Hers’s to Peter Kuper, Seth Tobocman and all the wonderful artists who have made World War 3 Illustrated a unique and powerful moment in political art in the US. Started as a reaction to the Reagan years, it has grown and become an important publication of strong and direct art comment. You can still catch this amazing show at Exit Art in NY (10 Ave and 36th St.) closing Saturday, with a party Friday night.
Some questions for Peter and Seth:
When you see the work altogether like this, what goes through your mind? Do you think of something lost, something gained in the years?
PK: All together it gains a force that took me (happily) by surprise. The impact of 30 years of creating this kind of work gives a renewed value to the effort.The show demonstrates that these ideas won’t vanish or be easily dismissed which gives me heart to continue producing the magazine.
ST: I’m glad that we kept it going because the whole is more than the sum of it’s parts. I’m also proud that so many important cartoonists such as Eric Drooker, Sabrina Jones or Kevin Pyle, got their start at WW3.
What is the most surprising thing putting this show together brought up for you? Did it give you ideas for revisiting something?
PK: The biggest surprise is that we’ve lasted 30 years!
It reminds me how much I love comics and how much artists can do in that form as well as in illustration.
ST: Probably the most surprising thing to me was the response in various media outlets, the Times in particular. Work that was ignored or attacked by the mainstream media when it came out is praised 20 years later.
How have you changed politically and personally since this project started? Can this in some ways be related to the making of the art? How has the changing world left your POV? Do you have a strategy for surviving the Obama Wet Blanket?
PK: I was terrified about the world situation when we started, but now (thanks to antidepressants) I’m only horrified.
Seriously I spent two years living in Mexico and returned wanting to shift the kind of work I had been doing. Part of this is a natural evolution and an effort to create work that doesn’t just foam at the mouth. 8 years of screaming under GW Bush became old and I personally am looking for new ways to address political topics.I’m having trouble concluding how much it is the current political atmosphere and how much it is a natural shift that is coming from within. Probably both.
ST: When I started editing WW3 I was vaguely liberal and reacting against the rise of Reagan. But putting out WW3 at that particular moment was like raising a flag which all sorts of people rallied to. Those people, artists and activists, were my university. From them I learned about Anarchism, Feminism, Black Nationalism, Squatting, and a whole range of issues and ideas. I became a lot more radical from that and also from the experience of activism on the streets which will show you just how bad the system is. So by the ’90s I was pretty much an Anarchist and I still identify with that position. As far as Obama goes, I think contemporary Republicans are such dangerous Fascists that almost anyone would be better. I think it speaks well of the American people that they wanted a change and voted for an African-American to get it. But beyond that I am not really surprised at the weakness of the current administration. The Democratic party is a shell of what it was under FDR and there is a real need for an alternative politics in the United States. There will be a need for groups like WW3 Illustrated to tell it like it is for many years to come.
When you began there were more markets for commentary that actually paid money for graphics. Now, it looks like working on one’s own and in collaboration will be more common. Do you feel like pioneers in this? Or like nothing has changed in important ways.
PK: There were very few markets when we began, which is why we self published. That has come and gone over the years. It is a shrinking market right now, but that could change as it has in the past.
We are all learning to do more and more while being paid less and less. This is pretty much where we started.
ST: Back in the day, illustrating for magazines and doing capes and tights comics was how cartoonists made money, and serious political graphic novels were what you did in your spare time if you were crazy and idealistic. Today illustration work is hard to find and publishers are paying out reasonable advances for graphic novels on adult themes. I don’t mind this change at all. It means I can spend more of my time on work I like to do. Were we ahead of our time? Absolutely. In 1980 there were , to my knowledge, 4 adult comicbooks being published in the U.S.. Harvey Pekar’s AMERICAN SPLEDOR, Ben Katchor’s PICTURE STORY MAGAZINE, Art Spiegelman’s RAW and our magazine, WORLD WAR 3 ILLUSTRATED. Today there is a galaxy of such publications. So we were ahead of the curve on esthetics. It may take another 30 years for people to realize that we were also ahead of our time on the politics.
Of all the artists you’ve worked with can you talk about any one as a person who has gone through a particularly distinct political journey?
PK: So many of us came up together on the magazine and there were so many cross influences it’s hard to zero in on one artist. One of the amazing results of the magazine being around for so long, it has been an entity that people have grown up reading and then contacted us and in some cases eventually become editors. WW3 has been a message in a bottle that found people in desert islands (like Kansas) and lured them to the beautiful island of Manhattan. Kevin Pyle is an example of that. That type of communication is one of the pleasures of this kind of project.
ST: Wow, I’ve seen a lot of growth take place in a lot of people.
When I met Eric Drooker, he and Paula Hewitt were doing a very straight-up, didactic sort of political propaganda art, posters about the murder of Micheal Stewart or against landlords. Over time he grew estheticly to where he could present the same themes in ways that were acceptable to a magazine like THE NEW YORKER. The paintings he brought to the show are breath taking. And I think that the subject material of his work still reflects his early Socialist Activism.
Another is Kate Evans. I first became aware of her when she self published a graphic novel called COPSE:THE CARTOON BOOK OF TREE PROTESTING. It was a first hand account of the road protests in Britain in the 1990s. These were actions in which people tried to stop the demolition of forests by living in the trees. It had the type of detail and humor that an artist could only arrive at by being a full participant in those protests. Later I ran into her in Palestine and she began to do work on the Israel/Palestine conflict. Today she has a book out about Global Warming and another about breast-feeding her baby. At every turn, I found, Kate’s work directly reflected her activism and her experience. She gives me hope for the future.
What’s next for WW3 and related projects?
PK: Traveling the show and doing an anthology collection that covers our history, but most of all keeping the magazine going.
ST: We are going to keep putting out the magazine. We are going to tour the show and we hope to have an anthology out next year.
The huge walls of Exit Art are lucky that the art varies in size by so much. And also the extremely stark black and white design of some of the images. We are reading a powerful visual language. Unlike a lost one of antiquity, this is for everyone, telling very true things, about our lives.
The evening I was there was held in conjunction with Milk Not Jails. Free ice cream (nice even in the midst of a winter storm) was very welcome. Especially when brought to you by an expert (Sarah Blust, activist). I got a brief education in the work of this group that night. They are dedicated and smart. Please support them HERE. Gov. Cuomo also saw the sense of scaling back NY Prison Culture, but then ran into a buzz saw of upstate opposition. Here’s hoping he can force some change here. And that people power will help all round.
Peter Kuper has, along with Seth, been the guiding hands of the mag all these years. They both have gone through many art journeys. This strong piece by PK after the 9/11 tragedy. Very big and very good. La Ronde.
Kevin Pyle gave a guided tour of The Real Cost of Prisons, a powerful comic on the Upstate New York Prison Culture, which is run as a business, in a blighted a region. Which shows how deep a hole you can dig politically when we lose our collective imaginations.
Seth introduced the evening’s speakers, which included the wonderful Sabrina Jones, also showing work concerning the prison issue. Literate and passionate.
A great long table with copies and docs.
A very small sample of what’s on the walls, just to show the diversity. Very strong piece by Nicole Shulman on the true story of fuel.
A magnificent Virgin Mary, By Mac McGoll.
The bottom of a huge wrench by Seth, telling the story of resistance to the gentrification of Lower Manhattan.
Kevin Pyle, Peter Kuper, Scott Cunningham (WW 3 artist since ’88).