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Empire for Art’s Sake

As writing, it's puerile. As art, it shines.

By 8.20.04

Nozone IX: Empire
Edited by Nicholas Blechman
(Princeton Architectural Press, 168 pages, $19.95)

Quick: Can you link Kevin Bacon to Osama bin Laden? The artist Jennifer Daniel pulls it off on page 110 of Empire, the book-length ninth issue of Nozone, an irregular journal of politically themed comics. Daniel's six-degree chain includes both Eddie Albert and George W. Bush. I'm not entirely sure what it's supposed to prove, if anything, but it's funny, and eerily evocative too.

"Empire," the volume's foreword declares, "doesn't refer to any one thing, but to a vast matrix of forces and counterforces"; it has no center, is linked to virtually everything, and "has become an aesthetic, a conditioning, a psychology, a lifestyle." Put that way, it sounds sort of vague and pseudo-intellectual. Wrap it in a Kevin Bacon joke, though, and all those "forces and counterforces" suddenly seem to take form.

The foreword has some additional handicaps that make it hard to take it seriously. In the first paragraph, it confuses the Holy Roman Empire with the Roman Empire, which is a bit like confusing Prince Edward Island with Prince. Then it suggests that wearing a sweatshirt can contribute to "labor abuse in North Korea," which sounds like it's supposed to be a critique of globalization, except that the country it invokes is infamously isolated from the global economy. (Nozone itself was printed and bound in Hong Kong.)

You get the impression that the writer wants to say something about war, imperialism, and global trade, but has only a few ill-formed impressions to go on. So he fakes it, gives us a jumble of notions, and trusts us to sort it into some kind of sense. Yet the lesson of Empire is that what makes for bad writing can also make for good art.

LET ME BACK UP a bit. Editor/designer Nicholas Blechman has been producing Nozone off and on since 1990. Past issues have tackled such themes as Work, Poverty, and Crime. Its aesthetic owes a lot to the zines of the '80s and '90s, the milieu that gave us such publications as Popular Reality, Temp Slave, and the experimental comics showcase RAW. Its contributors' politics range from liberal to anarchist, but they have always been squarely on the left. Originally self-published, Nozone now appears under the imprint of the Princeton Architectural Press -- another signal that this is a collection where aesthetic power will be valued more highly than cohesive political thought.

And so we have a host of funny, clever contributions with sometimes ambiguous themes. There is "I Am Not an Imperialist," Stefan Sagmeister's photoessay in comic-book form, in which a liberal New Yorker explains why the U.S. is not an empire while standing in front of a dozen businesses and offices with the word "empire" in their names. There is "The Mystery of St. Helena," Henning Wagenbreth's satiric tale in which Napoleon's corpse rules a subterranean dystopia. There is "States of the Union," Christoph Niemann's inventive series of maps of the United States, each colored to suggest a different form: a flag, an airplane, a skull, a heart, Dick Cheney. And there is Daniel's aforementioned "Kevin Bacon Linked to Osama bin Laden." All are extremely political, but few have a message that's easily pinned down.

Not every comic in this collection is as good as those. Ward Sutton's "Empire American Style," for example, reads like a parody of a leftist Usenet rant. ("In America," his narrator explains, "we've now merged government, church, business, and media into one big, streamlined conglomerate!") But with only a few exceptions, Empire's art outshines Empire's essays. The collection's contributors are generally better at evoking the state of the world than discussing it coherently.

To some extent that reflects the topic: Globalization, international relations, and "empire" are difficult topics in themselves, harder still if you try to weave them all together. To some extent it reflects the state of the left, which is better at discovering social problems than solving them. But mostly it reflects the nature of the medium. This is an anthology about the hazy yet overwhelming fear many people have for the new world emerging around them. It's hard to sum up such an enormous topic in a short essay -- especially if you don't know the difference between North and South Korea. But to evoke those feelings requires a talent of a different sort, one that Nozone's artists have in spades.

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