Our first image is a body bathed in the shadow of a police officer. The body is lifeless, and its ankles are slouched to suggest that this person had fallen face first onto the ground. In the officer’s hand is a gun, which is aimed to convey a readiness to fire and fire again. Flowing from the gun’s barrel are little droplets of blood that spread out and speckle the officer and his anonymous victim. The officer looks on with apathy, and the captions read: “I’ve been involved in three shootings myself, and not one of them has bothered me.” Coupled together, the violence of the gun and the coldness of the officer evoke a sense of the macabre, which pervades the whole tableaux. Though we are not witness to their viciousness, we understand that viciousness as totally mundane to them: scary precisely because it is perceived as banal. Viewing them from this perspective, the police officer changes shape, shifting from the endearing, charming, hardworking, respectable and upstanding images that we’ve all been force-fed over the last century to more closely resemble a monster or a demon.
If this description of I’m a Cop’s opening page could be easily applied to any number of the police killings that regularly circulate on our social media feeds, it is precisely because author Johnny Damm composed it in order to produce those resemblances. Begun during the summer of 2020 and formulated in response to the various uprisings and street rebellions common during that period, the work is a collage that combines the statements of police union representatives with art from various comic book series published by Harvey Comics in order to frame policing as violence work. “To study the police is to study death,” as cultural criminologist Travis Linnemann puts it in his afterword. Indeed, Damm treats his reader to police claiming that their violence is both justified and good, that anti-police attitudes represent a reversal of the world order, and that another Trump presidency is the only way to stave off anarchy and disorder. While some of these statements are played out over two or three pages, the comic lacks any overarching narrative. It functions instead as the recitation of a motif: the repeated juxtaposition of police violence and police apathy; a monstrous figuration of the police that emerges through an accumulation of otherwise unassuming images. When they are not represented as the agents of violence, the police are transformed into skeletal figures conjuring a social tempest, as snakes lurking in the blackness of night for their moment to pounce. The page layouts, Damm told me via email, are taken from Planet Comics (Fiction House, debuted 1940), and they are characterized by odd shapes and sharp, oblique angles. The panels lock together like puzzle pieces forced into place in spite of themselves, and the whole thing is jagged and uncomfortable. At every level, then, I’m a Cop alienates us from the police (or, rather, it shows us how alien they already are) by rendering them as something unnerving, something to be feared, something we should refuse to tolerate.
In part, Damm cultivates this intolerability by punctuating the book with vintage ads. Many of these ads come from a short-lived 1954 series also titled I’m a Cop, which was published by Magazine Enterprises in collaboration with the NYPD. “Members of the N.Y. CITY POLICE DEPARTMENT helped in the preparation of this book,” each issue proudly boasts on its cover. Depicting officers as engaged in a righteous and dangerous war against street crime, which is shaking the foundations of society, these covers overstate the role of police in the production of safety and health while, at the same time, completely obscuring their role in the production of death and instability. It is, in other words, an unambiguous piece of copaganda. By stealing from this comic in particular, Damm appropriates work designed to secure the political legitimacy of the police as an institution and redeploys it in order to question the grounds of that legitimacy. Because Damm mostly steals from comics published before the arrival of the Comics Code Authority, which explicitly prohibited negative depictions of police or positive depictions of crime/criminals, it is possible that some of the original comics may have painted police in unflattering light. Accordingly, it is hard to discern what pages reroute copaganda specifically and what pages do not. What’s important, though, is that I’m a Cop’s meat and bones are stolen from the police themselves and reanimated through a militant opposition to their progenitor: a vengeful return of that which the police work to repress.
This is not to suggest, however, that Damm authors a critique of police “brutality” or this or that instance of police “misconduct.” Rather, he posits that policing itself is brutal and police conduct is the problem. Rather than galvanizing desire for police reform, Damm cultivates a desire for police abolition: a total and complete end to the police as an institution and policing as a social function. “This is a totally unreformable institution,” he tells me, “so we need to be doing the work of imagining something new.” While Damm’s project is not exactly concerned with doing that imagination work, it does other important work in and as a part of that political project (the breadth and history of which exceeds the confines of this review). By reframing the police as unreformable and moving beyond the framework of reform, Damm makes abolition seem more practical and more desirable. This does not necessarily mean that everyone who reads I’m a Cop will go on to imitate the people of Minneapolis and burn a police precinct to the ground. Though, they may be more inclined to see others doing so and feel good; to be more likely to defend those actions in conversations with friends and family; to hope and pray that similar confrontations erupt; and to support those actions with their labor, energy, and resources when they inevitably do.
But if I’m a Cop demonstrates the work of art in producing abolitionist consciousness, it also embodies the limitations of art. After all, this comic is not a mass production. Indeed, its indicia indicates that the first printing is only 250 copies. There are quite literally not that many copies to go around. And if there were, who would read them? Published on thick, glossy paper, the 28-page comic costs $8.00 and is available primarily through Damm’s personal webstore. In an age where the typical Batman comic is $4.99, this is not an especially high price point, but it is more than the average comic reader is likely to spend for such a thin book, and it requires more work to discover than they are likely to put in. If they do discover it, they are treated to something that makes demands on them; something that requires their attention, consideration, and reflection, something that simply cannot be passively consumed in the way that mass media can be. While this is the source of I’m a Cop’s power, it is also a constraint on the book’s potential readership.
Rather than undermining the comic, however, these elements draw our attention to them as a function of the politics organizing them. Abolition, insofar as I understand it, asks us to think critically about the social relations that compose our lives and the conditions under which those lives are lived. By taking up an abolitionist politics, Damm pushes us to ask questions about our values and how they can be transformed through and by art. In doing so, we find ourselves asking critical questions about the conditions under which that art is made and experienced. "Who has access to it?", for instance, and "Why?" In this way, the work contradicts itself; it is, in fact, produced by and in an ensemble of contradictions. Following the abolitionist insight that prisons and the police are interlinked with and help to secure flows of capital and the subordination of workers to bosses, we can understand these contradictions as those inherent to the capitalist social order, which constrains Damm’s critique and provokes it in equal measure. He urges us to improve ourselves as readers precisely because there are forces that inhibit most everyone’s capacity to read: the demands on time, labor, attention, and energy that a capitalist economy makes on those of us who work for a living; demands that are, as Damm demonstrates, often articulated through the application of violence, which is to say through the police. Though this demonstration is not beyond criticism, the practice of such criticism enables us to ask serious questions about the role of police in society, the role of art and mass media in legitimating that role, what kind of world can we build instead, and what role will art play in that building.