Jonathan W. Gray, Peter Kuper, & Molly Crabapple at the CUNY Graduate Center


(l-r) Gray, Kuper, and Crabapple

Last Friday I went to hear comics scholar Jonathan W. Gray discuss “political movements and graphic narrative” with artists Peter Kuper and Molly Crabapple.

Kuper, the current artist for Mad Magazine’s strip Spy vs Spy, started off his section by laying out an impressive history in political comics. He, along with a few other artists, founded the magazine World War 3 Illustrated during Reagan’s presidency as an outlet for political comics in a time, he says, when even work by Art Spiegelman wouldn’t be published if it featured controversial subject matter. The magazine begat gallery exhibits, a retrospective at the late Exit Art,and other, less typical projects for Kuper like condom packaging design.

It became immediately clear that Kuper didn’t necessarily choose to approach political subject matter as much as it was an impulse he couldn’t help but express. He explained that it was “in [his] bloodstream” to think about the atomic bomb. “What happens […] in other parts of the world,” he continued, “It creeps up here […] the burning. The circumstances do not allow [for] upbeat work.” This urgency shifted after 9/11: it was “frustrating to feel impotent,” Kuper explained. He began to take solace in playing with his daughter, enjoying escaping into her “world.” Finally, the desire to escape became tangible enough that Kuper moved with his daughter and wife to Oaxaca, Mexico. The move initially gave Kuper a chance to sketch and “break free” from his preoccupation with what he saw as an increasingly isolating and enraging political climate.[1]

Oaxaca wasn’t quiet for long. The 2006 teachers strike began as it had every year in Oaxaca for a quarter century before, but what was usually a one or two week affair turned into seven months of violent confrontations resulting in multiple deaths. State troops came in and suddenly Kuper was forced back into violent surroundings.

The dialogue that emerged out of the Oaxaca incident struck Kuper. There would be spray painted and stenciled protest slogans spread on walls of town buildings that became layered upon one another and would eventually get covered by art and commentary. Kuper showed us a slide of the graffiti after it was painted over by the Oaxacan government: it was a quick, incomplete effort where patches of white paint would be smeared on the graffiti. Though the messages themselves were gone, there were vivid reminders of erasure that suggested there was no way to quiet the dissenters. These were visual conversations in real time, a soapbox for anyone who wanted to stand upon it.

This idea of immediacy in public revolutionary art came up again in Molly Crabapple’s presentation. Crabapple, who has done work for DC comics, is known for her creation of life-drawing sessions called Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, and has recently become renowned for her sketches of and posters for Occupy Wall Street. “I would draw […] and hours later it would be on the streets. […] Images have power, [they] get past defenses [and] overcome compassion fatigue.” Much as was the case with Kuper and the Oaxacan protests, the air of discontent made its way over to Crabapple rather than the other way around. OWS happened on the streets “outside [her] window,” literally too close to home to ignore. “As an artist and a person,” she said, “I couldn’t look away.”

Molly Crabapple’s presentation extended the conversation on public art, discussing her work on posters for and sketches of Occupy Wall Street.  Much like in Kuper’s case, her interaction with the protest world was largely incidental. Crabapple worked on posters of burlesque performers (“I drew my former friends as gods and my audience as pigs”), but OWS happened on the streets “outside [her] window,” too close to home to ignore. “As an artist and as a person,” she said, “I couldn’t look away.” Initially her drawings of the protestors, she explained, were meant to counter popular and media depictions of occupiers as a homogenous mass of unwashed drug users and criminals on welfare.

The experience led Crabapple to realize the importance of observation: “In 2011, the world exploded […] the best way to engage as a human being [is exploring] why [it] fell apart.” She journeyed to Europe to see “the roots of Occupy Wall Street” firsthand, this exploration of the world “exploding.” Her and Lauren Penny’s e-book Discordia (meant to be a tribute to Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman’s article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”) chronicles the trip. The book’s summary explains their intentions:

“In an impassioned climate where ‘objective’ journalism is impossible, Penny and Crabapple offer a snapshot of a nation in the grip of a very modern crisis where young and old see little reason to go on, the left is scattered and the far right is assuming greater power and influence.”

Departing from the idea of objective journalism was par for the course for Crabapple, who couldn’t help but maintain the fanciful style that she had developed when working on Burlesque posters pre-OWS.[2] “I wanted to make activist art that looked like a fairytale,” she explained, art that would catch the viewers’ eye and draw them in with aesthetics before immediate pedagogy. She mentioned Soviet propaganda art and explained that, though it was visually attractive, the viewer would “immediately know” if she/he was in the target demographic for the work. She wanted to reach people who would otherwise ignore protest material, to play off of traditional American visual tropes while altering them enough for people to become interested in the image.

Jonathan W. Gray, who teaches what seems like an endless list of fascinating subjects at CUNY, departed from discussions of immediacy and focused instead on Egyptian comics artist (and apparently also pharmacist) Magdy El Shafee’s book “Metro.” The book takes place in Mubarak’s Egypt and, because of the use of the comics medium, “makes dissent legible,” showing the “day-to-day frustrations of life” in Egypt. This display, unlike the graffiti in Oaxaca or Crabapple’s OWS posters, was directed towards those outside the conflict. El Shafee, whose book was banned and who was arrested in 2008[3], explained that Egyptians “are numb […] they just say ‘that’s the way things are here.'” It’s a sentiment I’ve heard from many people who have to live in constant fear. It’s hard for outsiders to understand this feeling (I certainly don’t)[4] and so the part of El Shafee’s work that is immediate begins once it’s in the reader’s hands. The urgency of understanding moves quickly, and comics are one of the few mediums that can help readers match its pace.

Comics have long been vessels for political agendas–Kuper contributed a foreword to Fredrik Stromberg’s impressive history of Comic Art Propaganda which covers a wide range of political uses of comics by both individuals and governments. In his introduction, Kuper writes: “Stromberg elucidates that this art form is not only a perfect vehicle for delivering potent messages, but also has the capacity to intelligently address any subject cartoonists are willing to explore.” Will certainly has something to do with it, but, to quote Kuper from the talk, “for whatever reason, you get put in a situation.” Neither he nor Crabapple chose the confrontations that ended up in front of them but, as was the case with El Shafee, they did recognize the importance of documenting them.

[1] Kuper had already tried to physically dissociate his work from politics while addressing the relevant subject matter: 2004’s Sticks and Stones is a pantomime comic in which he created an origin story for a Golem creature meant to stand in for George Bush (he got tired of drawing Bush, Kuper explained).

[2] She lamented early on in her presentation that “[artists] are supposed to sit in studios and copy our favorite works until we die.”

[3] Notably only having to pay a fine in response to the conviction.

[4] An audience member in the Q&A portion brought up a story about post-war Vietnam. He explained that there’s graphic art in the war museums but none in public. Murals on schools, he said, were of princesses and popular cartoon characters. When asked about it, a citizen explained: “We won, and this is what we want our children to become.”

Gray responded with a statement that could only come from the privilege of living in a country that’s been untouched by war for over a century: “We need [reminding] representations[…] those kind of documents […] there’s a place for this stuff.” Perhaps the place is in museums; Crabapple mentioned Goya’s work and Picasso’s “Guernica” and said that it’s been “proven over and over again” that political art, when it’s “good,” sticks around. But what are the limitations of this somewhere like Vietnam, where there’s nothing but reminders of war? Could protest art exist publicly when people are still trying to put their lives together?

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