Stan Mack’s “Real Life Funnies” strip, created in the mid-1970s for the “Village Voice,” presaged the documentary comics of artists such as Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco. And now it appears that his Print feature from 17 years ago also anticipated today’s digital communications environment.
Here’s Mack’s personal, behind-the-scenes details about one such story. It involves freedom fighters, street signage, and political and technological revolutions.
“In many countries, the Internet is the only way to get an alternative point of view in, and the Internet’s arrival could destabilize some of these autocratic regimes…” – Eric Schmidt
“The natural action for… autocratic governments… will be to balkanize the Internet.” – Jared Cohen
In an NPR interview promoting their book, “The New Digital Age,” earlier this week, Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen discussed the power of the internet in repressive cultures, making specific reference to Burma. It got me thinking about a strip I did for Print magazine in 1996, “Guerrilla Graphics.” It was part of a series that I labeled “From the Front Line.” In it I summed up conversations I had with Burmese dissidents in Yangon, Burma—including local cartoonists—as well as in Bangkok and New York. I edited their words—but didn’t change any—and put them in the mouth of one of the dissident who had escaped Burma and was living in Brooklyn. It struck me that he was instinctively imagining the future that Schmidt and Cohen are describing.
In 1995, my partner, Janet Bode, and I flew from Thailand to Burma. Burma was ruled by military strongmen. The country was stagnating. The people had no political freedom, were forced into hard labor and were isolated from the outside world. The generals’ political party had the comic bad-guy acronym of “SLORC” (State Law and Order Restoration Council).
We arrived with names of pro-democratic people who were doing what they could from inside the country to oppose the military junta, and we spent some time with them. One of my most vivid memories is standing in the street outside the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese democracy leader and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. For six years, she’d been kept under house arrest for, as the generals said, “endangering the state.” She would stand up inside the stone wall and speak to people brave enough to gather in front, which included plainclothes police noting who was there.
Why did we go, you might ask, when many here in America said that travel to Burma only supports a brutal regime? We thought if we could spread some dollars among ordinary people, not stay in the fancy government sponsored hotels, and at least show some people the real face of outsiders—not the fiction the generals spread—it could be a positive thing.
Looking at two other strips from my Print series, “Hooked” and “Mastering Web Design,” I realize that many of the stories had to do with the mysterious new technologies that were changing the world. Ones that I and many others who had worked with drawing paper, razor blade, and rubber cement had grown up in. It was that point, along with my interest in foreign cultures and human rights, that prompted me to do the Burma story. And speaking of rebellion, this was also the time when I was researching my American Revolution book.
After traveling around Burma, we flew back to Bangkok and spoke with two other freedom fighters. When we returned to New York, we met with a young man who had escaped Burma. In the strip, we walked through the flood of signage that is thrown in our faces every day—the clash of old and new technologies, the financial and educational services catering to immigrants, the street food—which represents the basics of American immigrant life contrasted with the life he and other dissidents experienced in Burma and in the jungle on the Burmese border.
Looking at this strip now, I like the idea that Print and I are on record for predicting the new digital revolution.
Of course, the new technologies don’t just fuel protest movements on the moral high ground. The marathon bombers learned how to make bombs on the internet. The government discovered who they were through the digital cameras that are everywhere and learned about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev through social media. Drone pilots sit in a control room in an American suburb and track suspected insurgents thousands of miles away. And they send missiles after human targets.
As the saying goes, it’s not the gun but the person holding the gun that matters.
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