More Horror Than Hope: The Comic Art of World War 3 Illustrated

By Eric Drooker (2011), from the cover of World War 3 Illustrated: 1979–2014. Courtesy of PM Press.

World War 3 Illustrated:
Edited by Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman
PM Press, 2014, 336 pp.

It is safe to say that nothing, in the annals of comic art, has ever resembled World War 3 Illustrated. New issues have come out more or less annually for the past thirty-five years, though they have not always been easy to locate West of the Hudson river; distribution has not been a strong point, but the art, rarely repetitive or clichéd, has been. Year to year and decade to decade, it has been drawn by new hands, in a continual effort to bring along young artists committed to social themes but groping for their own way forward. Luckily for comic enthusiasts everywhere, this remarkable body of work is now collected in an oversized, chock-full volume.

The conceptual starting point for the founders and early collaborators of World War 3 was Masses magazine (1912–17), the original fount for printed “ashcan” art, but also revolutionary optimism and good humor. I’ve always been struck by the hostility of the European experimentalists of the 1913 Armory Show toward their American cousins: ashcanners were viewed as retrograde realists, unable to grasp that the future lay in abstraction. The Cubists and Dadists, and the Surrealists to come, could be revolutionary on their own terms, but the smell of the tenement blocks—or even the sense of a warm summer day in Central Park—did not interest them much as a subject for exploration.

Irving Howe upon his graduation from CCNY.
by Seth Tobocman (1984)

World War 3 began in a different place, although here, too, war provided a backdrop. Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman grew up in Cleveland, a couple of Jewish neighborhoods away from the creators of Superman; as adolescents, they met Harvey Pekar and published Robert Crumb originals in their fanzine. Kuper and Tobocman looked at the world of the late 1970s with more horror than hope. For them, the optimism of the Summer of Love was long gone, and the shadow of Reaganism was closing in. As much to the point, in the minds of two young artists in Manhattan, the Lower East Side that greeted them was faced with the prospect of an all-consuming gentrification. They created art for Tompkins Square in the way that Allen Ginsberg, joining them in the crowd, created poetry for the struggle, which they ultimately lost.

The power of wealth over human life occupies many pages in this collection, among the most prominent of which are by the severe expressionist Tobocman himself. Ecology, the war machine, violence against women, and the climate of fear engendered by police fill many others. But it would be wrong to see World War 3 as primarily didactic, in the old sense of protest art ordered by some Party committee. The comics capture the artists’ own sense of the moment, and the expressions of outrage—and sometimes hope—belongs to the creators.

Irving Howe upon his graduation from CCNY.
by Art Spiegelman (2002)

Kuper, for example, the comic’s best known regular, records the politics and culture of Oaxaca, Mexico, while in a different mode drawing his sardonically brilliant “Richie Bush” (Kuper’s first job in Manhattan was inking the long-running kitsch classic “Richie Rich”). Other artists display similar ingenuity and diversity of interests. Art Speigelman has an unforgettable Uncle Sam rolling up his sleeves to mainline gasoline, with an army of cars below. Tom Tomorrow offers the quiz page, “Are You a Real American?” Nicole Schulman offers grim pages on sexual abuse in South Korea, during the Japanese and U.S. occupations and beyond.

Some of these comics are hard to look at, in the way that challenging art can be demanding. But there are beautiful moments, like Eric Drooker’s take on Occupy, featuring a magic girl on a skateboard hovering over the Brooklyn Bridge, or the four-color pages of Sandy Jimenez looking back, with pain and fascination, at his own life in the Bronx of the 1950s. But to me, nothing tops Sabrina Jones’s mixed-media pages on abortion rights, drawing on her own youthful experiences. Readers of the anthology are bound to find their own favorites.

by Sue Coe
by Sue Coe (2012)

While the founders justly admired the Masses, I couldn’t help compare and contrast World War 3 to Mad Comics (1952–55), more intense than its Mad Magazine successor (although Kuper did take over the “Spy vs. Spy” feature of Mad Magazine some years ago). Mad’s genius founder Harvey Kurtzman, who would take on Joe McCarthy, guided his artists toward an immanent critique of commercial art and the commercialized popular culture of the postwar era. His vernacular, the hungry but hopeful blue-collar world of the 1930s and ’40s, was being shunted off by something much uglier.

World War 3 portrays this less hopeful world, filled with endless war (and accompanying budgets squeezing out domestic needs), ecological exploitation, and the brutalization of social (especially gender) relations. It’s not nearly as funny as Mad, and that may be the most serious criticism to be made. But it is seriously artistic, a place for artists of any age but especially the young to find a social outlet, providing us with a documentation that we all need to comprehend in our own ways. I’ve been learning as I’ve looked at the pages of the magazine over almost its whole history, and I haven’t stopped learning yet.

Paul Buhle is a retired professor who is now editing his eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth comics, respectively, on Rosa Luxemburg, Herbert Marcuse, and C.L.R. James.

All images courtesy of PM Press.
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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.