AARGH! RESIST! A Retrospective and a Prelude

In my four-part article Not By Something As Accidental as Blood: Bash Back, my research into Lawrence Gullo, Fyodor Pavlov, and Kelsey Hercs’ work took me to places I hadn’t gone before while, in other cases, it made me revisit some others. At one point, I even referenced lines from Alan Moore’s LGBTQ+ prose poem The Mirror of Love which I’d read years ago and had José Villarrubia, its graphic artist and designer, sign my copy at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival back in 2007. But even then, I knew that The Mirror of Love came from somewhere else. It came from AARGH!

Back in 1988, during Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, the British government passed an amendment to the Local Government Act called Clause 28. Clause 28 was a law designed to ban and outlaw even the mention of homosexuality. While the Clause specifically focused on preventing homosexuality from “intentionally” being taught in schools, or even being published, it went much further than that: right into the 1984 school of Orwellian “Newspeak”: of erasing words as the structure of concepts that would prevent or even eradicate the idea of something to the point of not being to rally around, relate to, or even express it. To say that it was an element of government censorship and homophobia is an understatement.

Alan Moore, along with his first wife Phyllis, and their romantic partner Deborah Delano, decided they were going to challenge this law: with art. As such, they founded the publishing imprint Mad Love with Phyllis Moore and Delano becoming its editors. Together they organized their first project: a one-off comics anthology called AARGH! an acronym for Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia. This isn’t news to some long time comics fans, it’s true, but there are a just few elements of note about AARGH! that intrigue me: with regards to its collaborators, what it actually deals with, and what a possible spiritual successor might look like.

A lot of talent was recruited into collaborating on this work. In addition to Alan Moore and said editors, there were industry and independent creator participants such as Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, Art Spiegelman, Dave Gibbons, Bill Sienkiewicz, David Lloyd, Harvey Pekar, Robert Crumb, Kevin O’Neill, Los Bros Hernandez, Jamie Delano, even Dave Sim and Frank Miller along with many others. Some of these working relationships, particularly with Moore and some of his fellow collaborators aren’t even in existence anymore. But at one time, in one point in time, all of these creators came together to fight a lawful act of homophobia through the power of expression and fine art.

Up until fairly recently, I’d never had the opportunity to read through AARGH! in its entirety and I wasn’t even sure I would have something original to say about the collaboration that hadn’t been elaborated on many times before. I had read Neil Gaiman’s “From Homogenous to Honey” — an almost V for Vendetta comic illustrated no less by Bryan Talbot and Mark Buckingham and lettered by Steve Craddock – separately, and I already mentioned reading Moore’s The Mirror of Love in its latest incarnation but it had never occurred to me to find a copy of AARGH! itself and read the rest of the stories inside it.

Originally, I was wondering if I could relate this to Bash Back somehow but, by that time, I already finished my article. It was at this point, however, after my research and listening to a lecture Alan Moore gave about his work on AARGH! at Northampton College in 2013, that I decided to have a look at the entire anthology.

So, of course, I looked at Alan Moore’s “The Mirror of Love” first: as it had left the greatest impression on me. I’m not sure what I was expecting exactly. I knew that he had written the epic poem before his collaboration with José Villarrubia decades later, and I suppose I should have known that – being what this anthology is – it would be illustrated by someone. At the time, however, I didn’t know that Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch had done more than simply illustrate Alan Moore’s text.

The original version of “The Mirror of Love” isn’t a storybook or a tract of text. What I found myself looking at was an eight-page comic with shades of black, white, and grey and some of the clearest most archetypal human images of angels beyond sex and gender that I’ve seen. The angels themselves, along with the name of the poem, are inspired by the nineteenth century writer and artist Aubrey Beardsley. At times it resembles a black and white version of the introduction to Lawrence Gullo’s six-page “Bash Back” short comic, while truly expanding on the mythic and very real literary and cultural history of LGBTQ+ people and culture throughout the ages of humanity. Simply put, it’s beautiful and I couldn’t and I won’t choose between Bissette and Veitch, or Villarrubia’s work with Moore. All of these artists bring something to words that shouldn’t be obliterated, but further expanded.

The rest of the book consists of comics, either created by artists themselves, collaborated upon with writers in the comics field, or made to accompany a few tracts. For the most part, Clause 28 is central to what these comics attack, dissect, and make readers aware. But the narratives themselves run the gamut. Some of them are personal or first-person narrative stories such as Mark Vicars’ “Growing Out of It,” written out by Jamie Delano, drawn by Shane Oakley and lettered by Tom Frame, and Dave Thorpe and Lin Jammet’s “I Was a Teenage Target.” Others are political satire like Hunt Emerson and his “Bit,” David Shenton’s “Controlled Hysteria ….” and Dick Foreman’s “Appeal.”

Others are direct appeals from organizations such as the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force (the NGLTF) and the Organization for Lesbian and Gay Action (OLGA). And some stories are just ridiculous like Frank Miller’s “The Future of Law Enforcement,” while a few are downright terrifying surrealist works of Big Brother quality like Neil Gaiman, Bryan Talbot and Mark Buckingham’s “From Homogenous to Honey” and Geoff Ryman and Grahame Baker’s “Insanity Clause.”

I’m hesitant in stating that something like AARGH! is unprecedented, as there have been several charity comics anthologies created to gather talent in the comics industry in order to contribute to a social or medical cause: the Comic Book Defense Legal Fund’s The CBDLF Liberty Annual coming to mind.

But AARGH! is certainly one of the most notable popular joint industry-independent comics collaborations to create a solid sequential series amounting to a message of “No” to a law that many felt to be disgusting and unjust. I also know that as I was reading this book, I wondered how AARGH! would stand up to the twenty-first century, and what a contemporary version of something like it might look like.

Again I am at a disadvantage here because in addition to not being aware of other anthologies with big comics names against such powerful political issues, I am not completely familiar with the identities or backgrounds of every creator in AARGH! But there are a few things I would like to note. I think that if AARGH! were created now, fans and the reader-audience would demand and expect the inclusion of more diverse contributors. Alan Moore even said himself, in his 2013 lecture in Northampton College, that he, his former wife, and girlfriend were nearly turned away by OLGA when they asked for help and to aid them because – according to Moore – Phyllis Moore and Deborah Delano identified, at least at the time, as bisexual and also presumably felt uncomfortable about heterosexual men entering their ranks.

But bisexuality and facing biphobia and bi-erasure is only part of what a work like this would need. There are also transgender people to include, and transphobia to address, as well as those such as those that identify on the range of the LGBTQ+ spectrum such as intersex, asexual, and other queer-identifying people. And it doesn’t stop at gender or sex. There would also be ethnicity or “race” to consider as well as class and ableism with regards those with physical and psychological disabilities. In a very long-winded manner, what I am trying to say is that I can definitely see a more intersectional version of something like AARGH! occurring if industry professionals, independent artists, and new voices are willing to collaborate and focus on the issues which they might agree or approach upon in different ways.

I suppose what I’m saying is an imprint like Mad Love would be less of a black rectangle with a white heart in it, and more of a blinding techno-colour rainbow. As for me, in my unqualified opinion I could see voices such as Marjorie Liu, G. Willow Wilson, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Steve Orlando, Lawrence Gullo, Fyodor Pavlov, Kelsey Hercs, Matt Fraction, Marjane Satrapi, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, Alison Bechdel, Gail Simone, and many others I know I will think of later after this is all said and done, and many more who I don’t know at all, who would help make an excellent comics anthology.

Yet what could bring such a surfeit of creators and artists in the comics field together like the late and unlamented Clause 28?

I thought about and dreaded the answer to this question. To make something like AARGH! would mean to look for, or wait for some kind of political or legal calamity that needed to be challenged accordingly. It could be something that has existed and no one bothered to pay attention until it reached popular, mainstream, or privileged notice. In retrospect, I should have considered an organization such as the aforementioned Comic Book Legal Defense Fund as a candidate for making something like AARGH! given its membership, its cause to protect the American First Amendment rights of comics creators and publishers, and the fact that they could easily create a special edition of The CBLDF Liberty Annual for this purpose. But, as it turns out, I didn’t have to think about it for very long.

Françoise Mouly, award-winning designer, editor, and art publisher for The New Yorker, as well as the co-founder of Raw, Raw Books, and Toon Books has opened up submissions to all comics artists and illustrators with a deadline of December 10th for a new comics newspaper she is creating and guest-editing with her daughter Nadja Spiegelman. It is called RESIST!

Unlike AARGH! which was its own one-off imprint, RESIST! is a special issue of Gabe Fowler’s Smoke Signal, a quarterly tabloid comics anthology published by Desert Island and its owner Gabe Fowler. Desert Island itself is a store, publisher, and annual organizer of the Comics Art Brooklyn Festival. RESIST’s creative prompt is simple enough, though the wording of it has changed.

Originally, on November the 24th Mouly and Spiegelman stated on resistsubmission.com “Making art helps a broken heart. Make your voice heard! Submit your comics and illustrations for RESIST! All submissions should be on the theme of “NOT OUR PRESIDENT!” a.k.a. “LOVE TRUMPS HATE!” (Let’s stay focused…)”

A few days later, however, on the 27th while most of this mandate remains the same, the theme has been pared down to “All submissions should be on the theme of political resistance to the forces of intolerance” in addition to seeking a half to one page of comics art.

RESIST!, unlike AARGH! whose single edition had to purchased and whose proceeds went to support OLGA, is going to be freely distributed in 30,000 copies on Inauguration Day Jan 20, 2017 in Washington, D.C. There will also be further copies handed out on the Women’s March on Jan 21st throughout the entire United States. The page, along with Mouly herself, states that while they are seeking to have an all-women print issue, they are willing to keep an open mind.

Art Credit: Roz Chast’s Pandora’s Box

This is similar to ARRGH! While Mouly and Spiegelman’s work doesn’t seem to be collecting donations for any particular group, and ideally it will be a women-only political comic collaboration, RESIST! is focusing on “the forces of intolerance” and “political resistance.” Yet the original focus of the call to submissions can’t be forgotten: namely, the presidency of Donald Trump and the potential actions of his administration: of which there are many intersectional fears from LGBTQ+ and minority communities given both his and his chosen cabinet’s hateful campaign rhetoric and history.

Art Credit: Luke Howard’s Don’t Resist

While AARGH! seemed to fight against one clause, and RESIST! seems to have a broader focus, that view is simply misleading. Both are resistance against administrations. Both are made to artfully combat cultures of ignorance and bigotry. Even their creators weren’t, and aren’t, seeking monetary compensation for their submissions. Yet if anything while AARGH! was the result of Mad Love calling for contributions from specifically notable industry and independent artist contacts, RESIST’s open submission format, albeit one leaning towards women, seems more of –  dare I say – a democratic process open to potentially all-new voices: though I imagine established voices will be given some precedence as well.

Art Credit: Gayle Kabaker’s Women’s March

As of this writing, it is still unclear what artists will be accepted into the collaboration or if writer-artist teams will be allowed to participate. However, Mouly’s own publishing work in the realm between “high-brow” political art and underground comix, makes her a pretty good candidate to create something like AARGH! except with potentially more elements of intersectionality and inclusion while keeping RESIST! its own self. I hope I don’t have to say that this is only my opinion. You can find many of the contributions being submitted to RESIST! in its Daily Image section complete with their artists’ written thoughts and inspirations below each entry. Who knows: there may be many more works of this kind.

There might be many more Clause 28s to challenge.

Whatever else, in reading about Mouly and Spiegelman’s open submissions and being aware of contemporary news has made me revisit AARGH! I’ve wondered just how dated the work is. The answer is that aside from a seeming lack of certain kinds of diversity, both in the comic and in the field at the time (as well as now to some extent), the messages feel timeless. Joyce Brabner of Real War Stories talks about how Clause 28 was a “fear-virus” created when people were fighting against each other, and symbolizes an international threat that should be responded to accordingly with unity and humanity. Deborah Delano and Phyllis Moore in their editorial at the back of the book “Clause 28 and the Giant Mutant Algae” state that while the government is obsessed with who’s in bed with whom, they are destroying the environment and distracting everyone from what matters. This is a statement that hasn’t changed, particularly with regards to making up “problems with sexuality” to keep others from thinking about the issues that really matter.

But I think, for me, the comic that encapsulates all of human history’s problems, that remains supremely relevant, in AARGH! can be found on page 19 (the anthology’s table of contents made a typo  that claims it’s on page 20) courtesy of Dave Gibbons in form of “Just Waiting.” It is the drawing of a bus filled with people guarded by, and being beaten by police officers and soldiers. They drive by a bus stop where minority citizens of all ages are waiting. One riot officer tells them that the bus is full, but that there is another coming right up behind them. The old man’s dialogue and the stick on the bumper of the bus say it all.

Isn’t that comics page both timeless and utterly contemporary?

But here is an interesting thought. Clause 28 had a fascinating bit of wording picked up on by some pieces of AARGH! It specifically stated that a local authority couldn’t “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” What is a “pretended family relationship?” What is a “pretended family?” Perhaps there is an easier way to figure this out. Maybe, what AARGH! and other endeavours like it are made to do – what art can do – is take that concept of the “pretended family” — the relationships made without blood ties, freed and forged through vision, imagination, action and empathy – and make us realize that we are part of a greater whole.

Sometimes the only way to respond to hate and chaos is art. Because art can be a scream of anger, it can be a rallying cry, or a growl of pure frustration. It is freedom of speech, an expression and release of despair and sometimes it is beyond words and it shows the darkness while appealing to the light inside of its beholder who, in this world, is inevitably also a participant.

Propaganda and hatred might try to divide us by arbitrary differences, by convincing us that we are passive, but art can tell us that we are all participants: that in the face of hate you can, in the words of Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech from the University of the Arts, “make good art” and despite it help maintain the work that is the ultimate “pretended family”: common humanity.

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Matthew Kirshenblatt is a graduate from York University, Toronto, Ontario, and is a writer and blogger living in the city of Thornhill. He is a comics and mythology fanatic; having written his Master's thesis, "The Spirit of Herodotus in Gaiman and Moore: Narrative Spaces and their Relationships in Mythic World-Building," he also contributes science-fiction, horror, and revisionist short stories to Gil Williamson's online Mythaxis Magazine. Nowadays, he can be found writing for G33kPr0n, and creating and maintaining his Mythic Bios: a Writer's Blog, in which he describes his creative process and makes weird stories, strange articles, reviews, overall geek opinion pieces and other writing experiments.

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