Interview for Erica Landau at Salty Eggs (raw text)
1. Can you briefly describe The Minimum Security Chronicles? (Also is that
your most recent published work, or did Graphic Canon come out after?)
“The Minimum Security Chronicles: Resistance to Ecocide” is a graphic novel about a group of friends who struggle to find ways to stop the destruction of the planet, and specifically a geo-engineering project. It’s not only a story, but is also a thought experiment, in that the characters attempt various tactics and strategies and then have to face the (usually unsuccessful) results. This is my latest book, and it comes out officially on October 8.
2. The beginning of the American Fall is comics journalism. Capitalism Must
Die is similar. Is this comics journalism, too? (Because in American Fall,
you capture scenes and quote, in CMD however, there aren’t “scenes” per se
but there are statistics and evidence.) How would you describe the
“Capitalism Must Die!” is not comics journalism; instead it is a combination of comics and political theory. Instead of reporting on immediate events and the experiences of specific people (which comics journalism does), its purpose is to illustrate and clarify abstract concepts (backed up by concrete facts) in order to make them more accessible. If I had to label it, I would call it comics theory, I suppose.
3. Why did you write CMD?
I’m an organizer for a broad anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist group called One Struggle (onestruggle.net), and at the revolutionary level I’m involved in a project called Idées Nouvelles, Idées Prolétariennes (INIP) (koleksyon-inip.org). Because we haven’t had a mass movement against the system in the US in a generation (Occupy was more of a mobilization, and was forcibly dispersed before it could develop into a movement), there is a very low level of political and ideological consciousness in the US. This is a huge obstacle in building a movement. Most people – even those who are discontent – don’t understand how the system we’re living in actually works, why it’s so destructive and cruel, and this weakens our collective capacity to struggle against it. So I wrote CMD both to explain the basics of what capitalism is and what’s wrong with it (so that we can begin to develop strategies for eliminating it), and to use as an organizing tool. One Struggle has used a condensed version of it several times already as a slide show presentation, to facilitate discussion and build organization, and more of these presentations are being planned for different cities.
4. Why this format? (hybrid of text and comics, as opposed to all panels or
all text.) What are the advantages of the hybrid? Disadvantages?
There are a lot of texts out there that explain capitalism (starting with Marx’s “Capital”), but many people find them difficult, overwhelming, academic, and often boring. I figured that comics would liven up the topic, and would correspond to the way that many people today get their information and share opinions (such as memes and brief rants). I wanted to present the topic in a form that is very accessible to the most people possible, because for me this is not an intellectual exercise or a means of self-expression, but a way to help build a movement that can defeat capitalism.
And the reason that I didn’t use *only* cartoons is that capitalism is an extremely complex topic, and while I can condense information pretty well, there’s a limit! Some elaboration in text is really necessary in order to understand the topic sufficiently.
5. In CMD, you write, “what I write represents my current necessarily
limited and incomplete interpretation of reality, which is constantly
developing. No one’s understanding or ability to communicate can ever keep
up with the rate of change of reality itself.”
The process of drawing comics seems like it would impair the ability to
“keep up” even more bc it’s such a slow process. But at the same time,
comics can convey something that pure text can’t. What about this topic
(Capitalism) lends itself to not needing immediacy but at the same time
benefits from something (comics) that eases the digestion/interpretation of
the information? How do comics accomplish this (in your opinion)? And what
is your process for distilling material to its essence? (Considering all
your drawings are single-panel.)
Actually, drawing comics doesn’t have to be slow. The more elaborate ones do take forever, I imagine, but mine are very simple line drawings. Yesterday I drew 8 of them. Editorial cartoonists generally have to meet five very quick deadlines a week. I started out in editorial cartoons (rather than comics), so I’m used to that pace of production. I can’t afford to wait around for inspiration to strike or to get in the right mood; I sit at my desk and make myself do the work.
That said, capitalism has a particular motion that has developed from its history, and that can be explained in a relatively abstract way that has some lasting relevance. Even while some of the specific information I use in the book may be old news in a few months, it’ll still serve as illustrations or examples of the processes I’m trying to explain.
My process of distillation comes from the excellent advice of my first editor (Steve Wissink at City Link), who told me to write only what is truly necessary to make the point, and then cut out half the words. Another of my editors, Ted Rall (at United Media) imposed a strict word limit for my comic strips, which also helped me rein in my tendency to elaborate.
6. What did you win the Sigma Delta Chi Award for?
Both that and the RFK Award were for my editorial cartoon “Code Green,” which focused on various aspects of the environmental crisis. I drew that weekly for three years, and ended it last year. The RFK also included “The Beginning of the American Fall,” which began as a cartoon-journalism series for the Cartoon Movement and then later became a book.
7. What’s in the works beside Capitalism Must Die? Anybody you’re
Currently I’m working on a project about imperialism, and specifically the global garments industry, called “Commodity Chains.” While I’m writing and drawing it myself, I also seek the input, feedback and ideas of people and groups who are involved in the struggles of garment workers. One of them is Batay Ouvriye (Workers Fight) (batayouvriye.org) in Haiti. My purpose isn’t simply to spread information, but to help build concrete solidarity, support and strength for these struggles. Batay Ouvriye needs immediate financial support, by the way. Anyone interested in donating can email me for information on how to send funds: email@example.com.
8. You’ve been doing this since the early 90s. What about comics or which
comics writers influenced you to take it up?
In the late 1980s I lived in New York, and the comics that appeared in the Village Voice and other alternative papers inspired me: by Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, Ted Rall, Nina Paley, Stan Mack, Jules Feiffer. Also, I really liked the comic “Love and Rockets.” They opened up the comics genre beyond simple gags and superheroes, and the insipid editorial cartoons that were the norm in mainstream papers. They made it clear that comics could be tools of political persuasion, and could spread radical ideas.
9. Have you noticed your work getting more attention as comics journalism
enters the mainstream? (or is it becoming mainstream?) Is it easier to get
published now? You mentioned Symbolia and that launched in October 2012.
Major publishers are putting out similar work. Georgia Congressman John
Lewis just published an illustrated narrative about Civil Rights.
My work is too radical to be interesting to the mainstream, and my topics aren’t usually about what they consider the “top news stories.” Not very many publications want to run comics that critique capitalism or lifestyle approaches to the environmental crisis next to ads selling products that promote exactly that. I’ve had a few great editors who have insisted on my work’s presence in their publications (including in the Sun-Sentinel for a while), but most are no longer with their papers.
That said, I have many loyal and generous readers. They support my work, and I mean that literally. The reason I can survive (though tenuously) as a cartoonist is because of reader support. I earned more through one Indiegogo campaign than I’ve been paid by any publication or earned through any book. Many people believe that having books published translates into a good living, and are shocked when they find out the reality faced by most authors.
As we all know, the print industry has been struggling, and its resources are drying up. Online, it’s easy to find outlets who will run my work, but the ones who pay anything are few and far between, and there are many good cartoonists competing for those slots. I really dislike marketing and selling my work, and competing against colleagues I respect, so I’m not very good at securing those gigs.
10. Did you work for XS and City Link as a cartoonist/journalist, what’s
your background in journalism/reporting?
For a while XS did run my cartoons, and that is actually the first publication that ever did so, and the reason I started drawing them regularly. I also wrote book reviews and other short pieces, and occasionally did illustrations. But my actual job at both was typing calendar listings. When I was hired, I was an organizer with a group called Refuse & Resist. Early on, I wrote an article about the unjust detention and deportation of immigrants, and was told that because I was involved in the cause, my journalism could not be viewed as “objective” and would undermine the reputation of the paper. I was given a painful choice: I could be a journalist, or I could be active in the causes I believed in. I chose the latter, and was offered the task of calendar listings, which I did for 13 years until I was laid off.
Now, I’m struggling to make a living, but it’s more important to me that my work serves my objectives as an organizer. And being independent means I can draw and write whatever I want. The only opinions that matter to me are those involved with me in the fight against global capitalism and imperialism, and the people I’m attempting to reach in order to inspire or assist them in becoming organized and active. If my work is effective that way, then making money is secondary, and I try not to spend attention and energy on that any more than necessary for survival.
11. What does comics journalism offer that traditional journalism can’t? Or
what does comics journalism add to traditional journalism?
One important advantage of using comics journalistically is that it can guarantee anonymity to people being interviewed, quoted, or written about. In countries like Bangladesh and Haiti, which I’m focusing on for “Commodity Chains,” workers who organize to assert their rights can be fired, attacked or even killed. So taking photos of them is out of the question. A drawing can look like a person without looking like a specific person.
Another advantage is that it can depart from reality to illustrate an abstraction. An evil-looking Uncle Sam is a symbol of imperialism, which would be hard to capture in any other way.
12. In journalism, editors always want you to cut. Comics journalism seems
to be the epitome of this. Distilling a story to a tiny amount of text and
conveying a message with art. Expand?
Yes, a cartoon has to convey clear information, ideas and opinions in a very small amount of space. It’s important to first figure out what it’s necessary to say. If you try to make more than one point in a cartoon, it will get muddled and crowded, so distillation is a skill that must be cultivated and continuously developed. Can rephrasing a sentence shorten it by a word? Is the background adding anything to the image or can it be removed? Making these judgments eventually becomes an automatic process. (Case in point: I just changed “after a while” to “eventually” in the previous sentence. Condensing text has become a habit).
13. Would you say you dabble in everything? Like Code Green is an editorial
cartoon. American Fall was comics journalism. And you write graphic novels,
so fiction. How do I define you? comics writer with a background in
editorial, journalistic, and fiction-based cartooning?
Whatever sub-genres of cartooning and writing I use at a given moment is determined, for me, by the message I’m trying to convey. My purpose is the content, and the medium must serve that. So I would call myself a political cartoonist and writer.
14. Some people connect comics with the funny pages. But your work is
serious. It just has jokes (sort of). Explain the difference.
Oscar Wilde once said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh. Otherwise they’ll kill you.” I blend jokes, sarcasm, cute animals and funny drawings in with serious information, to make the information easier to take in. People often resist fully comprehending the reality of what’s happening to our world and its people, because it’s so painful. When I share information, sometimes I’ve made friends burst into tears and then stop talking to me– but this is not really the response I’m looking for. I want to help strengthen people to resist, not make them depressed. I’ve found that if I put a sugar coating on the bitter pill, the medicine is more likely to be accepted. So I try to make the truth amusing.
15. Anything else.
These were great questions, Erica! Thanks.