In this third part of our interview with Susie Cagle, we discuss Food Not Bombs’ reaction to Nine Gallons, the difficulties of political criticism, and the importance of picking your battles in the indie comics community.
You mentioned that you were working on a “harsh” political piece. Is that national politics?
I do these—they’re not quite weekly, but weeklyish cartoons for the SF Appeal, which is a San Francisco news site. They are generally—not national, but not always super-local. They have a specific California or San Francisco connection. I think of them as editorial comics more than cartoons, because it’s usually a few little cartoons in one and there’s usually a narrative, and I try to make a few different points. And there’s usually text that goes along with the images.
It’s easier to be harsh when dealing with topics on a national scale. Something that has defined a lot of your online discourse is the need to point out things you see as wrong.
I love your magnanimous description [laughs].
In comics, people tend to tiptoe around criticism. Is that part of why you described the scene as being so nice and welcoming?
Sure. And it’s a small crowd, and you don’t want to rock the boat when there are only ten of you in it. It’s funny, because the first cartoon I did for the SF Appeal, I totally made fun of this local columnist. I really hate this guy. And he’s just a columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle. I’m sure that half the people in San Francisco—more than half—I’m sure that half the people who read The Chronicle every day don’t know who this guy is. But it was very important to me to have him in this comic [laughs], because his opinions are so crazy and messed up.
I didn’t really have a problem with that, though I’m glad that I took law in journalism school and learned all about libel.
And public figures.
Right, who counts as a public figure. You’re much more protected in comics, because it’s satire.
And that criticism crosses over into comics? Are you afraid of pissing “the wrong” people off? I’m sure he’s not a case of that—he’s not really in a position to give you a job.
Sure, though I would love to work at The Chronicle, if anyone from The Chronicle reads this. They could always use more comics.
My goal is never—not never–to very, very rarely make someone angry. That is not why I comment, that is not why I hold people’s feet to the fire or criticize things that are happening. I don’t want to piss people off, I don’t want to fight, I just want to talk about things that it seems like people are uncomfortable talking about. I want to open up that discussion. I want to make that available. That doesn’t seem to be the way things have been.
In regards to politics, the last administration gave editorial cartoonists so many low-hanging fruits.
People started laying into Obama once his approval rating dropped, but they were initially hesitant to attack him during the campaign and early on in his first year. I don’t know whether people were afraid to push the wrong buttons, or whether the last couple of years made people out of shape, when it came to critcism.
Yeah, out of shape. And I think surprised that suddenly we have this politician on a national level who we don’t loathe. I think that a lot of people didn’t quite know what to do with that, and they had to get comfortable with it. It requires a finer tool than the George W. Bush sledge hammer. You can just put a cowboy hat on him and call it a day.
I say this as though all editorial cartoonists were liberal, which they are not: but criticizing something you like is much more difficult.
The first two issues of Nine Gallons are pretty critical toward the San Francisco wing of Food Not Bombs.
And it’s obviously a cause you feel strongly about. Was it something you were hesitant to be hyper-critical of?
I definitely felt like I had to walk a line there. I was conscious of not only showing the bad. I wanted there to be light-hearted moments and moments of real good, because I was afraid that people who are not familiar with Food Not Bombs or people who have preconceived notions about the homeless population—especially in San Francisco, where it’s a huge problem—that they would see the negative and see it as this damning portrait.
That’s really not my intention. I think that would be really boring, just in general, writing or drawing about something that is just terrible in every possible way. I guess I’m interested in gray areas.
There’s a moment in the second book where you blow up at your roommate.
And there’s a realization in there that maybe taking it out on her wasn’t the appropriate response.
Absolutely. And that I was being a total hypocrite.
Has anyone from Food Not Bombs responded to the book?
There are a couple of people who are not in the book, but who were edited out for various reasons, who found the book on their own or found my Website, and they said that everything I wrote was completely true. And one of the most interesting things is, Keith McHenry, who is one of the co-founders back in the 80s, contacted me last year because he had heard about the book.
He was really excited about it, and then I sent it to him [laughs]. He sent me this long e-mail telling me how there are so many great Food Not Bombs chapters, and here some links to the functional ones. And I met him at the Anarchist Book Fair in San Francisco, last March. He was a really nice guy, and we talked for a really long time. And that’s something I’m planning on putting in the third issue.
He understood and shared a lot of my frustration. And he had his various theories and reasons as to why San Francisco had become so dysfunctional. He got the sense that it had made me not believe in Food Not Bombs at all, which is not what I feel. But he seemed like he wanted to convince me how great it could be.
Are you still involved with the organization?
Uh, no. I don’t live in that neighborhood anymore. That’s part of what drew me to it. I was living in the Tenderloin, and I liked the idea of volunteering to try to make my neighborhood better. I live in Oakland/South Berkeley now, and there ae Food Not Bombs chapters nearby, but it seems like it’s a different crowd here.
[Concluded in Part Four]