July 30, 1905: Daniel Corbin, a Washington railway entrepreneur, gazed upon an 80-metre thick seem of high-grad bituminous coal in southeastern British Columbia. This find led to the formation of the town of Corbin, where, in 1935, workers would wage a long and bitter strike that culminated in the writing of “a page of unparalleled police brutality in Canadian history.” (Quote from Ralph Wootton, official for United Mine Workers of Canada, April 30 1935)
‘Coal Mountain’ illustrated by Nicole Marie Burton and produced by the Graphic History Collective, is about the Corbin Miners’ Strike of 1935. The story remains relatively unknown outside of academic circles.
Nestled in the Rocky Mountains of eastern British Columbia, Corbin was a company town of 600 in its first years. There was no power and now plumbing, and the only way in or out of the town was the railway.
Soon, families joined the miners. Miners without families stayed in the company boarding house for about a dollar a night – incredibly expensive housing costs for the time.
On the morning of April 17, 1935, the Corbin miners strike came to a head with a massive confrontation of miners, their wives, and Corbin Collieries company men, accompanied by B.C. provincial police.
Miners’ wives formed a front-line human shield ahead of the strikers. Linking arms, they refused to allow the company men to re-open the mines that had been closed for months.
The company, assisted by baton-waving police, lurched forward, slamming their way through the strikers and their wives. The brutality exerted on the miners’ wives prompted their husbands, behind them, to rush forward, making it impossible to clear the crowd.
Title: Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World Contributors: Mike Alewitz, Seth Tobocman, Sue Coe, Sabrina Jones Edited: Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman Published: Verso Books, 2005 Length:306 Pages
“Happy May Day, friends and fellow workers!”
It is hard to imagine these words would once have been enough to land the speaker in a cramped jail cell, crammed with dozens of fellow workers like so many salty, tinned fish. ‘Wobblies!’ chronicles the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World from a promising start in Chicago. We are taken through several major strikes and biographies of bohemians and revolutionaries by the comic’s several contributors. Curiously, what unites many of these tales is the suffering of their subjects.
Perhaps there is nothing surprising in this. There is a peculiar allure to martyrdom. Saints, mystics and secular heroes of humanity the world over have been canonized by their suffering long before any state or patriarch could place the laurels on their bloodied brows. Hagiography, the genre of saints’ biographies, owes much of its enduring popularity to stories of the suffering of those early Christians. In a modern context, today is a commemoration of the deaths of the Haymarket Martyrs, Chicago anarchists who went to the gallows for a crime none had committed. “Wobblies” continues in this tradition.
In its entirety, the book is a collection of short narratives surrounding major events in the history of the IWW. It begins with a detailed recounting of their founding convention, rich in historical personages such as perennial Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs and Haymarket widow (and ass-kicking anarchist heroine) Lucy Parsons. From there, it outlines several major strikes, particularly those associated with the Western Federation of Miners, and the textile strikes in Lawrence and Paterson, a high watermark for union organizing under the IWW banner. This is followed by more strike accounts, then biographical sketches of the highly eclectic bunch of radicals who swelled the ranks of the IWW during its heyday and kept its memory alive through long decades of irrelevance. It ends with two modern episodes. The first details the life of environmentalist and Wobbly Judy Bari, while the second recounts a port strike in Jefferson, Indiana.
Nothing in this critique is meant to belittle the value of the struggles, or the bravery of participants. These are struggles that shaped the lives of generations of Americans by putting a pressure on state and capital alike. The fights found between these pages paved the way for the eight hour day, for wage increases and safety regulations. But they also fell short of the ultimate goal; a society in which the wealth of society is shared equally amongst those who produce it.
These vignettes are a mixture of victory, defeat and sentimental reminisce. Shot through all of them are scenes of agony, of sometimes lethal suffering. Martyrdom is an old and popular theme in heroic narrative, and echoes from Calvary to Tahrir. Looking at these graphic re-tellings, it is impossible not to be reminded of paintings of saints caged in cells, pierced by arrows. They are ennobled, it would seem, by their suffering.
So it is for the workers in the pages of “Wobblies!” They are shot, beaten, jailed, defamed, tortured, bombed, ridiculed and betrayed. The outcome of the struggle is secondary to these latter-day passion plays, showcasing the divine agony of the downtrodden. Anguish is often compounded by anguish, with strikers blamed for the deaths of other strikers.
There are courage and beauty both in the struggles of IWW organizers and members. Their suffering is a credit to their devotion. But it is their vision that matters most to the future, not their pain. They were not shot so our eyes could blear at the mention of their memory. Not for nothing are the words associated with Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organize!”
In other words, the image of Frank Little that captures our imagination is not his battered corpse hanging from a Montana Bridge, but of the cantankerous old bastard hobbling around America on two crutches. With one leg and one eye, Little walked farther and saw more in the name of industrial struggle than many activists could imagine today. As he is said to have remarked “All we’re gonna need from now on is guts!”
It is fitting, then, that the image of Judi Bari that concludes her story is not one of the car bomb that took her legs, but of Bari fiddling. It would be too easy to dwell on the pain of these Wobblies, to accept the tacit coupling of corporal agony and moral ecstasy. But on this May Day, and every day, we have to remember that this is not why blood was shed. This is not why bones were broken. Our antecedents suffered not so that we could romanticize them, but so that we could follow their lead. The general strike is our best hope, and it will take one big union to get there.
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”→
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although the name might mean little to modern readers, there was a time when the initials ‘IWW’ struck fear in the hearts of bosses, police and all other respectable elements of society. The Industrial Workers of the World, formed in 1905, was one of North America’s most radical and militant unions. Though much diminished since its heyday in the 1910s and 20s, there are still active IWW chapters around the world, including here in Toronto. What is less well known about the Wobblies, as they have been called for generations, is their rich history of political cartoons.
Their most enduring contribution to the graphic vocabulary of the left is undoubtedly the Sabo-Tabby. Seen here with claws out and back arched, the Sabo-Tabby was probably created by Ralph Chaplin, more famous for writing the union hymn “Solidarity Forever”. But their work also includes the hopeless ‘boss-head’ Mr. Block who could never quite see where his interests lay, and a proliferation of other editorial cartoons. The IWW truly forged an iconography of both union pride and class consciousness in their decades of activity.
In their cartoons, the IWW often sought to entice workers away from electoral politics. The IWW emphasis on direct action – strikes, foot-dragging and packing jail cells over free speech – finds ready expression in this cartoon. The heroic figure of the worker is coaxed by the politician on the one hand and the Wobbly on the other – where should he struggle? Washington’s distance is matched by the factory’s immediacy, emphasizing the workers’ true and immediate priorities. The stakes of this struggle are expressed in the preamble to the union constitution:
“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.”
In the first half of the 20th century, when millions of working people lived in conditions of poverty unimaginable today, the rich enjoyed lives of equally unimaginable luxury. The appeal of the IWW’s call is all too evident.
The refusal to deal with politicians, seen as agents of the capitalist class, is recurrent in Wobbly cartoons. The IWW’s antipathy to politicians began early, with a break from socialist politician Daniel DeLeon, who insisted on the primary importance of political struggle and the potential irrelevance of demands for higher wages. The Wobbly response to this attitude is summed up wonderfully in “Now He Understands The Game”, where the looming figure of a class-conscious worker looks skeptically on the capitalist’s puppet show. The demands clutched in his hand and the rising sun of the IWW at his feet are all a part of him seeing the political façade for what it is, and so the worker is labeled accordingly on his overalls. That the various political puppets are all on the strings of the same boss, symbolizing the capitalist class as a whole, showed that the bitter partisanship of mainstream politics was an irrelevance to workers who could legislate on the shop floor. IWW cartoons tended to construe politicians as a class, usually not differentiating between Democrat or Republican. But their jabs were also aimed at the parties of the socialist left. In this cartoon, the artist mocks the notion that transient workers can have their interests served by sedentary politicians belonging to the more mainstream Socialist Party, led by former Wobbly cofounder Eugene Debs. Farmhands, lumberjacks and other temporary migrant workers were the focus of many successful IWW campaigns; the idea that these precarious workers would cast their lot in with a politician representing a congressional district they might not be in for even a year was duly mocked by the Wobbly press. The only way to catch the pork chop of gainful employment was to join a union that would see to your getting a square deal – or at least a square meal! The Communist Party USA was, if anything, less favourably regarded by the Wobs. Like a great many other left organizations operating in North America, the IWW was constantly confronted with accusations that it was doing Bolshevik Russia’s work and that its members were agents of the communist state. This allegation was not helped by the emigration of leading Wobbly ‘Big’ Bill Haywood to Russia following the revolution, and the publication of his happy memoirs. But as this comic shows, the IWW did not want to be seen as leading the Russian Bear behind it. The cartoon draws on the popular representation of Russia as a bear, and the high population of lumberjacks in the IWW to create an image of a sinister woodsman. Other than the label, ‘One misconception of the IWW’, nothing in the cartoon indicates that the Wobblies and the Bolsheviks were anything other than friendly.
Although they were drawn by dozens of different artists, some of whom are speculated to have had separate careers as established comic strip artists working for commercial features, IWW cartoons share some commonalities. They are seldom subtle, and some feature such extensive labeling of elements of the image that one suspects the artist harboured grave doubts regarding their abilities as an illustrator. At times they attempt to incorporate too many elements to be coherent, though most of those selected here avoid that prospective pitfall. But they serve their purpose in their simplicity: politicians and businessmen are ugly with expressions of sinister intent on their face. For hungry workers making a pittance for long hours, the straightforward message of these comics must have helped to win them over to the Wobblies’ cause. When all the fiery manifestos in the world won’t do, sometimes a few comics can close the gap. MORE WOBBLY ‘TOONS…
Preamble of the IWW, by its membership: http://www.iww.org/culture/official/preamble.shtml Rebel Voice: An IWW Anthology Edited by Joyce L. Kornbluh. 2011, PM Press. The Industrial Workers of the World: Its First 100 Years. Fred Thompson and Jon Bekken. 2006, IWW. Bill Haywood’s Book: The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood New York: International Publishers, 1929
As part of our expanded Promotions section, we will be bringing together a monthly digest of political comics from around the world, in search of support. Here is a listing of past crowd-funding projects that we have publicized.
Freak’s Progress is twenty-first-century take on the morality play, a traditional theatrical form that demonstrated morally and socially correct behavior. Hasse’s goal is “to explore the deep heterogeneity we live with, and how that heterogeneity can create both deep understanding and radical confusion,” based on her “experiences as an artist, educator, social justice advocate, and resident of urban neighborhoods in transition.”
Hasse has an extensive portfolio of her work available on her website.
This project is accepting funds through the end of the year.
Starting in 1995, Boyd has been adapting stories of United States history into comics featuring a Chesapeake Bay blue crab named Chester. Originally, the strip syndicated in Virginia with the goal to encourage voluntary non-reading children to engage with history. Now, Boyd seeks funding to digitize his entire collection to make them available to everyone.
During this digitization project, Boyd is also planning to expand on Chester’s adventures through American history by adding more jokes, more details, and by providing links to on-line history resources.
This project is accepting funding through Dec. 27, 2013.
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Recognize that chunky sweater?! That’s right, folks–that’s Chomsky, in comic form!
On Indiegogo now is an exciting new political comics project. Click the image above to check out the campaign – or any image on this page, for that matter!
Writer and Illustrator Jeffrey Wilson and Luke Radl are putting together a graphic novel developed from an interview Wilson conducted with Noam Chomsky in 2012. For those familiar with Chomsky, you may understand me when I say that he is a wealth of information that is perhaps difficult to take in all in one sitting. Most recently, I heard him interviewed on CBC Radio Q, on the topic of NSA and spying programs–and just as a side note, Chomsky mentioned a great deal of information with regard to COINTELPRO and the counterintelligence programs that waged war on progressive groups in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a lot of history and analysis to take in in 10 minutes. And that’s why I think a graphic novel interpretation of Chomsky is so promising. In the words of the creators,
“We take the historical examples used and give them a depth that might otherwise be glossed over. For example, when Chomsky mentioned the Free Speech Movement of the 60’s during the interview, we do the research and take you back to that time period so it is not just a passing reference but a real and dynamic moment. This work is important because it will offer not only an introduction to the thoughts and insights of Chomsky but the graphic novel form allows us to layer information and move the reader through time and space in unique ways.”
With that said, Wilson and Radl have a lot on their plates…. and that’s AFTER fundraising $15,000.
As for artwork, I can’t think of many other contemporary comic artists who could do better than Luke Radl. He initially got my attention on Cartoon Movement with his comics journalism coverage of the 2012 NATO protests in Chicago, in which members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, led by 3 young Afghan women and peace activists, marched to the gates of the summit. Veterans, in the fashion of the protest on the Washington Monument during the Vietnam War, threw their metals over the fence in one of the most powerful acts of protest I have seen against the war in the last decade. It was an incredible thing to see illustrated. His full portfolio can be viewed here: www.lukeradl.com/illustration
Donate what you can. Share where you can. This looks like a wonderful initiative.
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Terminal Lance on Kickstarer
Just came across what appears to be an amazing war comic project on Kickstarter. I highly recommend people check it out–if not to add to his already-attained goal–but to pre-order a copy of what is surely to become an incredible comic.
The White Donkey is the creation of Max Uriarte, an artist and US veteran who served on two deployments to Iraq. His regular web comic, Terminal Alliance, features often-funny shorts about army life. While not a military person myself, a lot of my closest friends (including my husband) are veterans–and the stories definitely ring true with what I’ve heard before.
There is richness in those stories that is baited with a bittersweet intrigue: war stories and military life draw just about every observer into it. And because war has a tendency to bring out both the best and worst in a human being, it will forever be a popular subject within all creative media.
Comics with a Cause has just hit the $1,000 mark on Indiegogo. Let’s help them make this happen.
News of this project totally hit me by surprise. My husband was the one to point it out to me- a new fundraising campaign for a web comic series, inspired by the question of “What men can do to end violence against women” launched by Rodrigo Caballero and his fiancee, Babette Santos in Vancouver last week. What struck me was that, not only did this project sound amazing, but that Babette–who I know completely outside of the world of comic books–was a bridesmaid at my wedding in Vancouver. What a small, wonderful world!
It sounds like this is going to be a pretty slick web comic with a great opportunity for it to be brought into print. The informative nature of the subject matter makes me happy that, once the initial funds are raised, there is no hindrance to anyone benefiting from its contents: a free web comic is a free web comic.
Through networking and contacts, Babette and Rodrigo have already drummed up a lot of initial support in the women’s rights community in the Lower Mainland– at women’s centers, shelters, and through advocacy groups. I think this project has the potential to do something amazing: please, instead of giving money to Gawker (a media company worth over $300 million) to see a 30 second cell phone video of my mayor smoking crack — support something positive. Support Comics with a Cause!
This project is not to create a book for a regular readership. Prison Grievances is written specifically for inmates of the U.S. prison system, fundamentally focused on education and empowerment. The book, reviewed by people at all levels of the prison system from judges to former inmates, details the step-by-step process for filing complaints with the court system, requesting a special piece of equipment due to a disability–whatever the case may be.
While this book may come across as little more than a practical tool for someone in a different situation than you, it serves a great purpose. The fact of the matter is that 1 in 12 Americans have been in the prison system, and over 2 million people currently sit in jail cells–that’s more prisoners than the People’s Republic of China (which, by the way, still has more people than the U.S.) Anyone who still thinks that the prison industrial complex isn’t a problem should do some more reading on the matter – maybe start with Shane Bauer’s recent heart-wrenching article in Mother Jones: “Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.”
Leclercq has taken the right approach in tackling this titanic challenge that we face as a society (whether we admit it or not–prisoners becomes ex-prisoners, who are then our co-workers, neighbours, and fellow citizens), and is attempting to hand these men and women a valuable tool. If this project speaks to you, please check out the pitch page and make a donation.
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.
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.
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.
Title: The Vietnam War – A Graphic History
Writtenby: 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 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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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.
Title: MARCH: Book One Creators: John Lewis, Andrew Aykin, and Nate Powell Published: August 2013 by Top Shelf Press
March: Book One is the first part in a trilogy graphic memoir detailing the life and times of Civil Rights activist and Congressman John Lewis.
Growing up in the United States, you’re led to believe that you learn all there is to know about the Civil Rights Movement in school. You learn about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts; you learn about the most famous American speech of the 20th Century: “I Have a Dream”.
In a recent article shared through the Zinn Education Project, historian and black activist Bill Fletcher Jr. describes the method by which certain moments and people in the Civil Rights movement have been “mythologized” and “sanitized“. And boy, has our understanding of this history been manipulated! We would be led to believe that forces of the status quo in the 1950s and 1960s–from local police departments up to the President’s office–supported non-violent forms of protest; that racism and racists were isolated to the masses of simple folk in the South.
Of course, the result of this is that students are not understanding the context of these important pieces of history. That is why I’m hopeful of a book like March making its way into classrooms… students deserve a broader view of these issues than what will be allocated to them in 2 or 3 paragraphs of a standard-issue textbook.
As John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell so eloquently show us in March, this was not the case. The Civil Rights movement was a bloody, uphill battle. The struggle and its gains were not the results of a few actions by those now famous historical figures: the movement moved by way of thousands of committed activists, many of whom were students.
This is a truly beautiful comic book that paints a portrait not just of a man (John Lewis was one of the leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and is now a Congressman; he is also the last living person to have given a speech alongside Martin Luther King on Aug 28, 1963). It paints a vivid portrait of a movement that you think you know, but maybe, possibly, probably don’t. Why was non-violent civil disobedience so radical at the time? Why were there rifts between the younger activists and the older black leadership–figures like Thurgood Marshall? How was the Civil Rights movement connected to religious groups? To the labor movement?
Nate Powell has a way of making every picture personable–crisp, yet dreamy, with solid black ink brush strokes complimented by dabbles of watercolor staining. And Andrew Aydin, who works on Congressman John Lewis’ staff, has obviously been instrumental in taking the vast treasure trove of information that is John Lewis’ life experience, and organizing it into an epic memoir. I particularly like the stories that attest to his core character, like growing up on an old sharecropper farm, wanting to be a preacher and practicing his talks on his chickens. These are wonderful stories that bring out the humanity behind the political battles.
These are the stories from the Civil Rights Movement that, I believe, reclaim the history and restore its heart and soul. You can’t learn about a protest movement from a government-sanctioned textbook.. they’ll make you think the whole thing was their idea. And although Congressman Lewis is now a part of that system, well… how he got there will be explained in the next two books of the trilogy.
I’m excited about what I’ve seen so far–this is an often raw, ugly–yet true history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. To get a glimpse of this, I’ve asked the kind folks at Top Shelf to show you the first five pages of March. I hope you see what I mean–and be sure to pick up a copy when you get the chance!