Comics, Form, and Anarchy
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Comics, Form, and Anarchy

At least since their modern inception in the late nineteenth century, comics have been deeply entwined with anti-authoritarian politics and resistance. As the various contributors to this special issue point out, comics have played (and continue to play) a particularly significant role in the history of anarchist thought, whether in the form of satirical cartoons aimed at deflating authority, rousing calls to arms, or visual histories portraying specific instances of anarchist organization. While comics thereby have served as a vehicle for the dissemination of anarchist ideologies, and, conversely, anarchism has provided the ideological fodder for much political cartooning, scholars of either field have until now only rarely paid attention to this apparent overlap. One notable exception is Jesse Cohn, whose work on anarchist visual culture has often touched directly as well as indirectly on the particular relationship between anarchism and comics art. According to Cohn, comics "bear the trace of a certain historic association with the anarchist movements of the late nineteenth and early-to-mid-twentieth centuries," an association he investigates thematically through such lenses as caricature and narrative. Cohn's contribution in this special issue, an examination of the diagram as an exemplary form of anarchist comics, continues his engagement with theorizing this important connection.

But where Cohn's approach often emphasizes historical considerations or investigates the political potential of individual comics, what I would like to suggest in the following is both a more general and an even deeper formal relationship between comics and anarchism. The examination of this fundamental relationship will serve to illustrate how similar organizational and communicational principles are embedded within these two apparently disparate forms of human expression, and will therefore also make an argument for why an understanding of the history and form of comics is incomplete without a consideration of anarchism, and vice versa. In order to provide an example of how the two traditions have fruitfully cross-pollinated each other, I end by offering an examination of several anarchism-inflected underground comix from the American counterculture years and beyond, including a reading of perhaps the most explicit attempt to bear out this relationship in practice, namely the four-issue series Anarchy Comics (1978-1987). In my reading of Anarchy Comics, additionally, I expand my analysis beyond narrow structural [End Page 11] concerns and discuss various other anarchism-inflected strategies of visual narrative available to comics makers, including such punk-inspired techniques as collage and the satirical redeployment of corporate comics and cartoon characters for subversive purposes. While my focus in what follows is thus largely on formal features, my argument ultimately aims to illuminate the relationship between comics and anarchism at the levels of both form and content.

Throughout its history, the political philosophy of anarchism has been based on principles of non-hierarchical social organization, such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's concept of "spontaneous order," Mikhail Bakunin's anti-capitalist collectivism, and Peter Kropotkin's notion of "mutual aid," the latter developed partly in response to social-Darwinist views of human society as inherently based on competition and conflict between individuals seeking power. Considering power and authority—as embodied often, but not exclusively, by the state—to be unnecessary, undesirable, and ultimately oppressive, anarchism favors instead individual freedom and voluntary cooperation. As a radically anti-authoritarian ideology and praxis, anarchism thus opposes all forms of hierarchical structures on the grounds that their power can only be achieved through violence (or the threat thereof) and other forms of oppression directed at individuals.

Since the early 1990s, certain postanarchist writing has sought to challenge what it considers a simplified or outdated concept of power by using poststructuralist theory to highlight and analyze the complex network of hierarchical power structures that have supplanted the twin pillars of capitalism and the state as the principal modes of domination in late modernity. Borrowing the concept of the rhizome from Deleuze and Guattari, theorists of postanarchism instead focus their analysis on "fluid political and changeable social identities that come into conflict with hierarchical power," in order to show how "like a rhizome, power works through 'connection and heterogeneity' (difference). Its roots intersect and sometimes merge...


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