creating fanzines. “And by young I mean, like 11. And 12 . . . and 13 and 14,” Kuper chuckles. The pair found themselves at art school in New York City at the dawn of the ’80s, and—in the days before the vast soapbox of the Internet—lacking a forum for the work they wanted to create, work that used the comic form to challenge the political climate of the Regan-era Cold War and Iran-Contra scandals.

“We had the impetus, the subject matter and the desire to do comics, so it came together,” recalls Kuper. “We bought the paper in one place and had it printed in another place. We hand-assembled all of them and walked around and sold them. We sold them in street, in the hallway outside the cafeteria at school. I think it cost us about 700 bucks.”

“We were seeing work that we thought was important, but we weren’t seeing it in newspapers,” says Kuper. “It would be pasted on a lamppost or sprayed on a wall, and it would disappear at first rain or be painted over in a matter of days. Part of what we wanted was to capture this history in a magazine. We saw these things going on. And they weren’t just going to disappear in the first rain.”

There would be documentation, he says, that “we didn’t all just stand by.”

Folded into an armchair the next afternoon following a community workshop on creating political comics, Tobocman makes for an apt portrait of a subversive artist. His leather jacket is worn bare in places over a velour shirt. He makes a tent at his lips with his long fingers, habitually shooting a hand up to adjust thick-rimmed glasses or smooth down a cascade of unkempt gray hair. He purses his lips and composes his thoughts before he speaks. He demonstrates equal pride in his published work and in moments when his art turned up stenciled on a sidewalk, emblazoned on a political pamphlet or tattooed on a bicep.

“As people became aware that we were willing to criticize the administration, a lot of people approached us,” says Tobocman. “We found that these people educated us, we started doing pieces on housing, pieces on feminism, pieces on child abuse, on squatters’ rights and gentrification—pieces that tried to synthesize what we experienced into the work we were doing. The more we learned about the subjects, the more critical it became that we have our own venue to talk about it. Peter and I both did work for The New York Times, but there was always a limit to what we could say. We continue to need our own place to do it.”

Collectively, the artists of World War 3 Illustrated have witnessed the Tompkins Park police riots from their fire escapes and the Twin Towers burning from their studios. They’ve been drenched by the floods of New Orleans, taught public school, marched against war, served in Afghanistan; their experiences have shaped their art, and their art has been influenced, in turn, by their experiences. And throughout their careers, WW3 has remained a vital place to put their complaints and hopes.

Kevin Pyle, another of the collective’s frequent contributors, has published four graphic novels in the last decade. His first, Lab U.S.A., is a piece of comic investigative journalism, a “history of clandestine racist and ideologically inspired science and research in America.” Much of the book was first published in the pages of WW3. “Having deadlines that keep you working, and knowing that you have a place to be published and be heard is very motivating,” says Pyle. “If it wasn’t for World War 3, I probably wouldn’t have sold my first project.” A publisher saw Pyle’s comics in the magazine and approached him about doing a full history on the subject. The resulting volume went on to win the Silver Medal for Sequential Art from the Society of Illustrators.

This story of opportunity and discovery is a through line in the history of the World War 3 collective. “We have younger people working their way up,” says Tobocman. “We have people who are on the front cover of The New Yorker on the front cover of World War 3. And all the work functions together; some of it is fully developed, some of it is on its way somewhere. But we encourage the opportunity to explore your voice, and that is absolutely vital.”

In the exhibition, the work of emerging artists hangs alongside pages of award-winning books. Young voices bring new spark to the fight; veteran voices shift and mature in response to experience.

In the early ’80s, Tobocman worked as an instructor at an after-school arts program in the East Village. One afternoon, the kids came in talking about what had happened that day. “What had happened,” says Tobocman, “was that they’d found the body of a woman who had been decapitated.”

The artist was struck by the straightforward way the children described this atrocity. “They didn’t say, ‘Oh, it was horrible.’ They described it as though they had seen it for the first time and they didn’t know how to place it. They described it very clearly and very simply . . . and I thought: I want to learn to draw like them, to speak like them, to speak that simply. To speak about something of enormous importance without any decoration.”

His early work reflects that desire: simple graphics, stencils, universal stick figures expressing political ideas. “That work worked for me for a number of years,” says Tobocman, “but at a certain point, I started dealing with the questions of human character and personality, internal conflict and responsibility—the things that required me to go beyond the black and white of a universal stick figure and start describing individuals.” Today, Tobocman’s work is researched and interviewed, specific and realistic. He continues to fight the same battles, but his voice in that fight has changed to reflect a more complex perception of the issues.

“We are constantly tweaking, changing the mode and the method of discussion,” says Kuper. “The way I may have talked about things and the way I talk about them now, some things have changed.” The level of anger is different, he says. He has found ways to use humor to provoke rethinking. But throughout the tweaking and shifting of the conversation, the continuity of World War 3 as a place to say what couldn’t be said elsewhere has been critical.

Following the second election of George W. Bush, Kuper and his family decided to take a sabbatical, “to really get a breather,” he says. They decided on the town of Oaxaca, in Southern Mexico. They’d learn Spanish, experiment with different artistic influences, and expose their daughter to an alternate culture from the one that had Kuper so frustrated at home.

“I have to admit,” he says, “I didn’t do my homework.”

They arrived in Oaxaca at the height of a teachers’ strike, in the wake of an admittedly stolen local election. The strike had become an annual event, but this year, instead of giving them the usual meager pay raise, the governor had attacked the teachers, and the strike escalated into a statewide protest that lasted for seven months.

In October 2006, the day Kuper had plans to head behind the barricades to sketch the action, representatives of the local government massacred more than 20 teachers in downtown Oaxaca—and along with them American documentary filmmaker Brad Will, who himself had contributed work to World War 3 Illustrated.

Will filmed the shooting, and his own death, hard evidence that should have implicated the government officials. But one of the protesters was arrested for the murders and thrown in jail.

The town of Oaxaca exploded with murals and sculptures. When federal troops arrived, the protesters walked up to them and drew on their shields. “Their reaction was art,” says Kuper. “They kept creating art. It reminded me what I’m supposed to do with my own work, once again.”

He sketched with a vengeance, spent two years in downtown Oaxaca documenting the strike, the ensuing invasion of federal troops and its impact on the community. “In other places it was mentioned as a little blip, ‘Somebody got killed, OK we’ll run something on page whatever.’ But I was able to write an 11-page piece for World War 3. That was the only place I was able to do that.” Kuper’s Oaxaca Diaries was published last year, a 200-plus page account of the little-known incident.

“So often this work exists almost outside of history, outside of any mainstream recognition,” Says Branda Miller. “It became very compelling to us at the Sanctuary to help produce evocative, creative documents to keep it going into the future.”

According to Miller, the work of the World War 3 collective entwines perfectly with that of the sanctuary, “in content and aesthetics, and in strategic collective practice.” Their work is visceral and educational, a collective community resistance, and an affirmation that there will be a forum for voices otherwise unheard. “They are really strategizing how to design a message to move people. That’s what we try to do. In every way, they fit us.”

And throughout the weekend, one sentiment is repeated by artist after artist: I wish we had a place like the Sanctuary in New York City. Artists and community members linger long after Saturday’s “Be the Media” workshop has concluded. Comic panels are sprawled across the tables, penned by participants ranging from 11 to 70 years old. A line cook contributes a piece about cable TV. A writer shares one about cooking.

As the artists pack their bags and peel bus fare from a communal fist of cash, the sentiments are more often “see you soons” than “goodbyes.”

And based on the Sanctuary’s record of sustaining connections, they probably will. The last three exhibitions at the sanctuary have blossomed into enduring community projects. The World War 3 artists are publishing the zine created in the workshop: “Troy Is One City.” And plans for a DVD production of art and performance is already in the works.

Asked if their work has been successful in helping to answer its own call for change, Kuper responds, “There’s such an extent to which things that we published in the first issue we could republish today. That can be disheartening. But part of any movement, aside from functioning in the moment, is to inspire people to participate, to learn more about topics, to take action themselves. . . . The act itself of doing is great in itself—breaking through the sense that it’s not worth doing, that ‘Why bother?’ You’re going to make power, even if you’re told you’re not.”

Are they afraid of preaching to the choir?

“The things I grew up reading,” says Kuper, “I wasn’t in the choir at the time I was reading them. That was part of how I developed my sensibility. So we do our thing. It falls into different people’s hands. They are affected by them. That’s how you form ideas.”

And even if they are, Pyle jokes, “the choir needs good comics to read too.”

Peter Kuper

Photo: Kathryn Geurin

“It’s hard to know if it really drives political change, or if it just reflects people’s desire for political change,” he adds with more gravity. “I’m not sure that Lab: USA really changed anything, or that I ever thought it would. It was a piece of investigative journalism. It was more a way for me to say, ‘Don’t forget that this happened. Remember what the state is capable of. In a democracy it’s incumbent on citizens to keep their government honest.” The work, he hopes, stands as a reminder of that.

“Have we seen things change?” asks Tobocman. “Did the fact that we did an antiwar magazine end the war? A war is going to need a whole lot more than a magazine to end it. But did we contribute to the movement? Yes. If we hadn’t spoken up would that be better? No. This is just one piece of a much larger picture. . . . But we’ve just created some blueprints,” he says, “some sketches. Someone still needs to finish it. To do it right. ”

The most recent issue of WW3 is the first that is not themed around a criticism. The 128-page anthology, “What We Want,” instead presents the artist’s proposals for building a better society. “That’s a real break for a magazine like this,” says Tobocman. “We come out of punk, we come out of negation. There’s no question about that. We were born out of a tradition of affirming that we can say ‘No.’ But we need to be able to articulate a vision of what society we want to have, and measure our leaders against that. . . . There has to be a possibility of winning this game, and we wanted to examine how to pursue that.”

Intoned from the Sanctuary lectern on the evening of the performance, Kuper’s words take on an uncanny spiritual weight. “We’re constantly being shown how different we all are, how little we have in common, the red states and the blue states, that we really don’t have it together to come together and move towards solutions,” he sighs. “But that’s bullshit. The fact is, we’re all pretty much on the same path. Where we came from and where we’re headed is exactly the same place, each and every one of us.”

Behind him, the eerie shadows of skulls glow through a grid of smiling faces. “And these so-called leaders that step in will turn to dust . . . and it will continue to be our duty to step up and bring these changes. It is in our power to do so and so it has been through the history of art. There will always be work to help identify and illuminate and be part of the movement that will get us to this higher ground.”

The World War 3 Illustrated retrospective exhibition will be on display at the Sanctuary for Independent Media (3361 Sixth Ave., Troy) through June 26. Visit mediasanctuary.org for more info, and for videos of the performance.


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