SPX 2004 edited by the CBLDFEvery year, the Small Press Expo creates a themed comics anthology for publication around the time of the exhibition. Past anthologies have had travel and biography themes, but this year the anthology got serious with the topic of war. Like all anthologies, there are high points and low points, but this year’s anthology seems even more uneven than most. There are many good contributions, but the bad are very, very bad.
Note that the theme is not “War in Iraq,” and the artists who stayed away from this subject contributed some of the best works in the collection. Alex Lukas’s “Building It Up Just to Tear It Down” is a silent comic about the destruction of the railroad lines during the Civil War. “Victory” by Vladan Nikolic is set during the Crusades, and yet manages to say more about our administration’s aggression than tackle it head on. Two stories about contemporary military life focus on the effect service has on the soldiers and manage to be intelligent and well written. “Toast” by Ben Towie deals with the issue of the army being populated by the underclasses, and “April Fool’s Tale” by Jakob Klemencic follows a soldier who fakes suicide attempts to get out of service, only to really commit suicide when they discover he’s a fraud.
The most stunning work is “White Death” by Kurt A. Belcher and Philipp S. Neundorf. Set during the 1939 Winter War of Russia’s attack on Finland, “White Death” tells the story of Tero Toivanen, a farmer who became a sniper for the Finnish army. He was taken out of the war by another sniper and re-awoke after the war was over. Though lauded as a hero, he was deeply ambivalent about his role in the war. When he picked up a biography of himself, Tero read “until the part that described him as ‘the greatest sniper in history.’ Like being called the greatest cancer in history.” The story doesn’t only tell Tero’s story, however, it includes information on the Russian men Tero killed protecting his country. At the top of the list: “Gregori Smirnov was twenty-three. He already had a wife and a young daughter waiting for him back in Stalingrad.”
But many of the other stories lack that depth or awareness of consequences. These stories tend to be written by Americans about the war in Iraq. And you know it’s not an “artistic statement” about the war until the arrival of the Hitler reference. “Untitled” by Winston Rowntree begins with two teenagers, late for some unspecified event, talking down a country road. The conversation quickly turns to politics. “Can I assume you’re referring to old you-know-who, the leader of a certain country which shall remain nameless?” the boy asks. The girl responds, “One look at that beady-eyed monster and it’s hard not to just give up on life.” It becomes obvious they’re talking about the Bush administration, with the references to a stolen election and a non-responsive left wing. But no! It’s not Bush, but Hitler! These are two Jewish youths late for their meeting… with DEATH! Nazi soldiers strip the girl and kill them both and the inevitable comparison to Hitler has been made. It’s a lazy, boring political statement, and unfortunately, Rowntree is not the only writer to use it.
“Underground: Maquis” by Matt Bellisle uses the same format at Rowntree’s comic, with a boy and a girl talking about a terrible war, planning their escape out of the country. They start driving only to be stopped by a blockade on the highway. After careful maneuvering, the girl announces, “We’ve made it to our new home…” You turn the page to see a big “Welcome to Wisconsin: Patriot Act Free Since 2006” sign. “Ratty!” by Bartly Johnson has Dick Cheney as Thought Police, and he arrests a Vietnam Vet for criticizing the country. Ratty is of course sent to Abu Ghraib where he meets a fellow prisoner arrested for “insufficient enthusiasm during the pledge of allegiance.” These stories are almost embarrassing with their lack of subtlety or perspective. No matter what your political affiliation, I think everyone who has a sense of history can agree that the current situation is not as bad as Nazi Germany.
Between these two stories lies “Leaders & Followers” by Charles Riffenburg IV. A young artist finds success when he begins painting abstract art based on September 11th. It sells so well he creates more and more, the gallery owner advertising it as an artistic response to the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, anything that might sell. At a showing, the artist is confronted by a patron angry at his cashing in while not saying anything original, “Artists used to be the leaders of society – the visionaries who created culture! Now you sit around and let it run you over and take down the license plate number as it drives off! You think just being a social journalist justifies your existence?” Too bad the other artists in this collection weren’t allowed to read this story before submitting their own. It could have been a much better, and much shorter, anthology.
SPX 2004 edited by Greg Bennett, Charles Brownstein & Chris Pitzer
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund