Not for Children

Review of How to Commit Suicide in South Africa by Sue Coe and Holly Metz. Raw Books and Graphics. 42 pages, $5.00.

How to Commit Suicide in South Africa is not easy to find in bookstores. To obtain it you may have to write to the publisher or else seek it out in comic book emporia, alongside The Fantastic Four and Superman. It is an underground comic, and like many underground comics it is a scabrous, gritty, disturbing treatment of its subject -- definitely not for children, or for the fainthearted.

It is also a very serious treatment of the horrors of apartheid, an attempt to get under the reader's skin, to convey some of the quiet desperation and justified paranoia that belong to the experience of being black in South Africa. Working almost entirely in shades of black and white, with an occasional touch of red for blood or to highlight a salient quotation, artist Sue Coe utilizes not only the political art of the past but also today's commercial art to create the stuff of nightmares. There are images of interrogation, beating, and outright murder, of rape and torture and warfare, as well as quiet views of black miners crawling through tunnels or the unemployed standing at Depression-style streetcorners. Many of the scenes are drenched in shadow, in keeping with the motto scrawled across one picture: "Everything takes place at night." The heads of the killers resemble those of dogs, baboons, or lizards. Some are simply formless red-lipped masks with sharp teeth, looking as if they were molded out of dead flesh. The bloated capitalists and thuggish soldiers are reminiscent of George Grosz, while the skewed perspectives, crowded canvases and birdfooted creatures in some of these pictures derive from Bosch.

Even stranger and more troubling is Sue Coe's use of popular images and disposable culture in making her art. Some scenes are reworked from press photos or include photomontages together with what seem to be monoprints or black-and-white paintings. A Saturday-morning cartoon cat or a torturer who looks like a character from The Yellow Submarine will turn up in a version, say, of the killing of Steve Biko. Coe never makes the mistake of blunting her message with aesthetic refinements. She is capable, as in the double-page "War" picture, of making art so ugly you can hardly look at it.

She can also paint pictures of a rare beauty and grace. Often these have religious overtones. The lifted arms of a black man at gunpoint make a Crucifixion shadow on the wall behind him, and a view of Neil Aggett in his coffin alludes to the Deposition from the Cross. The gestures of her human figures are especially good: the supplicating, warding, or submissive hands of the victims, and the ugly, lumbering, oversized limbs of the killers. It is a possible objection that we see too much of black South Africans as victims, as agonized faces in the gloom. In one picture a knot of protesters raises its fists in a strike at the Sigma auto plant, but they are far away and dim. In the foreground a man with a pistol is shooting someone down. This, however, is Sue Coe's vision, and with her talent for pain it is almost unseemly to ask for a cheerful side.

Accompanying the artwork in How to Commit Suicide, and bolstering its raw emotion with historical fact, is the text by Holly Metz. Beginning with a brief chronology of South African history, she moves on to concise discussions of black education, labor, and juvenile delinquency; the bantustans; and a careful treatment of detention and torture. Metz has a good eye for the telling quotation: Jimmy Kruger's "A man can damage his brain in many ways" (commenting on Biko's death) or Louis LeGrange's "If it were not for the Aggett case, we would have a pretty good record since the Biko case." On the inside back cover she provides meticulous footnotes, a bibliography and helpful references to other sources of information.

For all its violent nihilism, How to Commit Suicide in South Africa does more than shock. It takes care to give the reasons for the poisoned existence it depicts, and to channel the fright and nausea it generates in the proper direction. It is hard to imagine a reader going through it even once and remaining unmoved, or reacting in quite the same way afterwards to such terms as "homelands," "separate development," or "constructive engagement." The authors say their work was meant to spark further interest and action, and it is clear that it will do just that.

Published in IDAF News Notes, August 1984.