Smash Pages Q&A: Ethan Heitner

Heitner discusses co-editing this year’s volume of ‘World War 3 Illustrated,’ this year’s contributions, working with cover artist José Muñoz and more.

Ethan Heitner may not be the most well-known contributor to World War 3 Illustrated, but he’s co-edited this year’s volume of the long-running anthology with co-founders Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman.

World War 3 Illustrated is one of the best comics anthologies of recent decades and the new volume, which has the theme “The World We Are Fighting For,” is more evidence of the artistic scope and skill of the publication, but also of the depth and power of the work. It shows how important and powerful political comics can be. The best work is not about what happened yesterday but has history and perspective, and offers ways to think about the past, present, and the future in new ways.

It’s a great project and Heitner was kind enough to answer questions about the book and the process of assembling it, and his own work.

World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For. Cover by José Muñoz.

To start, how did you come to comics?

I was always reading newspaper comics. I remember early on figuring out which section of the Dewey Decimal system had comic strips. I think it was 741.95? Garfield, Ziggy, Peanuts. Some kid in third grade had Marvel Comics superhero cards. Shortly after that I started reading Marvel superhero comics – and it was all downhill from there.

When did you first get involved with World War 3 Illustrated?

I was like a lot of people where I got tired of superhero comics and there was that friend who was always introducing you to newer cooler hipper stuff? I had a friend who introduced me to Cerebus and Bone. In the 1990s Tower Records used to carry World War 3 Illustrated. I remember picking up copies and it blew my mind and rewrote what I thought comics could do.

I didn’t start thinking about making comics until many years later. It wasn’t until I came back to art school in 2007. Back then World War 3 was hard to contact because they didn’t have an e-mail address on their website, just a P.O. box. I was making comics and doing activism and I think I sent some of my comics to Peter Kuper’s e-mail, but it was too late and the deadline for that issue had passed. I was making flyers for an activist group that could be handed out on the street in 2008 and Seth Tobocman saw one of my flyers at a protest. He wrote his name and number down and gave it to the person passing out the flyer and said, here’s my name and number, I want to talk to whoever made this flyer. That’s how I got involved with World War 3.

How did you end up co-editing the new volume with Peter and Seth, and what was the process?

For each volume of World War 3 there’s a rotating cast of editors chosen from a very loosely defined editorial collective. When it’s time to start planning the next issue it’s like, “Who has time? Who has some ideas?” I co-edited #42 and then I stepped back for a couple years.

Two or three years ago we had a meeting, and Seth had the brilliant idea that we should assign the next three issues, so we didn’t have to scramble every year and we could get a little bit of lead time. Seth said, “I want to do issue #51, which is going to be the election year,” and Peter said, “I’ll do it with you,” and Seth said, “I’ll do it if Ethan joins us.” I had stepped back and I think he was trying to entice me to step back in. I think that was in 2017. Then we said, “We want to be out in September 2020,” and worked backwards and figured out when we need to have our first meeting. That was in May 2019 and the three of us sat down and said, “What do we want to do with this issue?” 

What was the process of figuring out the theme, “The World We Are Fighting For”?

Each issue of World War 3 tends to have a rough theme. The extent to which it adheres to any one theme is a question for the editors to decide. I was the one, if I recall correctly, who came to that meeting pushing for this theme. I knew it was going to come out for the election year, I knew lots of bad shit was going on, and I was tired of the same old shit. I think we need to be articulating a beautiful vision of what we’re fighting for. I felt very strongly that this is what we needed. “We” writ large. We needed to create art that presented a vision of the world we’re fighting for – and that was something people seemed to be hungry for. It was a lot more necessary and worthwhile a project than yet another editorial cartoon pointing out that Trump is bad. We know shit sucks. This is all a volunteer collective and I have a small kid and I was doing a lot of other things. The only way it was going to be worth my time is if it’s exciting to me. That was what excited me. 

I think it was a good idea and reading through it, the issue is very meaningful and inspiring.

I’m glad. Obviously we have to have stuff that’s not strictly tied to that theme. Seth would always say, “Yes, we have a theme, but we also have a responsibility to be a record of the times that we’re in.” Strong, compelling work could be shoehorned in there.

From the start, one of the features of World War 3 has been that it’s not just a collection of political and polemical work, it’s also very personal.

If you asked Seth or Peter to define what they’re looking for, they’re always interested in work that comes from the first person perspective. They would always rather get a piece by a person affected by an issue rather than someone researching it and writing it up. Also, we were hoping to expand the idea of what can be considered political art. “What is political art?” is an interesting question that doesn’t have an answer. It’s worth prodding and pushing and seeing how art can be political and what political art means. There’s call to action and agitprop, which can be done skillfully or badly. I think doing them skillfully is a goal, but there are other types of political art that create questions in the minds of people or bring about feelings. The things that we said that we’re looking for in our call to artists was, we’re also looking for things that are unanswered, things that are mysterious. I think that has real political value.

The cover we got. José Muñoz is this legendary artist who has very real socialist political commitments as an individual and someone we had been in touch with as political comrades. You sign petitions together and take collective actions together. He sent us this piece that’s the cover, this beautiful watercolor vision. He accompanied it with a quote we put on the back: “Socialist morning sky (a little bit tired) after the latest wars.” The piece isn’t telling you, “This is a political program he has.” Nor is it a traditional Marxist deconstructionist postmodern conceptual piece. That’s another frequent definition of political art. It’s just a moving and beautiful work, and it felt appropriate. I think we all trusted our gut instinct.

We had lots of arguments about what is political art? We all have our own perspectives on that – and what compelled us and interested us and moved us. We disagreed about stuff. That’s what the editorial process was like. We went out looking for cool stuff and interesting artists and we would disagree about what felt urgent and important to include in this issue. The three of us were all interested in exploring what does political art look like in 2020. Seth and Peter both got their start in the 80s and I got my start in the early 2000s. As members of the community, what do we need? What can art provide? What can we do to push things? That answer changes over time. So this issue answers that question in different ways than previous issues might have. One of the fun things about an anthology is you get a bunch of different artists who each have their own way of approaching these questions with very different results. To me, a piece near and dear to me was the Spotlight on the ABO Comix and talking to queer incarcerated artists about the comics that they’re making. That to me is a way to talk about the world we’re fighting for just as much as Colleen Tighe’s piece that lays out an actual more specific and concrete vision of what we want to accomplish in a moving and powerful way. Those two things are both the world we’re fighting for.

Seth Tobocoman. From World War 3 Illustrated #51.

I was going to ask about the piece on ABO Comix, because that was one of my favorite parts of the anthology. How did that come about?

I heard about the project and thought it was amazing and that more people need to know about it. I emailed them and they’ve had write-ups, but I said, “I want to do an interview and include both the art and voices of the artists.” I ordered all their anthologies, and I scheduled an interview with Casper Cendre, and I also talked with Casper about how to contact the artists, and they talked me through how to contact the artists and set up correspondences with them and get their own words in there along with their art.

Ben Katcher and Liners are both great artists and they approach politics more obliquely in their work.

It worked well for the issue to have them in there. It’s not all someone screaming at the top of their lungs. Not that screaming is inappropriate, but we talked in our editorial meetings about having space and room to breathe. Having humor and having beauty was important to us.

I keep thinking about the two pieces you did, illustrating the Eric Laursen piece and the ABO Comix spotlight, neither of which are doing a straight up comic. 

My original plan was to turn the Eric Laursen piece into a straight-up comic but I didn’t have time. I have a day job and a small kid, and it just didn’t work out. That piece is something that I think is really important talking about. I live in New York and that was a specific political question that I’m very invested in. We’re in this crazy moment in New York where the electoral possibilities have changed and I thought it would cool to have a piece about that. 

Susan Simensky Bietila. From World War 3 Illustrated #51.

How do you see your two pieces in the anthology in relation to the rest of the work that you’ve done and your career?

I don’t know how much of my work you’ve seen or where you’ve seen it. I am not a terribly high-profile cartoonist and I am not a terribly productive cartoonist. A lot of the comics I started making for myself were like the ones that got Seth’s attention. This is a political issue I’m interested in, I’m working with other people, and I’m going to make a comic about this issue to explain what it is and here’s what you can do about it. They were very information driven and journalistic, frequently very polemic. I think they are valuable and worth doing, but I wanted to get more ambitious. I wanted to make longer stories, though I’ve done very few long stories. I want to find ways to visually represent action and political language and what’s our visual language for talking about who our opponents are and what our issues are.

I’ve come across a few comics of yours over the years around Palestine and BDS.

For many years my main political commitment was Palestine activism and solidarity. I made comics that I thought would be politically useful. It’s a great thing to be able to contribute to a political effort using your artistic abilities. One of the cool things about that is that I got activist groups to print thousands of copies of my work and distribute them all over New York. That was very satisfying. My work got seen widely. Far more people than if I had self published them and sold them at comic festivals because it was being handed out all over the city. The Palestine stuff is still very important to me but I’m less involved with that now for a variety of reasons. Wanting to focus more on issues that are local to me, and engaging in the community where I am physically located. There are a number of artists doing that work now that have their own voices. The work in New York is very urgent because it’s where I live, and nobody else is doing it. Also, it’s hard to find time to make comics. I knew that having a kid would mean there would be a gap of a couple years when I wouldn’t make any comics. I’ve started again and I don’t know what I’m going to do next.

It’s a fabulous issue.

I’m so pleased. I feel like World War 3 doesn’t get the attention it deserves in the comics world and the larger world. I think it’s a pretty amazing project and this issue I really hope is seen by people. We’ve done some good work and put together a cool piece of art. 

Bec Young. From World War 3 Illustrated #51.

And you mentioned the cover, which is very striking. I had no idea it was Muñoz.

It doesn’t look like anything Muñoz is known for, which was cool.

It worked and really fit with the idea of something new, looking ahead.

Issue 50 had a unique cover, but the string of covers before I was like, “We cannot have a black on black all goth death metal cover. We’ve got to change it up.” [laughs] That was not a big fight. As soon as we saw this piece, I think we were all hesitant to share it with each other, but we all wanted it to be the cover. We knew this piece was a winner. I’m glad it’s having that impact because it’s such a beautiful cover. 

It’s an incredible privilege to be able to write to a bunch of your favorite artists and say, “Hey what are you working on? Got anything you want to share with us?” It was so much fun to have these cool comics and pieces and pitches and submissions to sort through and compare and share and be introduced to each other’s favorite artists. And then put that together and tell people, “You might know this person, but you need to see this incredible timely and powerful work that’s also kind of timeless.” It’s a pleasure. It’s a privilege.

I’m sure with everything going on, it was nice to be able to step back and work on a project like this.

It is a truism in the activism work I’ve done and the community organizing work I’ve learned from that there is always the urgency of the moment – and there is always the long term. You have to be able to keep your eye on the long term to accomplish powerful things. Knowing we need to produce this issue a year in advance and not being able to predict how crazy the past year has been and not give into the panic. At some point in April we were like, “Is print publishing going to continue to exist?” We were able to include immediate responses and pieces that did take a longer gestation. Seth’s piece is this very long personal piece about his lifelong engagement is not tied to any particular moment, but Peter and I said, “This is an incredibly turbulent time and you have a lot of stories that are useful to people.” It’s good history for people to have and experiences to share.

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