Category Archives: graphic History

Mendoza The Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism

By: Jared Ross, Hon. BA. MA in Cultural and Imperial History

Thank G-D! A Jewish comic that isn’t about the Holocaust. I know this sounds flip, but as a “Jewish intellectual”, in Toronto, I’m always enthused when Jewish history isn’t framed though such a narrow lens. There are so many persecutions to pick from, and while I acknowledge that the Holocaust is important to study, Jewish history shouldn’t be just one sad slow train to Auschwitz.

Enter ‘Mendoza the Jew’, a graphic history of a poor Sephardi Jewish boxer in 18th century London. It represents a different story, and a poorly told one. The style of the comic is quite brisk, with bold colours and lots of action sequences. It is heavily narrated with lots of explanation and the modern author showing up to brief the reader on any vague historical points. Each chapter begins with a Hebrew letter that spells out Daniel. The comic is only one part of the piece, with a section of primary sources as well and an explanation of the writer’s process as well.

MendozaTheJew
Title
: Mendoza the Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism: A Graphic History
Author: Ronald Schechter
Illustrator: Liz Clarke
Published: Oxford University Press (2013)
Pages: 240 pages
Dimensions: 25.1 x 3 x 20.1 cm
Other Specs: Softcover, colour cover and interior
Purchase: In the Ad Astra Online Shop

Expelled from England in the 14th century, Jews were allowed back into England by Oliver Cromwell and it became a home for Sephardic Jews who came from Spain via the Netherlands. The Sephardic community was already well established when they were joined by Ashkenazi Jews from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe (Modern day Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Romania) in the late 19th and early 20th century.

It is in part due to figures like Mendoza that the Sephardic community was so successful. Taking advantage of England’s “tolerant” attitudes towards religious minorities and the effects of the Enlightenment, the Jewish community was allowed a degree of integration that was not possible in most of Western Europe. While still suffering persecution, it was as an old prof of mine used to say, “run-of-the-mill 19th century anti-semitism”, in contrast to the race-based dehumanizing persecutions that mark the 20th century.

"What do you mean, 'your people', chump?"
“What do you mean, ‘your people’?”

Daniel Mendoza’s story illustrates the tension between tolerance and assimilation quite nicely. The son of a Schochet, (a kosher butcher), Daniel Mendoza soon discovers that a quick way to acceptance is boxing, a sport that was embraced by both the working class and the gentry as quintessentially English (like tea and sado-masochism). Mendoza wins several high profile bouts, and parlays his success into running a series of boxing academies for both nobles and the working class.

After losing a rather shady match to his old partner, John Humphries, Mendoza agreed to a rematch, with each writing letters to the newspapers of the time challenging each other’s health, manliness and honesty.

dureaux_fisticuffsMendoza won the rematch and with it a princely sum of 2000 pounds. He then went on to beat Humphries in a third rematch (one that took 72 rounds).

The author speculates this was due to either gambling, alcoholism, bad investments or a combination of all three. Defaulting on his debts and jailed in 1797, Daniel took on a variety of jobs including as a publican and pedlar. He continued to box and stage exhibition matches, but died penniless in 1836.

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In the words of the author, the story of Mendoza fits into the school of “history from below” and helps to illustrate why Britain avoided a revolution, unlike France. He points to Britain’s religious tolerance, free press and ability to harness a nascent British identity as a reason for its relative political stability. In this the author is right, but he also neglects to mention that Britain was able to co-opt many of its subject people, ethnic minorities like the Irish and Scottish Highlanders into replicating the same structures of rule and control in an Imperial context, and as such use migration as a pressure valve, something that was not done in France.

So let us evaluate the author’s claim. ‘History from below’ in this context is also very much a history of whiteness. The 18th century marked the rise of scientific racism. The work of Blumenbach, dividing humanity into five races, was published in 1779. The idea that each race had a separate origin (polygenesis) was a tool of imperialist expansion and the justification for slavery as an ideology. Jews as a category were always hard to classify. Were they white? Were they intelligent? How could they be separated from the Aryan/ Nordic White Anglo-Saxon?

Interestingly enough, Mendoza also acted as a second for Tom Molineaux, a freed Virginian slave. The author does not mention this.

The push of this ideology of race was stubbornly resisted. Manliness and ideas of masculinity were a weapon that Jews deployed to prove that they were just as manly as the White man. This subverted the ethnocentric language of white supremacy and allowed some Jewish men to express their identity in ways that were culturally permitted. This strategy had a long shelf-life. In the aftermath of increasing anti-semitism following World War One, Jewish veterans used the language of patriotism and masculinity to protect themselves from discrimination. One particular case was the Jewish flying aces, considered among the most masculine of war heros during World War One. In an excellent article by Todd Samuel Presner, “Muscle Jews and Airplanes: Modernist Mythologies, the Great War, and the Politics of Regeneration” there is a discussion about the efforts of Jewish flyers to publicize their deeds and claim that because of their military service, they should be recognized as German nationalists. Unfortunately this was all for naught, as the Nazi’s expunged their service records, and while allowing for special treatment for some, sent others to camps.

In the 18th century Daniel Mendoza and other Jewish men used the language of nationality and masculinity to combat persecution by putting themselves forward as paragons of strength, athleticism and sportsmanship; values dear to the English nationalist project. After World War one, German Jewish veterans tried the same tactic. In England, it was to some extent successful; in Germany, it was not It remains to be seen whether a minority should ever try to embrace the cultural and gender norms of a society to end their own persecution.

* * * * *

Jared N Ross is a museum and history enthusiast who has worked in museums and education for 10 years. Starting as a lowly summer-student playing a 19th century British soldier, he has continued to work at many Museums and historic sites, including Fort York, Mackenzie House and Black Creek Pioneer Village. He has presented to thousands of students on all aspects of 19th century life, from the power of the original mass media (the printing press), to the first waves of immigration in 19th century Toronto. He completed his Undergraduate Honours in History at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, and a Master’s in British and Imperial History at York University. He hopes one day to lead a Klezmer-Celtic Fusion band.

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Poster Series Challenges Readers to Reconsider the Kind of Hero They Can Find in a Comic

We are very pleased to be re-releasing our poster series, encouraging readers young and old to consider a different kind of hero than we normally think of when reading comics. These four posters boldly claim, “All Our HEROES Have Criminal Records“.

This visual campaign is inspired by the lives of four people who have been arrested for their grassroots organizing and/or activities of civil disobedience: Martin Luther King, Jr., Howard Zinn, Emma Goldman, and Judi Bari. They reflect a healthy variety of political backgrounds (civil rights, environmentalism, anti-war, people’s history, feminism, and anarchism) – and each has appeared, at least once, in comic form.  All artwork by Sean Richman.

We’re excited to be making these posters available for sale! Visit the Ad Astra Online Shop to get your favorite, or collect all four. Numbers are limited for this printing, so if you don’t get one – stay tuned!

EMMA GOLDMAN (Booking #23178) Goldman was an anarchist and feminist known for her political activism, writing, and speeches. She played a pivotal role in the development of anarchist political philosophy in North America and Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Arrested in 1917 with Alexander Berkman for conspiring to
EMMA GOLDMAN (Booking #23178)
Goldman was an anarchist and feminist known for her political activism, writing, and speeches. She played a pivotal role in the development of anarchist political philosophy in North America and Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Arrested in 1917 with Alexander Berkman for conspiring to “induce persons not to register” for the newly instated WWI military draft.

Emma Goldman appears in A Dangerous Woman : The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman, Sharon Rudahl; edited by Paul Buhle. Published by New Press in 2007 (ISBN 3: 9781595580641)

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HOWARD ZINN was an historian, author, activist, WWII veteran, and commentator on American politics and history. By the end of the 1960s, as a result of Zinn’s campaigning against the Vietnam War and his influence on Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI designated Zinn a high security risk to the country, a category that allowed them to summarily arrest him if a state of emergency were to be declared. The FBI memos also show that they were concerned with Zinn’s repeated criticism of the FBI for failing to protect blacks against white mob violence. Zinn’s daughter said she was not surprised by the files; “He always knew they had a file on him”. — with Howard Zinn.

Howard Zinn appears in A People’s History of American Empire: The Graphic Adaptation, by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki and Paul Buhle. It was published by Metropolitan Books in 2008 (ISBN#: 978-0805087444).

JUDI BARI was an American environmentalist and labor leader, a feminist, and the principal organizer of Earth First! campaigns against logging in the ancient redwood forests of Northern California in the 1980s and '90s. She also organized efforts through Earth First! - Industrial Workers of the World Local 1 to bring timber workers and environmentalists together in common cause. On 24 May 1990, in Oakland, California, the vehicle used by Bari and Darryl Cherney was blown up by a pipe bomb planted in it. Bari was severely injured by the blast, as the bomb had been placed under her seat; Cherney suffered minor injuries. Bari was falsely arrested for transporting explosives while she was still in critical condition with a smashed pelvis and other major injuries. The FBI took jurisdiction of the case away from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, saying it was a terrorism case.
JUDI BARI was an American environmentalist and labor leader, a feminist, and the principal organizer of Earth First! campaigns against logging in the ancient redwood forests of Northern California in the 1980s and ’90s. She also organized efforts through Earth First! – Industrial Workers of the World Local 1 to bring timber workers and environmentalists together in common cause.
On 24 May 1990, in Oakland, California, the vehicle used by Bari and Darryl Cherney was blown up by a pipe bomb planted in it. Bari was severely injured by the blast, as the bomb had been placed under her seat; Cherney suffered minor injuries. Bari was falsely arrested for transporting explosives while she was still in critical condition with a smashed pelvis and other major injuries. The FBI took jurisdiction of the case away from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, saying it was a terrorism case.

Judi Bari’s story appears in WOBBLIES! : A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World by Mike Alewitz, Sue Coe, Sabrina Jones, Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman. It was published by Verso Books in 2005.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (Booking #:7089) MLK was an American pastor, activist, humanitarian, and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs. Arrested in 1962, 1963, and 1965 while demonstrating for civil rights in the American South.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (Booking #:7089)
MLK was an American pastor, activist, humanitarian, and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs.
Arrested in 1962, 1963, and 1965 while demonstrating for civil rights in the American South.

The story of Martin Luther King Jr. can be found in many titles at this time. The first appeared in 1958, called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story (written by Alfred Hassler and Benton Resnik, produced by the Fellowship of Reconciliation) , and has been re-released by Top Shelf Productions.

Another is KING, a three-part biography by Ho Che Anderson, published by Fantagraphics between 2003-2005.

The Times They Have A-Changed | Review of “SDS: A Graphic History”

By Hugh Goldring, Staff Editor

Written largely by alternative comics legend Harvey Pekar, “Students For a Democratic Society – A Graphic History” is a vexing text.  Published in 2008, it breezes through a decade of radical organizing with moments of resistance narrated by witnesses to the history of the SDS.  Along the way we learn the names, faces and stories of many of the most famous activists associated with the legendary student group, as well as some of their mentors.  It is both a formal history and a collection of brief individual accounts, some spanning decades or a single afternoon, of former members of the SDS.
Continue reading The Times They Have A-Changed | Review of “SDS: A Graphic History”

Exhibit of Chester Brown’s Louis Riel at Art Gallery of Ontario

Photo courtesy of the AGO Art Matters blog - http://artmatters.ca
Photo courtesy of the AGO Art Matters blog – http://artmatters.ca

By Sam Noir
December 18, 2013
Toronto

Something significant and radical has occurred in the Georgia Ridley Salon at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  Original comics artwork has steadily gained acceptance within the hallowed institutions of mainstream galleries and museums, but never in as bold a curatorial manner as this.

A stark black and white, inked, portrait of Louis Riel sticks out like a sore thumb. Surrounded by stacks of period specific, painted, (colour) artwork, in a setting that recreates the viewing context of a period spanning Canadian Confederation and the First World War.

A portrait of Riel would never have found its way into any English Canada salon of that time.  A crusader for Métis rights, and charismatic leader of the 1869-1870 “Red River Rebellion”, Riel was branded a “traitor” by the federal government, and viewed as such in the province of Ontario, and particularly the city Toronto.  How fitting then, that he should end up here of all places, today.

This decidedly contemporary juxtaposition provokes conversation, and challenges our traditional narrative as Canadians.  The portrait incidentally, is the original cover art for the tenth anniversary edition of Chester Brown’s graphic novel Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography.

portrait

Riel remains controversial figure, and difficult to place within Canadian history.  He’s a powerful symbol of Native and French Canadian rebellion against centralized English-speaking government powers.  However, we now live in a society where Multiculturalism is espoused, and Bilingualism is national policy.  Chester Brown’s graphic biography is a reflection of this current cultural paradigm, particularly since Riel is now viewed as a “Father of Manitoba”, in spite of his defeats.  It is notable that the Canada Council, a government run funding agency for the arts, provided support to Brown in the creation of this work.

Tucked away in a small alcove in a corner of the salon, original artwork from Chester Brown’s Louis Riel graphic novel is displayed, revealing Brown’s process.  Each frame showcases what are essentially small individual panels of the same dimensions, on separate small pieces of paper, a half dozen of each which were eventually grouped together to form a “page” of artwork.  Imagine each of these panels to be a frame of film.  In film editing terms, this allowed Brown the ability to “non linear edit” as he crafts the story… adding or deleting panels and moments from any point in the chosen narrative as he goes along creating the work as a whole.

We also need to note that Brown calls his biography a comic strip.  Drawing from a more traditionally populist format, and defining itself away from the more literary pretentious term, graphic novel or even the more common place name of comic book.   Both terms which come with a degree of cultural baggage in the current landscape.

During the process of creating this work, Brown adapted a large stylistic influence from cartoonist Harold Gray, the creator of the comic strip Little Orphan Annie.  In fact, there are examples out there showing how Brown redrew panels he created earlier in the process to keep this aesthetic choice consistent.  The choice of Gray is interesting in that Gray is largely considered a political artist himself during a tumultuous period of American history.   Recall that the original Little Orphan Annie cartoon strip was a politically charged reaction to the changing times of the depression-era nineteen thirties – a fact largely forgotten in the shadow of the Broadway musical and cinematic adaptation that has taken popular root in its cultural stead.

Gray could originally be defined as a Republican during the pre-Depression years at the start of Little Orphan Annie (most historians cite the name of his character “Daddy” Warbucks as a suggestion about where the character’s initial fortunes came from), but many argue that the views expressed by his characters in later years were libertarian in nature.  Brown became politicized during the creation of Louis Riel, and has run as a candidate for the Libertarian Party of Canada in the riding of Trinity-Spadina since the 2008 federal election.

The spine of Brown’s Louis Riel rests on the side of democratic process, with the elected leadership of the largely mixed francophone/aboriginal Red River Settlement majority (Métis), battling against the tyranny of an oppressive English Canada asserting its agenda and the machinations of The Hudson’s Bay Company, hoping to profit from this transfer of power and land rights.  Though Riel’s methods and actions may not always be viewed sympathetically, you can understand his motivations of fairness.  Particularly as the elected leader of the provisional government, negotiating its place in the developing country of Canada – and as an member of Canadian Parliament, elected multiple times, but never having sat in the House of Commons for fear of arrest.

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Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald is not painted in a flattering light, and his decisions shown here have far reaching implications.  A political creature, choosing the expediency of arms over the complications of keeping his promises to Riel and the provisional government of Manitoba; a far cry from the Father of Canadian Confederation we learned about in our history books.  More devious still were his manipulations around the negotiations with the Métis in Saskatchewan to incite rebellion, and justify the mounting expenses in construction of the Canadian Pacific railroad across Canada, by sending in troops.

Whereas his sympathies undoubtedly lie with Riel and the Métis, in the story he’s chosen to tell, Brown has selected moments that highlight a certain degree of ironic, even dark, humour to Riel’s story. Reminding us that this book is designed to entertain as much as it is to inform. Far from being a comprehensive volume on the life of Riel, Brown’s selection of vignettes within the allotted pages is equally fascinating.

Brown’s exploration of Riel’s years following Red River, institutionalized and gripped by “Divine Madness” is not surprising to those familiar with his earlier autobiographical work.  Where his mother’s schizophrenia was not overtly stated, but often a strong subtext in the depiction Brown’s developing years.  These visions and religious fervour haunt Riel, and follow him through the Métis uprising in Saskatchewan, leading up to his surrender to the Canadian authorities, and to the end of his life.  The closing chapter, leading us to the final moments of Riel’s execution, depicts the courtroom where the question of his sanity is laid before those who knew and encountered him.

In some parts of the chronology, the narrative jumps years at a time, quickly through different characters and settings between panels on the same page.  However, when Brown chooses to slow down the pace, utilizing what has commonly become known as “decompressed storytelling”, the quiet results are compelling and moving.  Individual “moments” paced out in panels of the same size, six to a page stretching across multiple pages.  Similar to Watchmen, which functioned similarly using a nine panel per page grid structure.  With no variation in size and placement of panels, the panels become a singular viewing portal… a “window” into the world of Louis Riel.

The final sequence in Part One of the story, depicting Louis Riel alone in Fort Garry, and then leaving the Red River Settlement, stretches across a luxurious four pages.  Dwelling on mundane, yet affecting moments of Riel rising from bed and eating a solitary meal, before being warned of the English troops descending upon him.  Unlike the end of a traditional American cowboy movie, in this Canadian “Western”, Riel does not head triumphantly into the horizon and the sunset, but towards the reader, who is looking down above him as he walks in the rain.

You can view these particular pages of original art for yourself, showcased in the salon’s alcove at the Art Gallery of Ontario until September 2014.

Honours bestowed on Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography include 2 Harvey Awards, and its placement as a semifinalist in CBC’s prestigious Canada Reads program.  It was the first Canadian Graphic Novel to become a best-seller, and on its heels has spawned a renaissance in the genre of graphic novel/comic book biography and similar non fiction illustrated work.

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During an earlier regeneration, the author of this article found himself living as an academic. He held three degrees from Queen’s University in Fine Art, Art History and Film Studies in a death-like vice grip, describing himself at the time as an Installation Artist, Pop Culture Junkie and Film Maker. 

Sam Noir is currently a rabble rouser, and maker of comix and toys.  He claims Toronto, Canada–the most culturally diverse city on the whole damn planet–as his home.

Re-Writing History: Review of A Graphic History of the Vietnam War

Some discussion has come up around Ad Astra Comix and a recent addition to our stock list– a graphic history of the Vietnam War. Not only does the book gloss over major historical events, like the Gulf of Tonkin incident (and the fact that it never happened, yet was a major cause for the war to escalate). The historical narrative, which has had 40 years of time for reflection, comes to some very troubling conclusions. As a new generation looks back on Vietnam as the war of their Grandmothers and Grandfathers, and as a generation that has been raised far too comfortably around operations in Iraq and Afghanistan being “business as usual, there is a serious need to dispel this re-write of history in the comic record. -NMG.

by Allen Ruff, guest contributor

A Little Background

As the U.S. aggression in Vietnam escalated in the mid-1960s, the liberal Cold Warrior Walter Rostow, an advisor to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, spoke of the need of “winning hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese, at least those under the control of the US client regime in Saigon, if US force was going to prevail. As the barbarity of the venture — the toll in lives destroyed and the devastation exacted — spread, the invaders not only failed on that front in Vietnam, but also lost the campaign for political support, the battle for hearts and minds back in the States.
By the time this photograph was taken, public support for the Vietnam War had plummeted.
By the time this photograph was taken, public support for the Vietnam War had plummeted.

The war makers, of course, suffered a humiliating defeat despite their firepower. Failing to defeat militarily what was primarily a peasant-based anti-colonial and nationalist movement already decades old, it also lost the war on the political, ideological and cultural levels. Never having them in the first place, it never won the bulk of the Vietnamese people. The war machine murdered, maimed and debased too many and destroyed too much for that ever to happen. Those that survived, after all, were not about to buy the nonsense about “freedom” and “liberty” churned out by US propaganda specialists and parroted by a succession of corrupt, murderous regimes in Saigon. All the claims of the American “Free World” mission to save the country from “Communist Peril” rang hollow as that tiny land was scorched by what amounted to in a massive fly-by shooting.

Trang Bang, June 8th, 1972. A U.S.-Allied South Vietnamese air force plane dropped a napalm bomb on the village 26 miles outside of Saigon.
Trang Bang, June 8th, 1972. A U.S.-Allied South Vietnamese air force plane dropped a napalm bomb on the village 26 miles outside of Saigon.
 Defeat in some sense became inevitable, a done deal, when the Washington war makers simultaneously lost large swaths of political support at home. They lost the battle of ideas, the claims and justifications, and explanations of what the war was about as the body counts and war costs mounted.
That loss of domestic political support for the war has never been forgotten, especially by those intent on winning future wars abroad who have come to view that home front defeat as a significant “lesson” of the conflict, not to be repeated.
In their ongoing efforts those still imagining that Vietnam could have been won and those already invested in current and future interventions have utilized every available means at their disposal to revise and reframe the  story. At that level, the portrayals and accounts in the popular culture – television and film, in music, art and print media, even the comic book press – have long been been utilized in the campaign to mold “hearts and minds”, especially among the young and the impressionable, the potential recruits and fodder for future imperial campaigns.
Few recent examples illustrate that fact better than Zimmerman and Vansant’s graphic rewrite of the Vietnam war’s history. Well-illustrated by the clearly talented Vansant and shrewdly scripted by Zimmerman to include the actual words of participants, the book in some ways has more to do with the present than it does with some approximately accurate portrayal of what the US did to Southeast Asia.

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Title: The Vietnam War – A Graphic History
Written by: Dwight Zimmerman
Illustrated by: Wayne Vansant
Published: New York: Hill & Wang, 2009. 143pp

Now, of course, it can be rightly argued that the writing and depictions of history are always selective and that all historians make choices and have an agenda, an axe to grind. and that a graphic history could not possibly be comprehensive in any sense of the term. That all remains true since the agenda of this rightward revision of the war on ‘Nam comes clear right in the opener, in the foreword written by the retired Air Force General, Chuck Horner.
A combat pilot during Vietnam, Horner later commanded the U.S. and allied air assets during Desert Shield and Desert Storm. According to the publisher’s boilerplate accompanying his account of the Gulf War co-authored with fiction writer Tom Clancy, he, Horner “was responsible for the design and execution of one of the most devastating air campaigns in history.”

Horner, in one page, casts Vietnam in terms clearly pitched to the novice, the young high-schooler or working class kid, perhaps.

“Like other wars,” he tells us, America’s war in Vietnam, “began with a premise of good versus bad and which was which depended on whom you side with.” Well, okay for the obvious, war as some shape shifting morality play.
He then proceeds to explain that, “As the conflict dragged on, those views changed into the reality of a dedicated, committed North Vietnamese enemy and the committed-but-not dedicated US led-coalition.” The implication is simple (and simplistic): The US and its junior “coalition” partners (Who they were, he doesn’t say) lost because they weren’t dedicated enough, didn’t have the endurance or the will to win. Or, by implication, one running throughout the book, that their determination was undermined not so much by the tenacity of the Vietnamese adversary but by the falling away of support at home.
He goes on: “President Kennedy had committed our nation, but then President Johnson instituted polices that lacked dedication.” Here, immediately, one of the main themes of the conservative accounts creeps in: the war came to be lost because the civilian leadership, especially the politicians back home lacked the guts and the determination to see it through.
Following Johnson, “President Nixon became dedicated to getting us out of our commitment (to whom or what, Horner doesn’t say), but at “great cost to our honor.” Apparently even Nixon, known during the height of the war as the “Mad Bomber,” is viewed by this former Air Force lifer as aiding and abetting the commission of that sin of sins among the military, dishonor. (In some sense Nixon ended up getting a dishonorable discharge, but not for the major war crimes for which he should have been tried.)
What might be drawn from all that? Horner lays it out: “Years later, in Desert Storm, our politicians and our military, remembering the lessons of Vietnam, set goals and conducted operations that deserved our unqualified commitment and dedication.” That matter of dedication and steadfastness, once again.
Horner then raises a second read on the history commonly forwarded by the right: “In the case of the Vietnam War, the divergence of political will and goals resulted in constraints on our military operations.”  Disregarding or not knowing that war is the extension of politics, he seems to suggest that the whole thing could have been “winnable.” If only the military didn’t have to fight with “one hand tied behind its back” and they weren’t “stabbed in the back” by the peace movement and their allies in the “liberal” media.
The old canards die hard.
Horner tells us, as well, that “our South Vietnamese ally’s leadership could not rally the dedication of its own people.” As venal, repressive and as illegitimate as the US-bolstered Saigon sham of a government was, could it have been any different?  Horner may think so, but few others versed in the history appear to hold that peculiar line.
The Good General asserts, in closing, that Zimmerman and Vansant have come together to present the history, “in a clear and comprehensible way.” He concludes his foreword by describing the work’s present day purpose: “It serves to enlighten those for whom Vietnam is only academic history, so that we may be armed against making the same mistakes in the future.”
Interspersed with occasional accounts of heroic efforts by troops on the ground, the bulk of the narrative is loaded with half truths and craftily retooled tellings.  Parts of it read as if it was selectively scripted by someone with the suppressed memory of a sleepwalking amnesiac.
This tale — an illustrated comic after all — might seem “comprehensible” to the novice, those unfamiliar. After all, if Vietnam was nothing but a series of mistakes made mainly by a civilian leadership at home, unwilling to fight to win, then a further mistake, perhaps, might be made by one looking to this work for some understanding, today, of what that criminal enterprise perpetrated against the people of Southeast Asia actually was about.

allen ruffAllen Ruff is a U.S. Historian, Social & Political Activist; Host, Thursday’s “A Public Affair” – WORT, 89.9fm, Madison, Wisconsin; & Writer of Non-Fiction and an Occasional Novel. You can find more of his writings on his blog, Ruff Talk.

Battle of the Graphic Biographies: Hill and Wang

Continuing on with my theme “Battle of the Graphic Biographies” begun earlier this year Che Guevera, this month I’ve had a couple different titles at Hill & Wang take each other on– all a part of their Novel Graphics series. I, somewhat arbitrarily, began reading these books in chronological order: Trotsky, J. Edgar Hoover, Malcolm X, Reagan. My interest is obviously to provide some aesthetic feedback, but more to point out political strengths and weaknesses of the titles.

cover gallery
My first note is that each book appears to be politically tailored for the audience most likely to pick it up—the biographies speak more or less favorably of the people they spotlight.  But my questions going in are, “Do I better understand the person I’m reading about?” “Am I hearing of their life in their own words–while seeing an interpretation of events from a 3rd person?” “Is this historically/politically accurate?”

trotsky bio

Title: TROTSKY: A Graphic Biography
Writer & Illustrator: Rick Geary
Published: 2009

I had serious suspicions about this one, going in. Whereas the other book covers are more or less realistic, Trotsky’s is purely mythological. We see him astride a horse as some kind of atheist St. George–all the while he sits underneath, naked on a pile of human skulls. These images come from two very different interpretations of Trotsky’s role in the Russian Revolution–both over-zealous and emotional, both incorrect. While I appreciate the re-visiting of historical cartoons and illustrations, it seems necessary for me to make note of the the point that both graphics were commissioned by opposing governments during one of the most highly polarized moments of the 20th Century: the rise of the Russian Revolution.

The cover of 'TROTSKY (The Graphic Biography)' took inspiration from these political cartoons of the time. On the left, Viktor Deni, an author working for the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) in 1918, depicts Trotsky as St. George, slaying the dragon of "counterrevolution". On the right, Polish government anti-communist poster to counter Bolshevik propaganda from Russia during the Polish-Russian war 1920, showing People's Commissar for the Army Lev Davidovich Bronstein (Leon Trotsky). Large caption reads: "Bolshevik freedom."
The cover of ‘TROTSKY (The Graphic Biography)’ took inspiration from these political cartoons of the time. On the left, Viktor Deni, an author working for the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) in 1918, depicts Trotsky as St. George, slaying the dragon of “counterrevolution”. On the right, Polish government anti-communist poster to counter Bolshevik propaganda from Russia during the Polish-Russian war 1920, showing People’s Commissar for the Army Lev Davidovich Bronstein (Leon Trotsky). Large caption reads: “Bolshevik freedom.”

I think anyone who sees a book of 100 pages claiming to tell the life of Leon Trotsky is pretty much kidding themselves. Once into the story, you might be able to tell why: this man was a mover and shaker of continents, social structures and financial systems in a way that practically boggles the mind. In a time before television, let alone the internet and social media, Trotsky was world-famous for his ideas and his conviction to carry them to fruition.

This book, albeit abridging-ly, details his early years as a landowner’s son in modern-day Ukraine, a student activist and intellectual, his political development, his multiple exiles by the Russian Czar. It’s a whirlwind. In fact, it’s a struggle just to get all of these points down, without even going into what made Trotsky’s ideas so intriguing/dangerous, let alone his various roles in the the Revolution. Despite the obvious limitations, I believe Rick Geary does a stand-up job trying to pull together an epic biography that at least attempts to discuss serious politics.  Geary’s style lends itself well to the time period: a bit cold and minimalistic–but not cartoony. The line-work reminds me of borsch and cold, dry winters. In a good way.

I can’t really blame this book for what it isn’t–it’s not an in-depth biography of the Russian Revolutionary, in any sense. It’s not a clear history of the Russian Revolution either. But it will give you a crash course that may peak your interest, and lead you to other works about one of the most interesting men of modern times.

* * * * * *

malcolm x

Title: Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography
Writer: Andrew Helfer
Illustrator: Randy DuBurke
Published:  2006

Like Trotsky, Malcolm X is one of those four-letter words of the 20th Century. People alternately love and cherish or hate and fear everything that the man stood for. It really is a testament to the power of their ideas and the charisma with which they disseminated them.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Malcolm’s story has been told in epic fashion many times: there is the Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley. Spike Lee’s “X” with Denzel Washington was an immediate classic. Once these essential biographies have been consumed, you believe that you know the man’s story. However this graphic biography, in fact, delivers additional information that even someone familiar with Malcolm’s story will find new and enlightening. Scenes I found most interesting included the details of his time as a hustler on the East Coast–as well as his final days in conversation with Nation of Island leader, Elijah Mohammed, whose candid remarks about women are better displayed here than anywhere else that I’ve read.

Malcolm’s entire life is characterized by a seemingly endless sense of change and evolution. In the end, the man who seemed tireless in his conviction, his self-confidence, was also likely his harshest critic. He went from being a pimp and a hustler to a raging animal in prison, a Nation of Islam preacher and black segregationist to working with whites when and where he could. And where we led, people followed. Because of his constant evolution, it is difficult for critics to demonize him. His radicalism has also made it pretty much impossible to water down his message–as has been done with Martin Luther King.

Of all the illustrators of this graphic biography series, I am in love with Randy DuBurke’s style. It is by far my favorite. He illustrates an emotion with what seems be a shadow-heavy photographic realism. Stylized but not cartoony, I even see some graffiti-stylized splatters in the background, that give it an additional grittiness. Given that author and illustrator are two different people in this work, I find their respective trades synching incredibly well.

* * * * * *

hoover bio

Title: J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography
Writer & Illustrator: Rick Geary
Published:  2008

Rick Geary is back after Trotsky with this graphic biography of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. Actually, this book was produced before the Trotsky one, but I’m going in some other kind of chronological order.

Unlike Trotsky and Malcolm X, I had never read a biography of Hoover before, although I was familiar with his role in Communist witch-hunting post-WWII, as well as his hand in the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO counter-intelligence programs. What hadn’t occurred to me was the length of his office. The man was active in government from Emma Goldman… to Ronald Reagan. Think about that. Through half a dozen presidents. He was arguably the country’s most powerful civil servant. His ability to avoid partisan politics and harness the power of government bureaucracy, ironically, reminds me very much of his arch-nemesis Joseph Stalin. These two men dominated their countries with iron fists, using many of the same tactics, for much the same period of time. The key to both of their success was securing and mastering the administrative machinations of their positions.

While I see Rick Geary showing the light and dark of Hoover in this biography, he is at worst portrayed as a bit of a maniac who dabbled in unconstitutional activities for the protection of his dear country–and the all-sacred “American way of life”. We see the mass deportations of immigrant unionists, communists and radicals more as the shuffling of ants from one place to another outside the country–not the same brutal inhumanity with which Trotsky is depicted, sitting on a pile of bones.

Do I wish the comic would take a little more interest in how J. Edgar Hoover was a detriment to the country? The historical precedents of jailing and deporting descent, spying and wire-tapping, infiltration into progressive groups? Yes, in fact I can’t really think of any other singular man who probably committed more damage to democratic movements of the 20th Century than J. Edgar Hoover. But that’s my opinion on the matter–and Geary makes little to no effort to hide the evidence that would lead someone to those conclusions. He includes his very trouble remarks on communists, unions, student activists, black people–alongside the sea of other people that rubbed him the wrong way.

* * * * * *

reagan

Title: Ronald Reagan: A Graphic Biography
Writer: Andrew Helfer
Illustrator: Steve Buccelleto and Joe Staton
Published:  2008

Of all of the graphic biographies, Ronald Reagan’s seems the most surreal. This is very much a theme of the book itself. Where was the threshold between Reagan the man and Reagan the actor? Reagan the actor and Reagan the politician? The book very much lends itself to the theory that there were no clear lines, even to Reagan himself. Acting was a part of him from a very young age, as were many of his political and moral influences.

Also more than any other comic in the series, this book relies very much on Reagan’s own interpretation of himself and his life–including instances like his student strike in university, which isn’t documented by the school–or his record 77 rescues as a lifeguard, even though there were many instances in those rescues where, hilariously, people apparently didn’t need to be rescued (THAT comic history vignette, I would love to see). More than many other American leaders, Reagan very much controlled what media and the public thought of him. That was his gift as an actor.

While there is some mention of his early days as an FBI informant, as a ‘friendly’ testifier in the mid-century Inquisition of American leftists and progressives, as well as his later involvement in the dismantling of unions, tax cuts for the rich, military intervention in Grenada… the underpinning theme Geary really seems to be driving home is Reagan’s mastery of the spectacle. It wasn’t really anything he did–and he did many things in his life–it was how he won support, how he charged through his competition and adversaries at the crucial moment. It wasn’t what he did so much as how slickly he was able to get away with it.

I find the artistic style of this work, shared by Buccelleto and Staton, to be my least favorite of the series. Faces and gestures are bubbly, cartoony, very “Leave It to Beaver”-ish, which works for Reagan but not for me. I feel like anyone who watched television during the last century knows this perspective of Ronald Reagan. So despite my distaste I understand perhaps why they went with it. Maybe, for all that time behind the camera, there really was no other way to see the man. He seemed to understand, at an early age, that public image is its own form of immortality.

* * * * * *

Of all the comics that I read, I enjoyed Malcolm X and J Edgar Hoover the most. Both had wonderful artwork and kept me intrigued with information that was new to me. However I appreciate the set as a whole for its fascinating takes on 4 totally different individuals. I have found much more intricacy in all of the books’ designs than I initially thought would be there.

100 Year Rip-Off is Back from Printers!

Fresh out of the box - mmm, the smell of slightly burned toner.
Fresh out of the box – mmm, the smell of slightly burned toner.

Fresh Out of the Box!

On Tuesday this week, I got the call to come and pick up 5 boxes of freshly printed comics – 100 Year Rip-Off has come back to life.  For those of you who follow these posts, you’ll know that this has been Ad Astra’s main project for the past few months.

First order of business is filling pre-orders from the lovely folks who supported me during my Indiegogo campaign–they are deserving of a comic on their doorsteps immediately, along with my most heartfelt thanks. It feels wonderful to have people around you who believe in your project.

Lessons

This Summer has been such a blur of activity, I feel like I haven’t really had time to sit down and process my first publishing experience. From the get-go, I liked the idea of publishing creative work from someone other than myself for the first go at it–I feel like creating and producing are two very different processes that deserve their own special care and attention. Likewise, I wanted to give myself at least some mental time and space to look at the process as much from outside myself as possible–a hard thing to do when you’re staring your own brain child.

And so I impart to you the lessons I’ve learned from this experience from Day 1 – from initial planning, getting in touch with creators, editing, printing, fundraising, and retailing.

Make a Timeline. It’s not that we all follow calendars, but they help your brain foreshadow the journey in which you’re about to take part. Get a cheap calendar from the dollar store, or a get a big piece of paper, and lay out everything you think will be involved in the process of your project.
Enjoy the Process. A lot of the editing work with 100 Year Rip-Off was incredibly tedious–essentially going over each image with a magnifying glass. But I actually enjoy this work, and find the focus involved therapeutic. If you find yourself going into territory that is boring or frustrating–but necessary for your project’s completion, find a way to make it a more enjoyable experience. Creativity, love, and care in work all stem from savored moments. Don’t rush it.

Make Connections.  Anyone who has a project they want to share should always have this in mind. Everywhere you go, you have opportunities to talk about what you’re working on. Don’t get all shy and say “I don’t want to promote myself”. Stop it! You’re not shamelessly promoting yourself–you are promoting your work, which has a life all its own. And let me tell you, it’s way more interesting to talk about with your neighborhood barrista in the morning than the frickin’ weather or new version of the iPhone. Come off it. People love projects. They love hearing about what the people around them are working on. Share the process you’re involved in with others–and you will always find people who say, “When you’re done–save one for me.”

Seriously Calculate Finances. Seriously. I know everyone hates it,  but understanding how much your project is going to cost is pretty important–especially when you’re asking people to help you out with money. This brings me to my next point, which is Indiegogo related.

Details of Delivery. Once your project is done, how’s it getting out to people? If you did a crowd-funding campaign, did you calculate for postage? How about international orders? These all seem like “good problems” to have, that you’re willing to table until you’re far enough along that they will come up–but think about them now. I included a promotional poster in with my Indiegogo campaign–one that I wanted to send unfolded to contributors. Well, after the campaign had ended, I found out that shipping it unfolded was going to cost 2-3 times as much as what people had donated for it! FAIL. Keep shipping in mind.

… I may add to this list later, but these are my immediate reflections on this particular project. I’d like to take some more time in the near future to really lay out the anatomy of the process, and perhaps turn it into its own How-To project.

Thanks for reading.

 

Press Release: Fundraising Begins for Canada’s Oldest Graphic History!

example2FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

100 Year Rip-Off, A People’s History of B.C. to be Re-released After 40 Years
Canada’s Oldest ‘Graphic History’ on Record Highlights Stories of Working Class and People of Colour

July 20, 2013

Canada’s oldest recorded comic book history is coming back from the dead after more than 40 years—if it gets a little help. On the anniversary of B.C. joining Confederation, specialty comic book publisher Ad Astra Comics is launching a 40-day fundraiser for the comic book “100 Year Rip-Off: The Real History of British Columbia”. The campaign, which aims to raise a modest $800, will help to cover the costs of re-mastering and printing the comic for the first time in over four decades.

“100 Year Rip-Off: The Real History of British Columbia” is a blue-collar comic book history of the first 100 years of B.C.’s confederated history. Written by the late Robert Simms and illustrated by artist and current B.C. resident Bob Altwein, 100 Year Rip-Off was originally produced as a one-time 8-page broadsheet, accompanied by a counter-culture newspaper.

Ad Astra Comics, in consultation with Altwein, has digitized and re-mastered the work and provided complimentary additions to the content, including a map and glossary addressing the finer details of the original work. The text remains un-altered.

“100 Year Rip-Off is a graphic history that almost slipped into oblivion–right at a time when comic books and ‘graphic history’ comics in particular are reaching a peak in popularity,” says Nicole Marie Burton, campaign coordinator and founder of Ad Astra Comics, a micro-publisher that specializes in political and historical titles. The project is headquartered with the publisher in Toronto.

A quality printing of the re-mastered work means that 100 Year Rip-Off can get a new lease on life–and that means a new generation of readers will be able to benefit from these little-known stories of the province’s history.”
That history, according to 100 Year Rip-Off, includes a number of episodes in which B.C.’s residents were given the short end of the stick–as the name indicates. It documents, through meticulous research, the seizure of lands from B.C.’s First Nations alongside the banning of Indigenous cultural practices like the pot-latch. It progresses by chronicling the often-volatile history of labour struggles within the region, from the formation of B.C.’s first unions to the province’s recurring threat of a Winnipeg-style general strike. History enthusiasts will take interest in the detail of the text, while comic book lovers will enjoy the ‘School House Rock’ style of illustrations, so indicative of the contemporary comic and cartooning scene of the 1970s.

Burton points out that young activists may take interest in the rendition of the 1938 ‘Sit-downers Strike’ that took place at the Vancouver Art Gallery and in the Georgia Hotel–an action very reminiscent of the recent Occupy Movement.

100 Year Rip-Off is a standard-sized comic book of 30 black-and-white pages. Participants in the project’s IndieGoGo campaign can contribute for as little as $7 and get their own copy of the book mailed to them. Larger contribution packages include buying a bundle of comics at a reduced price–perfect for schools, unions, book stores, and special interest groups–along with a poster-sized version of the comic book’s reference map, which has been added to this specially re-mastered edition.

“The project is about revitalizing and popularizing the working class history of this province,” explains Burton. “But it is also celebrating the creative work of the comic itself, which in turn has become a part of our history.”
For more information, please visit the “100 Year Rip-Off” IndieGogo Campaign Page:

http://igg.me/at/100YearComic/x/1048985

Press Contact:
Nicole Marie Burton
c/o Ad Astra Comics
nicolemarieburton@gmail.com
647-863-4994
http://www.adastracomix.com