Posts Tagged ‘Graphic Novels’

Review: Joe Sacco’s ‘Palestine’

May 12, 2018

(London: Jonathan Cape 2001)

This is one of the classics of the graphic novel. Joe Sacco is an American journalist. He spent two months with the Palestinians in late 1991 and early 1992 in Gaza and the West Bank during the time of the first Intifada. He wrote and drew Palestine after his return to the US, basing it on his notes, publishing it as a nine-part comic strip. These were later collected into a single volume to form the graphic novel. The book also has a kind of introduction, ‘Homage to Joe Sacco’, from Edward Said, the author of Orientalism, critic of western imperialism and attitudes to the Arabs, and himself a Palestinian.

This is precisely the type of book the Israel lobby does not want people to read. Not BICOM, not the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, which was set up because Gideon Falter, its founder, was worried about British attitudes becoming more hostile to Israel after the blockade of Gaza, not the Jewish Labour Movement, formerly Paole Zion and the companion party to the Israeli Labor Party, not the various ‘Friends of Israel’ societies in the political parties, Tories and Labour, nor the Jewish Leadership Council and definitely not the Board of Deputies of British Jews. All of them shout ‘anti-Semitism’ at anyone who dares to publish anything critical of Israel, or show the barbarity with which it treats the Palestinians.

The book shows Sacco’s experiences as he goes around Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, talking to both Palestinians and Israelis, meeting them, entering their homes, and listening to their stories. He starts the book in Cairo, the beginning of his journey to Israel, and to which he returns at his departure. During his time there, he visits the Vale of Kidron, the Arab quarter of Old Jerusalem, Hebron, Ramallah, Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza strip, as it then was, Balata, another refugee camp on the West Bank, Nablus, the town of Gaza itself, and finally Tel Aviv.

It’s not an easy read. This is an occupied country during deep unrest, and the threat of violence and arbitrary arrest and detention without trial is every where. There are patrols of soldiers, demonstrations, explosions and stone throwing. And he shows, with quotes, the contemptuous, lofty and hostile attitude the early Zionists and Lord Balfour had for the indigenous population. He quotes Balfour as saying

‘Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit this ancient land. We do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the inhabitants’.

Ben Gurion thought it would be simple to expel the Palestinians, because he felt they had no real attachment to their homeland. He wrote that the Palestinian ‘is equally at ease whether in Jordan, Lebanon or a variety of other places’. With the approach of war, he made it clear their expulsion was going to be through military force: ‘In each attack a decisive blow should be struck, resulting in the destruction of homes and the expulsion of the population.’ When that was done, ‘Palestinian Arabs have only one role – to flee’. He also quotes Golda Meir, who stated that a Palestinian people, defining itself as a Palestinian people, did not exist, and ‘we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They do not exist’. 400 Palestinian villages were razed in the war marking the birth of Israel. Meir’s lie – that the Palestinians don’t exist as a people – is still repeated by Republican and pro-Israel bloggers. Golda Meir was also concerned about the Palestinian population outstripping that of the Israelis, another issue that is still very alive today.

His hosts are polite, welcoming him into their homes, and plying him with tea. But occasionally there is an outburst from one of them, when he’s asked what the point of him being there, of them talking to him, is. Because other journalists have been there too, and they’ve talked to them, and nothing has happened, nothing has changed. They also talk to him about the other factions, and of the peace process. In a separate text at the beginning of the book, he states that, while the peace process set up the Palestinian authority and gave them a government, it changed nothing for ordinary Palestinians, and the occupation and theft of land by the Israelis still goes on.

He also reveals that the Israelis appropriate 2/3 of the land in the West Bank for their own us, which includes the establishment of Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law. And the governments gives Israelis plenty of incentives to move to them. They’re given a government grant if they do, lower interest rates on loan, the housing itself is cheaper than in Israel, and an income tax rate of 7 per cent. The settlers themselves can be extremely aggressive. Sacco’s hosts tell them about incidents where settlers have come into Palestinian villages, smashing windows and demanding that the owners come out. Of people shot by them, and the trivial sentences given to the settlers guilty of this. They’re given jail sentences of a few months. If they’re convicted in the first place. Palestinians who shoot and kill Israelis are jailed for years. Some lavish homes do exist in Palestine, occupied by Arabs, but most live in very bare houses, often with leaking roofs, which are vulnerable to storms.

His cartoons show what his Palestinian hosts tell him it’s like in prison camps like Ansar III, with crowds of prisoners crammed into small, bare rooms with no heat and poor ventilation. There are also few eating utensils, to the various political factions in the camp – Fateh, Hamas, Popular Front, organise meal times so that everyone gets a turn with the cup and plate to eat and drink. Several of the people he talks to were arrested simply on suspicion. Israeli law allowed them to be held without charge while evidence was compiled, with his captors returning to court over and over again to request a few more days more, until the judge finally listens to their lawyer, has the procedure stopped and the prisoner released. He also shows how the prisoners were tortured through beatings, being forced to stand for hours with bags over their heads, a process permitted under Israel law. A judge ruled that torture could not be used, but what methods were to replace them were kept secret. So many Palestinians have been incarcerated, that a green identity card showing a man has been in jail is a matter of pride. And not to have been to prison correspondingly is a mark of shame.

He talks about how the Israelis have a deliberate policy of not allowing the Palestinians to industrialise, so that they compete with the Israel. The State has also put obstacles in place to prevent Palestinian farmers competing with Israelis. They also deliberately uproot the olive trees many Palestinians grow to support themselves. The Israelis also appropriate most of the water, and dig deeper wells, so that the Palestinians have a much poorer water supply and their own wells are becoming increasingly saline. As a result, unemployment in Gaza was at 40 per cent. And Sacco himself was approached several times by Palestinians, hoping he could do something so that they could leave and go abroad to study or find work.

He describes a school, without electricity, as well as a school for the deaf, which is supported through volunteers and whose staff complain of their lack of training for dealing with people with disabilities. He also hears and illustrates the story of one Palestinian woman, whose son was shot by Israeli soldiers, but was prevented from taking him directly to hospital. Instead she was ordered to go hither and thither, where she was told a helicopter was waiting to take her and the boy. When she gets there, there is no helicopter. She eventually takes him to the hospital herself in a car, by which time it’s too late and the lad dies.

The book also shows the mass of roadblocks and the permit system which Palestinians have to go through to go to Israel. At the same time, Israelis are simply allowed to whiz through in their separate lanes.

Sacco also doesn’t shy away from showing the negative side of Palestine – the anti-Semitism, and particularly infamous murders, like the killing of Klinghoffer aboard the Achille Lauro, and the massacre of the Israeli Olympic team by the terrorist group Black September. This can turn into support for the murder of Israeli civilians. There’s also a chapter on the plight of Palestinian women, This is a society where women are still very much treated as inferiors and subordinates, where honour killings are carried out as the punishment for female adultery. It is also a society where collaborators are murdered, and those, who belong to the wrong faction may also be shot and killed.

The book was written 27 years ago, but nothing really seems to have changed since then. The illegal settlements are still there and expanding. Settlers are still seizing Palestinian homes and property, the apartheid separating Israelis from Palestinians is still in place, unemployment is still high, and Palestinians are still being treated as foreigners, refugees and second-class citizens on their own land.

However, some attitudes are changing. The Israeli liberals Sacco talks to only support the Palestinians up to a point. When pressed, some of them will say that Israel should keep the Occupied Territories, because they seized them in war. Or that they need to keep them for security reasons. But an increasing number of young Jews in America and elsewhere are appalled at the continuing maltreatment of the Palestinians and are becoming increasingly critical and hostile to Israel because of this. And there have also grown up major opposition groups like the human rights organisation B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence in Israel.

The Israeli state and its lobby and supporters in this country and others are increasingly scared. It’s why they’re trying to pass laws to criminalise the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in America, and to outlaw criticism of Israel in this country through tortuous definitions of anti-Semitism that are stretched to include it. It’s why they’re smearing, with the connivance of the right-wing media, the Blairites in the Labour party, and the Conservatives, decent people, who have fought racism and anti-Semitism, as anti-Semites.

Very long, detailed books have been written about Israel’s brutal treatment, dispossession and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. Sacco’s Palestine presenting this as graphic novel, is an example of how comics can also be serious literature, tackling a difficult subject with both narrative and artistic skill and style. I’ve mentioned on this blog before the alternative comics that were also published from the ’60s to the 1980s/1990s on political topics, including the Israeli maltreatment of Palestinians in Pat Mills’ Crisis. Palestine is very much in that tradition, and in 1996 won the American Book Award.

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Democratic Socialist on Thatcher, Cobyn and the Double Standards of the Right Wing Press

November 11, 2017

I’ve reblogged a number of videos from Democratic Socialist, an Aussie Leftie, who knows his stuff about capitalism’s connection to Fascism, the Nazi privatisation programme and support for businessmen as the eugenic elite, and Thatcher’s hideous support for general Pinochet in Chile.

This is another of his videos.

In it, he takes apart the double standards of the British right-wing media, and in particular the Daily Telegraph in its smears of the British Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and its absolute refusal to condemn its idol, Margaret Thatcher, for her friendship with General Pinochet. Pinochet was, as I’ve mentioned frequently before, the brutal dictator of Chile, who overthrew the democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende. The Tories smear Corbyn as a supporter of the Iran, Hamas and Hizbollah, and an anti-Semite. He is in fact none of these things. But Thatcher certainly was friends with Pinochet, who was a terrorist, torturer and anti-Semite.

The Torygraph smeared Corbyn as supporting the Iranian theocracy In fact, he did nothing of the sort. The article the Torygraph refers to appears on the page of the Mossadegh Project, an Iranian group that supports and celebrates the work of Iran’s last democratically elected president, Mohammed Mossadeq, who was tolerant and secular. Mossadeq was overthrown by a British-American coup in 1953 because he dared to nationalise the Iranian oil company, then consisting of the British owned Anglo-Persian Oil, which later became BP. His fall resulted in the gradual assumption of absolute power by the Shah, who instituted a reign of terror that eventually culminated in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when he was overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

This section of the video includes a clip of an American expert describing how he was corrected by the Iranians, when he told a group of them that their country was incapable of democratically electing a leader. ‘It was,’ they replied, ‘before the Americans came’.

Oh yes, and there’s another reason why Corbyn’s support for Mossadeq certainly does not mean he supports the current Iranian theocracy. Mossadeq was a Baha’i, which is post-Islamic syncretistic religion, that the Shi’a regime in Iran despises as a vile heresy. I’ve been told by Iranian Muslim friends, who are profoundly disgusted by the fact that expatriate Iranian Baha’is cannot go to their homeland without signing a document stating that they have renounced their faith. The regime has killed 60,000+ Baha’is in pogroms, and subjected many to the same kind of tortures that Pinochet oversaw in Chile. I doubt very much that Corbyn’s support for the former Iranian president endears him to the Iranian regime.

As for supporting Hamas and Hizbollah, and therefore terrorism, Corbyn actually didn’t say anything like that. He condemned terrorism, but said that he had to negotiate with them.

Democratic Socialist contrasts this with Thatcher and Pinochet. The head of Pinochet’s secret police, Michael Townley, was responsible for the assassination of Orlando Latelier, who served as foreign minister in Allende’s government. Latelier had fled the country and noted the construction of the prison camps in which 100,000 people were incarcerated. He was killed by a car bomb in Washington D.C.

Corbyn is accused of anti-Semitism simply through guilt by association with these groups. But Pinochet was also a brutal murderer of Chile’s Jews. There’s a memorial in Chile now to the Jewish victims of Pinochet’s regime. Pinochet also gave sanctuary to the Nazis, who fled to Chile to escape justice. One of these was Walter Rauff, an utterly despicable person, responsible for inventing the gas cars. This was the method by which Jews and the disabled were murdered by the SS before the establishment of the great death camps. They were vans, specially adapted so that the exhaust was fed back into the truck’s rear compartment, in which the victim was placed. The van was driven around until the poor soul was gassed by the carbon monoxide. Not surprisingly, Emile Zubroff, one of Germany’s great Nazi hunters, was particularly angered by Pinochet giving this man sanctuary.

And then there’s the butcher’s extensive use of terror. Here’s another trigger warning: some viewers may find this very hard to watch. This part of the video has footage of an Englishwoman describing how she was raped and tortured with electric shocks by the regime. She does not go into details, but she simply states what the shocks and rapes consisted of. As well as how one woman was caged until she went made. This section starts at c. 350 mark. And it shows how vile and subhuman Pinochet and his torturers were.

This lady was abducted and tortured because Pinochet’s thugs believed she had treated the deputy leader of the anti-Pinochet resistance, and knew where the leader was. The woman was kidnapped, despite the fact that she was living with missionaries at the time. Before they took her, they shot the maid dead. I’m emphasising this because the Christian right in America and Britain has deluded itself and others that somehow Pinochet and other Fascists like him were great defenders of Christianity against Communism.

Rubbish. Fascists all over Latin America killed, raped and tortured committed Christians, including clergy, who worked for the poor against exploitation by the elites. This included Roman Catholic nuns, and Archbishop Romero. Romero was killed in the 1980s. He was not a supporter of Liberation Theology, the mixture of Roman Catholic doctrine and Marxism that had gained ground in Latin America. However, he moved left politically on his appointment, when he saw how oppressed and impoverished the mass of the people in his new archdiocese were. Before the Fascists killed him, they sprayed on the wall of his cathedral ‘Be a patriot. Kill a priest’.

I’m afraid I can’t remember off the top of my head in which country this was – Nicaragua, Guatemala or El Salvador. What I do remember is that he was murdered by the type of people Ronald Reagan hailed as ‘the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers’, as he called the Contras in Nicaragua. And nearly all of these thugs have been trained by the American intelligence establishment on one of the military bases then called the ‘School of the Americas’.

This is followed by one looks like a BBC report, which shows Thatcher, already looking frail, congratulating Pinochet on having peacefully stepped down. This is true, but ignores the fact that the thug didn’t want to. He was forced out of power by a referendum he wanted to ignore, but his generals chose to enforce. Put simply, he was pushed.

Democratic Socialist then asks what the press would do if Corbyn really was like Thatcher, who was friends with a Fascist dictator, who ruled by terror, rape and torture.

He concludes by stating that he likes Corbyn, but doesn’t see him as being able to withstand the assaults on him by the British press.

Democratic Socialist put this up two years ago in 2015. And I am very glad to say that since then, Corbyn has gone on from strength to strength, not just despite, but because of the hostility of the British press and media.

And the moral character of the hacks in the British right-wing press is appalling. I remember reading a story in Private Eye back in the 1990s about the reaction of some of the journos in the British right-wing press, who were sent down to one of the South American countries to cover its transition from Fascism to democracy. I think it was El Salvador. On their visit, they met members of the El Salvadoran opposition before meeting General Noriega. Later talking about the meeting with the opposition leaders, one of the hacks said to the other that if he were the dictator, he’d shoot them.

Just let that sink in. This hack said that he was in favour of a Fascist dictator, responsible for appalling crimes against humanity, killing the very people, who wanted to lead their country to a new, democratic, better life. Now I dare say it was probably meant as a joke, but it’s a sick one. Especially as the Times and other establishment newspapers a few years after Pinochet seized power in Chile were demanding a coup in 1975 to oust the minority Labour government. The Times didn’t, it is fair to say, want a right-wing government. They wanted a ‘Government Of All the Talents’, containing right-wing Labour as well as Tories to govern after a military uprising. If you want some of the details, see Francis Wheen’s book Strange Days: Paranoia in the 70s. ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone also revealed in his book, Livingstone’s Labour, how MI5 also had plans to round up British leftists in a coup and imprison them in camps in the Hebrides or somewhere else remote.

This is the political background behind Alan Moore’s and David Lloyd’s graphic novel and film, V For Vendetta, starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, John Hurt, and Stephen Fry. I don’t like the movie because of its pronounced anti-Christian bias. But it does depict a chillingly plausible view of what a future fascist Britain would look like, based on what really happened in Nazi Germany. With the exception that the victims of biological experimentation in the Nazi camps never developed superpowers, and single-handedly inspired the masses to revolt and topple Hitler.

The right-wing press just loved Thatcher. They still do, but did not condemn Thatcher for her friendship with Pinochet. They were candid about the nature of his regime, or at least, some where. And some of the hacks, who supported Thatcher maintain that they would have loved to have killed Pinochet. Julie Burchill, a long-time staple of the Mail, went on about what would happen to the Chilean Fascist if she and him were in a locked room with her having a gun. Well, I’m very sceptical about that. Not least because in another of her articles, La Burchill vilified the idealistic young men and women, who went to Spain to fight for the Republicans against Franco during the Civil War as the equivalent of the bloodthirsty tourists, who go to watch a bullfight. So she was quite prepared to support the Spanish Fascists against the anti-Fascists, who risked and lost life and limb against him.

Burchill hates the left, and probably thinks that the Republicans were all Communists and Anarchists, but they also included POUM, which was roughly the equivalent of the British Labour party at the time, and liberals. They were a coalition of forces, united against the threat of Fascism. As the ‘Red’ Duchess of Atholl pointed out at the time.

Now it seems to me that if Britain had suffered a military coup in 1975 against the Labour administration, it would have not differed much from the Fascist regimes in Latin America. We would still have mass incarceration, the suspension of traditional British constitutional freedoms and rape and torture.

And I have no doubt that the Tory press, which lauds Thatcher and vilifies Corbyn, would have been 100 per cent behind it all.

Daphne du Maurier Book on a Britain Dominated by America after Brexit

June 8, 2016

Yesterday, the I newspaper published a letter by a Michael Steed, discussing one of the lesser known works of the great Cornish writer, Daphne du Maurier. It was one that casts a very peculiar, and fascinating perspective over the Brexit campaign. It was about a Britain which had broken away from Europe, and formed a union with America, a political arrangement which was merely the constitutional disguise for an American occupation of these islands. Mr Steed wrote

Almost 50 years ago Daphne du Maurier wrote a novel, Rule Britannia, in which the UK elected a coalition government, and in a referendum on whether or not to stay in the EU the people voted to leave. The result was economic meltdown and the country forged a merger with the US to create a new country called USUK, with the President and Queen as joint heads of state, and created military, political and economic links with English-speaking nations to encircle Russia and its allies.

The new regime was enforced by what was, in effect, a military occupation of the UK by American forces, with rationing, roadblocks and martial law resulting in a civil war in the UK.

Now how much of that is going to happen, I wonder? (p. 14).

Du Maurier’s book is clearly a fantasy, but the Conservatives have, from time to time, urged Britain to form a union with the US. The last time they did so was in the 1920s. More recently, in the ’80s or ’90s there was a graphic novel about a Britain that had also forged a union with the US to become America’s 51st state. I think it was written by that indefatigable comics stalwart and champion of radical literature, Alan Moore. I’ve got a feeling that the story concerned industrial and political dissent in this future Britain during a presidential election.

And the Euro-sceptics and Brexiteers are keen for Britain to form closer links with the English-speaking world. One of the most vocal about this has been the Dorset Conservative MEP, Daniel Hannan, who has often appeared in posts over at Guy Debord’s Cat, where his appalling right-wing views and sheer lies have been dissected and refuted at length. Hannan hates the EU and the National Health Service, and has urged us to leave the European Union. He also has written at length about how we should also forge greater links with what he calls ‘the Anglosphere’ – the wider English-speaking world, like America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Part of his reason for doing so, one could guess, was not just nationalism and patriotism, but also a desire to contain and combat socialism and the Labour party through closer connections with the US.

Du Maurier’s book is clearly an exaggeration of possible trends written in the 1960s, but nevertheless it does have some basis in political fact, and the extreme attitudes of anti-Europeans like Hannan and Farage.

Vox Political: New Graphic Novel about Calais Refugee Camp

May 24, 2016

I put up a few pieces two years or so ago lamenting the fact that the underground comics now seemed no longer to be about attacking and commenting on contemporary political issues, in the same way that the radical comics underground in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s did. I was later proved wrong with the publication of graphic novel collecting pieces by various British comic artists commemorating the beginning of the First World War from a left-wing, anti-war perspective. One of those behind the project was the veteran comics writer, creator and serial offender against the establishment, Pat Mills. Now Mike has news on his blog about another graphic novel, which aims to raise awareness of the plight of the refugees in the ‘Jungle’, the Calais refugee camp.

The graphic novel, Threads, is based on the experiences its writer and artist, Kate Evans, in a very short stint she did volunteering. Mike reproduces a few panels from the strip, one of which shows a Russian plane bombing Syria, which is one of the causes of the mass migration of refugees to the West. A few chapters can also be viewed on Evans’ own website, to which Mike provides the link. The panels shown are in full colour, and the whole graphic novel is due to be published by Verso next year, in Spring 2017.

Mike’s article quotes Evans herself that the work is to counter the attacks on the migrants in the right-wing press, who make them both anonymous and present them as a demonic threat. Mike himself points out that many of those objecting to the arrival of refugees forget that they are also people, and that it’s the function of art and culture to remind us of the realities.

This comic story gives a human face to Calais refugees

This is comic art and literature once again serving the vital function of holding a mirror up to reality, to provoke and upset in the cause of humanity. When graphic novels first appeared as an adult literary form in the 1990, Julie Burchill, ranted against them, screaming in her column that anyone over 18 who read them should have their right to vote removed. Of course, Burchill herself has done nothing but spout poisonous, infantile nonsense from her pen and keyboard during her long, literary career, in a series of journals and newspapers including the NME, Spectator, Guardian (how?) and, unsurprisingly, the Daily Heil. This latest graphic work seems to show the opposite: that it’s now the comics medium that increasingly takes a mature look at complex issues, while the supposedly ‘adult’ right-wing press does nothing but scream abuse and create simplistic stereotypes.

Tolstoy’s Prediction of the First World War

April 27, 2014

As I’ve mentioned before, this is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and already the BBC has put on a season of programmes commemorating the conflict. I’ve blogged on Michael Gove’s criticism of the negative view of the First World War, which he feels denigrates the courage and patriotism of the soldiers. He attacked the Beeb’s comedy series, Black Adder Goes Forth, as an example of this, and compounded his argument with knee-jerk Tory anti-intellectualism by claiming that the view was promoted by ‘Left-wing intellectuals’. A number of bloggers have attacked this diatribe, including Mike over at Vox Political. It has also provoked a response from the creators of graphic novels, who are putting together several albums presenting the horrific reality of the conflict as a response to Gove’s Right-wing patriotic view of the War.

Many people in Europe in the late 19th and first decade of the 20th centuries were very much aware of the looming threat of world conflict. One of those who foresaw it and its mass carnage was the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. As well as a writer, Tolstoy was a pacifist Anarchist. He hated the horrors of modern, industrial society and the state that oppressed the Russian poor. He saw the solution in the abolition of the state and traditional peasant society, to the point where he gave up much of his life style as a Russian aristocrat to live, dress and work like a peasant. As a young man, he had, like many other noblemen, been a soldier and had fought in the wars to conquer Chechnya and the Caucasus. He had been highly impressed by ideas of a Chechen Sufi leader, who, when his nations’ attempts to resist the Russians through armed force were repeatedly suppressed, rejected violence and advocated instead a policy of non-violent civil disobedience. Tolstoy himself rejected violence, and took up the Sufi leader’s ideas. In turn, Tolstoy’s advocacy of the policy influenced Gandhi in his own campaign against British rule in India.

Tolstoy also campaigned on behalf of the Doukhobors, a heretical Russian Christian sect, that also rejected violence. It was due to Tolstoy’s support and that of British Quakers that the sect emigrated from Russia to settle in Canada.

He promoted his Anarchist and pacifist ideals in a series of books, What Then Must We Do?, The Kingdom of God is Within You and The Restoration of Hell. They also influenced his magnum opus, War and Peace. This was written to show that history was not made by a few great men, but by the actions of millions of ordinary people. Lionel Kochan discusses Tolstoy’s ideas, his criticisms of contemporary society, and prediction of the coming War in his Russia in Revolution (London: Paladin 1970). Tolstoy attacked just about every aspect of contemporary society, including science, the press, religion, state education, and the state as a system of organised crime itself. Kochan writes:

Tolstoy, no doubt, showed little, if any, awareness of the deep-rooted complexity of the evils he stigmatized; no doubt, also, his positive doctrine was thin enough – the gospel of universal love, undogmatic Christianity, sexual abstinence, non-resistance to evil, the renunciation of tobacco and alcohol – for all that his later work constitutes an anarchist programme of profound strength. His unbridled criticism of society and its values, his corrosive and derisive scepticism, made him an anarchist more anarchic, a nihilist more nihilistic and a revolutionary more destructive than any whom Russia had yet brought forth – far more consistent and humanistic than Bakunin, far more hard-headed than Kropotkin.

What is science? He asked. Had it done anything of value to human life in determining the weight of Saturn’s satellites? What was universal suffrage? A means whereby the prisoners elected their own gaolers. Had industrialism raised the standard of living? Then look at the slums and doss-houses of Moscow. Tolstoy derided division of labour as a device for turning men into machines, book-printing as a medium for communicating ‘all the nasty and stupid things that are done and written in the world’, and reform for teaching people ‘that though themselves bad they can reform bad people’. What did the church do but maintain idolatry ‘in the most literal sense of the word – worshipping holy relics and icons, offering sacrifices to them and expecting from them the fulfilment of the worshippers’ wishes’? What did compulsory education do but ‘teach the savage superstition of patriotism and the same pseudo-obligation to obey the state’? What was the press but a means for ‘exciting feelings of mutual hostility between the nations’? What were the governments of the time, despotic and liberal alike, but – and her Tolstoy quotes Herzen’s phrase – ‘Genghis Khans with telegraphs’? The modern state was a mechanism so interlocked and interdependent that it became impossible to discriminate between the guilty and the innocent: ‘Some people demand the perpetration of a crime, others decide that it shall be done, a third set confirm that decision, a fourth propose its execution, a fifth report on it, a sixth finally decree it, and a seventh carry out the decree.’ Tolstoy’s apocalyptic vision of a state given over to destruction culminates in an anticipation of the imminent First World War:

‘The bells will peal and long-haired men will dress themselves in gold-embroidered socks and begin to pray on behalf of murder … The editors of newspapers will set to work to arouse hatred and murder under the guise of patriotism and will be delighted to double their sales. Manufacturers, merchants, and contractors for army stores will hurry about joyfully in expectation of doubled profits … Army commanders will bustle here and there, drawing double pay and rations and hoping to receive trinkets and crosses, stripes and stars, for murdering people. Idle ladies and gentlemen will fuss about, entering their names in advance for the Red Cross and getting ready to bandage those whom their husbands and brothers are setting out to kill – imagining they will be doing a most Christian work thereby.’

Kochan criticises Tolstoy for not understanding how enthusiastic and patriotic Russian servicemen initially were for the War. However, he then goes on to quote the great writer’s prediction of the condition of the soldiers in the War’s later stages, men who

‘will trudge where they may be driven, stifling the despair in their souls by songs, debauchery and vodka. They will march, freeze, suffer from hunger, and fall ill. Some will die of disease, and some will at last come to the place where men will kill them by the thousand. And they too, without knowing why, will murder thousands of others whom they had never before seen, and who had neither done nor could do them any wrong.’

For Tolstoy, the coming world war would ‘devour in a year more victims than all the revolutions of a century’. (pp. 157-8).
I strongly disagree with most of Tolstoy’s criticisms of contemporary society. He was, for example, wrong about science not benefitting humanity. it clearly has and had, most obviously in the improvements in medicine, that appeared in the 19th century. And printing and the press have increased knowledge and much good around the globe, despite the fact that they can often be used for evil. Having said that, he does have a point with the Sun, Daily Mail, and Express.

It will, however, be interesting to see if the BBC or anyone else, in their programmes on the Great War, mention Tolstoy’s prediction.

As a pacifist Anarchist, Tolstoy’s political views were strongly disapproved by Paul Johnson in the Spectator. In one of his articles in that journal he described the great novelists as somehow – I’ve forgotten quite what he wrote – being responsible for the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s tyranny. He never described how this was so. He simply asserted it, and went on. The only thing Tolstoy had in common with Stalin is that they were both radicals, who revolted against the Tsarist state. And possibly that they both had military careers. Apart from that, Tolstoy hated everything that Stalin stood for – militarism, an oppressive, coercive state, brutality and murder. And Tolstoy himself was far from unique in wishing to see a radical reform or overthrow of contemporary society. By 1905 the Tsar’s reluctance to establish any kind of constitutional reforms had pushed most sections of the Russian society in opposition. Even the Union of Unions, made up members of the liberal profession – doctors, lawyers, vets, scientists, engineers, teachers, university professors – not the usual bomb-throwing nutters – were advocating the use of violence if all else failed. There was another writer called, Tolstoy, Alexey, who survived into the Stalin era to write pieces praising the dictator. It looks like Johnson confused the two due to the same surname. But Leo Tolstoy would have been utterly opposed to the old thug.

Resisting the Tories War on the Poor: Bring Back the Underground and Alternative Comics

December 24, 2013

As I’ve written in previous blog, one of the problems facing Left-wing opponents of the Coalition and its vile policies is how to get the message across, when the media are nearly all biased towards the Conservatives. One possibility may be to use comics and graphic novels, following the examples of the great underground and alternative comics that first appeared in the 1960s and ’70s, before expanding and changing, along with the rest of the comics world in the ’80s and ’90s. Two of the most famous examples of comics creators using the medium to make extremely serious political points were Brought to Light and Aargh in the 1980s. These were a response to atrocities committed by CIA-backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua and the Thatcher government’s attempt to pass the now notorious Clause 28 respectively. This last piece of legislation was intended to prevent schools promoting homosexuality. Gays and libertarians were outraged by what they saw as the official promotion of homophobia, and feared that it would be followed by even more punitive legislation directed at gays themselves. Since Mrs Thatcher’s death, there has been some attempt to rehabilitate her regarding her attitude towards homosexuality. It’s been rightly observed that she did not personally hate gays, and that an attraction to one’s own sex was no obstacle to serving in her cabinet. Thatcher’s economic model was, however, Chile under the Fascist dictator General Pinochet, who was a personal friend of hers. At a time when homosexuality was far less tolerated than at present, there was a real fear that Thatcher would not only import Pinochet’s monetarism, but also follow him in destroying personal and political freedoms over here. Under the Right-wing totalitarianism Thatcher seemed ready to establish, gays would also be brutalised and persecuted, as well as other social and political groups the government deemed offensive or a threat. This was the background to the Fascist dystopia depicted in Moore’s and Lloyd’s comic strip and graphic novel, V for Vendetta.

Moore also contributed to Brought to Light, writing the strip ‘Shadowplay’, illustrated by the American comics artist Bill Sienkiewicz. ‘Shadowplay’ is a bitterly funny history of the way the CIA had backed Right-wing dictators and conspired to overthrow left-wing regimes, as well as engage in other, illegal and extremely unethical tactics across the world, as told in a sleazy bar by a cynical American eagle. It’s an example of the way comics, in the hands of good writers and artists, can be used to make deadly serious political points based on fact in a manner that it is entertaining as well as informative.

Shadowplay art

Art from ‘Shadowplay’ from Brought to Light, written by Alan Moore with art by Bill Sienkiewicz, showing the caricature-based artistic style used to make their point about the CIA infamous legacy of atrocity and human rights abuses.

Moore also contributed to Aargh!. This was a collection of strips, whose title was an acronym supposedly standing for ‘Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia’. Although it was a British response to Thatcher’s Clause 28, it followed a line of American underground gay comics from the 1970s, such as Harold Hedd, Barefootz and the lesbian comic, Dynamite Damsels, culminating in the anthology, Gay Comix, published by Kitchen Sink.

Aargh1

Page from Aargh!

The underground comics were largely a product of the 1960s Hippy counterculture, and much of their contents were based around drugs and sex. This is shown very much in the work of the best known of the underground comics creators, Robert Crumb, and Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, a comic about the weird adventures of a group of hippy drug freaks. In the 1970s a number of explicitly political underground comics appeared, including Slow Death Funnies, Edu-Comics and Anarchy Comics. Slow Death produced a number of issues, each devoted to a particular topic, such as the medical-industrial complex, nuclear power, the campaign against the Vietnam War and Greenpeace. As well as satirical strips, they also included facts and figures. Edu-Comics also produced a number of individual comics devoted to particular issues, such as All-Atomic Comics (1976) and Energy Comics (1980), which attacked the nuclear power industry.

Atomic Comics

Pages from All-Atomic Comics showing the mixture of satirical strip and factual contents.

Britain also had a number of political underground comics, such as the Optimist and Committed Comics. The Optimist appeared in 1976, and featured strips that discussed squatting, the dole, abortion and hypothermia amongst British pensioners.

Optimist

Cover from The Optimist.

Committed Comix, for its part, had strips discussing Northern Ireland, gay rights and the rise of the National Front.

Back to the Thirties

Back to the Thirties strip from Committed Comix, warning of the rise of the extreme Right-wing National Front.

These underground comics helped create a tradition of highly political comics that continued well into the 1990s, with titles such as Downside. This was a soap opera set in Thatcher’s Britain, which strongly criticised her government and its policies, and which ironically used quotes from her for each issue’s titles.

Downside Thatcher

Other comics in the 1980s devoted to particular contemporary issues include Strip AIDS, El Salvador: A House Divided and Palestine. Alan Moore also produced another political comic in consultation with an American conscientious objectors’ group, Real War Stories. This was intended to promote its anti-War message through presenting the reality of armed conflict, based on the experiences of real soldiers.

Apart from these Underground and alternative comics, mainstream comics also became far more adult with an increasing demand from their readers for them to include more mature themes and issues. One issue of Daredevil attempted to show the horrific effects of drugs on American schoolchildren, while another superhero comic, The Vigilante, dealt with child abuse. In Britain a range of comics were produced by Fleetway, aimed at readers over the age of 16. These included Crisis, and its strip, ‘Third World War’. This was about a pair of teenagers drafted in to serve the multinational food corporations as they exploited the Developing World.

Crisis Cover

Cover of Crisis.

Most of these new, adult strips didn’t last very long. The new emphasis on gritty realism and politics did not attract the younger readers, on whom the industry traditionally depended, and the comics industry in general suffered a massive collapse after the initial boom of the 1990s. Nevertheless, despite this decline, 2000 AD has survived. Many of its strips, including Judge Dredd, were sharply satirical. As the millennium approached, for example, the comic decided to celebrate the approaching year of its title with a satirical strip harking back to Mach 1, one of the very strips in the new comic. Mach 1 was based very much on the Six Million Dollar Man. Instead of bionics, however, Mach 1 owed his massively increased strength and speed to ‘compu-puncture hyperpower’. To help him control it, Mach 1 had a special computer implanted in his head which gave him advice. 2000 AD took this early strip, and reworked it into a strip satirising Tony Blair, the then current prime minister. He appeared as Blair 1, with his inbuilt computer advisor, Dr Spin. Two of the problems facing the fictional PM was how to support single mothers, as well as what should be done about the abandoned mines left through the closure of the mining industry by Major’s regime. Dr Spin’s advice is to solve these problems by combining them, so that the single mothers are then sent down the mines. A long line of them appear in characteristic miner’s gear, singing ‘Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go! We work all day for rubbish pay, thank you, Tonio!’ Other politicians skewered by the strip also included Chris Patten and Anne Widdicombe.

The 1980s also saw the appearance of Diceman, a comic in which the individual strips were adventure games that could be played by the reader, and whose narrative and ending depended on the choice they made as they progressed through the game. It was the graphic successor not only to similar, text-based games like The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, but also to the various ‘Have Your Own … Adventure’ books aimed at younger readers, which used comic strips as the format for similar adventure games. Diceman was a spin-off from 2000 AD, and many of the games were based on its strips and characters, including Slaine and Nemesis the Warlock. It also shared the satirical slant of its parent, and several of its games attacked the leaders of the British and American governments. Thus, Diceman ran the strips Thatcher: A Dole-Playing Game, and one in which the reader played Ronald Reagan. This was illustrated by that veteran of underground comics and political subversion, Hunt Emerson. These were humorous in tone. One of the problems presented to the reader in the Reagan strip is that, as the present, your popularity is falling. The way to regain popularity is to launch an investigation into your own family tree, in the hope that a suitably popular and glamorous ancestral link can be found. The reader thus spun the dice to decide, who the investigation would say Reagan was related to. The highest numbers produced the most popular relatives, who duly boosted your score as Ronald Reagan. The most popular of these was the Queen, followed by ‘a lot of Irishmen’. The lowest score, however, made you related to Bonzo, Reagan’s chimpanzee fellow star from his film, Bedtime for Bonzo. The strip also made extremely serious and alarming factual points, such as when it discussed some of the occasions in which mistakes and malfunctions had left the world a millimetre away from nuclear war. One of these, for example, was when a technician accidentally dropped a spanner down the shaft of a nuclear silo.

A number of alternative comics have also appeared in Britain, which also include a strongly political element. These include Pete Loveday’s Russell: The Saga of a Peaceful Man, whose hero is a hippy going from one weird experience to another. Like the Underground comics before it, much of the humour in this centres around the alternative culture and the various festivals that had appeared by the ’90s, and drugs. It also showed and satirised the demoralising experience of job hunting, government cuts to unemployment benefit at the Job Centre, and the callous attitude of hospital administrators, eager to get people out of their hospital beds as quickly as possible in order to accommodate the next person in the queue.

Russel Job Hunting

The reality of looking for a job, as depicted in Russell: The Saga of a Peaceful Man.

Russel DofE

Russell finds that Unemployment Benefits are being replaced by payment in kind. From Russell: Part 2.

Russel Hospital Admin

Apart from the political comics themselves, many contemporary British comics artists and writers entered the field through the Underground comics, including Brian Bolland, Angus McKie, Dave Gibbons, Bryan Talbot, Hunt Emerson and Steve Bell, known for his political cartoons in the Guardian and the Indepedent, like Maggie’s Farm. There are also a large number of younger comics artists and writers out there in the wider fan culture, many of whom have got around problems of finding a commercial publisher by publishing their work themselves. Comics are also no longer confined to print and hardcopy. A few artists have taken to the web to publish their work. There is thus a large pool of talent available to create such comics, and the developments in comics publishing over the last couple of decades means that a political comic attacking the governments’ welfare policies could be published independently, or on-line and so get around the problem of finding a commercial publisher that way. Graphic novels have established comics as a medium in which serious issues can be discussed, and the growth of comics and their readership has meant that Waterstone’s now has a section devoted to comics and graphic novels. I also believe that Forbidden Planet would also be willing to stock such a comic. As well as conventional, mainstream comics like Batman, Superman, Spiderman and so on, Forbidden Planet has also stocked the independent, alternative and underground comics, including some of the very political work published by Knockabout. It might even be worth some of the comics companies republishing some of the old satirical strips. Margaret Thatcher has passed away, but her shadow still looms large over the British political landscape, with politicians on both the Right and the Left presenting themselves as her political heir and successor. It would thus be a timely reminder of how much suffering she caused in her day. And some of the issues discussed in the British undergrounds are still all too relevant. The references in The Optimist to pensioners suffering from hypothermia is, tragically, one of these. There was shock a few months ago when it was revealed just how many tens of thousands of senior citizens had died of the cold the previous winter.

Rather than a comic, published in serial instalments, I think the best way of using the comic strip to satirise and attack the government would be a graphic novel, or anthology, dedicated to the issue of poverty and the Coalition’s war on the poor, the unemployed and the disabled, like Brought to Light, Aargh! and the others in the 1980s and 1990s. The harshness of the government’s policies and the immense suffering they have created, such as the very many disabled people, who have committed suicide after being found fit for work by ATOS, surely warrant a similar treatment to the issues graphic novels explored and publicised in those decades. I am not saying that such a graphic novel or comic would be sufficiently influential to persuade the public to vote Cameron, Clegg and the others out. Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye and one of the creators of British satirical puppet show, Spitting Image, was once asked on Radio 4 whether he thought satire could change anything. He answered, ‘No’, and pointing out that no matter how viciously Spitting Image caricatured and attacked Mrs Thatcher and her government, people still kept voting for her. Nevertheless, if told with wit and style, such a graphic novel or comic might still reach and affect some people, who would otherwise find politics boring and help change the minds of those, who would otherwise quietly accept the Right-wing media’s misleading reporting and views of these issues. If even some people change their mind as a result, or are encouraged to vote against the government or become politically active against their policies, then such a graphic novel or comic will have succeeded.

A political comic attacking the government and its welfare policies would doubtless be extremely controversial. This is nothing new. The underground comics were notoriously controversial, and in the 1970s were the subjects of a series of obscenity cases in America that decimated the underground scene. Their counterparts over this side of the pond were similarly attacked. I remember that back in the ’70s and ’80s Knockabout always seemed to be raided by the police. Martin Barker in his book, Comics: Ideology, Power & the Critics, has also pointed out how mainstream children’s comics have also been the frequent target of official disapproval. Many of these were on the grounds that they were cheap rubbish that kept children away from reading proper literature, or that they indoctrinated their younger readers with the wrong values, either from the subversive Left or capitalist right. Barker wrote the book while Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister, and popular literature, particularly comics, was coming under increasing attack. In the postscript to the book Barker makes a passionate defence of comics in the face of growing demands for censorship. Although comics and graphic novels are now better accepted than they were in the 1980s, his comments are still relevant today.

‘In this book I have worked hard at being the analyst. Assessing and weighing, investigating and evaluating. Not above a bit of anger when I find bad theory and empirical misrepresentation, but basically cool. Perhaps every now and then a bit of laughter or passion when something I really love comes up before my eyes, but most of the time outside it all. This is, of course, not true at all. I live in this damned country at this damned time and comics are part of my and my children’s lives. And I now say passionately: let us have as many of the things as we possibly can. In the face of the capital-calculating machine called Thatcherism which used morality like murderers use shotguns, all the little things like comics matter. Little by little, the cohorts of the ‘competitive-minded’ seek to shut down, enclose, militarise our imaginations. Comics prise open the bars just a little. Dreaming, eh? Give that chap a ‘short, sharp shock’! I am quite willing to say passionately: all those in whom humanity remains prized about the ‘laws of the market’ have no business (you own none, you have none) helping to block the dreaming that people manage to do. Imagination, fantasy, call it what-you-will, is not some fixed drum which, filled with the wrong stuff, will then be unavailable for other purposes. For heaven’s sake, let us have dreamers; or we will have hell. My defence of the comics is, to me, in the end a defence of the right to imagine.’ (p. 301). He then proceeds to attack comics’ left-wing critics for their censorship, which they share with Thatcher.

Comics and graphic novels have a long tradition of highlighting social and political problems, and satirising and attacking repressive governments and exploitative organisations and corporations. This tradition provides a fertile ground for attacking the present, repressive, exploitative government, and I’m sure there are plenty of talented and enthusiastic young comics writers and artists willing to do this. Such a graphic novel may not be successful, but it would be worth trying, and might, just might, help change a few minds.

On the subject of the way comics in the 1980s began to tackle serious, adult issues, here is an edition of the 1980s documentary series, Signals from 1989, I found on youtube. Entitled ‘The Day Comics Grew Up’, it features interviews with Alan Moore, Archie Goodwin, John Byrne, Tom Veitch and Jim Baikie, amongst other writers and artists, talking about their work and the demand for comics to include such mature, serious subjects.

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Sources

Martin Barker, Comics: Ideology, Power & the Critics (Manchester: Manchester University Press 1989).

Pete Loveday, Russell: The Saga of a Peaceful Man (London: John Brown Publishing 1991).

Pete Loveday, Russell: The Saga of a Peaceful Man, Part 2 (London: John Brown Publishing 1993).

Roger Sabin, Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art (London: Phaidon 1996).