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Seth Tobocman

Seth Tobocman

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I am told that my great grandfather shot two cops in Poland . The officers were threatening his
family during a pogrom. The details are lost in the ambiguities of transatlantic immigration.

My grandparents' generation exchanged certain oppression in Europe for an uncertain life in Cleveland. They were people of massive contradictions. Small business men who dreamed of being big business men, they none the less sent their children to the Workman's Circle Yiddish schools, read the socialist newspapers, voted for F.D.R. . In the end, what drove their progressive politics was the same thing that drove their desire to make money. They hated being poor.

Their children, my parents, inherited this whirlwind of contradictions.

My uncle was member of the Communist Party U.S.A.. My mother edited the newsletter of a militant zionist organization throughout her school years. But my father was a classic neo conservative. Starting out as an FDR liberal he moved further and further to the right as his own material conditions improved. Supporting L.B.J. then Reagan then Bush.

What I got from this was exposure to diverse political ideas. On Sundays my father and his two sisters, Marilyn and Marcia, would debate the Vietnam War before sitting down to bagels and lox. I remember thinking that politics must be a pretty strange business if people could get this heated over it without taking it personally.

There were Communists and Capitalists, Cop Killers and College Professors in this family. What there weren't, were artists. Well, there was almost one. My uncle Phil had been quite the high school painter. But Phil had done the "sensible thing" and given up his dreams of being an artist for a more lucrative career in medicine. When Phil found out that I was drawing he told me "If you want to be an artist, then you can never sell out, or you won't be an artist any more."


I started drawing before I could read and never stopped for long. I was lousy at sports and academics, but pretty good at art.

I was one of these kids who gets beat up by bullies. This is probably what drew me to comics. While the Marvel Super heroes are fantasy, they mimic the lives of young boys in important ways. I stood a pretty good chance of ending up in a fist fight any time I walked out the door. So did the Incredible Hulk. Only the Hulk usually won.

With my friend Peter Kuper I started to publish a comic book fanzine and attend comic conventions. At that time, comic fandom was very small and it was possible to know everyone. I met Jeff Jones, Vaughn Bode, Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb. It was an amazing art education for a couple of junior high school kids to meet so many working artists. Jones and Bode were particularly supportive of my work.

We also met a depressed, 30 something comic book and record collector who worked at the local Veterans' hospital. This was Harvey Pekar. He had not yet begun to write comics and was trying his hand at Jazz criticism. He was friendly but opinionated. He felt we were reading the wrong kind of comics and listening to the wrong music . Harvey introduced us to underground comics, which we were too young to legally buy. We introduced Harvey to a local cartoonist, Gary Dumm, and together they started Harvey's now famous neo-realist comic book, AMERICAN SPLENDOR!

As I got into high school I began to notice that super hero comics ran the same five plotlines over and over again. The characters no longer seemed real to me and I lost interest in collecting comics but I continued to draw my own.

William Boroughs, Abby Hoffman, Pablo Picasso, and Patti Smith soon replaced Captain America as my heroes. I sometimes came to school with my face made up like David Bowie. My friends in high school were mostly gay kids. This was the only clique in which I found acceptance. We felt we were constantly at war with the suburban society around us.

I got turned on to notions of Modern Art. I drew a couple of experimental comic strips using cubist influenced layouts where the panel borders themselves seemed to be exploding. One of these received high praise from Jones and Bode. Unfortunately this praise led to a kind of crisis for me. I wanted to produce another strip just like it, and couldn't. This was my first experience of writers block. I have since concluded that the way to avoid writer's block is never to try to do the same thing twice.

The writers block, along with the death of Vaughn Bode, led me into a deep depression. I gave up drawing comics and started to experiment with drugs. While I was under this dark cloud, my father convinced me to attend film school at N.Y.U.... He was sure that I would never make any money as an artist. I remember him pointing to the long list of credits at the end of a movie, and pronouncing "There must be room for you in there somewhere."

Film school was a disaster. I couldn't handle it. I couldn't imagine myself in the strict hierarchy of film making as it was in the 1970s. My sketchbooks from the time are full of unfinished pencil drawings of people with arms, legs or eyes missing. I was soon thrown out of the dorms in a drug related incident. I dropped out and moved into an apartment on the Lower East Side .

Then my old friend Peter Kuper showed up in New York . He had sold a comic strip to Heavy Metal magazine and was working for Harvey comics inking Richie Rich while taking art classes part time at Pratt and the Art Students' League. I suddenly remembered comics. I decided to follow Peter's lead and look for work as an illustrator while studying art. I did my first commercial art job for the New York Rocker.

Art classes were no panacea. Many of my instructors were hostile to comics and all forms of representation. I did gain some skills out of art classes, particularly anatomy.

My parents had different ideas about my future any way. They wanted me to get a B.A. then go on to a graduate degree in law. I knew this was impossible for me. When they figured out that I had no intention of getting a degree they cut me off financially.

I worked as an usher, a messenger, a construction worker, but eventually got work as an illustrator for the New YorkTimes and other papers.

I felt like at any moment the ground would open up and swallow me. But I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I was hungry and living at the cross roads of international culture.

In 1980 graffiti influenced neo-expressionism was exploding onto the streets and into the galleries of lower Manhattan . Just walking around on any given day I could see stencils spray painted onto walls or sidewalks by David Wojnarovicz, Michael Roman or Anton VanDalen. Murals by Eva Cockroft, chalk drawings by Keith Haring, Hambleton's black figure paintings, and of course, all the Graffiti artists, Phase, Futura, Dondi, Chico.

I liked this work for its directness, its fresh approach to representation, its desire to communicate with absolutely anyone. I became very interested in the neo-expressionists' attempt to create an image of a universal, unspecified person. I experimented with faceless characters in a number of comic strips and also tried my hand at stencils and graffiti. I still consider myself to be a neo-expressionist comic book artist.


In 1980 there were, to my knowledge, four adult comic books being published in the United States: Ben Katchor's poetic and forgotten PICTURE STORY MAGAZINE, Art Spiegelman's RAW, Harvey Pekar's AMERICAN SPLENDOR, and our magazine WORLD WAR THREE ILLUSTRATED.

Peter Kuper and I started WORLD WAR THREE ILLUSTRATED as a response to the Iran Hostage crisis. Revolutionaries in Iran were holding the staff of the U.S. Embassy hostage. The response in American society was an orgy of jingoism. Peter and I agreed that the time was right for an antiwar graphics magazine. Helping us out on the first two issues were Ben Katchor who assisted with the technical end of publishing and a German conceptual artist named Christoff Kolhoffer who was our bridge to the art world.

The first issue was no big deal. Competent comics playing with vaguely left wing politics. Neither aesthetically nor politically very adventurous. But our timing was important. At the very moment when Ronald Reagan was bringing the Christian Right to power, two young men had founded an antiwar comic book . It was as though we had raised a flag. All kinds of people rallied around that banner- political artists, Anarchists, peace punks, Squatters, Feminists, people concerned about political prisoners and people with AIDS. I learned from each of these people and the experience radicalized me. The magazine evolved and took on a wide range of issues beyond its original concern with nuclear war.

It was at first hard to get distribution for the magazine. Comic shops were not yet interested in alternative comics. Book stores had not yet discovered graphic novels. The Punk scene came to our rescue. Josh Whalen hooked us up with Mordam records, a punk music distributor. We were the only comic book whose primary distribution was in record stores.

We got amazing letters from alienated kids in suburban America . These letters made me remember my own confused teenage years. I tried to produce stories that would have been meaningful to me back then.

Activists began to use my pieces for leaflets and posters. Everyone from squatters in New York to the African National Congress in South Africa.

Much of my work from the first ten years of WORLD WAR THREE ILLUSTRATED appears in my first book YOU DON'T HAVE TO FUCK PEOPLE OVER TO SURVIVE.

The magazine has continued to this day as an artist run collective.


I got my first real experience of political organizing when our landlord tried to impose an unjustified rent increase on our building. The residents formed a tenant union, went on rent strike, took the landlord to court and won many improvements.

I became aware of the Lower East side as a community in struggle.

Mayor Koch had announced that ‚"New York is a city for winners" and threatened that poor people would be pushed into the east river. There were many initiatives launched topreserve the L.E.S.. as a place where working-class and middle class folks could afford to live. One of the most inspiring was the squatters movement.

In the 1980s hundreds of city owned abandoned buildings sat empty while people were freezing to death on the streets. The squatters broke into these buildings and turned them into low income housing. The squatters movement also tried to protect the rights of homeless people who lived in Tompkins Park.

All of this activity led to an attempt by the city to crush the movement. But people fought back. From 1988 to 1992 there were a series of riots in the neighborhood. The Lower East Side became the focus of an international struggle for human rights.

I decided to get more involved and so I became a member of Umbrella House, a squat on Avenue C. I worked on renovating the building and ran a printing press on the first floor with the help of Sarah Hogarth. I was involved in defending the building against an eviction attempt, which got pretty hairy.

I also worked on defending the other squats and participated in lots of other protests. I was arrested about twenty times and convicted twice. Eventually my lawyer, Stanley Cohen, advised me to cool it. He said that the D.A. had justa bout had it with me and that if I continued the consequences would get serious.

At about this time I also began to fall out with my comrades at Umbrella House. We disagreed about a number of internal issues. I decided to give up my membership in the squat and return to life as a cartoonist who supports radical movements rather than a radical who occasionally draws cartoons.

My experiences in the squatters movement are the basis of my second book WAR IN THE


Having two books out from small independent presses, I had an obligation to promote them. To this end I put together a slide show of my comics and learned to perform my texts with the help of some talented local musicians. I took this show on the road to promote my books. This took me all over the U.S., to Europe, even to the Middle East.

Traveling, I had the opportunity to participate in protests against the World Bank, the WTO and the FTAA.


For the last five years I have had the honor of teaching comics at the School of Visual Arts. I really enjoy teaching. It‚'s a lot like political organizing. Your objective is to get lots of other people motivated to do something, not just to do it yourself. It occurs to me that I never took courses in comics and that much of my education was informal. I wonder how my life would have been different if I had had teachers who were more supportive of my desire to draw comics.


When George Bush announced his intention to invade Iraq, an antiwar group formed on the Lower East Side called NO BLOOD FOR OIL which included some of my old buddies from the squatter days. I was asked to form an arts committee for this group. But WORLD WAR THREE ARTS IN ACTION quickly became an autonomous entity which worked with many different organizations. We made signs, banners, posters and street theater for many antiwar events.


Like most American Jews I grew up thinking of the Israelis as the good guys. We practically cheered when Israel occupied large sections of its neighboring countries in the six day

In college I met students from Iran and Lebanon and began to understand that there was another way of looking at it. Eric Drooker introduced me to the cartoons of Naji-Al-Ali and I learned more. Then in the 1990s Israeli historians admitted what had been denied for about forty years, that in the war of 1948, the various Zionist militias had forced a large population of Palestinian civilians to flee their homes through a series of massacres in order to clear the land for Jewish settlement. The Jews had engaged in pogroms against the Palestinians.

Still, I tried to stay out of this issue. I reasoned that I had no intention of living in the Middle East, so it was not my business. And there was plenty to do right here. But in recent years I saw that a lot of younger activists were going to Palestine to work with ISM and other groups. I felt that I had an obligation to check this out more closely.

So I volunteered for a few weeks, teaching art and English to Palestinian kids in a village that had been cut off from the rest of the world by Israeli roadblocks. I produced a book about this experience called PORTRAITS OF ISRAELIS AND PALESTINIANS.

THREE CITIES AGAINST THE WALL was an art show by Israeli, Palestinian and American artists opposed to Israel's building of a wall through the occupied territories. I worked with Ronen Eidelman, an Israeli involved with Anarchists Against Walls and Fences and Sliman Monsour, a well known Palestinian painter to organize the event. The show involved some of
the most respected artists in all three countries. History will decide whether we were naive or ahead of our times.


A few days after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, a friend called me and told me she was going to try to get into New Orleans with two truckloads of medical supplies. That action was the seed which grew into Common Ground Relief, a major mobilization of volunteers. Because of my teaching schedule, I could not get down there until January. What I saw down there was really inspiring. Activists were gutting flood damaged homes,providing emergency healthcare, really doing a lot to meet peoples needs. The real estate issues were also oddly familiar. The powers that be were trying to use the disaster to gentrify this historically black city.

We set up a group called THE LOISAIDA NEW ORLEANS CARAVAN to bring people from the squatters movement, with construction experience , to New Orleans to fix houses.


Comic strips resulting from my experiences, with the anti-globalizathion movement, in Palestine and in New Orleans, as well as discussing 9-11, and the war in Iraq, form the basis of the book, DISASTER AND RESISTANCE.


I always knew that Reaganomics would lead to a disaster for this country. My parents and grandparents had made it clear to me that FDR's reforms were what got us out of the Great Depression. So in 1980 I was sure that supply side economics would result in a collapse followed by a struggle in the streets. Well, I was off by 30 years, but here we are.

So this year I have worked with writers Eric Laursen and Doug Henwood along with inker Jess Wehrle to produce a book on the current financial crisis. I hope that the new movement against foreclosures will find this book useful.


Michael Stewart was an African American art student who worked at the Pyramid club on Avenue A. He was only a few years younger than me. One night he was murdered by police as he tried to catch the subway. His name became a battle cry for many of us in the 1980s. If he were alive today he'd have gray hair. Maybe he'd be famous for his life's work rather than his death. Too many of my contemporaries died young. There has not been much progress. I am forced to acknowledge that whatever I have achieved is a privilege denied to others.


One of my personal heroes, Francisco Goya, printmaker, painter, and cartoonist, did his best work between 50 and 80 years old. I plan to continue drawing comics and other pictures for the rest of my life.


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