World War 3 Illustrated (WW3I) is North America’s longest-running comic anthology around the themes of social commentary and journalism, run by a volunteer collective of political activists and artists, and founded by Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman in 1979. It has now released its #51 issue, ‘The World We Are Fighting For’, including the works of Steve Brodner, Sue Coe, Ethan Heitner, Sandy Jimenez, Ben Katchor, Liniers, Mac McGill, Courtney Menard, Rebecca Migdal, José Muñoz and Mohammad Sabaaneh, between others. And the history of how it came to be is one intertwined with the history of its collaborators and editors.
Peter Kuper’s one has run through pages of Time Magazine, Newsweek, The New York Times and Mad Magazine (one of his early inspirations and the home of his comic strip ‘Spy vs Spy’), and he has adapted to comics the writings of Franz Kafka on Kafkaesque: Fourteen Stories and Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. Some of his other graphic novels include The System and Ruins, and he is one of the curators behind the daily political art project OppArt on The Nation. And our own reporter Duna had the luck of sitting with him few days after the election results to talk about politics in comics, inspirations and reaching out through different art-styles and techniques, and nothing less than a visual history of comic books (and especially political comic books) done with an accompanying slideshow of images that date from way beyond in time till new just released work. You can watch the full video at the end of this article.
To start his talk, Peter tackles down the various ways in which visual sequential representation of stories has shaped cultures, from Christian stained glass art to Diego Rivera’s murals, going ahead on time to meet the history of political cartoons from Honoré Damier to The Masses to Simplicissimus, and underground comics like The People’s Comics. As he reflects on all these influences, the weight of real life issues that have surrounded him takes a central place within both personal and political history: “Growing up I really wanted to do happy art. Unfortunately there were certain circumstances, like say the Vietnam War, that influenced the direction that my work took” as he tells of the way WW3I was born, “my friend Seth Tobocman and I moved from Cleveland, Ohio, to New York City, and we wanted to do political comics, but there was no outlet for them because the underground comic scene had died. They used to be distributed through record stores and head shops that got shot down during the war on drugs. Ronald Reagan was coming to office, promoting the Cold War with Russia, and we were very scared of a nuclear war (…) and because of this fear we had, the title ‘World War 3 Illustrated’ seemed like it would be appropriate for our magazine.”
The magazine has felt especially pressing in times where some political events found little to no coverage, like Peter tells, “many of us experienced 9/11, and there was a time there was really a big shutdown with what you could talk about in the media”. The alternative resources of work done by and for political artists, and the importance of underground comics, alongside the community-focused way of editing a magazine where people grow together (both politically and artistically), make the center of both the history of the publication and Peter’s ideas.
He talks about WW3I as an “umbrella that we can stand under together”, and the latest issue is filled with umbrella materials, like some hope for the future or some frontal responses to Trump’s administration and pressing issues like police violence or climate change (which is the central theme of the piece from Peter, ‘Vanishing Act’), all of them under one simple goal for the magazine: “people using art to express their personal experiences”.
When we get to his art, it goes over many themes like autobiography, adaptations, humor and mostly social commentary (he even took the exact words of a evangelical preacher saying “the sinners are gonna stand or die” on a Reagan’s support sermon and flipped them visually to infuse irony on WW3I‘s ‘Rapture’).
His art is also characterized by a multi-layered style and variety of mediums of it, which started with comics with stencils and spray paint in the 80s, and has moved through collage, charcoal, sketches style and German expressionism, among others. It was this last style that was demanded for fellow Jewish creator Franz Kafka’s adaptation, which felt natural to do from Peter’s perspective: “It was much like he was whispering in my ear”.
Peter Kuper took this call to reflect on how Kafka’s stories resonate with the world of today and the stresses we live under. His adaptations are not simply recreations of the text, but they envision where these unfair and oppressive situations Kafka describes are now happening. From pointing out the themes of homelessness in ‘The Trees’, to modern eating disorders through ‘Hunger Artist’ and putting a black man as the protagonist on ‘Before The Law’ as a story about “any oppressed group trying to get justice” reimagined through civil rights’ glasses.
Peter connects with the anxieties, fears and very real harsh reality going through all these stories, but also with the humour and its value as art: “I read that Kafka used to laugh out loud when he read his stories to friends (…) there’s so much humanity when you laugh. Even, y’know, there’s humour in a concentration camp, someone’s gonna make a joke, even at the darkest points in your existance, that can save your life.”
See the whole video with slideshow and an extended talk of everything exposed here:
Peter Kuper On ‘World War 3 Illustrated’, Politics, Humor and Community Through Comics
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