Tom Paine, propagandist

I was at NBM’s booth at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con promoting my Taxes, The Tea Party… book. I was also on two panels, one called Progressive Political Cartooning hosted by journalist and critic Douglas Wolk, the other on Comics and Journalism in a New Era put together by Calvin Reid of Publishers Weekly. Both panels featured young cartoonists (much younger than me) working as political reporters taking on serious topics and, in some cases, being advocates for the causes they’re covering. As they spoke, I reflected on the different uses of comics journalism.

I thought back to my time as a weekly cartoonist-reporter for the Village Voice. First, I had to overcome the expectation that if you worked in panels you were supposed to be funny. True, my early topics were more lighthearted, but more and more, I covered newsworthy events.

For example, look at one of my comic strips from 1989. Squatters in New York’s East Village have gathered to decide whether a homeless couple, Beth and Pete, should be accepted into the building. Beth and Pete wait outside the door. I was inside.

I was biased toward the squatters (some of whom were my friends), who were fighting the good fight, challenging the city and real estate interests by occupying abandoned buildings in a low-income neighborhood. They were protesting the displacement of the poor and the gentrification of the neighborhood. But, as in all movements, there was dissension in the ranks. Some saw the humanity of Beth and Pete’s situation, others acted like members of a co-op board from the Upper East Side.

My comics coverage was the only consistent inside view of the lives of these activists. Most of the media showed up on riot day. Some of the squatters would get pissed off when my strips didn’t toe the party line. But i wasn’t trying to be a propagandist for the movement—not that there isn’t a fine tradition of journalistic provocation in this country.

That point reminded me of Tom Paine as he appears in my book.

Paine was a brilliant and passionate writer whose work actually did something many pundits and advocates must fantasize about: His words changed people’s minds, and inspired them to get off their bottoms and take action. That has got to be a propagandist’s dream. But it wasn’t mine. I was trying to be a good reporter.