George Grosz was an artist in Weimar Germany. His works lampooned the rich and super rich and condemned war. A Dadaist who was anti-capitalist and antifascist, he exiled himself to the United States in 1933 as the Nazi party began to rise in Germany. Although he changed the nature of his art after he moved to the United States, his most famous works are mostly from his time in Germany. Indeed, one of his best-known antiwar paintings, titled Eclipse of the Sun, was quite familiar to many who opposed the US war on the Vietnamese.
It is in the tradition represented by Grosz’s early works that the artists appearing in a newly-published collection from AK Press are hailing from. The collection, titled The World We are Fighting For, is the most recent installment of the World War Three Illustrated series published by AK Press over the past several years. It features a collection of cartoonists and other artists who came together to create a provocative and agitational work focusing on our current reality. COVID-19, neo-fascism, environmental devastation, class divide and, of course, Donald Trump—the catalyst and symbol of so much that is wrong with the present. Movements from the water protectors to Black Lives Matter to tenants’ rights are represented in captivatingly drawn panels in black and white. The volume opens with five full color pages from Colleen Tighe centered on the theme of a world built around community care and ends with artist Peter Kuper’s lament for animals nearing extinction due to humanity’s abuse of the planet.
Two of the stories I found most interesting center on history. The first, done by Terry Tapp, tells the story of a youngster growing up in “Nowhere, Kentucky”, living through comic books. Ultimately becoming rather bored with the standard Marvel and DC comic fare, his world is opened when he finds a copy of Slow Death number Four. For those who don’t know, Slow Death was an underground comic published by the comix publishing house Last Gasp and devoted to decrying environmental destruction and war in the name of profit. The artwork was almost always trenchant and sometimes pointedly grotesque; the point was to wake the reader up o the horrors being done to one’s world. The other selection reflecting on history is by Seth Tobacman and Tamara Tornado. The story begins with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan to the White House in January 1981. It then relates a decade of left/anarchist activities through the eyes of a New York radical—opposing the US wars in Central America, Acting up against the federal government and the church in the battle against AIDS, and the battle against gentrification and for Tompkins Square. It is a personal tale that also traces a journey from Gandhian nonviolence to graffiti and street fighting. Although I was on the opposite coast and a bit older than the person portrayed in the comic, the arc of protest in the 1980s reminded me that that decade was not as bad I often think it was.
Like many agitational artists who came before him, George Grosz understood the power of simple and direct graphics. The effectiveness and popularity of his work was reflected in the authorities’ attacks on it. In a similar vein, much of the graphic art of the movements associated with the long Sixties drove the authorities to react in drastic ways against its creators. Underground newspapers that published these works were censored by authorities and their storefronts attacked by vigilantes. Publishers were charged under obscenity and other laws with the intention not necessarily to convict but to bankrupt their operations. The power of the state convinced bookstores and other sales outlets not to sell the papers and books the art was published in and even made them hesitant to hang posters of a political nature. Nowadays, comics that address antiestablishment and countercultural themes are fewer in number. In essence, they have been relegated to what is known as a niche market; just another curiosity, as it were.
Because of this compartmentalization of the market, works like the The World We are Fighting For collection are not reaching their maximum readership. As a result, their effectiveness as tools for change and their role as both reflective and agitational art is severely limited. While it would be almost impossible to prove anything like a concerted effort to limit the popularity of leftist and anarchist provocations like this text, the fact remains that the very nature of the market almost ensures such works will never get the readership they deserve. That is a damn shame.