Prison Town

High Art in Low Places

in Comics by

By Anthony Tinsman

You hear “underground comics,” you think The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Tijuana Bibles, or Shojan porn starring interdimensional penis monsters. Nothing you’ll see listed in a Tokyo Pop brochure, or easily passed on a magazine rack at your local info shop. Sometimes you find underground comics with a real message.

The problem of their inherent obscurity is also their appeal. Discovering a ‘good’ one is more rewarding. In this case, discovering a new publisher. The Real Cost Of Prisons Project delivers several fantastic comics. Prisoner of the Drug War and Prison Town: Paying The Price dish scintillating social critique wrapped in ink-blot barbed wire. They are sharply traced outside the lines of other dryly recited public awareness announcements.

Each comic thrills like a dark cell-block on your fist night in jail.

Mainstream comics lose their shit compared to Prisoners Of A Hard Life: Women and Their Children. Full of transactional sex workers, histories of child abuse and “indifference to human life” depicted in gritty details that would make Paul Pope cry plagiarism.

Artist Susan Willmarth is that good. What else have you done lately, Willmarth? How far in the underground must avid readers search to find thee?

The Real Cost of Prisons Project follows a long line of underground art zines and comic books. They just aren’t famous like the “underground-breakers,” including R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith, who have become accepted as mainstream artists, entertainers and even pundits.

Crumb is the subject of a major documentary and various books of criticism; Spiegelman is a Pulitzer Prize winner, for Maus, and was a contributor to The New Yorker; Griffith has produced a long-running syndicated comic, “Zippy,” and all have collectively published several popular monographs.

So why are other underground gems not out in the public?

It isn’t for a lack of organization. Community projects enthrall the volunteers at The Real Cost of Prisons Project, whose mission is to “bring together prison/justice policy activists with political economists to create workshops and materials which explore both the immediate and long term costs of mass incarceration on the individual, her/his family, community and nation.” They use their comics as an educational and fundraising tool. They follow suit with trendy “anarchist zines,” like Slingshot, printed by Berkeley College Press. Both give free copies to prisoners upon request. Both are producing good stuff. Why have they eluded the mainstream?

Part of the problem is perception.

As Robert Williams, founder of Juxtapoz, said, “The worst thing we could do is throw in comic books.” To him, and many cultural authorities, comics still carry the stigma of low-brow. Williams summed it up, “If you show sequential panels, all of a sudden your magazine becomes a ‘funny book.'” Art magazines like Juxtapoz, Art in America, and Artforum are trying to bring back representational art to the American forefront.

Williams suggests that comics are not a part of that revival. “The story is more important the picture itself. So we leave that job to comics’ publishers.”

Small niche presses and independent publishers have risen to the challenge of saluting that stigma with a stiff middle finger. Comics have played a serious role in every significant social event. From “The Yellow Kid” tamping down national fervor during the lead up to Americans first colonial adventure in the Spanish American War in Cuba and the Philippines, to cutting edge web-comics depicting earth shattering tales of the Iraq War, such as David Axe and Steve Olexa’s March 2003, covering an embeds hairy trip during the Iraq elections, or Sand by Mark Chadbourne and Nathan Massengill, about the haunting after fatal friendly fire in a sand storm.

Literary sequential art runs up and down the spectrum of timeless themes with Olympian endurance. It is “Art” indeed. Screw cultural authorities.

The Real Cost Of Prisons Project’s writers Ellen Miller-Mack, Susan Willmarth, and Lois Ahrens have worked hard to adjust the role of underground comics to fit a scary issue. Prison reform. The art is top notch, matching the scale of nightmarish reality for millions of Americans behind bars. Urban and grim you’d expect the same radical primitive neoliberalism or anarchist flaws as other activist-art, but surprises abound with graphic nuance that would arch Will Eisner’s brow.

It’s rare. Seek it out. Savor it.

If you are a fan of raw noir inking, stunning graphics and literary comics, then The Real Cost Of Prisons Project has something you need to read. They serve as landmarks for art from the gutter. Richer for its beginnings.

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ISBN-10: 0-9763856-2-7

ISBN-13: 978-0976385622

The Real Cost Of Prisons Project, www.realcostofprisons.org, info@realcostofprisonsproject.org

5 Warfield Place, Northampton, MA., 01060