(World War 3 Illustrated through AK Books, 2019)
For decades, I’ve been an admirer (and sometime collaborator) of World War 3 Illustrated, the lively voice of unapologetic lefties co-founded by master comic artists Seth Tobocman and Peter Kuper. Its impassioned messages and unruly artworks have nurtured a vast number of younger comic artists since 1979. (My own brief and failed career as a comic artist—Lucy the Lip, featuring heroine Polly Tickle—never made it to WW3 or to the street corners where I envisioned it.) Comic books and those upgraded to “graphic novels” are great communicators for those who go beyond or around academia, theory, and the commercial, or “mainstream” art worlds. Unashamedly populist in the classic sense, they offer outreach to those who can tear themselves away from screens. WW3 has lasted all this time because it is so genuinely committed to social justice and communicates with such gusto.
In 1992 they published Herstories, in 1999 Female Complaints, and in 2000 Bitchcraft. So it was about time for Shameless Feminists. The editors boast that almost half of its around 50 contributors are new to WW3. The artists come mostly from the New York City area, but also from California, Florida, Illinois, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, as well as from Indonesia, Italy, Holland, Mexico, and Spain. A pretty impressive roster. This is not your grandmother’s comic book like the ones I read so avidly as a kid in the early 1940s. Nor is it your mother’s mostly separatist enterprise, since one member of the editorial collective is a totally trustworthy and talented man.
As veteran WW3 artist Sabrina Jones writes in the introduction, “Feminism is back, and it’s hot.” That of course is heartwarming, though the issues are still all too familiar. Over the 50 years between now and 1970, when I realized I was a feminist and it changed my life, I often run into younger women who say they don’t call themselves the F-word but they stand up for themselves. My reply is always that feminists stand up for all women.
Autobiography has long been a powerful fertilizer for women’s art, and I suspect that many of the stories told in Shameless Feminists are “creative nonfiction.” It is full of tales of lonely, talented, ignored women coming into their own through community support. A touching (and non-fictional) story from World War II Italy by Isabella Bannerman makes the same point in a historical context. “Pinned” by Ellen Lindner and Joanne Starer describes a woman wrestler wrestling with male dominance and her own accomplishments. It ends: “I have never gotten credit or monetary compensation for anything I contributed to Power Pro… But I learned my own value.” This is the message of Shameless Feminists.
Many of these strips are by and about young women (starting at middle school), but the editors can’t be accused of ageism. As a grandma and a distant member of GRR! (Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights!, founded by Julia Kahrl in Georgetown, Maine), I welcomed Regina Silvers’s “GG and the Grannies,” a beautifully drawn account of the Granny Peace Brigade as told to a receptive grandson. On the back cover a whitehaired Trina Robbins, the first woman to draw Wonder Woman, is featured with a maybe first-grade recruit dressed fit to take on the future—“Wonders Never Cease!”
Subjects range across the spectrum, with rape and other violences against women leading. In most pieces, justifiable anger (as opposed to mindless rage) is the dominant emotion, and I’m glad to see it. Rebecca Migdal’s innovative use of animal vignettes paired with messages from domestic violence survivors makes her “Intimate Partner Violence Escape Room” particularly effective. Lauren Weinstein’s “Mother, Artists, Capitalism” from her series Normel Person (in childish handwriting) begins: “To accept mothers as artists is to fight capitalism!” In the forefront are classic complaints like Jessica Sturdivant’s piece on the hassles of pumping breastmilk in the workplace and Monica Johnson’s “Riding For Two,” about being offered and denied seats in the subway when pregnant. This one brought back 56-year-old memories for me. Once racing for a rare cab ride around nine months, I was beaten out by a guy who clearly felt his business was more important than mine.
Among the more visually striking strips is Lauren Simkin Berke’s “I’m Worried,” stark black and gray grids exploring anxieties about sex, gender, and trans inclusivity. Among them: “I worry people are so focused on naming gender, their gender, or the gender of others that they forget to interact with each other in a fully authentic manner.” The introductory line in Sandy Jimenez’s “Partners 6ix,” on the deep friendship between a cis woman and a trans woman (and a subplot about class and generational lack of communication), is “Everyone is called something in America.” Another complex piece is Charly Shooster’s “Cutting,” which juxtaposes Yoko Ono’s controversial 1964 proto-feminist performance piece with more personal sexual dilemmas and the WWII destruction of Japan.
The plural feminisms is de rigueur these days of intersectional aspirations, but it’s always been true. In the case of Shameless Feminists, anger, friendship, reconciliation, and women finding themselves are frequent subjects. Cliches abound, but they are honest and deeply felt. Maybe that’s what is making feminism hot for new generations. Mine worked hard to bring women’s ignored experiences, from motherhood to violence, from menstruation to education, fashion to fascism, society to socialism, into public view. Once we thought we’d succeeded (ha!), we heretics worked to complicate our messages. Well, we provided a fertile ground for our descendants anyway. And this is definitely not The End. From Arundhati Roy: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”