Cartoonist Seth Tobocman on Art, Activism and Advice in the Age of Trump

Cartoonist Seth Tobocman co-founded "World War 3 Illustrated," and remains one of the voices behind the influential anthology of politically driven art that he and Peter Kuper launched in 1979. The 47th issue of the anthology was released in November, and 2016 also marked the publication of two other books by Tobocman: His first graphic novel, “War in the Neighborhood,” was republished after being out of print for years; a fictional account of the squatters movement in Manhattan in the 1980s. Tobocman’s second graphic novel was published over the summer, titled, "Len, A Lawyer in History: A Graphic Biography of Radical Attorney Leonard Weinglass."

The two books are important for the events that they chronicle and remain vital reading as both detail the incremental, hard-fought work of political activism. Tobocman has been an artist and an activist for his entire life and in the aftermath of November's US presidential election, Tobocman spoke to CBR about art and activism, climate change, the evolution of his art style, art history and his thoughts on President Donald J. Trump, and the work ahead. People may not always agree with Tobocman’s politics or his approach, but at the heart of his work is this idea: "The most radical thing is to explain the process by which things work."

CBR: Seth, we spoke a couple years back about the “World War 3 Illustrated” anniversary collection, but I hadn't read your book “War in the Neighborhood” until this new edition. Could you give a little context for the book and where it came from?

Seth Tobocman: We started out responding to the election of Ronald Reagan. That was this mind-blowing, life-changing experience for us. As 19 and 20 year olds we felt we had to do art that was political, we had to talk to masses of people, we had to acquire an accessible language that could allow us to reach out to people. We started our own magazine, "World War 3 Illustrated," and after about four years of fighting Reagan, we found that he was Teflon and almost anything you threw at him, he survived it. The Iran-Contra Scandal didn’t hurt him at all.

We started to say, "OK, we’re a minority. What can we do as a minority, as a small group of people, that is meaningful?" We started to look around at our own community and see what could we get involved with here on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that’s meaningful. There were a lot of issues that were very pressing in the neighborhood. We had the beginnings of gentrification. We had a real problem with drug-dealing. We had violent crime. We had violent police brutality, which was something that you really had to live in a community of color to really understand. White people back in the '80s did not know this was going on but everybody in the black community and the Puerto Rican community knew this was going on. So we started working around those issues in the community.

I got involved in the squatters movement, which was seizing abandoned buildings and renovating them to make affordable housing for people. I don’t use the word “affordable” in the way that the state used it where they can categorize almost any level as affordable. I mean that people could actually afford to live there. [Laughs] Of course, this was being done without cover of law. Webster’s dictionary definition of squatting is “without title or right.” We were a squatters movement. That very quickly came under attack. It came under attack culturally by changing the usage of public parks and spaces by saying people could not be there after midnight and then physically under attack by attempts to evict the buildings. For about three or four years, there were riots every couple months on the Lower East Side.

I became a house member at a squat called Umbrella House. Although I did not give up my rent-stabilized apartment, which was controversial to some people. I defended that squat against an eviction attempt with several other people. I got very involved in squat defense. I was arrested about 20 times. I got my nose broken by the cops. I also got my nose broken by another activist in a fist fight. It was a very complex, difficult scene organizing all those people. There were a lot of cultural differences, there were a lot of political differences. We didn’t always get along with each other. In the end I decided to give up my key to Umbrella House and move back into my apartment and work on my own artwork. That was when I decided to make “War in the Neighborhood.” I felt I had a pretty significant life experience. I’m not normally an autobiographical cartoonist, but I felt I’d been involved in something significant enough that it ought to be recorded.

It was more significant than I realized because a few years after I began writing the book, 13 squats in the Lower East Side were legalized and are now the property of the people who live in them. They had gone from being squatters to homeowners. It was, in fact, an effective movement for some people. Although it sure took a lot out of everybody. That was the basis for “War in the Neighborhood.” Between the amount of time it took to live it and the amount of time it took to draw it, it was about 10 years of my life. It’s probably the most extensive project I’ve ever worked on and maybe the most extensive project I ever will work on.

As someone younger who grew up in the 1990s and did not grow up in New York City, I became aware of this like many others did, because of the musical “Rent.”

There were always a lot of artists and musicians in the squats. Considering how many artists there were, I’m still surprised how few graphic novels there are in print about the squatters community on the Lower East Side. I knew eight different cartoonists or visual artists who were pretty close to being cartoonists who lived in those buildings. And tons of musicians. This was the Lower East Side and particularly in the '70s and '80s -- more than now -- there was a feeling you had to go to either New York or San Francisco or LA if you wanted to be an artist. There was a lot of music that came out of that scene. Missing Foundation was a very politically active band and had a very important role in the 1988 riots.

That was the Tompkins Square Park Riot?

Yes. Well, the 1988 Tompkins Square Park Riot. There was one in ’88, several in ’89, and definitely one in ’91. There was more than one Tompkins Square Park Riot.

And of course the famous 1874 Tompkins Square Park Riot, which was an important moment in the workers movement.

There you go!

“War in the Neighborhood” was your first graphic novel, but your second, “Len,” came out a few months which is about the lawyer and activist Leonard Weinglass.

“Len” is a very different sort of project, but the tie-in is the Yippies. The Yippies had very important ideas. I think in a lot of ways they’re not understood in terms of their ideas. They’re understood in terms of style of clothing, taste for certain drugs, a type of theatrical style of politics, but they’re not really understood for having a body of ideas. The idea the Yippies had is that it’s possible for people to leave the society and become a different society. That it’s possible for people to essentially secede from contemporary industrial society and become a counter culture. That’s an important idea whether you agree with that idea or not. It was a central idea to the movement that happened in Tompkins Square Park in the '80s. Most people would not have wanted to call themselves Yippies or be identified with the Yippies, but they did a lot of similar things. Did you read Hakim Bey’s “Temporary Autonomous Zones?” It was a very popular political book and it informed the anti-globalization movement and Burning Man and other things, but the idea of the Temporary Autonomous Zone is a very sophisticated way of describing Abbie Hoffman’s Festival of Life. I thought we invented the slogan “it’s our fucking park” in 1988. I thought I saw the invention of that slogan by Gerald Wade and Uncle Don Yippie on the streets of Manhattan, but in fact that slogan goes all the way back to Lincoln Park in 1968. At the same time, the yippies had a lot of problems. I wouldn’t want to imitate the Yippies, but there are certain ideas that are important.

Besides the Yippies, I would argue that the heart of both books is depicting not just the idea of activism, but the work of activism.

Activism is something you do -- not some abstraction or some ideal. There are a lot of books on politics, but very few of those books give you much information about how to do politics. They give you information about theories, they give you information about ideals, and they give you information about history, but they don’t really deal with the brass tacks very much. I always felt at a loss for that information when I was younger. If I uncover that, I want to put that in my work. I was very interested in the actual work Leonard did with his clients and the actual work his clients did in the neighborhoods. I thought that was really important to describe that process. Also to describe the process by which the courts work, the process by which the police work, the process by which the prison system works.

We did a lot of work in the past few years with Magdy El-Shafee, who’s the author of “Metro,” which is considered to be the first Arab language graphic novel. It was banned under Mubarak and when I interviewed Magdy I asked him what was it that got the book banned? According to Magdy it was that he described a situation -- a fictional situation -- in which the ruling party paid local thugs to sexually assault protestors. Even though this was a fictional piece, Magdy said that they were upset because they were actually doing that.

The most radical thing is to explain the process by which things work. How things actually happen. Because people don’t have that information. Look, you can make your own value judgments about things. I can tell you for 50 years that you should be for this and against that, and if you don’t believe that, you’re not going to believe that. If I let you know how things work, you can make use of that for whatever it is you want to do.

Before “War in the Neighborhood” had you mostly done shorter work?

When I started out, I wanted to be able to work fast and I wanted to be able to do work for whatever was coming up. I was very impressed with Keith Haring and with the mural art in the Sandinista period in Nicaragua where a faceless simplified figure represented the masses. I tried to do a kind of iconic simple art that I could produce very quickly. I was also very impressed with Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. They had a very stylized figure and because they had a very stylized figure, they could produce work very quickly and get whatever they needed to get out. Most of the work in my book “Survive” is from the '80s and is that style of work.

In ’89-90, I had real experiences with people and people are complex. People are not stick figures, people are not Keith Haring simplifications, they are complicated. I started to look at the idea of a more traditionally representational style that could represent these more complex stories with characters with individual faces and individual stories. I was also very impressed, I should say, by "Watchmen" and somewhat impressed by "V for Vendetta" and with the fact that you could do a somewhat radical view of the world in a traditional narrative style. I said, OK, let me try and tell this story of the people I know and the things I’ve seen in a traditional narrative style where people have faces where you have details on buildings and structures. Where I go out and get massive photo reference, where I go out with a sketchpad and have people model for me, and interview with them with tape recorders and get their sides of the story. This level of detail that isn’t in my eighties work. I tried to develop a more conventional but also more thorough narrative style rather than a kind of modernist simplified approach.

I still don’t know which is actually better. I think the stuff from the '80s works really well. But I wanted to expand what I could do. “War in the Neighborhood” was my attempt to do that and “Len,” in that sense, grows out of “War in the Neighborhood.”

These two books are the two big projects of your career to date.

They are. I think I’ll do more. It’s not just that they’re long but they’re very journalistic. They involved studying a situation and getting as much information both visually and textually as possible about that situation.

When we were setting this up, you mentioned that you were going to be at anti-Trump protests in New York. Having lived through the '80s and opposed Reagan, what’s your take on what you’re seeing happening on the ground right now?

The worst thing about the '80s was not Reagan. The worst thing about the '80s was how many people went along with it even though they knew it was terrible. They felt there was nothing you could do about it. They felt that nobody would listen to them if they criticized. In the end I think they began to feel that it was stupid to criticize because it wasn’t going to produce anything. They became acquiescent and conformist. There were a lot of people who developed a kind of ironic detachment. It was very hard to get anything going in the '80s. I don’t see that happening right now. I see that people have become mobilized very quickly to oppose what’s going on. Younger people are very politicized. They’re not apathetic. They’re not giving up. I see that as a very positive difference. That people are going to fight.

On the other hand I should also say that we’re very far along in a crisis already. We’ve got the ocean washing up on our front step. We have an economic crisis all over the country that has been present since the beginning of the century. We have had an enormous expansion of the power of the state. The things that Nixon did that were illegal, a lot of them are now being done all the time. Like targeted assassinations by the government. Obama insisted on continuing to have that power and now that power is being handed over to Trump. That’s why we were so against it. I don’t care how much you like the guy, the government should not have the right to kill somebody without putting them on trial. We have a government that has reserved the right to launch a drone at anyone they damn well feel like. And now it’s Trump who gets to make that decision and that’s scary.

This is a rough situation and I’ve seen all kinds of people really getting very upset about it. My partner and I are constantly hearing from people saying, "How can I get involved, what can I do?" They’re very panicked by this -- which they should be. Hopefully people can mobilize against some of this and prevent the worst possible outcomes.

What do you think of the role of the artist in terms of activism?

Let me start by saying that I did not adopt art or adopt comics because I thought it was a good political tool. I have been drawing comics since I was in what is now called middle school and what we called junior high school. There are maybe three years of my life when I wasn’t drawing. I tried to stop drawing and do something else and I was extremely depressed when I did that and much happier when I went back to it. So I didn’t adopt this as a tool. I’ve always had some awareness of politics because I grew up in a family where politics was discussed. My father was conservative, but he was an intelligent conservative and he encouraged us to argue with him, which I give him credit for. I was aware of politics as an important area of life to be explored and understood.

Any human activity if it’s central to their survival, it’s going to show up in their art. I mean the cave paintings were about hunting because people were hunting. If people are struggling with their environmental situation or political situation or class situation, then art is going to be produced that reflects that. That’s natural; that’s normal. Art goes hand in hand with a belief system and a belief system goes hand in hand with a set of practices. Art history tries to separate the Michelangelo painting from the Sistine Chapel upon which it is painted. I think that’s false. One of the things that really blew my mind traveling to Europe was being in Ravenna and seeing paintings that had been in my art history books in churches and seeing little old ladies lighting candles in front of those paintings. I realized that painting was for that little old lady to light a candle in front of -- it wasn’t painted for a bunch of art critics to sit around talking about the anatomy. It had an actual social function. There’s a sense in which the fine art world has kind of damaged art by removing it from its social function and saying its social function was irrelevant. That art existed by itself. I don’t think it does.

I feel like my art is very tribal in a sense. For certain people, these symbols are important. I realize for other people they aren’t, and that’s OK with me. I am not having a heart attack that I am not rich and famous. The art that I’ve done has a function in the lives of certain people; they’ve told me so. That’s a great thing to hear. That somebody picked up your magazine and that influenced decisions that they made and they carried that through in their own life. They gave that art meaning. They made my art better by expanding on that with something they did. They improved my work by doing that. That’s the way I look at it. When I was a kid was I was a big comics fan and I would go to comic book conventions and talk to professional comic book artists. Some of them would be very nice but some of them would be very contemptuous of people who loved their art. I started to think, if you think I’m stupid for liking your art, maybe I am. Maybe you’re telling me that your art isn’t very good. So it means a lot to me that when I meet someone who likes my art, they’re usually an amazing person doing really interesting things. There might not be a million of them, but the people I meet are really high quality people. They’re making films, they’re doing organizing, they’re active in their communities. I’m like, wow, these are my fans. I should be reading books by them.

"World War 3 Illustrated" #47 cover

There’s a new issue of “World War 3 Illustrated” out. What’s in this new issue?

We started this issue a year ago with our focus on climate change. We’d all been really impressed with the great climate march in New York City. As we were working on it, a lot of other things came up. The Black Lives Matter movement came up and if you studied our work, you know that we’ve always had a very strong position on police brutality. Our position on police brutality seemed weird to people in the '80s and now seems to be a position everyone has. We recognized police brutality, we knew it was an important issue, we did art to protest police brutality. The Black Lives Matter movement made a lot of sense to us. As we were working on environmental issues, fossil fuel infrastructure issues, we became aware there was a lot of racism involved in those issues. For instance people don’t want a pipeline next to their house, but that’s going to mean that oil is going to travel on trains. Where are those trains going to go? Through the part of your town where there are railroad tracks. You have these explosive trains full of fossil fuels going through low-income communities. They’re poisonous to be next to and they often blown up and kill people. What happened at Standing Rock really clinched it for us in terms of our analysis.

I’ve been a part of the anti-fracking movement and I’ve been a part of a number of protests where people were arrested because they were trying to block the building of a pipeline. All of what I’ve seen has been very civil and very respectful. Even the police and the court system were respectful of those people and their concerns and didn’t abuse them. Then I see the photographs and films of the dogs at Standing Rock with human blood on their teeth. Those Native American people were not doing anything different than people all over the country who don’t want a really toxic structure built in their backyard were doing. Middle class white people are allowed to object to that and that’s seen as being a good citizen, that you don’t want something poisonous on your block, but if Native American people do that, that’s some kind of horrible uprising that’s got to be put down with brute force.

I think that clinched it. The issue we produced deals with the environment but it deals with the environment through the lens of environmental racism. Also I went to Cleveland and Philadelphia and did sketches of the protest activities outside of both conventions. Steve Brodner also did some material about Trump, so did Peter Kuper and we have a really nice piece from Robbie Conal. I’m really proud of this issue. Peter Kuper did a great job helping me edit it. I owe a lot to Peter on this issue.

We have a story written by Mumia Abu-Jamal, who’s written for us a lot over the years. Usually he illustrated his own stuff and his drawing style is amateur while his writing is superlative, of course. Mumia is now very physically ill in prison and he can’t really draw anymore so I was going to draw the Mumia piece and Pete said, no, you’ve got to get Sue Coe. He was right. She did an amazing job on it. It’s some of the best work Sue has ever done in my opinion. I’m really happy with this issue.

Donald Trump art by Seth Tobocman
Donald Trump art by Seth Tobocman.

I suppose we all know where you’ll start with the next issue.

It’s sort of inevitable, isn’t it? It writes itself at this moment. I mean I was hoping I would never have to say the words Donald Trump again. I guess that was naive of me.

I know Pete did cartoons about Trump a lot in the '80s and '90s. Peter saw Trump as a really important and dangerous political force. I have to admit I never did. I always though, "this guy’s a vaudeville act." Peter always saw that there was something about Trump that was really important and dangerous and he did a number of pieces on Trump and it was Peter who said, you’ve got to keep Trump in this issue because he’s really important. I’m really glad he said that.

Trump was a horrible figure in New York City politics. The kids who went to prison for the Central Park jogger incident have been found innocent after 17 years in prison. He helped put five kids away in order to make a name for himself and create a public spectacle and stoke people’s fear and to present himself as a protector of people. They were innocent. DNA evidence shows they were innocent. He still insists they’re guilty even though there’s DNA evidence that shows someone else did it. This guy is a scary, creepy guy and it’s unbelievable that he can be President. On the other hand we used to think that it was unbelievable that Reagan could be President. A lot of people thought it was unbelievable that Hitler could be chancellor of Germany. We’ve underestimated Mr. Trump, this is for sure.

The other thing about Trump is he stole a very important issue from the left, which is the de-industrialization of the Midwest. Which is something the real people on the left have been talking about forever, but the liberals abandoned this issue. The labor unions were the base of the Democratic party at the end of World War II. The Clintons abandoned that and I think it was a really terrible mistake. Just like they abandoned regulating the banks, which was a Depression-era legacy. That’s the result of what happened in the Reagan era, I would say. In the Reagan era people said, these conservatives are popular, there must be something to it. I was very disappointed with the Clintons when they came in. I didn’t vote for Bill Clinton the first time he ran for office. I voted third party in that election because I thought, we went through Reagan and this is what we got? He was so watered down, it was disturbing. I thought, this guy has absorbed too many attitudes of the Republicans.

I mean, Clinton did some good things, but he did some really damaging things. I think we’re still living with the legacy of those things, and I think that undermined the ability of the Democrats to hold onto the White House this year. In the piece I’m working on right now I take certain speeches by Bernie Sanders and certain speeches by Donald Trump and they say almost the same thing. It looks like the thing you did when you were in high school where you read some article and you rewrote it a little bit to make it “yours” to pass your test. The speeches he made in Ohio and in the Midwest and in Michigan are Bernie Sanders speeches. He was able to steal that issue because the Democrats did not defend the working class base of the Democratic party the way they should have. That’s a real problem. Hopefully through the process of struggling against Trump maybe new leadership will come up in the Democratic party who will not be so compromised.

Hopefully, all the people who are concerned about the political situation go from being concerned to being active in one way or another. Different people will do different things, but everyone can do something. It's when the population is engaged that the government starts to act as it should. That engagement is what I hope for and what I advocate in my art.

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