With Leonard Rifas Pt.2: Maps and Webcomics and Cyberactivism

A re-blog from the archives of my regular column for Alltern8; Comicking.

Earlier in the week I spoke with Leonard Rifas, cartoonist and publisher behind EduComics, about language, comics and Second Life. You can read that here. This time around we continue our chat about relaying messages between the virtual and the local.

Andy Luke: Given that comics is slang for ‘maps’, perhaps a narrative told using Google Maps or the like might have potential.

Leonard Rifas: I had not heard “comics” used as a slang word for “maps” before. It reminds me that I had a piece in comics format published in the Journal of Geography in 1996, in which I described a method I had worked out for drawing world maps from memory.

As for how comics might blend with maps, I keep imagining finding a program someday that would allow me to automatically translate spreadsheets, databases and other kinds of information into virtual landscapes where characters could explore and have adventures.

My doctoral dissertation, The Dataforest: Tree Forms as Information Display Graphics, was my first try at playing with the idea of using virtual environments as information landscapes. Around the time I finished that project, the field of information visualization started to really take off, but I lacked the necessary skills in computer science or statistics or even sufficient skill as an artist to get in on it. As that field develops, the technology becomes cheaper and more available and trickles down to hobbyists, so I hope to build some of the data-dreamscapes I’ve been thinking of eventually. Actually, the problem holding me back has been lack of time more than lack of tools.

I think maps and comics can fit together in many ways. I’ve incorporated maps into my educational comic book stories since I started in the 1970s.

Above: from A Method for Sketching World Maps (ERIC-locked)

Below: All-Atomic Comics, 1976

All-Atomic_Comics_(1st_edition_front_cover)

AL: The potential of cyber-activism in the comics form: do you suppose this is something that brings new life to both?

LR: I think it can. I remember in 1985, hearing excited reports about how this rapidly approaching new information technology of the Internet would transform political organising. Now it would be hard for me to imagine living without it, and yet I feel the groups I participated in before the internet had arrived won bigger successes by going out in the streets and stopping traffic with our protests than the groups nowadays have achieved, with their daily click-here emailed petitions to our elected representatives. (I report that as my feeling. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places for internet organising success stories. Perhaps I’m making the mistake of looking to the left for my examples rather than looking to the right.)

I take back what I said about being unable to imagine life without the internet. Last summer I took a two week vacation during which the only keyboards I touched were ATMs. It turned out not to be hard at all…. as long as I’m on vacation.

AL: One of my favourite educational activist pieces is Mills and Ezquerra’s “Third World War” which ran in the British Crisis in the nineties. Do you have any favourite edu-activist or informational comics?

LR: I’d like to read that series. In common with many other people, I think Joe Sacco has done outstanding work with informational comics, including his recent Footnotes in Gaza
I have many favourite informational and activist cartoonists. I don’t write as many reviews as I’d like to, but you can see some of my opinions in back issues of The Comics Journal.

AL: Any chance of including a brief media list of what you’re currently reading?

LR: I can’t make it brief. I usually read many books at once. Today I bought a remaindered copy of The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh of Homer and read Wallace’s chapter, “A (Karl, not Groucho) Marxist in Springfield.” I also pre-ordered The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen, which I’ve been anticipating for decades. My bathroom reading for the last several months has been Willis Barnstone’s The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels Thomas, Mary, and Judas. I particularly appreciate how he exposes and explains the anti-Semitism in the New Testament. Mostly, though, for today’s reading I’ve been grading papers, which I enjoy.

AL: Watching and listening to?

In the background, I’m listening to Smashing Pumpkins: If All Goes Wrong. I often listen to folk music on web-radio: KBCS in nearby Bellevue, Washington and KPFA in Berkeley, California. I especially recommend Robbie Osman’s archived show “Across the Great Divide.”

Earlier today I watched Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street for the first time. I look forward to Alice in Wonderland.

AL: What are you eating at present?

LR: My wife is in Taiwan on business this week, so I had snacks instead of meals: lots of peanut butter and tomato open-faced sandwiches, (vegetarian) kim chee on tofu, “Craisins®” (dried cranberries), some handfuls of almonds and walnuts, apples, a bell pepper, Veggie Patties, some ibuprofen my doctor recommended for bursitis… basically anything handy and easy.

With Leonard Rifas. Pt.1: Korean War Comics, Second Life and Climate Change

A re-blog from the archives of my regular column for Alltern8; Comicking.

Leonard Rifas is partly responsible, with Project Gen, for the first distribution of Barefoot Gen in English translation. As a cartoonist with his EduComicsimprint and working for other publishers, he’s been responsible for All-Atomic Comics, Corporate Crime Comics, Tobacco Comics, Food First Comics, AIDS News and many others. I caught up with Leonard and posed a few questions to learn about his work.war-battles

Andy Luke: What work have you gotten on top of recently?

Leonard Rifas: My most recent work has centered on comic scholarship rather than cartooning. I’m currently updating my MA thesis on Korean War comic books for publication as my first scholarly book.

AL: And comics-wise?

LR: I haven’t drawn any pages since last November, when I contributed two pages to an art show I organized of Seattle-area cartoonists on the subject of climate change. What keeps me most busy has been teaching courses in introduction to film and introduction to comics at Seattle Central Community College.

AL: I noticed you gave a lecture via Second Life around this time last year.

LR: I got involved in the international comics conferences that meet in Second Life because its organizer, Beth Davies-Stofka, invited me. I enjoyed the conferences (despite the technical difficulties I had) because they combine a feeling of gathering together in an exotic location to share our work with the convenience of communicating over the web.

These conferences also have elements of a costume party, but my avatar (“Not Plutonian”) uses only the free options, so I was not much to look at.

I have been interested in virtual environments since the Human Interface Technology Laboratory began at the University of Washington in Seattle while I was a student there in the early 1990s. I continue to be interested in how such environments can become places to store, share and work with information.

I remain much more interested in the possibilities of such environments than in spending time in actual virtual environments. The only times I’ve visited Second Life have been connected with the comics scholarship conferences I participated in there.

not-plutonian

 (Above: ‘Not Plutonian’)


AL:
 I caught your “Feet First” piece on travelling locally. How did that come to form?

“Feet First Comics” was my first experiment in creating comics for the web. My assignment was to promote alternatives to cars for non-commuting trips, and I realized that the key decisions happen, not when people walk out their front doors and decide whether to get into a car or not, but when people decide where to live. I worked with a team of web design students at Seattle Central Community College, and their help allowed me to design the comic so that readers could click on words in the story and have pop-ups come up to add information, and then links in those pop-ups opened the documents that I originally took the information from.
Already, many of those links have died. Also, when I have introduced individuals to the site and watched them go through it, I don’t remember that any of them ever heeded the screen messages that encouraged them to try clicking on the hyper-links in the story.

AL: I’m quite interested in how you and the internet are getting along and where the partnership has been going and might go next.

LR: I have been thinking of web-posting that show that I organized of Seattle-area cartoonists on the subject of climate change. One reason I have been slow to do it has been that I learned from the mistake I made in designing “Feet First Comics” that web-comics attract their readers by having regularly updated material, new strips, like the daily paper. Over 1,000 people visited the physical art gallery when we had the climate change comics show hanging, but I’m skeptical about how much traffic the same show would get as a website.

AL: How did you get started on the web?

LR: Back when websites still felt like a novelty, in the mid-1990s, people used to hire artists to create up to a couple of dozen original graphics for their sites. I had about a half dozen jobs designing icons, banners, illustrations, and animated gif files for non-commercial websites. As the web matured, that kind of work dried up quickly.

These days I spend a huge amount of my time gathering information on the web and reading email. I hope someday to get over my shyness and post a website for EduComics, my educational comic book company.

climate-change leonard rifas by bob rini

Seattle exhibition photograph courtesy of Bob Rini

Comics That Moved Me: Barefoot Gen

A re-blog from the archives of my regular column for Alltern8; Comicking.

I trembled cradling Volume 2 between my palms. The pages jittered in response and I could not grab them. The colour drained from my skin and I gen-sunlightstumbled to a bench and found my place.

No comic has ever given me such an unsettling physical experience as Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen. These illustrations of the survivors of Hiroshima, trailing their burned flesh behind them, lips barely moving or falling off. Mutated figures crying for the humanity of a glass of water and a grain of rice. A wise artist reduced to a nest for flies and kept a secret by his family in a city of likewise suffering. Destroyed. It’s a difficult comic to not shed tears over, to not feel ill around. As first-hand documentary, it thumps the floor, strikes the chest and the gut, the head and heart in an ultimate way. It’s affect is profound, ask any who have read it.

gen-burns

“Gen is my alter ego, and his family is like my own. The episodes on Barefoot Gen are all based on what really happened to me or other people in Hiroshima.” (Nakazawa, 2004)
Gen was a child when his father makes his opinion known his country had no business being in the war on the orders of ruling greedy men. A valid argument, that continues to ring out today. The family is shunned by neighbours as un-patriotic, even though Gen’s brother, with something to prove, defies their wishes to fight for Japan.

Nakazawa’s beautiful drawings of Spring serenity of elegant architecture and nature precedes what we know is coming. The atomic bomb turns buildings and bones to dust, sets skin to flame. Chaos scrambles. Father-less Gen must provide for his mother in labour and travels the city of the murdered begging for grains of rice and water. Rain falls and cooks the internal organs of the thirsty. Gen meets a sibling who he saw perish, he is, isn’t he? He looks like him, acts like him, but why doesn’t he know him? Surely he’s just joking about never having met him?

During the 1960s, radical (gegika) manga was widespread in Japan. “Manga artists joined organisations such as the Proletarian Artists League, and contributed to Marxist manga journals..the very act of reading a manga implied making a stand”, writes lecturer Sharon Kinsella. Over time, opposition arrived and by the 1980s, high quality information manga (joho) emerged and artists were recruited into national propaganda roles.

gen the emperorFor a while debate surrounded the media blackout regarding the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The occupying US military certainly confiscated film footage of the bombing. In this climate, Nakazawa created the 45 page comic ‘I Saw It’ about his experiences and in 1972-73, created Barefoot Gen for serialisation. By 1979, the first two volumes were translated into English and published in the US by Project Gen, a non-profit small press volunteer organisation. Leonard Rifas, the one-man force behind EduComics believed comics “had their own qualities as an extremely effective democratic tool”, and approached the group about using their translations.

Gen of Hiroshima made its way around the US’s head-shops that stocked Crumb and Shelton and non-comics counter-cultural products, as well as the sprouting comic-book stores.Historian Roger Sabin writes,

“An anti-Vietnam organisation, The War Resisters League with roots going back to 1923 were to distribute them around the US and sell them through radical political bookstores,peace organisations and religious bodies. The books had no advertising behind them.”

The Project is credited with being the seed for translations into French, German, Italian, Portugese, Swedish, Norwegian, Indonesian, Tagalog and Esperanto. In 1994, Minako Tanabe, a Russian translator with the Project relocated to Japan, and became re-acquainted with fellow volunteers and Last Gasp Publications who ‘picked up the torch’, releasing Nakazawa’s expanded narrative over ten volumes.
Its revitalisation lately is due to these factors and the acceptability of other authors such as Joe Sacco, Art Speigelman and Marjane Satrapi. Perhaps some day the ruling greedy men will get it right, and Nakazawa’s aims will be understood by them.

“I hope that Gen’s story conveys to its readers the preciousness of peace and the courage we need to live strongly, yet peacefully” (Nakazawa, 2004)

I’ll be interviewing Leonard Rifas about his work later in the month here on Alltern8. Keep an eye out for that.

gen double page