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"The art of the people": how comics got political

"I think ideas are the real villains in politics and the world generally."

Captain America #175, 1974. Photograph: Marvel Comics

It was fitting that the strand of events centered on comics at the Edinburgh Book Festival opened with a political statement. Speaking on his worries as comics moved further into the realm of literary accolades and academic study, the critically acclaimed Chris Ware told his audience that comics are “a working class art form”, and the “art of the people”, with the caveat that he didn’t intend to sound strident.

One of the historical roots of modern comics is of course the political cartooning of the early newspapers; the mechanical reproduction of images finally allowing art to be consumed by the masses rather than the privileged few, with cartoonists leaping at the chance to communicate complex political situations via their deceptively simple form. 

The idea of comics as a political tool is not without its controversies, from grumbles amongst novelists to riots over religious icon portrayals. Any fan of superhero comics can tell you that comics don’t have to be overtly political, but the recent insistence by creator Todd McFarlane that historically no comic book that has worked has been “trying to get across a message” was largely met by the rolling of eyes.

As Stripped celebrates comics and graphic novels in all their forms, I wondered what a few of the guests had to say about how they incorporate their own politics into their work, and how the medium of comics helps or hinders their message.

Stephen Collins, winner of the 2010 Observer/Cape/Comica Graphic short story prize and creator of The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil (Jonathan Cape, 2013), is well known for his comic strips that appear in both the Guardian and Prospect, frequently tackling topical issues.

“In terms of newspaper cartoons,” Collins says, “I tend to go for something that makes me laugh first, rather than a political angle. And even when that does turn out to be political, I try not to draw politicians too much. Partly because it dates the comic quickly, partly because it’s so much a ‘part of the game’ that politicians will just ask to buy the cartoons for their toilet wall as an ego-boost, which is annoying.

“But also I am more interested in political ideas, and how they get used and abused by politicians and the rest of us, than in specific politicians. I think ideas are the real villains in politics and the world generally, so I try to get at that for 'satire' if I can, rather than draw Michael Gove every week. 

“Technology-driven individualism is a good source of jokes for instance, and it’s a very political idea which is underneath a lot of modern life, but I just think it turns out better if I do a sketch about somebody using a smartphone rather than criticizing a specific government policy.”

It’s interesting to note that in our media savvy times, politicians are clearly as aware of satirical cartoons as the intended audience – Collins is surely not alone in wincing at the idea of his artwork adorning the lavatory walls of The Man.

So is Collins’ cartooning done as commentary alone or is he trying to win hearts and minds? “Commentary, really,” he answers. “I think it’s a bit weird when people claim they’re trying to change people’s minds with political cartoons. I think longer, more subtle comics can do that – Joe Sacco or Rutu Modan for instance – because they give you a proper insight into someone else’s experience of a political issue. But I think if you’re doing a short gag you can forget about changing minds. You’re there to make a joke first and foremost, which can be perspective-changing within limits… but I’m not likely to blow open a Daily Mail reader’s mindset by doing a comic strip in the Guardian. The moral high ground some satirists assume can be a right turn-off for me sometimes if I'm honest.”

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Sacco, creator of Palestine, Safe Area Goražde, and Journalism amongst others, is highly acclaimed for his documentary journalism in the comics medium. The cartoonist was keen to stress to his audience at the second Stripped event the differences between his subjective journalism and so-called objective journalism, saying that the former was far more honest – all reporters and journalists have their own preconceived notions that dictate how and what they report. While journalists reporting only the cold hard facts left gaps in the story, Sacco mused that, “I don’t know if there should be more outrage for the sake of outrage,” and pointed out that their choice of story was often telling enough.

“My sympathies are clear at least by what I’m reporting on,” he said, adding that by portraying himself within his stories he was indicating that this work was filtered through his own viewpoint. Sacco also spoke of the tension between the idea of journalism, representing the facts and the truth, and drawing, which he said was subjective by its very nature, filtered by the artist and the choices they make on the page.

But does his work record history or does it actually influence people? Sacco personally went from the US media created illusion that all Palestinians were terrorists to being able to show the bigger picture. “For whatever it’s worth,” he said, “this is when I can do something about that situation. This is when their voices can have some agency.”

Sacco, like Chris Ware, has won numerous literary awards as well as the more traditional comics prizes, and his upcoming panoramic wordless take on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, The Great War (Jonathan Cape, 2013), is sure to be a huge success. While graphic novels have a steadily soaring audience size, one can’t discount the superheroes and other monthly publications that dominate our popular culture.

One writer who openly embraces political issues in his mainstream work is Paul Cornell, writer for DC, Marvel and Doctor Who, as well as numerous novels including London Falling (Tor, 2013). Cornell is known not only for including great women characters in his comics, but also for spotlighting issues including LGBT and immigration as almost a byproduct of his plots.

Cornell caused a storm of controversy last year by directly addressing the lack of women guests at many comics conventions. "Panel Parity" was his vow that he would not appear on panels that were not fairly balanced, thus keeping the issue at the forefront of convention organisers (and fans) minds.

I wondered whether Cornell had experienced difficulties due to wearing his politics so openly on his sleeve.

“I think there's a lot more resistance from certain elements in the fandoms than there is inside the companies,” Cornell answered. “Certainly, Marvel have got behind Panel Parity, putting my wonderful Wolverine editor, Jeanine Schaefer, on their Comic Con panel (editors appearing on panels is a surprisingly rare thing), and emphasising their female-led books and female talent. 

“In the past, comics companies have tended to suggest diversity should 'happen naturally', as if when you leave a comic book open overnight gay men might grow in the pages like mustard and cress, so it's great that Marvel are now championing it, doing it deliberately. Because that's the only way it can be done. Jeanine's a force for change. And there are a number of prominent female editors now who are altering the face of pro comics culture pretty swiftly. 

“Online comics fandom, meanwhile, if you judge solely by the comics message boards, remains conservative and behind the times. The action is to be found on Tumblr, where the Carol Corps lives."

Tumblr is indeed the place to be for many younger comics fans who have been horrified at those same conservative internet forums. Here burgeoning communities of like-minded souls can be found, with a sense of real enthusiasm in the air. 

I ask if Cornell’s stance on panel parity, which he began with the acknowledgement that it was most likely a rod for his own back, has caused him trouble.

“It's horrified various convention organisers,” Cornell says, “who find themselves having to jump through hoops. I don't mind that negative reaction so much, they're having to deal with the results of patriarchy, it's not their fault it exists. I've been quietly dropped from a few conventions I'd previously been invited to. The worst thing is when it's treated as something laughable.

“One World Science Fiction Convention actually tried to lessen the number of female panelists on one panel I was on, joking that they were trying to create 'parity' across the board. For them, and for some great big chunks of SF fandom in general, it'll always be 1974. But various others events (such as the wonderful CONvergence in Minnesota) found that they had a woman on every panel I was on anyway. (My rule these days has been reduced to 'I don't do all male panels' rather than a need for 50/50, because I wanted to speed up the rate of change.)

“It's bashing at the wrong end of the problem, but it's created some good outcomes. The women who get to appear on panels when they formerly wouldn't have have universally been great, never a token, because there's a huge untapped resource of women panelists sitting in front rows at every convention.  Women set themselves harder standards of expertise before they'll think of themselves as panelist material, while men tend to think 'I'll have a go' whether or not they know anything about the subject.“ 

But for some creators it’s not so easy to put your politics out there, particularly if you are prone to reinventing yourself, changing your stance, or not visibly engaged with the online world. Cornell’s stance is hugely admirable, as is his willingness to speak out on issues that have caused problems for many fans. As a woman who has experienced her fair share of abuse for speaking out about issues around sexism in comics, I’d like to think I’d do the same. 

The beauty of comics as a medium though, and following on directly from that shared heritage with political cartooning, is that you can let your work do the speaking for you. What Cornell does quite wonderfully is have his politics intertwined in the story in a way that doesn’t slap the reader in the face.

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One writer in particular has often found himself portrayed as an unwilling spokesperson after sharing his own opinions. Grant Morrison has been heralded as the dispenser of justice and penance on all manner of subjects, from the treatment of early comic creators (Supergods, Vintage, 2012), and his pedestal as a counter culture icon, to his acceptance of an MBE (or interpretation of an Alan Moore comic!). Is it easier just to stay quiet and put your own thoughts out more subtly in comic form?

“As a writer, I think comics, stories, metaphors and symbols are much better vehicles for my personal opinions than interviews, certainly,” Morrison says. “In a story, characters can adopt various viewpoints and present a given issue from multiple, seemingly contradictory, or 'Cubist' angles. In a live interview, unless it’s a subject I’m interested in, I’m working off zero research and vague feelings of outrage or conviction inspired by the last article I read on a given topic, the last knee-jerk response I experienced. I’m wary of anyone who advocates big simple solutions to complex and elaborate problems and personally, I prefer to work out my thoughts on the page and to challenge my own certainties by creating characters who disagree with me.  

“That’s not to say that stories can’t or shouldn’t be vehicles for personal convictions and beliefs but readers can usually smell a tract coming down the hall and are rightly suspicious of work that pushes a singular agenda.”

Morrison’s rejection of “isms” has led to some Wonder Woman fans worrying how the writer will tackle their favourite superhero in his upcoming Wonder Woman: The Trial of Diana Prince. However, in a recent interview with USA Today, Morrison revealed that his research into the history of feminism had resulted in him getting angry and “a little bit militant”, retuning him to his alternative roots. With anything Morrison says on the subject of the holy trinity (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) making headlines across the world, does he feel the need to be guarded during interviews when things get into political territory?

“Pretty much,” he replies. “I feel I have to be guarded because my opinions can shift radically from day to day and moment to moment and I’d hate for any impressionable young person who likes what I have to say about Batman or Chaos Magic to take seriously my disinterested and ill-considered thoughts on the subject of, say, New Tory, UKIP, Scottish Independence, Europe or apish party politics in general.

“To ally myself to political movements or causes would seem as absurd and reductive to me as supporting a football team or attending a church. I don’t believe one single 'ism' can hope to explain things, represent everyone or correct all of society’s faults so I wouldn’t be comfortable presenting myself as a spokesperson for any of them. I’m against coercion and for creativity. I think we should all try as hard as we can to be kinder to ourselves, other people and other living things. Beyond that, I’m unwilling to wear anyone’s flag.

“Fiction allows me to take politics out for a walk without me or anyone else being bitten to death by them; which is to say I prefer to see ideas arguing on the page rather than fighting in the streets.”

Showing ideas and issues dueling it out on the page is something that all these artists and writers strive to create, their well-read sandboxes where ideas can be tested and stretched. The earliest cartoonists could perhaps never have imagined the caped crusaders and documentary journalists of today, not least the literary accolades and acclaim, but it’s heartening to see that comics, at their heart, are still capable of being the art of the people.

The Edinburgh Book Festival has long made sure it always has at least one guest from the world of comics, but with the new Stripped programme boasting 41 events, as well as a two day mini comics fair with over 30 exhibitors, comics have rarely felt seen such respect at a literary event. Many events are yet to come, with tickets available via the Festival website.