With extensive careers in art, illustration and comics, childhood friends Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman founded “World War 3 Illustrated” (“WW3”) in 1979, an anthology series with a left-wing political focus. Edited by various creators over the years, “World War 3 Illustrated” contributors include artists James Romberger, Sandy Jimenez, Sue Coe and more. Kuper and Tobocman continue to edit and contribute to the anthology, distributed in the modern era by Top Shelf.
To mark the anthology’s 35th anniversary, PM Press is publishing a book collecting “World War 3 Illustrated” content from the series’ many contributing cartoonists. It’s a beautifully designed book, but it’s also an incredible look at both the politics of recent decades and life in the United States and abroad.
CBR News spoke with Kuper and Tobocman about the anniversary of “WW3” and its impact on comics and social movements, as well as the publication of PM Press’ big 35th Anniversary hardcover and the lasting impact of “World War 3 Illustrated” as an anthology.
CBR: Peter, Seth — it’s been 35 years since the debut of “World War 3 Illustrated.” Looking back to the series’ beginnings, where did the concept of the book come from? What was the impetus in creating the anthology?
Peter Kuper: Seth and I grew up together in Cleveland, Ohio — we met in first grade and lived a street apart until the end of high school. We discovered comics around the age of 7 and when we were 11 did our first zine with several to follow through our teens. We attended many comic conventions in New York each summer and got to interview everyone from Jack Kirby to William Gaines. Inspired by these trips, we separately made our way to New York City in the late 1970s. Seth had gone there to be a film-maker studying at NYU and I came a year later based on an animation job offer. Neither ever materialized and we both found ourselves at Pratt Institute in the late 1970s. We were still fans of comics and had become serious about creating them, but there were few venues to get our work published. The undergrounds were mostly gone and the alternative movement didn’t exist yet. Since we’d done zines, the idea of self-publishing wasn’t remote. Beyond publishing our own work we also wanted to print work that moved us — much of it was on the street posted on walls and lampposts. It was work that was talking about our reality in 1979 with a hostage crisis in Iran, the Cold War in full swing and a B-actor about to have his itchy trigger-finger on the nuclear launch button.
Seth Tobocman: There was no place for an intelligent comic book artist to get published back in 1979. So it was inevitable that we self publish.
I think what spurred me to make a political comic book was the Iran Hostage crisis. I knew a lot of Iranian students who were at school with me. So I knew about how the Shah of Iran was put in by the US and how my Iranian friends were afraid of the Savak, the Iranian secret police, even while walking around NYC. So when the Shah fell and Iranians took over the US embassy, I understood why they did that. But for many Americans this was an outrage, like 9/11, and there was this wave of patriotic hysteria. So I felt, if all these ignorant people can express themselves, so could I. I decided to throw my hat in the ring.
Publishing a single issue is an accomplishment in and of itself, but what pushed you to turn it into a series? How did it become an ongoing anthology?
Tobocman: Growing up in the 1970s it seemed like any time you found something cool, you immediately discovered that it was over. It was very disheartening. So I didn’t want to add to that big pile of negativity by making yet another thing that blew over. What has also made it continue is that wave after wave of younger artists has come to the book. Today there are people working on it who were born the year we started.
Kuper: We were presented with [the subject matter] everyday. We felt desperate to communicate the things we were seeing in the world around us and the things we were experiencing directly and we were not alone. Issue after issue more people joined the magazine. Every time I thought I could find other venues that served a similar purpose I discovered catches. Either they wanted to censor the ideas, or simply couldn’t devote the space for a full-length piece. Really for the first decade or so that we were publishing “WW3,” interest in comics — especially with political subject matter — was near zero.
You’re both busy people doing a diverse amount of work, but you both continue to contribute to and edit issues of the anthology. Why?
Tobocman: There is no place where I am so free to express myself. I just did a pretty honest piece describing my mother’s death, with all the ugliness of a hospital room included, for the latest issue of “WW3.” I don’t have anyone telling me I can’t do that here. Yes, I could find a publisher for that at some point, but that takes a lot of negotiation, and meanwhile the idea is getting old in my head.
Kuper: “WW3” remains one of the very few venues that provides complete freedom of expression. At critical points like after 9/11 no other publication was willing to touch the subjects we wanted to discuss — like the stupidity of our rush to war in Iraq. When I lived in Oaxaca, Mexico during a teachers’ strike, there was no other publication willing to give me the space to tell the full story. This is true for many of the contributors including artists from places like Egypt. I also feel like we are still relatively unknown and doing this new anthology was a way of codifying “WW3’s” history and the history we’ve spent the last 35 years writing and drawing about.
At what point-assuming there was one-did you begin to see “WW3” as something bigger than the two of you?
Kuper: When we heard from people around the world who had somehow found copies, when people joined the magazine who had seen it in a record store in another state and were inspired to move to New York and do comics, and when a teenager came up and said “I grew up reading ‘WW3’ — my mom showed it to me!”
Tobocman: I always wanted it to be bigger than me. I wanted it to be a collective, and part of a wider movement that encompassed both art and politics. But in the ’80s that often felt like wishful thinking. To me, the moment when my hopes began to be realized was the 1988 Tompkins Square riot and the wave of protest that grew out of it, because that was the first movement in which my generation of activists, and artists was in the lead.
In 1988 the city tried to impose a midnight curfew on Tompkins Park in New York’s Lower East Side. Such a curfew targeted several groups of people. Young people who liked to hang out late, long time area residents who sort of viewed the park as their back yard, and homeless people who slept in the park. Resistance to this curfew resulted in several nights of rioting. Large numbers of police came into the neighborhood to try to enforce the curfew. The cops wound up attacking everyone who was on the street. But after several rough nights, the bad publicity from video of cops attacking bystanders embarrassed the city into lifting the curfew. A movement of locally based radicals was born out of these riots. This movement fought the city over issues of housing, homelessness and police brutality. There was a very deep connection between “World War 3 Illustrated” and this scene.
Which comics are you most proud of being involved with during your tenure with “WW3?” You can choose whatever criteria you want, but what are a few stories that stand out?
Tobocman: I’m very proud that so many of the early graphics by “World War 3” artists got picked up by political movements to be used on flyers and posters. With regard to my own work, that would be the “Why are Apartments Expensive?” series that describes the causes of gentrification. There were a couple of years when I saw that reprinted everywhere. More recently, a young cartoonist named Ethan Heitner put us in touch with comic book artists in Egypt and Lebanon who now have work in the magazine. We are one of the few English Language magazines carrying these guys.
Kuper: In the new anthology we published a color piece by James Romberger called “Jesus in Hell” He brought that to us in about 1984 and we ran it in black and white –which was all we could afford. We’ve always wanted to see it in full color and it finally happened after thirty years! Artists like Mac McGill whose amazing work may have never seen the light of day but for “WW3” and Sabrina Jones who has gone on to have a full-blown career as a graphic novelist, thanks in part to the opportunities the magazine provided for her growth. Really, for all of us, “WW3” has been a place to experiment and interact with other artists, which has made everyone’s work that much better.
Talk a little about this anniversary collection. What did you want to do and how did you end up at PM Press?
Kuper: We wanted to put together a collection that showed off great examples of what we’ve been doing over the years — work that demonstrated the possibilities of comics as a medium for political and personal expression. Hopefully we’ve created a book that winds up in schools and libraries so we reach a whole new audience into the future. We first assembled the book back in 2008 — Abrams had expressed ongoing interest and we hoped to have it out to coincide with a thirtieth anniversary retrospective that we mounted at a gallery in New York called “Exit Art.” With the crash the publishing industry was in a shambles and the idea of a 320 page full-color book of political comics was next to impossible. (Actually a French publisher stepped up with interest and will do it next year.) I had begun working with PM in 2009 and they not only said they wanted to do the book, but that it could be hardcover. When they saw the bill for the collection though, they realize it was over their heads, so we agreed to do a Kickstarter campaign to help them with the costs, which happily exceeded expectations.
Tobocman: I’m glad that there is an anniversary anthology, but I’m even more glad that there is an anniversary. For me, the magazine is what matters. I am glad it’s still coming out.
An answer to a question you really didn’t ask, “What matters to me about this?” — it isn’t the anthology or even the magazine or any of my own artwork. What matters is that I see a lot of young cartoonists now using comics in a way that was very rare thirty years ago. To talk about social change in a very practical and direct way. So this is a new language, now spoken by many people but once spoken only by a few. So I think this magazine has been part of bringing that language into existence. I think we did that. I hope it has a positive effect.
Peter, you have another book coming out from PM Press at the same time. People might remember “The System” which came out from Vertigo in the nineties as part of their short-lived Vertigo Verite sub-imprint.
Kuper: “The System” was a remarkable fluke. Vertigo hired an editor named Lou Stathis and encouraged him to bring in new and different projects. I had worked with him for years at every other magazine he’d been with and he asked if I had any ideas. “The System” had been percolating for about 8 years and it flew. I was really trying to push the boundaries of the form, so I did the whole book in stencils and spray paint (a medium that Seth first introduced me to), chose real-world themes and made it wordless. I wanted people who assumed comics — especially coming from a mainstream publisher — had to have word balloons and be in a certain style, would be forced to reconsider their assumptions. Right after it was published, sad to say, Lou died and the door on Vertigo slammed shut again. This is among my favorite projects and I was distressed that it had been out of print for 15 years so many people had never seen it. PM was up for not only getting it back in print, but also doing it as a larger hardcover that I redesigned. By the way, “The System” was the work that “MAD Magazine” saw that led them to ask me to try out for “Spy vs. Spy,” which I’ve now done for 17 years.