Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A., Mumia Abu-Jamal. (City Lights Books) $16.95
Abu-Jamal has been writing the same rhetoric for years, but he has avoided sinking into rote regurgitation by narrating the fascinating stories of his fellow inmates. His intelligent reasoning traces the birth of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, maps the prison-industrial-complex, and chronicles the development of jailhouse law and its practitioners. His most compelling lesson, and certainly the recurring thesis of the book, is that the law is a much more slippery concept than we generally perceive it to be, based on precedent, dominant social systems, and the power of money.
Most compelling are his stories about specific legal cases, often those of his own acquaintances, some his own. The victories are exhilarating, especially the justified exonerations, and the failures more tragic. The book reads well and is entertaining, but ultimately fails to satisfy because of its lack of solutions. Yes, racism and oppression are central to the prison system in the United States; yes, jailhouse lawyers and their inmate clients deserve more access to legal resources, to fairer representation, to basic human decency; and yes, the law taught in our history classrooms is not the law we practice, based on precedent and stageplay. But recognizing problems is always the facile half of the equation, and though Mumia offers some suggestions for smaller improvements, his failure to provide a comprehensive solution to the larger problems of the prison-industrial-complex leave the book too anecdotal, unbalanced in its description and prescription.
World War 3 – #39, ed. Peter Kuper & Kevin Pyle. (Top Shelf Comix) $5
A loosely themed magazine-style anthology of comics focusing on oppression, justice issues, pacifism, and anarchy, this issue of WW3 is a mixed bag. Though it does contain several notable comics, like “Steps of Another Man’s House” by Onur Tukel, editor Kuper’s “Going for a Last Walk,” about his time in Oaxaca, Mexico, and Andy Singer’s “Middle Management,” many others are quite droll, seemingly tied together only by their annoyingly blatant neo-liberal agenda, rendered with very little art. The retellings of indigenous folk tales, as in “El Amaru” by Carlo Quispe and “Anna and the Calabash” by Rebecca Migdal, are perhaps the most disappointing stories in the volume, as they serve primarily to exoticize their originators, failing to provide necessary context.
My favorite pieces are the most conceptual, like Barron Storey’s “Speech Impediments,” a single-page spread of faces contorted in different positions, speech snaking from their mouths in bursts and twists of air, and Mac McGill’s “Song for Katrina,” a longer piece that does a good job of personifying the storm and its affected. “Wordless Worlds,” an essay by David A. Beronä, is a particular high point, as it contextualizes this wordless issue of WW3 among earlier practitioners of wordless narratives and comics, including woodcut novelists Franz Masreel and Lynd Ward. Though certainly worth its $5 price tag, this issue occasionally dips into disappointment, owing primarily to its lack of editorial cohesion. This may be because of its allegiance to a larger sense of the World War 3 vision, as its longevity as a series has lasted decades; unfortunately it allows its weaker work to diminish the impact of its better work.