World War 3 Has Raged for 35 Years

The comics zine stays angry, even if it doesn't have Reagan to skewer anymore.
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courtesy of Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman

World War 3 celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. That’s longer than World Wars 1 and 2 put together. WW3, however, is a comics magazine—founded by artists Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman—which has fought political, social, and religious folly through hundreds of killer comic strips. The odds against a comics magazine surviving for this long are extremely high, and the recent publication of World War 3 Illustrated (1979-2014) marks the occasion.  

Kuper and Tobocman (both 55) grew up together in Cleveland, Ohio and discovered comics when they were seven. Four years later they published their first zine. From then on they devoted their lives to comics: visiting comic conventions in New York each summer—where they met everyone from Jack Kirby (co-creator of Captain America, X-Men, etc.) to William Gaines (publisher of Mad)—and publishing fan interviews with their favorite creators. In the late 1970s, each separately ventured to NYC, where they were disappointed that there were so few venues to get published.

“The undergrounds were mostly gone and the alternative movement didn't exist yet,” Kuper says. “Since we'd done zines, the idea of self-publishing wasn't remote. Beyond publishing our own work we also wanted to print work that moved us—much of it was on the street posted on walls and lampposts. It was work that was talking about our reality in 1979 with a hostage crisis in Iran, the Cold War in full swing, and a B-actor about to have his itchy trigger-finger on the nuclear launch button.”

courtesy of Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman

They started World War 3 Illustrated also because in 1979 mainstream comics publishers wanted capes and tights. And “the remaining underground comics publishers also had a formula to sell their books that was pretty narrow,” Tobocman says. “Book publishers had not yet learned the phrase ‘graphic novel.’”

So the duo conceived of a self-funded magazine, which now spans 45 issues, as an outlet for scores of other comics, grafitti and street artists, including Tom Tomorrow, Sabrina Jones, Eric Drooker, Ward Sutton, Sue Coe, Isabelle Dervaux, and more. “The magazine sort of generates its own energy in that there is a constant stream of new artists joining the group,” Tobocman says. “There are today people working on the magazine who are younger than the magazine itself.”

courtesy of Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman

The publication's longevity also derives from “the history that’s unfolding around us,” Kuper says. “New wars, new administrations making the same old bad choices, a desire to capture our personal histories as we age through these experiences, and a deep, deep love of comics as an art form that can tackle all of the above.”

Running a magazine for 35 years gives its founders a sobering opportunity to see how the things they’ve covered have changed, or not, over time. “Looking at early issues, there was a high degree of anxiety as we wrote and drew about Ronald Reagan, the possibility of nuclear war, environmental destruction, the housing crisis, homelessness, and so on,” Kuper says. “These days we write about those same things with a high degree of anxiety, only Ronald Reagan's name doesn't come up as often.”

courtesy of Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman

And in 35 years, certain aspects of what World War 3 has done have been embraced by the mainstream. “In the 1980s, very few people gave comics a second glance as an art form,” says Kuper. That has changed, of course. “Yet, talking about social and political subjects in comics remains quite alternative, and there still are very few venues for political art. With the disappearance of comic shops and bookstores, distribution has only gotten harder. So, like it or not we remain in the alternative world.”

World War 3 is nonetheless a useful subjective historical record. When looked at alongside other key comics documents, it's a window on two generations of alternative cultural and political ideas.

“Back in 1980, there were, in my opinion, three American comic books aimed at an adult audience,” Tobocman says. “Ben Katchor’s Picture Story Magazine, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, Art Spiegelman, and Francoise Mouly’s Raw, and our World War 3 Illustrated. Of those four, we were the only one with expressly political intentions. Today there are hundreds of such publications. We pioneered the idea of a comic strip that deeply investigates a social or political issue. Today they are calling that graphic journalism.”

courtesy of Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman

“A lot of big things started small at this magazine," Tobocman says. He often meets cartoonists who report that WW3 had a big influence on their work. “So I think we are participating in a process of evolution. Maybe we are making a big contribution, or maybe a small contribution. But we are part of it.” An example: In 1988 WW3 published an interview with slain Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al Ali, and for the next issue Tom Keogh went to Palestine and did a piece called “The Gaza Strip.” The magazine was arguably the first opening for such content.

Issue #34 opposed the second Iraq War before America intervened, and included a parody Kuper did on George W. Bush as Richie Rich. That story was later reprinted as a comic book, and Kuper says U.S. Customs seized it as piracy. “The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund with came to the rescue with a bank of lawyers proving it qualified as parody, and customs relented,” Kuper recalls. But not every subject was so global. In Issue #6, they expressed support for homelessness and squatting in the East Village. “I think both the artwork and writing in that issue helped jumpstart the Squatters movement here in New York,” Tobocman says, adding, “I think many of the organizers would agree.”

The new anthology is a distillation of WW3’s artistic and political concerns. But is it a milestone or a capstone? Kuper offered this: “Thankfully, since all the problems we have been addressing since 1979 have been solved through the power of comics, we've decided to kick back, relax and enjoy the fruits of our labors. Unfortunately the fruit turned out to be genetically modified by Monsanto, we got evicted from our hammocks and retirement isn't until 65—2065 that is. What could come next is everybody's guess and ... and though the revolution may not be televised, it will be illustrated.”

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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