Thinking in Pictures

Posted by on February 25th, 2010 at 9:29 AM

In an earlier post, I wondered whether Will Eisner’s distinction between “instructional” and “entertainment” comics could be applied to the work of someone like Tom Kaczynski, whose mini-comics and short graphic stories are mainly concerned with the play of ideas.

When we focus on the question of abstract thinking in relation to comics we tend, I think, to point to formal experiments and liminal cases (like those showcased in the thought-provoking Abstract Comics; see my comments here), or to projects like Action Philosophers and Marx for Beginners, which use comics as a sweetener to introduce high-end concepts to otherwise reluctant readers. Tom Kaczynski’s witty, cerebral and sometimes mordant work points in a different direction, where comics becomes a platform for thinking out loud – in a story-based context – rather than either pushing the medium’s boundaries or summarizing key lives and historical events.

Kaczynski was born in Gdansk, Poland in the early 1970s. His father worked as an engineer, while his mother was a computer programmer. He moved with his family to West Germany in 1986, a few years after the repression of the Solidarnosc movement. Less than two years later, they were living in the United States.

Now based in Minneapolis, he crafts observant, often haunting mini-comics and graphic stories that grapple with both the official Communism he knew as a child and what he deems “the oversaturated wasteland of today.” His work is unusual in that it not only invokes political themes, but starts from the premise that the present won’t last and that we should try and figure out what we want from the future.

Growing up under Communist rule, Kaczynski idolized American culture. As he writes in Trans Siberia, a self-published mini that came out in 2007:

All I wanted were products that to my mind were vaguely American. USA and Reagan were where my allegiance lay. I hated all the lame Eastern European cartoons and movies. I deliberately got C’s in Russian at school.

As he got older, his relationship to his Communist past and what he calls “infinite growth capitalism” became more complicated. Trans Siberia, along with its companion comics Trans Alaska and Trans Atlantis, depicts its author as a bewildered exile from a vanished and deeply imperfect past, struggling to make sense of the world around him.

“Where is knowledge and wisdom in the age of information overload?” he asks. “This incessant stream of information, good and bad, it does something to you, a deadening, a mental coma,” he complains. In fact, Kaczynski’s anxiety-ridden, pen-and-ink surrogate spends all three comics searching for that “kernel of temporal resistance” that recalcitrant malcontent types always go on about.

The stories reprinted in Cartoon Dialectics, Vol. 1 (2007) are similarly concerned with the disconcerting gap between hype and reality. His hero Ransom Strange, whose exploits open the volume, uses clove cigarettes, obsolete technology and “immaterialist psychonautics” to give a “dialectical emetic” to a Cthulhu-like corporate monster. “This is 2012,” declares this brave humanist from the future. “There is much to be done. The future won’t create itself.” The juxtaposition between Kaczynski’s playful visuals and his fierce intellectual preoccupations is part of what makes his work so appealing.

In political terms, Tom Kaczynski is hard to pin down. In a 2008 interview with Gary Groth, Kaczynski said that,

what I’m looking for is alternatives to the Utopias that we have. We should maybe pause and look at classic Utopias to counteract these capitalist luxury consumer fantasies that proliferate everywhere. To a certain extent I’m bothered that most of my critiques are so negative. I want to be able to put forth a positive Utopia. Something that inspires one to move forward.

After pointing out that markets “in general have worked for centuries and do certain things very, very well,” Kaczynski told Groth that

markets are taking over way too much of our lives…I’m definitely not pro-Republican or pro-Democrat. I find both parties to be kind of reprehensible. The debate in this country is very skewed by these two parties that basically co-opt the entire debate into red or blue. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world rather than a small change in the political system.

Tom Kaczynski’s graphic stories have appeared in The Drama, Punk Planet, and Backwards City Review. For the past few years he has been a regular contributor to MOME. His mini-comics are available from uncivilizedbooks.com.

Next time I promise to excerpt my on-stage conversation with Tom Kaczynski at last year’s MoCCA Festival.

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2 Responses to “Thinking in Pictures”

  1. Jason Overby says:

    Nice overview. Kaczynski is one of the best cartoonists out there.

  2. Kent Worcester says:

    Thanks. One of the things I especially like about his work is how it hints at such amazing things to come…