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Comical Politics

You Can Read It in the Funny Papers

by RON JACOBS

When I lived in Berkeley, California during the 1970s and 1980s, I probably spent more money at Comics & Comix on Berkeley’s Telegraph Ave. than at any other store except for those that sold beer and food.  At the time, underground comix were still published frequently enough so one could get something new every few weeks. Plus, there were always old publications to buy. Sometime in 1978 the first issue of Anarchy Comics was published. The red cover caught my eye immediately upon entering the store (as it was intended to do, no doubt).  I skimmed the comic, saw artwork I recognized and forked over the coins to the clerk. “You’ll like that,” he said. “Got some Spain in there, some other cool shit.” We talked for a couple minutes and I left. My friends and I got into our van and drove back to our house in East Oakland. We had some weed, beer and a handful of comix. Our eviction was still a week away. We were set for the evening.

A mélange of history, utopian speculation, social commentary and just plain fun, Anarchy Comics were the brainchild of cartoonist Jay Kinney.  Previously known for his work with the comic Young Lust and the Bijou Funnies series, Kinney decided to explore his interest in the history and philosophy of anarchism via comic books.  When the first issue came out, it sold quickly.  In part, this was because of the cartoonists it featured; Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton (of Austin’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers), the Frenchman Paul Mavrides, JR Burnham, Epistoliery and Volny on the Kronstadt uprising, Clifford Harper of Britain’s Class War Comix , Melanie Gebbies, and Kinney himself.  The publisher was none other than Ron Turner, whose dystopian Last Gasp comix foretold a grim future of ecological devastation and human despair.

Over the next ten years, three more issues of Anarchy Comics would be published.  Always entertaining and informational, they continued to include most of the aforementioned artists, while adding others along the way, including underground legend Greg Irons and Marvel artist Steven Stiles.  Spain’s contributions continued to highlight anarchist history: Durruti in the Spanish Civil War and Italy’s Roman Spring of 1977; Harper turned his pen to more contemporary social criticism; Mavrides and Kinney collaborated on both.  The highlight of this collaboration is the story titled “Kultur Dokuments” that appears in issue number two.  This story begins with a tale about a not-too-distant future where the Picto family, depicted with paper-cutouts, lives a two-dimensional life proscribed by the state whose goal is to take over everyone’s brain.  As the family members succumb, only the teenage son avoids that fate.  After being locked into his room by his parents, he finds a comic book that is the best parody of the classic Archie comic series ever published.  Titled “Anarchie,” it is the story of Anarchie and his friend Ludehead engaged in shenanigans typical of the actual characters except with a twist of rebellion.  Suffice it to say, I never looked at Archie comics the same after reading this.

Recently, PM Press published the entire collection of Anarchy Comics in one volume.  Besides the content of the individual comic books, Kinney has included his tale of their genesis, a foreword by Paul Buhle, some ephemera and short biographies of each cartoonist.  Besides being an important event in the history of comics and underground culture, PM’s republication of these comix gives an entirely new generation to read, appreciate and be inspired by the art, humor and intelligence that went into them.

Speaking of comic characters, there are very few who are older than the German Kasper.  The classic figure of the trickster, known in every human culture from Coyote to Star Trek’s Q, the Kaspers of human culture are here to point out our shortcomings and our foibles; our injustices and our selfishness.  Their sense of humor is not always that funny and their finger pointing is often taken quite poorly.  This is as it should be.  In Germany, they are known as the Kasperle and appear in Fasching parades, political protests and on television.  They are loved for what they say and hated because they blame us all for being complicit.

The Bread and Puppet Theatre has spent more than four decades doing what tricksters do.  This is why it is only right that the recently published book from Peter Schumann, the troupe’s founder and inspiration, should be about this Kasper.  A collection of cartoons drawn over the past several years, Schumann’s Planet Kasper takes on capitalist globalization, its wars and its proselytizers.  This Kasper is a clever, subversive commentary on the culture and cruelty of modern capitalism. It is drawn with primitive lines evoking not only the puppets of the Bread and Puppet theatre, but also their predecessors from old Europe.  The parables told are simple and pointed.  The solutions to the problems presented are equally so.  It is the illusions that we believe that prevent us from seeing this truth.  Kasper’s task, like all tricksters, is to destroy those illusions.  Utilizing metaphor, sarcasm, and even a little scatological humor, Peter Schumann’s trickster does his best.  The rest is up to us.

Comics and cartoons are often meant to be funny.  They can also be an effective means of relaying history and ideas.  In addition, the best comics are also subversive.  The ultimate combination of art, words and story can turn the reader’s world upside down or at least into a twist, challenging previously held notions.  If we accept these criteria to define quality comic art, then Jay Kinney’s Anarchy Comics and Peter Schumann’s Planet Kasper are both at the top of the form.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.