Comix Against The War

Paul Buhle Apr 30, 2006

Mixed Signals, A Counter-Recruitment Tool In Comic Book Form
By Sabrina Jones

Let’s start out by saying this is the best weapon in the visual arsenal of the struggle against the economic conscription into the military of young men and women sent off to the Middle East. It packs a visual wallop, it is hugely attractive, and permission is readily granted for noncommercial use. You forget for a moment, when looking at its political value, that it is a real work of art. Then you find yourself looking at the flowing lines, and you remember that serious art, important art, can sometimes be the best political convincer.

Antiwar, anti-draft cartooning goes a long way back and has never been without risk. A series of famous Masses magazine drawings published between 1916 and 1918 got the magazine suppressed and its editors and artists put on trial. Wobbly labor organizer Joe Hill had, of course, been railroaded into a murder conviction and executed in Salt Lake City a few years earlier. The prevalence of youth culture provided a measure of protection for the anti-draft, anti-war artists of the 1960s and 1970s. And throughout this history, there’s never been a comic book solely devoted to opposing conscription or enlistment.

Into this outlaw history comes the extraordinary talent of Sabrina Jones. A native Philadelphian, Jones studied art at Pratt Institute and illustration at the School of Visual Arts. Matisse, Van Gogh and Picasso caught her attention, because their use of motion literally swept aside the staidness of earlier painting styles. Figurative painting was also making a comeback between the 1960s and 1980s, after a spell of Abstract Expressionism (Henry Luce called it “Free Enterprise Art”) dominated the Cold War galleries.

Then something really interesting happened to political art: The combination of the contemporary social movements, underground comix and the feminist movement, made this painter, to her surprise, into a cartoonist.

Jones ran into the then-fledgling World War 3 Illustrated crowd, with talented hotheads like Seth Tobocman and Peter Kuper setting the pace, but also opening up pages to new talent. She took the plunge and never looked back, editing as well as writing/drawing for World War 3, the patient, steady work of keeping the first sustained gallery of radical comic art across the decades and across social issues from gentrification to militarization, abortion rights to political repression.

There’s another side to Jones, the day-worker and ardent unionist of United Scenic Artists Local 829, laborers in theater, film and TV set-designs. And yet another, the editor of the Girltalk anthology of women’s autobiographical comics, not to mention her freelance work in both illustration and comics for publications ranging from the New York Times to Legal Action Comics.

The Jones of Mixed Signals seems to me the political genius of the World War 3 crowd boiled down into a burningly clear narrative. Jones has put aside self-conscious artistic flourishes, but not the flow of the line that owes its sources to the artistic breakthroughs of a century ago, from Europe to Greenwich Village.

Her protagonist of the first story, Josh of “Josh Signs Up,” is a blue-collar kid without a future that he can grasp; the military looks good for a moment, because he convinces himself, after a meeting with a friendly-appearing recruiter, that he can recapture pride in himself and from his family. They lie to him about the choices he’s going to have when he signs up, and Jones spells out over several pages just what he’s in for.

Her second story, “Tony’s American Dream,” is that of an immigrant kid who needs help for college tuition. The last, “Gloria: an Attack of Conscience,” is of an African-American in Iraq, learning the tough lessons about an inhuman system, firsthand.

There’s more here, a dozen lessons on each page, spelled out so clearly that anyone who can read will get the message. Get some of these comics, find a way to put them in the hands of the young men and women who need them. This art marks the way forward.

Paul Buhle has written or edited 27 books on the history of radicalism.

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