With the heartbreaking potential for war with Syria looming larger everyday I am regularly finding myself struggling with my perspective on things. The lottery system we are born into that is nationality, ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity means that there is almost always someone who has it much rougher than you. What you choose to do with this fact is a good determination of who you are as a person.
Obviously all pain and sadness is relative and, as it pertains to each individual, valid. I was heartbroken when my dog died earlier this year. It still pains me. In the global scheme of things (fuck it, even in the extremely local scheme of things) the death of a long lived and well loved dog is literally inconsequential. But to me it isn’t at all. Caring deeply about things that don’t really matter is the human experience I guess.
I left my decent paying but time consuming job in 2011 so that I could focus much more on writing comics along with my friend and cohort Patrick. Now both Patrick and myself come from the punk and hardcore communities. To a large part our lives spent in basements, vans, VFW halls, and shitty clubs has informed a good deal of who we are and what we believe up to this point, for better and for worse. I tend not to speak for Patrick for fear he will end up speaking for me, but I will say that when I entered into making comics it was with a strong desire to be a part of the comics community. In many ways now I am, and I’m extremely thankful for that. Maybe it’s the fact that I didn’t grow up in this community, maybe it’s a bad time to be in comics, or maybe I just haven’t found the right fit, but I don’t see the culture and community of comics offering me the same things that punk and hardcore always have. I could go on about all that but I am not here to bash comics. I love comics and the people who make them and support them. I just sometimes have a hard time figuring out why they matter.
One of the great inspiring moments in comics for me since I have been making them came from Syria though. Ali Farzat is probably the Arab world’s most prominent political cartoonist, often criticizing governments, police forces, and armies who prey on their own citizens. He is the head of Arab Cartoonist’s Association. His work has been published in dozens of languages, in countless magazines and newspapers. He was the publisher of popular Arabic satire magazine al-Domari until it was closed down. He received the Sakharov Prize for peace in 2011. Basically, he is a badass example of the power and importance of comics and cartooning around the world. In 2011, during the “Arab Spring”, Mr. Farzat’s work was often printed out and held up at protests in Syria to condemn Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. On August 25, 2011, forces loyal to president Assad pulled Mr. Farzat from his car, badly beating him, breaking both his hands, telling him he should never draw again, and finally leaving him unconscious in a ditch to die. He didn’t die though. He was found by passersby and taken to a hospital. It was reported at the time (although later aspersions were cast on the claim) that Mr. Farzat woke in the hospital, demanded a mirror, pen and paper, and, in direct defiance of the men who just tried to murder him, drew his own self portrait so the world could see his defiance.
I am not sure if he made the drawing or not and I don’t really care because the idea remains the same. A person who draws comics is a threat to governments, is an inspiration to people around the world, and is part of something so much bigger than just a person who draws comics. When Mr. Farzat left the hospital he immediately began working on political cartoons with renewed focus and vitriol. This is where my perspective comes into play. I spend a lot of time stressing out because this publisher won’t respond to my email, or that publisher hired someone who is far worse than me, or this journalist shat on my book. But none of that matters. At all. And that’s not just because people are being dragged from their cars and almost killed over comics. It’s because people are making comics that are important enough to warrant dragging them from their cars and almost killing them. People are making comics that are helping change the world.
My rambling point is I spend a lot of time reading comics. Some are brilliant, some are awful, most fall somewhere between. But I respect all of them (almost all of them) because I know the work and passion that went into getting them born into this world. When I read folks like Einser, Otomo, Spiegelman, Clowes, Ellis, Tezuka, Barry, Moore, Byrne, Sim, Morrison, Tardi, Pekar, Bendis, Bechdel, Kirby, Gaiman, Vaughan, Seth, or Brubaker it is overwhelming. Their work is equal parts the inspiration to stay up later, work harder, and be better as it the is nagging voice telling me to give up, stop trying, and recognize that there are always going to be people who runs laps around their peers. Most days I just want to be better, I want to contribute to the medium and elevate it in some small way. A great comic is a personal challenge.
Hearing Mr. Farzat’s story was the first time I wanted more though. Not just from myself, but from everyone. I wanted more from this whole thing we call a community, a medium, a business, and an art form. People out there are living and dying for comics, but more than that, their comics are worth living and dying for. I am not saying every book should be about overthrowing dictators, or exposing dirty cops, or fomenting revolution, or whatever. Make your book about magical fairies who are just like us, or a crazy new kind of bear, or a super hero in trouble for tax fraud, or a rapper who comes back from the dead to kill people, that’s all fine. Just make it matter. Don’t tow the line. Don’t aspire to be mediocre. Don’t play it safe. There’s not enough people reading comics or enough money being paid to make comics to make it worth making “safe” comics. The world is full of safe art. All of it sucks.
Most main stream comic creators were blessed enough to be born or live in countries where criticizing things isn’t likely to get you killed. Maybe for some that means it is less important to speak up and criticize things, but I don’t think it should. We have the privilege and perspective to see what other people are going through. Just because it doesn’t involve us directly doesn’t absolve us of our need to speak out and use our voices to say things that matter.
So I went to Three Kings Tattoo Shop in Brooklyn the other day and I got Jason Monroe to tattoo his own take on Mr. Farzat’s “self portrait” on my arm. It reminds me why I do this, why I am beyond lucky to be able to do this, and why I need to get over all the petty bullshit and make things worth making. Also, it’s an old guy in a hospital bed giving the finger, and that’s a pretty neat thing to always have on your body.
When asked why he continues to make political cartoons after his life was threatened, Mr Farzat said “I was born to be a cartoonist, to oppose, to have differences with regimes that do these bad things. This is what I do.” If that quote doesn’t inspire you to make better comics then I have no interest in reading your fucking comics.