War in the Neighborhood is Seth Tobocman’s masterpiece. It is one of the strongest works of graphic non-fiction to date and an engrossing first-hand document of the housing battles of the Lower East Side at the end of the 20th Century. Long out-of-print, a new edition is being crowdfunded on Indiegogo (click on highlighted link) and that effort is continuing until the end of this week.
Tobocman is an exemplar of clear, high contrast visual storytelling. He is probably best known as the co-founder of the long-running political comics anthology title World War 3 Illustrated (with cartoonist Peter Kuper and artist Christof Kohlhofer), but he has also been an illustrator for The New York Times, The Nation and other papers and magazines and he has been conspicuously associated for many years with various campaigns for social justice. I always remember how my late gay friend the artist Edward Brezinski was so taken in the mid-80s with one of Seth’s many striking agitprop street posters that ironically asserted that “You will never succeed in joining their club!” Edward related his struggle for gender equality to Seth’s for economic justice.
In the interests of transparency, I met Seth in at a New York con in 1982 and that day, he introduced me to both Art Spiegelman and Jack Kirby. In fact, that was when Jack told me, “Don’t do comics…comics will break your heart. Be a fine artist instead.” We ignored Jack’s now-famous advice and I became Seth’s roommate for several years and an early contributor to World War 3—and I have continued to sporadically do pieces for the magazine, to include Seth in group shows that I co-curated and to guest lecture at his SVA classes. But I also know from first-hand experience that Seth is perhaps the most courageous of American cartoonists: nearly alone among his contemporaries, he has repeatedly put his body on the line for his convictions, sustaining many, many arrests at the demos he participates in. More recently, he was one of the most prominent figures spearheading the Occupy Wall Street movement against the wealthiest 1%.
War in the Neighborhood is the real deal, a major piece of cartoon journalism that expands the potential of the graphic novel form—and it is about something that is genuinely important. One of Seth’s great strengths is in organizing confusing information, in making complex issues extremely comprehensible, even to those who don’t have any prior knowledge of the subject. The book reads brilliantly precisely because the artist lived what he has laid out for us and he is able to communicate the essence of his experience.
In the late 80s & early 90s, Tobocman gave over his rent-controlled East Village apartment for the use of one of his friends who was living with AIDS and then subsequently helped to renovate, and resided in, a ramshackle “squatted” tenement building while being heavily involved in the protracted (and dangerous) battles between the administrations of NYC mayors Koch & Dinkins and housing activists that are depicted in the book. The cruel deceptions of destructive neighborhood redlining and gentrification; the gross misallocation of civic funds in horrifically expensive police riots against the poorest of the poor; and the doomed struggle of the homeless residents of Tomkins Square Park’s “Tent City” to build their own advocacy in a reclaimed school building dubbed the “ABC Center” are all detailed. Tobocman retains a degree of objectivity, however—he does not spare himself or his fellow activists from cutting scrutiny as he also documents the often pointless and frustrating conflicts between friends and neighbors who suffer the myriad dangers of a poverty-stricken, drug-riddled environment.
Oddly, I have never actually owned a copy of War in the Neighborhood; I missed it when it first came out and it has been out of print for far too long. But over the years I read most of it in installments that appeared in World War 3, the mainstream and usually sci-fi Heavy Metal and the feminist underground comic Real Girl. Yet, reading it recently all together in PDF form, I see that Seth absorbed the influences of the greats of cartooning we admired in common in our formative years: Kirby, Eisner, Adams, Colan, Spiegelman and Crumb, but he makes something new of them that is all his own. His drawings reflect his closely-observed knowledge of urban architecture and his portraits of the real people involved are accurate throughout. He utilizes many narrative devices specific to comics, often injecting surreal passages that serve the narrative far better than straightforward depictions would. Most of the book exhibits Tobocman’s amazing linework and blackspotting, but there are also many passages of a more painterly, fully-rendered halftone handling.
Tobocman’s book deserves the crowdfunding support of comics fans with taste. I consider it to be more significant than 99% of the graphic novels in print. Seth has finally succeeded in joining, well, a club at least—the 1% of great graphic non-fiction along with, for instance, Harvey Kurtzman’s war comics, Spiegelman’s Maus, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Chester Brown’s Louis Riel.
When I asked Nicole Burton of the publisher Ad Astra about the current status of their crowdfunder which will soon be ending, she said, “As it stands right now, we will definitely be going to print, and crowdfunding backers are guaranteed the perks they’ve selected. War in the Neighborhood is a book to which literally millions of people can relate, in the U.S. alone. We encourage readers to think of political comics as a great way to start difficult conversations …comics offer us a creative avenue to imagine what was, what is, and what can be if we choose to take up those causes.”
This week, readers still have an opportunity to help this book reach an even wider audience and I do not believe there is a more worthy project in comics.
James Romberger is the Eisner-nominated cartoonist of Post York and co-author of 7 Miles a Second, The Late Child and Other Animals and Aaron and Ahmed. His latest book Steranko: The Self-Created Man is available from https://groundzerobooks.com. His pastel drawings are in many private and public collections including those of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harvard Business School. He has written about comics, film and art for Publisher’s Weekly, Comics Journal, The Beat, LAAB, Study Group Magazine and Hooded Utilitarian. He teaches art at Parsons and Marywood University.