Comics: Matt Pizzolo on Occupy Comics, Part Two

The start of something small, magical… and perfectly imperfect.

By , Columnist

The second half of my extended conversation with Matt Pizzolo, one of the chief organizers of the Occupy Comics project, picks right up where we left off earlier.

This time out, the filmmaker and author shares his thoughts on the mainstream media’s core difficulties in coherently covering the movement, how the benefit book’s format embraces the diversity of opinion that epitomizes the Occupy protests, what he hopes that the artists, readers, and his son take away from the forthcoming anthology, and we what each one of us can do to help the cause.

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One of the things that many working in the media have had difficulty grasping about the Occupy movement is that—as with similar movements in the Middle East that have arisen over the course of this past year—there seems to be a real reticence, and even outright refusal to appoint a single person, or even group of appointees, to represent and speak for everyone else in the movement.

This movement is really difficult for media to cover, and I don't necessarily blame them for that. How do you tell the story of a leaderless movement that's a chorus of unique perspectives which barely sync up with one another, but all coalesce under a banner of outrage at injustice perpetrated by people who might otherwise be considered our nation's best and brightest? And the "injustice" being targeted by the movement is muddy because it's been intentionally obfuscated within a web of government bureaucracy, corporate veils, and opaque public-private partnerships.

And it's further complicated by the talking points and rhetoric crammed into everyone's brains—for years media commentators and pundits had a knee-jerk response to criticism of the bailouts by saying they were profitable, but (a) that wasn't the point, and (b) it wasn't even accurate because of the secret Fed-direct bailouts that were the stuff of conspiracy theorists until Bloomberg (in the ultimate irony) forced daylight on the documents through the Freedom of Information Act.

So the voices of the movement aren't in perfect unison and they're necessarily vague, the media is stumbling in the dark as much as the rest of us, and the 24 hour news cycle keeps the reporters all so overwhelmed with information that everything gets instantly filtered through their existing left/right paradigms… and it doesn't help that most of these people reporting the news to us are in the 1% or think they will be one day.

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It's a lot easier for American media to report on a leaderless, populist movement in Egypt if there's a specific goal like removing Mubarak—that fits their "throw the bums out" narrative. Here it's not that simple. We can't throw the bums out because we're the bums, we're all complicit on some level because we're tied in to the cash-grab through credit cards or mortgages or 401ks or whatever… prices of goods go up, wages go down, and we all fall into one trap or another to make ends meet or maintain our lifestyles… that's what enabled the rot at the top to fester for so long.

Were there crimes committed? Sure, and it would be great to see some accountability… we haven't gotten anywhere near the punishments that followed the S&L scandal and that was a fraction of this scale. But taking bankers out in handcuffs isn't enough because this is systemic rot.

When Occupy is at its best, it's pushing for a national paradigm shift. How do you cover that in a news package? How do you appoint a leader to demand that? You can't and you don't.

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All very good points, all of which have led me to wonder if you might see that multiplicity of viewpoints and voices as one of the guiding principles, perhaps even the central strength, of the Occupy protests? And, if so, how might you be planning to use that embrace of extreme diversity in opinion to your advantage in the Occupy Comics anthology?

I think we're embracing that extreme diversity in Occupy Comics through the comics anthology format, the ensemble of creative voices, and the lack of any editorial agenda. The content will largely be sympathetic to the point of view of the protesters, I'm sure, but there's no litmus test; if Frank Miller wanted to contribute we wouldn't turn him away if he had something constructive to say. This book isn't intended to deify or vilify, it's just an attempt to express dozens of points of view.

When this idea first came up, there was reticence from many of the contributors because we all felt "Who are we to articulate this movement, who cares what we think?" And that's probably accurate on an individual level… I'd be less enthusiastic about this if it were written by a single person attempting to define the movement. But instead we have dozens of voices, some bombastic and some cautious, some galvanized and some ambivalent… and they're all valid. So by making this a leaderless ensemble, I hope the whole can be more transcendent than the sum of its parts.

Well, with that in mind, let’s say there’s an artist or writer out there who would like to contribute to the book; is there still room for them?

The book is all sorts of packed right now, but we're working on ways to open up more space and add more people. We encourage artists and writers to reach out, but they should keep in mind we're super overwhelmed and the book is currently way overloaded.

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How about our readers? How can they help the cause? Does their contribution have to end with a donation and them getting their copy of the book, or are there other, even meaningful ways for them to do something to help this book—and the movement itself—succeed?

Well, helping the movement succeed is a whole other can of worms that I don't feel entitled to comment on other than [to say that] whatever small action you can take that's sustainable for you is far better than not engaging at all… that's certainly the premise we're operating under.

With the book, we welcome all sorts of support beyond cash donations… people have reached out offering to donate their iPad authoring toolkits and help us with pre-press and printing, etc. Spreading the word and blogging about it, all that helps tremendously.

There was an interesting moment toward the end of Occupy Comics' Kickstarter campaign that really demonstrated to me the power everyone has to make a difference with very little effort or resources beyond being clever and caring enough to try. A guy in Iowa named Jeremy stumbled on the Occupy Comics campaign while browsing Kickstarter and it resonated with him… so he decided to spread the word on Twitter.

He had 13 Twitter followers at the time (I later became his 14th), so instead of just tweeting it, he tweeted to Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) and Warren Ellis (@warrenellis) urging them to tweet about it. Gaiman saw his name mentioned in the tweet, and he went ahead and tweeted about Occupy Comics to his 1.6 million followers. That sent so many people to the Occupy Comics Kickstarter page that it generated thousands of dollars in pledges within a couple of hours.

So you don't need a lot of Twitter followers to make a difference; sometimes all you have to do is reach out to a famous person you don't know and ask nicely.

Guy Denning V for Occupy giclee.jpg

We’ve talked about what you hope to accomplish with this book, but we’ve not touched on the question of what you get from doing all this work. So, why do you do it?

I have a two-year-old son and some day he's gonna ask me what I did when his country was disassembled and sold for parts. I don't know what all this effort will be worth at the end of the day, but at least I'll be able to say I tried to do my own small part.

How about the creators contributing to the book? What do you hope that they get from their participation in this project?

I think a lot of today's comics creators got into the medium because when they were younger there were powerful creative voices making bold statements that really affected their world views… and I'm sure a lot of these creators, while feeling very blessed by the opportunity to work as storytellers and creatives, are also a little frustrated there aren't many venues in comics these days for expressing risky points of view. That frustration is probably magnified when they see something inspiring like Occupy and they're too swamped in work to be able to participate.

So I hope the creators find this to be a supportive venue where they can take some chances and participate creatively in this global conversation through their art, but unencumbered by editorial directives… I hope it's a temporary autonomous zone for them that's built on the mutual respect of their fellow creators.

Guy Denning's Occupy London -- the sound of frees peech.jpg

And what about your readers, both of the book and of this interview? What would you like them to take away from all of this?

I think a key takeaway is that Occupy can't win in the streets alone… the arts are a theater of engagement in this as much as the occupied parks are theaters of engagement, and economic forums are theaters of engagement. The contributors here are not just reporting on protests, they are actually protesting through the creation of this art and, to a certain extent, they're putting themselves at risk by participating. I know a number of creators joined the team very cautiously but felt morally compelled to do something… and I've been shocked by creators who've built careers and pulled in top-tier salaries positioning themselves as countercultural firebrands and then passed on participating in Occupy Comics because they were afraid it might limit future career opportunities.

This is a polarizing issue among both fans and job creators, both of whom these contributors rely on. I, personally, have a history of mixing radical politics with art and so it's less important someone like me is on the team, but there are a lot of people here who are not overtly political and are putting themselves at real risk by doing this… it's pretty brave and I hope readers recognize and appreciate that.

Suppose that someone reading this still isn’t quite convinced that they can help change things for the better, not even one tiny bit, by simply buying a copy of this book. Or perhaps they’re not quite sure that this one’s for them, because usually they read more mainstream work. What might you say to convince them otherwise, and to seriously consider contributing to the cause?

This is a fairly humble project, so I don't know how to hard sell it and say, "If you buy one change agent this year, it must be this one." I'm not sure I believe that. I don't think this is for everyone… we're certainly not out to please everyone. And to be honest, if anyone on the planet reads the whole book and agrees with every single story, then I haven't done my job as an organizer… this should have so many provocative points of view that everyone finds something to challenge their mindset, no matter where they're coming from.

Guy Denning's plus ca change plus cest la meme chose.jpg

I can say this much… it's my hope that this will compile one of the broadest sets of diverse perspectives on the movement, articulated by professional storytellers who are not members of the 1%. Most of the talent in news media, in film, in music, and on TV is in the 1%, so no matter how open-minded they are, and no matter how sympathetic they are, it can't be avoided that those stories of the 99% are being filtered through a 1% mindset and reported back to the 99%.

Comics are a particularly unique media format in that they don't really make that much money—and even when they get turned into movies, Hollywood is pretty good about preventing too much money from reaching the actual creators, so we don't really have that 1% problem here. Also, since each comic is created by just one or two people, the comic book anthology is one of the only formats where you can get so many different creative voices speaking very personally and directly to you from within a hugely diverse ensemble of voices and perspectives.

Anything else you’d like to add?

We just finished the Kickstarter campaign where we raised nearly $29K, but that's done now so it's too late to participate there.

We're planning to open up a pre-order store shortly on the Occupy Comics website where we'll be accepting pre-orders/pledges for a limited time. The current plan is to only print the book based on pledges and pre-orders so as to keep hard costs as low as possible, though the content will stay alive in digital formats since they have no marginal cost, and thus won't consume any of the money that could otherwise be donated.

We are seeking and accepting many types of support beyond just writer and artist contributions, especially anything that helps us mitigate our hard costs—deals on printing, shipping, etc. would be hugely helpful.

Eric Drooker's Occupy Wall Street.jpg

Outreach is also very helpful, as demonstrated by the guy who urged Neil Gaiman to tweet about Occupy Comics… if you think your favorite publisher or retailer or digital platform or celebrity should support the project, let them know—they're always more responsive to their own fans and customers than to people who are organizing a project.

Also, none of the artists and writers working on this are walking away with a nickel, and none of them are rich, so if you feel so inclined, I'd urge you to support the books they get paid for if you like their work and respect what they're doing here.

And above all, if you think what we're doing here in our little corner of the world is cool, maybe you should take a look at what you can organize in your own little corner of the world. Doing something small and imperfect is magical and important.

Artwork credit: Images 1 through 7 above, Guy Denning; Image 8, Eric Drooker

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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