PEN Illustrated guest editors, MariNaomi, Robert Kirby, and Meg Lemke, dropped seven new political comics today on the literary freedom organization’s blog, a new feature called State of Emergency. The comics, from cartoonists Tyler Cohen,
The editors say that State of Emergency is “intended to bring forward the voices and stories of communities whose concerns and lives may be most at risk under the new administration. Our hope is that the stories created for this series will help empower and inspire people to stand up and speak out and to begin to repair what’s been so thoroughly broken.” Some comics, like Tyler Cohen’s “Evident Truths,” consider what the resistance must be and how it can hit with self and family care. Others, like “Precious Time” contextualize the US election within the history of violent nationalism and weaponized hate. And comics like “Identity” offer a message of power and hope.
“Evident Truths,” by Tyler Cohen addresses Tyler’s heartbreak post-election and the difficulty of finding a way to balance political activism motherhood — to be a mother who resists; raising a politically conscious child and keeping her safe from a world that would harm her. A particularly striking image is Cohen’s figure breaking apart, as she learns that Trump has been elected.
“Identity,” by Iasmin Omar Ata is a gorgeous three page comic about resistance and finding power in your own identity. There is so much power in that last figure; so much confidence in this colour palette.
“Precious Time,” by Thi Bui examines the poisons of nationalism, isolationism and organized hate. Bui fled Vietnam for the United States in 1978 and “wasted much of my youth trying to figure out which parts of me were Vietnamese and which were American.” On a beautifully spare page that shows the scale of human disaffection and suffering at once, she goes on to say that “from space, all of this seems commonplace and small. But down here on Earth, our decision matter.”
“Promise of Safety,” by Dylan Edwards shows him doing what so many of us have been doing since the election: watching the news until we snap and walk away and then doing it all over again. Edwards explains that between ACA repeal, Cruz’s First Amendment Defense Act and Trump’s complete disdain for the safety of queer and trans people, “the promise of safety” is not something he can believe in.
“Battleground,” by Rachel Masilamani examines the 2016 election through her experience canvassing registered Democrats back in 2004. At the start of the comic, she asks “how often did you talk to strangers about the election? Did you sit at their kitchen tables pretending to survey them about ‘the issues’?” As usual, Masilamani combines incisive, informed commentary with deeply affecting, emotional imagery.
“Weekend After,” by Whit Taylor is about a trip to the burbs she and her white boyfriend took right after the election. They wanted to get out of the city for a bit, see the super moon in a better setting, and though it’s not said explicitly, it’s clear that Taylor needed to be close to her family, to hear their perspectives and to feel their love. The comic opens with Taylor and friends chasing after a strange, shoeless woman, the night after the election. They never catch up to her. They never know if she found help. The comic closes with Taylor, her boyfriend and her family looking up at the super moon. Her brother says “it’s werewolf season.” Between those pages Taylor and her boyfriend consider the nature of their countrymen, America’s racist past, and how they can raise their kids (if they decide to have them) with unconditional love.
“#Snowflake,” by Robert Kirby has a lot in common with Evident Truths and Promise of Safety. Like Cohen and Edwards, Kirby is grappling with social media overload, heartbreak, real fear for himself and others, and what meaningful resistance should look like. He vacillates between a certain level of despair — telling his dog “you’re so lucky to be a dog” while the can only think of rabbits; committing to be “a drop in the bucket” by donating to important social justice and health and safety organizations — with hope. It’s not that Kirby thinks everything is going to be ok. It’s more that he knows that he — and we — will stand firm in resistance.
“Next World Taro” by Cristy C. Road is a three page comic about revolution and the tarot. Road shares the 6 of Wands and the 3 of Swords, both of them powerful illustrations about resistance, revolution and rebirth. Then there’s the first illustration, the one pictured above. Road’s contribution, Cohen’s, is quite short, but communicates much in that short page count. It’s a beautiful piece and a moving call to action.
PEN is a longtime supporter of short and longform political cartooning. But their decision to honour Charlie Hebdo in 2015, despite significant resistance within the comics and literary community, led to a boycott of their annual gala by writers Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Taiye Selasi. PEN’s stance then was that one doesn’t have to endorse Hebdo’s cartoons, which have been simultaneously anti-fascist and blisteringly Islamaphobic, to support how they represent freedom of expression. This new project, State of Emergency, which centres the voices of marginalized cartoonists seems to represent a — big and good! — shift from that 2015 position.
Unlike some other organizations, PEN has moved to recognize that we do with our free speech is as important as our right to it.
I appreciate that they have given MariNaomi, Robert Kirby, and Meg Lemke the space to curate this project. Political cartooning, from newspaper strips, to webcomics, to zines, to graphic journalism, is a diverse field of work that is vital to communicating messages of resistance and building solidarity. Which is just what State of Emergency hopes to do. It’s a nicely framed snapshot of those hard weeks after the election of Donald Trump, both timely and timeless — meant to inspire us now and in the future; a hug, a roadmap and a time capsule at once.