I write and illustrate comics and graphic novels on social justice and radical history. I use mostly brush and ink with some pen and scratchboard. My arty style is marked by an admiration for early modern painters like Matisse, van Gogh and Picasso, as much as cartoonists, with a special tip of the hat to those artists who teetered on the brink of abstraction, but still had strong narrative, like the early works of Stuart Davis, Lyonel Feininger, and Kandinsky. I try to stick to clear, simple storytelling, with strategic outbursts of iconic symbolism. My panels can be lumpy, organically shaped by their contents, and they refuse to adhere to a regular grid. My characters are drawn in all their fleshy individuality, and resist stylization.
What themes/topics are important in your work?
I’m drawn to stories about women whose struggle to become themselves has meant breaking down barriers and opening the way for others. That’s led me to graphic biographies of birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, modern dancer Isadora Duncan, and urban planner Jane Jacobs. When doing work on FDR and the New Deal, I kept wanting to detour to Eleanor Roosevelt’s contributions. Covering the early labor movement, I was captivated by the salonist Mabel Dodge, and organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. My first experience with activist art was for the pro-choice movement in the 1980s, after my adolescent fantasies of liberation were confronted with a wall of Republican and evangelical backlash. Now, as I study historical social movements, I like to show how personal experience can drive people to overstep their prescribed roles and shake up the social order.
How would you describe the cultural climate in the United States?
Bifurcated, if not splintered, with a massive overlay of homogenized commercial culture. Sometimes I despair of making a dent in the juggernaut of Hollywood celebrity idolatry, but then I stumble across some amazing D.I.Y. scene, like the feminist zinefest at Barnard, or artist Paula Hewitt’s getting kids to design skate parks, or the idiosyncratic community gardens in New York, and my faith is restored. World War 3 Illustrated, the artist-run magazine that first got me into doing comics, has been publishing radical graphic messages for over 30 years.
What does social justice mean to you?
I have to quote the brilliant civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, whom I worship: “ The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.” He defends people on death row in Alabama, a task which would be plenty for most people, but he also founded the Equal Justice Initiative to change the way Americans think about justice. I’ve done some comics based on the work of other justice activists: The Real Cost of Prisons, and Race to Incarcerate, and the injustices I learned about were so outrageous that I thought I ought to do something about it. Until I realized that my graphic adaptation of their message was probably the best way for me to contribute.
We can change laws, and we should, but it won’t do much good unless we also abolish the fear and hatred that distort how the laws are implemented. Jim Crow’s discriminatory laws were repealed, but the unequal enforcement of colorblind laws has been just as devastating. The Supreme Court established our legal right to abortion in 1973, but clinics are still under attack both physically and legally, because we have yet to create widespread acceptance of women’s human rights. I believe art can help influence the culture to affirm all of our humanity.
What question should I have asked (and what is your answer)?
If you could genetically modify yourself to be a composite of other cartoonists, whose genes would you take, and why?
I would like to have the political clarity of Seth Tobocman, the gritty realism of James Romberger, the lyric design sense of Eric Drooker, the inventiveness of Peter Kuper, and moral compass of Sandy Jimenez. Wait, I know all these artists personally! We’ve worked together for years, on WW3 Illustrated. If I were going to become like them, it should have rubbed off on me by now. I guess I’ll just have to keep drawing like Sabrina Jones, until the science advances.
Images are from these books:
Our Lady of Birth Control, A Cartoonist's Encounter with Margaret Sanger (2016, Soft Skull Press)
Race to Incarcerate, A Graphic Retelling (2013, The New Press)
FDR and the New Deal for Beginners, (2010, For Beginners LLC.)