A few days ago, I got a chance to talk to Seth Tobocman, the brain behind the comic magazine – World War 3 Illustrated. Of course I was nervous. I was going to talk to one of the most renowned graphic artists from America, the one who has championed many radical causes, whose comics delve into subjects that are real — be it political unrest, global warming or monetary crises. The interview was in relation to a visual demonstration he was going to conduct at the Rangoli Metro Arts Centre. The performance, he told me over the phone, was going to be based on the cultural concert (Cartoon Concert) method developed by cartoonist and illustrator, Vaughn Bode. Which meant that he would use comic strips and fuse them with PowerPoint slides and perform the text. And the themes would include “various issues of importance at the moment like the Palestinian conflict, global warming, social justice and homelessness in the USA, among others.”
During the conversation that went on for over an hour, he held forth on his stay in Bangalore, his comics, his comic creation process and the medium in general.
On life in Bangalore
Seth travelled to Bangalore over a month ago as part of the T.A.J Residency programme, a collaborative project between visual artists and gallerists. This gave him a chance to showcase his sketches on his upcoming comic book entitled A biography of Leonard Weinglass, an illustration of the life and works of a US criminal defense lawyer, and also interact with other artists from the country like Orijit Sen and Appupen. He also took part in a demonstration against rape that took place at Town Hall, a few weeks ago.
“The people in Bangalore are very fascinating. They did not hesitate to come up to me and talk about my work. For instance, two days back, I was drawing the street life around a temple at around 1 am.
Three boys came up to me and struck a conversation,” he says. Of particular interest to him is the traffic in the city. “Maybe I will plan a comic piece around my life in Bangalore, ” he says.
On his creative process
“I sometimes complete a piece overnight, that is if the deadlines are stringent. If not, it takes atleast a day or two for me to complete a page. I first think of a plot, then come upon a structure. An important aspect is the rhythm which is akin to that of poetry. A comic artist should also pay attention to the visual construction, representation, of how much you can extract from the plot.”
On art that stirs reactions
The political comic book ‘World War 3’ marked the start of his career as an artist. The book came to fruition in 1979 after he and his friend, Peter Kruper decided to self publish a book that became a beacon for anti war propaganda. “I grew up reading comics and was fascinated by them. But then, there came a point when I realised that all comics were similar, they didn’t have any new plotlines. This compelled us (Seth and Peter) to create our own comic book.” Over the years, the magazine evolved, becoming a series and encompassing more than just it’s initial premise which was ‘concern over nuclear war’.
Seth is of the belief that comics are a great way to communicate with absolutely anyone and hence tries his best to ensure his comic books highlight relevant subjects and highlight his social observations. “Comics are very simplistic in nature and easy to understand,” he notes. And hence, like World War 3, Seth has gone on to publish many other radical works like ‘Understanding the Crash’ — a meditation on the sub-mortgage crisis that crashed Wall Street, ‘You don’t have to f**k people over to survive’ which is an attack on the morality, politics and social conditions of the Reagan era. Then there’s ‘Disaster and Resistance’, describing the disastrous events of the 21st century: 9-11, wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine and many others. And all of his comics have one common goal, epitomising these very words that described the 43 edition of World War 3– “No idea should be unspeakable. No emotion can be forever repressed. No one is above criticism. But critique, speech, and expression, are only meaningful in relation to the goals of liberating humanity and preserving nature.”
On the future of comic books
Where does he see the comic industry heading towards in the next decade? He is sanguine as he answers, “It is a very interesting period for this medium. Back in America, I find a lot of artists from Kyro and Lebanon making interesting stuff. There is a whole new wave of comic expression which is only good for the industry.”
First appeared in The New Indian Express