INTERVIEW: Casper Cendre Talks Prism Award Winner A.B.O. Comix: A Queer Prisoners Anthology Vol 4
A.B.O. Comix is a collective of creators and activists that amplifies the voices of LGBTQ+ prisoners through art, giving marginalized community members inside prisons a way to express themselves creatively with the help of prison abolitionist and queer advocacy organizations. The profits generated by A.B.O.Comix go back to the LGBTQ+ incarcerated artists, especially those with little resources. The A.B.O. Comix: A Queer Prisoners Anthology Vol 4, edited by A.B.O.’s Casper Cendre, won a 2021 Prism Award for Best Anthology.
Prism Comics had a chance to speak with A.B.O. Comix co-founder Casper Cendre about his prison abolition work and the importance of diverse voices in comics. Through A.B.O.’s artistic activism, the publisher hopes to redefine concepts of justice in America.
Rebecca Kaplan: How did the A.B.O. Comix collective of creators and activists come to be? How closely do you work with prison abolitionist and queer advocacy organizations?
Casper Cendre: We came to be a baby project in 2017. I had been doing stuff with Black and Pink for years and had a bunch of incarcerated PenPals who were also artists. My friends Io Ascarium and Woof were big into DIY comics and zines, and we decided to try and link the two things. We reached out to my PenPals, who were already submitting art to me to hold for them or try to sell on Etsy, and asked if they were interested in submitting work for a comic project. They were wholly jazzed and signed on immediately, saying, “We are 100% down for this, and I will get you a comic next week.”
We also took out a call for submissions in the Black and Pink newspaper. We thought we would have maybe ten contributors and have them make a comic about what life was like in prison. Instead, it exploded on us. We got hundreds of responses to it.
Since then, we have published five annual comic anthologies by queer prisoners, a collection of poetry artwork, short essays called Confined Before COVID-19 about how the pandemic affects people inside prison, and more. So far, we’ve published eight solo books, and we’ve got another 15 planned for this year. We have an office space and an entire team of volunteers now, so we are taking on many new projects this year. We are also branching out with a podcast, hiring a full staff, and hoping to open a retail storefront to sell our books, artwork, and merchandise.
Kaplan: Can you define prison abolition?
Cendre: No shade for prison abolition being a confusing topic because much of the language surrounding it is out of a textbook and not accessible to the public. After over a decade of working with people in prison, I recognize that many of them are not prison abolitionists. Instead, most think a prison system should temporarily separate people from society who harmed others while helping them address issues that led to their cycle of incarceration. Many people think of this as the rehabilitative process.
A.B.O. Comix, and my ideology, take it further in thinking that the rehabilitation process for people struggling in a society doesn’t need to mean locking them in a cage 24/7 and subjecting them to, if not actual abuse from guards and other prisoners, then intentional neglect: people are left with nothing to do except stare at a wall for 24 hours a day for decades. Prison abolition envisions solutions to societal issues that do not require caging human beings like wild animals and returning to the idea that all humans have inherent value; we shouldn’t give up on them. As community members, if we see people struggling, it is our moral responsibility to assist in the best way possible and be there for one another by correcting root issues in our society.
Kaplan: Is A.B.O. Comix Edition IV any different from the previous anthologies? What other details can you tell us about it?
Cendre: The fourth anthology is my favorite in the series for many reasons, although each has a special place in my heart. The first reason is it’s the first time we’ve ever published in full color. We exist solely on the kindness of our community to supply us with donations and fundraising. Previously, we couldn’t afford to print in color, and this was the first year we could because we had grant funding. It was exciting for our contributors, too, because there’s not a lot of color in prison. To get a book of rainbowy, lovely, beautiful goodness meant a lot to many of our contributors.
Second, it came out in 2020. Historically, this will be one of those periods where 30, 40, and 50 years from now, hopefully, we’re all still here and reminiscing together. We will look back on 2020 and go, “That’s the year that changed the world.” Many people in prison were feeling that very heavily too. COVID was running rampant through the prison system. Almost every prison that we correspond with was on indefinite lockdown through the entire year of 2020, and many people were getting very sick and watching those around them die.
They couldn’t contact family members or friends because nobody was allowed into the day room to access phones. They were so short-staffed that even the prison’s warden was running and staffing the mailroom because all the guards were out sick with COVID. Hospitals were so overwhelmed with COVID cases they were not taking prisoners when they got it. It was a scary time. That’s highly expressed in the fourth anthology.
We saw an influx of people who wanted to share their stories in 2020. Our submissions slowed in 2021 as people started to get a handle on COVID, but in 2020, many people sent submissions to us thinking, “This might be the last time I ever get to tell the world my story. I could realistically die here, and this might be the last time.” I get emotional when I talk about this; it was challenging for the A.B.O. family, both incarcerated and in the free world. We answered thousands of letters from people who thought they would die and be entirely forgotten by the world and have nothing to show for the life that they had lived.
Getting to publish so many people was an absolute honor for me. Getting to share what they’re going through and have people on the outside read it, take note of it, and find value in it, is very affirming for our contributors. It showed them people care about them and that their lives have value. I don’t know if I can find the words for how much it means to have that recognition for people who have otherwise never been published.
Then to say, “I won an award. My art was part of a thing that won an award,” and to show it to people they care about and have it be put on their parole applications possibly, and then to also have a team on their side, that helps so much. Also, having more people pick up their stories, connect with the work, and maybe learn something new that might change their perspective. It’s not anything I ever thought we would accomplish with this project, but that has been beautiful. Speaking to trans people incarcerated within the system has been such an interesting dilemma to work with because many times, there’s this idea that all trans people within the prison system want the same thing, and they don’t.
Kaplan: How did Dark Matters and Prophesy: Secrets of the Ouija Board by Jeferson de Souza come to be?
Cendre: The creator, Jeferson de Souza, started writing to us in 2017. When Jeferson wrote us, he had seen a call for submissions in a queer newsletter. He was very forthcoming and said, “I know it sounds unbelievable, but I’m just trying to tell you what happened.” For total transparency, I assumed he was somebody with an overactive imagination for the first year or so. At the time, he was incarcerated under the name “Richard Romero” but claimed his birth name was “Jeferson de Souza.” He said he had a history of working with the United States government, doing paranormal and extraterrestrial research on black budget projects. Again, when he told me this, I was like, “Okay, Jeferson, whatever you say.”
I researched some of his claims and true identity, and everything he alleged was factual. I was trying, almost desperately, to poke holes in his story because I didn’t know what to believe. I didn’t want to publish incorrect information and put it into the public sphere. However, the longer I worked with him, the more I believed what he told me was true.
The story in Jeferson’s book, and we’re working on more books with him, is that governments contracted him to work on, essentially, finding out how to harness alien technology for government institutions, research, and military technology. His opinion is the United States government has tried very hard to delegitimize anything concerning extraterrestrial knowledge. They have worked very hard to make anybody who alleges that maybe aliens do exist or there are some paranormal things that we can’t explain in the world into a laughing stock. Then people think they’re crazy and write them off as conspiracy theorists. I believe he started writing down his research from memory when he was incarcerated and kept the manuscripts.
When he was incarcerated, he found a PenPal who said he was willing to work with Jeferson to help him publish his manuscripts and get them out there into the world. Unfortunately, that person ended up stealing a bunch of his manuscripts and publishing them, and now they’re doing well selling-wise on Amazon. Jeferson’s even credited as the book’s author, but he never heard back from the person who published them, and he never received a dime for them. It’s a messed-up story. I tried to reach out to that person, but they never responded to me.
Dark Matters and Prophesy will be the first in a series. It details the history of Ouija boards, dating back to ancient Mesopotamia from the very first written records we have of anything resembling modern-day Ouija boards, where now we interact with Ouija boards as a novelty product. He goes into spiritualism and mysticism and how this has been used for various purposes. He delves into the science of what happens when communicating with entities. All of that went very far over my head. That was hard, too, because I was like, “I’m not a scientist. I don’t know.” I just crossed my fingers that a lot of that is accurate. The highlight of the book for me was the last chapter. He details a scientific experiment that is another black budget project; allegedly, the United States government attempted to make contact with an entity via an Ouija board and then see, to the best of their ability, what would happen on the entity side. What the entity saw and experienced. It’s a fascinating read, and I’m excited to work with him on more books.
Kaplan: Do you think major comic book publishers could learn something from A.B.O.?
Cendre: I think there’s room for us to learn from each other; everybody doing something different can learn from each other. When we started A.B.O. Comix, I had to learn the entire industry from the ground floor up. Thankfully, I had Io and Woof along for the ride, who were more well-versed in the comics industry and could guide me. I learned so much about how comics are made and their history through the work. But major comic book publishers who have formed their institutions and ways of doing things could benefit from looking a little more at the creative process and its impact more than the result. It is not so much about the product, although, of course, that plays into it as well; if you want to make a beautiful piece of art, it is equally if not more about the process of expressing yourself. Art is uniquely human; we create just for the sake of creating.
It’s like, “Okay, we’re on issue 3,579 of this character, and it’s just a reversion of this thing that already happened 20 years ago.” Instead, I guess, the process is vital in A.B.O. Comix, where if you open up one of our anthologists, you’re going to see people who have been doing comics for 20 years and who are incredible artists and have put so much time and energy into the craft and are masters of it. Then you turn the page, and you’ll see somebody who tried for the first time in their life to make a comic. Artistically, it’s not on par, but the human part is like, “Wow, I get to see somebody who just tried something for the first time and overcame the fear of, ‘I’m not good enough for this.'” That is vulnerable, and it is amazing to see somebody at the very start of their journey.
Through projects like this, I hope a lot of the gatekeeping is starting to fall away from the publishing industry, which has always been a very elitist industry. People will spend 10 or 15 years trying to publish a book, no matter how good. I think that’s something we’re doing differently; we’re giving a platform to anybody who has a story to tell, no matter their level of experience in the industry; that gets them a foot into the door to develop their craft and make it better. So when they want to pitch Marvel or DC, they can say, “Oh, I’ve been published in six books.” Then a big-time publisher looks at that, saying, “Holy crap. Maybe this person is worth taking a look at.” Then over time, I think it might start just making room for more and more stories from more and more people to be able to be told.
Kaplan: What can the public do to support queer prisoners?
Cendre: I think that the best way that people can support queer prisoners is by engaging with them and forming a mutual support system. We all come with our assumptions, preconceived notions of what things are like, and biases about whether we think they are good or bad, so the best way to learn about a situation is from the people experiencing it. We always advocate that the best way to get involved is to form friendships with incarcerated people. We have started a PenPal program primarily structured by the Black and Pink guidelines. We will be revamping it here in 2022 and slowly rolling that out.
We will be reaching out to all 300 plus of our contributors and asking them to submit an updated bio. If you are interested in writing with somebody in prison or learning more about the prison system, I encourage starting a PenPal relationship. If you plan on doing that, there are many things to know, and those are all listed on our guidelines page. There’s also a contact form listed on our website: if you have any questions, you’re welcome to submit them.
Many people come into the PenPal relationship with prisoners as a charity work thing. I will volunteer my time and do this because it is the right thing to do. People view it as almost a chore, as something they should do because it would make them better people. What I have learned from both my experience and coaching other people who are new to PenPaling with people in prison is that, yes, it is going to make you a better person because it will transform your viewpoint and existence radically and your place in this world, and cause you to question your own beliefs and motivations and ideology. But also, hopefully, you will gain a lifelong, meaningful friendship that will be beneficial to you as a human being, and it’s going to make your life better.
Many people I helped link up with PenPals ten years ago are still writing them today. They consider them their best friends, have been to visit them in prison, have beautiful artwork from them on their walls, or have worked on creative projects together. It’s been a transformative relationship on every single end. That’s the number one thing I think you can do to support queer and trans prisoners directly engage with them, bring them into your world, and have their world be brought into yours.
Secondly, if you have free time, volunteer; strengthening our communities is very integral to working toward prison abolition. If we don’t have strong and engaged communities, if we don’t engage without neighbors, learn about our neighbors, care about our neighbors, and put time and energy into making sure they’re okay, we’re never going to get to that goal. It takes everybody, and people need to take responsibility if they want to see their worlds get better instead of just saying, “Oh, the system is all bad. Tear it all down. If it didn’t exist, then everything would be better.” It doesn’t work that way. It takes a lot of work, time, and energy.
I think the idea of mutual support is necessary. We want to leave this world a better place than when we found it and engage with people in-person as much as possible. It’s much harder to misunderstand and have anger or resentment or misinterpret what somebody is saying when you’re looking them in the eye, and you can ask for clarification. I think those are my top three biggest things engage with the people impacted by the system and take the time for your community. Intentionally put aside time because it’s imperative if you want your world to get better and not worse.
Kaplan: Is there anything else you want to add?
Cendre: We’re working hard on projects with hundreds of people, and there are two actual staff members. We have volunteers who are incredible and integral to maintaining the work we do, so that we could use the help. My last thing to say is a plea to if you have some extra time, it doesn’t matter what your skill set is or what you think you might be able to offer. If you have spare time and are interested, we could use your help, and we’ll find a place for you in our community and as part of our A.B.O. family. We could use everybody and every skill from every background in every ideology; it doesn’t matter.
Learn more about A.B.O Comix by checking out the publisher’s website.