Category Archives: History

Musings on history–largely in the Western Hemisphere, where my graphic novel is focused.

A Piece of Thatcher Comic History!

 

 

Well, I’ve barely begun my search and look at this comic rendition of Margaret Thatcher. The artist is sophisticated, from my point of view: he/she artfully portrays Thatcher in a position of victory with her arms raised, as this narrator, whose ideas are at odds with conservatism, has his own arms lowered in his captive defeat.

Anyone know where this is from?

tribute to margeret thatcher

“A Residential School Graphic Novel” by Jason Eaglespeaker

Quite some time ago, I made a preview post about a comic book that I hadn’t yet gotten my hands on: A Residential School Graphic Novel, by Jason Eaglespeaker out of Calgary, AB. A few weeks ago, the book arrived and I feel that the review is now long overdue.

residential graphic novelTitle: UNeducation Volume 1: A Residential School Graphic Novel
Author/Illustrator: Jason Eaglespeaker (with dozens of community names listed under “contributors”)
Published: 2011 by Jason EagleSpeaker via “The Connection” in Calgary, AB – with support from Alberta Foundation for the Arts and Canada Council of the Arts

You can tell that Eaglespeaker isn’t messing around: he has a vision and he means business. This project has the righteous and unwavering purpose of educating native and non-native alike on the raw and real history of the residential school system and its effect on the first peoples of this land.

In addition to loving comic books, I am also a lover of zines, political literature, scrapbooks—in general, I am fascinated by ideas and how people choose to convey them.

Eaglespeaker’s Residential School Graphic Novel is a mix of all four of the mediums that I mention. There are original comic narratives here, mostly told in the Black Foot language. There are scores of newspaper clippings, compiling news coverage from around Canada of residential school abuses, even murders, that have never been solved. Overarching this are quotes and core ideas about the residential school system that the author has selected to point out some fundamental truths: quotes like Dr. Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs in 1920, who said:

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed.”

…and so, generations of children were torn away from their families. Their heads were shaved, their clothes were burned, their bodies were bruised until they stopped speaking their language. Generations of children never learned what it meant to be a parent, because they had none. Family units and knowledge of the importance of those roles within a community began to disintegrate.

1996The format reminds me a lot of a zine: different sections use different methods of conveying these ideas. The beginning has quotes and newspaper clippings; the next section is oriented to look like a newspaper, called ‘Residential School News’ (it looks like the cover of Weekly World News). In it, the author uses his natural talent with slogans and sound bites to talk about some of the many issues that can be addressed with regard to residential schools: the psychology of being born with this severe emotional and cultural baggage, the storm of emotion at knowing that this baggage is not his people’s fault—that it was imposed, through the school system, by law; likening the treatment of native children to the treatment of POW’s in war-time; searching for what remains of native culture; and finally, settlement. Resolution. Eaglespeaker points out that the last residential school closed in 1996. (That’s right 1-9-9-6, as in less than 20 years ago).

Towards the end of the book are several short comics. The first depicts a native mother having her child torn away from her. The text is in Blackfoot, which, as a non-speaker of the language, emphasizes the realness of the story. It also makes me feel like I don’t have control—I’m an outsider, a bit, I guess—as I’m reading it, and I can only imagine flipping that around and being in her position as she approaches the residential school, asking for her child, and everyone is talking in English. Or the next scene, where the children are in school, and a nun slams a little boy’s head on his desk for speaking in Blackfoot.

Monochrome colours in the residential school depict a drab existence, devoid of culture or anything from the children’s previous life (their clothes are thrown away, and their hair is chopped off.)

The following comic is about two children who attempt to escape from the residential school. They finally make it home to their family, but the strip ends with their parent explaining that they have to go back to the school (it was written into law at the time).

The final comic is of a reality that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen in a comic, ever. I will note that I ordered the “uncut” version of the book, and that there is a PG version available for schools and younger audiences.

unredeemedIt is (essentially) titled “Will the circle ever end?”  and depicts a young native boy who is the victim of repeated sexual assault at the hands of a white man of his residential school. It is unclear exactly who this paedophile is, but he is depicted as some kind of priest or pastor. The panels themselves are crumpled, torn, burned in some sections, taped back together. It’s so terrible and intense. Finally it depicts the boy growing into a man, and he himself has now become a predator-within his family and community. He then is charged and sent to jail, where he again becomes a victim of the other inmates. The story ends with the man, now old and out of life, holding up a black and while photograph of himself as a child. Below the panel are the words, “…my life is unredeemed.”

The volume, as a whole, is a tour-de-force on the realities of this history. Residential Schools are a behemoth of an issue: so many ideas, concepts and debates stem from it—one of the reasons it’s such a crime to dismiss it, or downsize is as “a native thing”, ignoring the fact that it would not have even been a “native” issue if whites had not imposed it upon them for a century.

Eaglespeaker rightly sees it as a past, a history, from which stem many, many, many stories. In this book, you’re looking at the system from the past, the present, and the future looking back; you’re feeling the abuse as the native and reading the first-person quotes of government officials, seeing how they justified the atrocities. It is well-rounded and no-holds barred. I’m extremely grateful for its existence, and hope it reaches every school, every student, every corner in this country, and beyond. It’s about time this book has come into being.

For more on Eaglespeaker’s work, his full catalogue of published work can be found on The Connection.

history is brutal

“The Death of Elijah Lovejoy” Depicts Final Moments of Abolitionist’s Life

1_cover_flatTitle: The Death of Elijah Lovejoy
Author: Noah Van Sciver
Published: 2011, 2D Cloud Micropublisher
Got My Copy: At TCAF 2012, but you can order a copy through their website: www.2dcloud.com or by contacting the author at http://nvanscriver.wordpress.com

(Noah Van Scriver puts out some regular strips through his blog. I picked up this piece from the Toronto Comic Arts Festival last year.)

As I wind down from my trip visiting my Mom and Grandma in Lawrence KS, I felt it poignant to review a comic that takes us back to that notable time of Midwestern history when neighbours, friends and family alike were literally at each other’s throats over the question of slavery.

The Death of Elijah Lovejoy is about the untimely demise of one of the country’s many little-known abolitionists. Elijah Lovejoy was a church leader, writer, editor, publisher, and staunch abolitionist. The man had a life that was defined by two fundamental struggles in American history: the struggle against slavery and racism, and the freedom of the press. A monument of Elijah is dedicated to these fights in Alton Illinois, where the man took his final breaths. Earlier in his years, Elijah had caused great controversy when he protested the killing of escaped slave Francis L. McIntosh, who was chained to a tree and burned alive in Elijah’s town at the time of St. Louis, MS.  His stance on the McIntosh murder, and his persistence in printing anti-slavery literature, would follow him to his grave.

I’m not too worried about sounding the spoiler alert with this review: the title gives away the cold reality that Elijah dies. The comic is a play-out of that final evening, when a mob of angry villagers has Elijah and his colleagues surrounded at the location of his printing press. (This was his 4th printing press—the previous three had been seized and destroyed by mobs.)

panelsVan Sciver uses his simple, black-and-white illustrations to depict Lovejoy and his colleagues as they defense Elijah’s fourth (and final) printing press in Alton. The text, particularly the conversations, are hypothetical, but probably not far from what was said that night. The panels plainly show the unwavering sense of righteousness that was felt on both sides of the slavery issue, in which men would level buildings, hunt each other down, and burn people alive to make a point.

For more information on the comic, check out the links above. For more info on Elijah Lovejoy, the internet reveals that his story is not altogether forgotten. Here are a few links.

Wikipedia Entry on Lovejoy:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elijah_Lovejoy

Lovejoy’s Biography on Spartacus Educational:
http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USASlovejoy.htm

slavery mob burning
Early depiction of Elijah and his colleagues being surrounded by a pro-slavery mob and burned out of the building that housed his printing press.

Supreme Court Ruling Raises Relevance for Reading Chester Brown’s LOUIS RIEL

panelsSome of you may have heard of the historic Canadian Supreme Court ruling this week – which spelled victory for a struggle as old as Canada itself.

In a ruling closely followed by Canada’s Metis community, the Supreme Court determined this last week that Ottawa has not lived up to their end of the bargain made through the Manitoba Act of 1870. This was the agreement that quelled the uprising of the Red River Metis community, made Manitoba a part of Canada, and in turn said that the federal government would set aside land for the children of Red River.

Section 31 of the Act, the court ruled, was to “give the Métis a head start in the race for land and a place in the new province. This required that the grants be made while a head start was still possible.”

Many Canadian readers know where I’m going with this, let alone fans of graphic novels, because it is still one of the most acclaimed graphic histories and graphic biographies to date. I’m referring, of course, to the man who led the negotiations: a Metis man by the name of Louis Riel.

coverLouis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography
Author & Illustrator: Chester Brown
Published: 2006 by Fantagraphics

simple styleChester Brown released Louis Riel to almost immediate critical acclaim. Here was both a piece of Canadian history brought to life, and a genuine masterpiece of stylized art. When I first picked up the book, I disliked the art style despite respecting its quality and consistency throughout the book. I’ve just never been into minimalist drawings… not until recent re-thinking, anyway. But a friend of mine brought up a good point the other day: Chester Brown literally had all of 3, maybe 4 pictures of the man with which to draw an entire book about him. Sound difficult? I think it was… and I’m not sure if the minimalism was the result of solving that problem, but it does in a way that doesn’t seem like defensive measure.

The work of biography is just as artful as the illustration. Here is a sequential portrait not of a one-dimensional populist leader, but a man with conflicts–material and mental–who became larger than life. The book displays his natural inclinations as a leader with as little judgement as his delusions that he was a messenger of God. The best biographies are arguably those where you are certain of the author’s admiration for their subject–but you’re not quite sure what it is they find the most fascinating.

Despite minimalism, there are also wonderful details, like puffs of air in pictures where there is snow on the ground, and brackets around text when depicting that the language spoken is other than English.

I think I’m a little late in convincing many Canadian readers that this is a book worth owning- what I would recommend
is for readers outside of Canada to pick up this title- Chester Brown is a wonderful artist and writer, and in the process they can learn a little about Canadian history and one of its distinct cultural groups.

web riel

Black History: A Comic Book Reading List

For the last 10 days of February, I put out a list of Top 10 Comics relating to Black History. I didn’t consider this a quintessential list; moreso, I wanted it to be a startting point for anyone interested in exploring the genre/medium combo.

From the get-go, I knew I could at least name 10 different titles, although I hadn’t read them all. And as research tends to do, I’ve added another few to this list, along with some notes. 

Black History Comics – A Reading List

bayou page shotBAYOU – 2010, by Jeremy Love.
It’s the Deep South–in the deep dip of the Depression. Young Lee was already afraid of the Bayou–that was where they dumped the body of Billy Glass–and who knows how many other blacks who “hadn’t known their place”. But when Lee’s white friend goes missing and her father is suspected to be involved, Lee sets out into the Bayou, a dark place of murder and magic, to rescue the girl from whatever has taken her, and in turn rescue her father from the fate of the gallows.
Here in the “new world” we often have a hard time picturing our history as folklore and our folk lore as mythology, but that is what is at work here. Jeremy Love does a great job with this book bringing that mythology to life in the stylization of Uncle Remus and his Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, et al. He even takes it a little further, with pieces of social memory that still seem a little too real, too close, to feel entirely comfortable with: flocks of “Jim Crows” that will eat you alive; monsters with the faces of minstrel characters. There is an anthropomorphic element here–lots of talking animals, stories and song that make the characters really pop. Think “Alice in Dixieland”.
Two Volumes have been released of the story so-far: I do hope that more is on the way…
Published: 2010 by Zuda Comics (online arm of D.C. – now closed.)
Awards: Glyph Comics Awards – Best Writer, Best Artist, Best Female Character, Best Comic Strip, and Story of the Year (2009);
Best Digital Comic for the Eisner Awards – Nominee (2010);
American Library Association – 1 of Top 10 Graphic Novels for Teens (2010);
Further Reading: Nice Analysis over at Web Comic Overlook (although self-admittedly long.)

nat turner page shotNAT TURNER – 2006 by Kyle Baker. Four issues bound into two volumes here tell the story of Nathaniel “Nat” Turner, leader of one of the largest slave revolts in American history. The genius of this comic is that it tells a compelling story while allowing the historical value to shine through. It uses all excepts of Nat Turner’s own words, taken from a “confession” he gave to a newspaper while in prison awaiting his execution (the word “confession” of course, is an editorialization from the newspaper of the time–however, one can hardly expect him to be remorseful for killing the men who killed and enslaved his kinfolk). We not only have a primary source, but a first-hand account of what we’re seeing depicted in pictures: the life of a 19th Century slave, the horror of life from capture, transport, sale, work, and punishment. The role of religion and prayer for slaves who survived. As a political and historical comics enthusiast, this is one of the gems. Kyle Baker looks to have taken 19th Century newspaper illustrations and breathed them full of life and human emotion. This and a nail-biting narration have practically gift-wrapped this bloody episode of American history.
Published: 2006 by Kyle Baker Publishing
Awards: Glyph Comics Awards – Best Artist, Best Cover, Story of the Year (2006);
Glyph Comics Awards – Best Artist (2008);
Further Reading: Nice review on Eye on Africa Blog

 

jackie robinson coverJACKIE ROBINSON, Issues 0 – 6 – Written by sports-writer Charles Dexter. Now I know nothing about this comic – save that it was published in 1950 and that it’s real. That makes it one of the earliest comic book depictions of a black historical figure (maybe the first?) and impossible to leave off this list, where I try to encourage that there is black representation, but also a note-worthy link to Black History (sorry Black Panther, Storm, Huey Freeman…)
That being said, I know nothing of the quality of this comic – the writing, the artwork. But regardless I like having this comic on my reading this for two reasons. It’s not only that it’s the sole comic that is more than 10 years old… consider the fact that a black baseball player would have difficulty finding lodging or a bar to sit in when this comic was released. Second, it’s written by a sportswriter, and I love sportswriter/political commentator cross-overs (the “Olberman” effect?).
Published: 1950 – 1951 by Fawcett
Further Reading: Good luck getting yourselves a copy of this – some issues retail as high as $75 for their 16 pages. But a decent telling of Jackie’s story (and the story of African Americans in the major leagues) can be found here at Awesome Stories.com 

 

 

SOOF - page shot

THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS – 2008, Written by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, and illustrated by Nate Powell. This is a deceptively simple memoir of a man who moved to a small Texas town with his liberal white family in the 1960s. The town was intensely segregated, and the author remembers the stir it caused when his Dad invited a black friend and his family over for dinner. Besides political overtones and largely untold events of recent Texas history, which included protests and a serious accusation of black demonstrators firing on police–which was later determined to be false–Silence of Our Friends is a story of childhood memory that is touching, personal and honest. With a heavy emphasis on Powell’s art, the narrative re-creates the [often quiet] tension of racism, privilege, and friendship.
Published: 2008, by First Second Comics / Macmillan
Awards:
Further Reading: I’m a huge fan of Nate Powell’s artwork, so I will take this time to direct you to his blog over here at See My Brother Dance

MALCOLM X A GRAPHIC BIOGRAPHY – 2006, by Andrew Helfer, Randy DuBurke.
Published: 2006 by Hill and Wang
I have yet to full read this piece, but have it on my list. There is also another Malcolm X biography – by Jessica Sara Gunderson and Seifu Hayden. Neither Helfer nor Gunderson are names that I’m very familiar with in comics, so I’ve been slow to pick these titles up. However they are available for those interested.

King coverKING: A COMICS BIOGRAPHY OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. – 2005, by Ho Che Anderson. Generally considered to be more comics journalism, this volume collects over 10 years of Ho Che Anderson’s work into a biography of the renowned civil rights leader.  From a review on Amazing: “KING probes the life story of one of America’s greatest public figures with an unflinchingly critical eye, casting King as an ambitious, dichotomous figure deserving of his place in history but not above moral sacrifice to get there. Anderson’s expressionistic visual style is wrought with dramatic energy; panels evoke a painterly attention to detail but juxtapose with one another in such a way as to propel King’s story with cinematic momentum.”
Published: 2005, by Fantagraphics (the Complete Edition)

birth of a nation coverBIRTH OF A NATION – 2004, by Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin and Kyle Baker.
McGruder, Hudlin and Baker definitely have satire in their sights for this piece – that being said, it touches on black culture and history more uniquely than other books mentioned here. Aaron has admittedly used some real stories in this work, gathered by himself and friends over the years to make this comedic work ask a darkly humorous question: If East St. Louis seceded from the Union, would anyone really care? East St. Louis (“the inner city without an outer city” it says), is an impoverished town, so poor that Fred Fredericks, its idealistic mayor, starts off Election Day by collecting the city’s trash in his own minivan. (A real story is inserted here, says McGruder – some people kept their trash on their rooftops to discourage the packs of wild dogs from rummaging through it. No joke…well, yeah, I guess he kind of makes it into a joke.) But the mayor believes in the power of democracy and rallies his fellow citizens to the polls for the presidential election, only to find hundreds of them disenfranchised (this was the 2000 election, so that part is also totally believable).
“Birth of a Nation” to me, is what comics have always been about–pointed political commentary that makes you split your stomach laughing at the same time. And in doing so, it raises questions of culture and national identity. A great read.
Published: 2005, by Three Rivers Press

ROSA PARKS & THE MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT – 2007, by Connie Colwell Miller (Author) and Dan Kalal (Illustrator).
Part of the Graphic Library series, this book is an introduction to Rosa Parks and her involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Because the author provides a sequential and clear outline of the historical events of the time, the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott is told in a meaningful and interesting way. The graphic novel is broken into four chapters, each one telling a specific part of Rosa Parks’ story. Through the content presented, readers are introduced to important figures involved in the civil rights movement, racial segregation laws, significant dates and court decisions, important events in the civil rights movement, and the political and social climate of the time. Furthermore, the author shows the impact the Montgomery Bus Boycott had on the civil rights movement and tells about Rosa s life after the boycott.
Published: 2007 by Capstone Press

still-i-rise-graphic“STILL I RISE”: A GRAPHIC HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICANS – 2009, by Roland Laird (Author), Taneshia Nash Laird (Author), Elihu “Adofo” Bey (Illustrator), Charles Johnson (Foreword)
Still I Rise is a lot packed into a little book: the entire history of Black America– recently updated in a new edition that includes the election of Barack Obama as the U.S.A.’s first African American president (the first edition, published in 1997, took us up to the Million Man March). I believe this work has excelled in highlighting history left out of a lot of American textbooks, for whatever reasons: including early attempts of slaves and former slaves uniting with white indentured servants, along with the rise of early black entrepreneurs and politicians in the South who were constantly attacked, broken down and weeded out. it it a solid portrayal of a lengthy question, and shows that the notion of American history as “white” history is manufactured, and deliberately dismissive of black culture.
Published: 2009 by Sterling

BLACK IMAGES IN THE COMICS – 2012, Edited by Fredrik Stromberg (Introduction by Charles Johnson).
Endlessly browsable illustrated journey through comics’ history of radical portrayals both good and bad.
This book spotlights over 100 comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels to feature black characters from all over the world over the last century, and the result is a fascinating journey to, if not enlightenment, then at least away from the horrendous caricatures of yore. Fredrik Stromberg, who is from Swede, explains in the introduction that he more of less made the volume because it had not yet been made; he set out to make a comprehensive art history of (mostly) white people’s depictions of blacks: as primitive and savage–even cannibalistic, then as dim-witted clowns. Halfway through the 20th Century, this begins to change, and with the inclusion of more positive representations of blacks (mostly African Americans), we see the emergence of black writers and artists, breaking new ground once again.
What begins as a somewhat depressing window on the small-ness of humanity has something of a happy ending with this evolution. However I’m reminded of the words of Charles Johnson, who in the introduction writes, “I wait for the day when…stories in which a character who just happens to be Black is the emblematic, archetypal figure in which we — all of us — invest our dreams, imaginings, and sense of adventure about the vast possibilities for what humans can be and do– just as we have done, or been culturally indoctrinated to do, with white characters…”
Published: 2012 by Fantagraphics


Some Additions:

My entire reading list is seriously lacking in the realm of arts and culture. I looked far and wide for a Hip Hop Graphic History, but am perhaps a bit early on that one – Ed Piskor’s exciting Hip Hop Family Tree comes out this October. Until then, you can preview some work on Boing Boing – or pre-order it from Fantagraphics!

Black Comix: African American Independent Comics, Art and Culture
Damian Duffy (Author), John Jennings (Author), Keith Knight (Introduction) – 2010, by Mark Batty Publisher

Super Black – 2011, by Adilifu Nama.
Super Black, although not a comic, it the most thorough work yet to break ground on the subject of black people in comics – their representation and significance. This also extends to blaxploitation film and art, where we see a real packaging of the ‘Black Hero’ for the first time in mainstream American culture.  Available through Amazon, some university literature courses, and perhaps your more-than-average book store.

ABINA AND THE IMPORTANT MEN – 2011, By Trevor R. Getz. Read more about it on the publisher’s website at Oxford University Press.

BAYOU ARCANA – An anthology of work in a similar vein to Bayou, looking at historical roles of race and gender in the Deep South.

The MARCH TRILOGY – Coming out in August, 2013. A graphic novel memoir of former Civil Rights leader and U.S. Representative John Lewis.

THE CAMPFIRE SERIES – by Steerforth Press includes “Mohammed Ali: King of the Ring” and a “Nelson Mandela” graphic biography.

There is also a “Nelson Mandela: Authorized Comic Book” that was produced by the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

African American Classics

Django Unchained Issue #1

Tarantino is known by fans and foes alike for essentially making good bad movies. Personally, I find some of them great, and some of them horrible. Django as a film, for me, ranks probably in the top two. But how is a comic book adaptation standing up to that?

django comic art

First, a side note: I am fascinated by the fact that Tarantino made this movie from a place that is very different from where most people, post-viewing, are coming at it. Tribute to Spaghetti Westerns and Blaxploitation aside, Tarantino also wanted to open discussion about America’s horrible history with slavery, and racism in general–to which he makes several very thoughtful commentaries in the film. Thom Hartman of Common Dreams went so far as to describe the movie as Tarantino telling today’s American South to go fuck itself.

…But a month in to the world of online reviews, and I’m knee-deep in (very) modern-day commentary about the paradigms of white/male privelege, which all ultimately boil down to whether or not Tarantino, as a white man, should have made a movie about slavery at all.

I’m going to do the only reasonable thing I can with regard to these comments, and just ignore them.

Let’s talk comics.

Shortly after the movie’s release, Vertigo released Issue #1 of “Django Unchained,” a 24-page comic book. Categorically, comic books released in conjunction with a film counterpart are exploitative, in that they’re exploiting peaked interest in a particular plot, character, or genre (whether it’s Kung-Fu, Westerns, etc.) It seems ironic to me that this is an exploitation comic about a film that is essentially a tribute to exploitation film. That would explain why I was the third person in line at the comic shop to be buying it. Generally, I’m not down with this kind of comic-book making: they are all designed to be viewed in a different medium (film), and are, more or less, hastily-assembled products solely introduced for the making of money and fan-swag. The artwork is amazing, yes, but stylistically I see nothing special so far, aside from some exceptional cover art and promotion posters.

django portrait

I am, however, hopeful. The issue opens with a short forward by Tarantino touching on his favorite childhood Western comics, and pointing out that the comic, unlike the movie, is the complete script, unedited and uncut. Things that were cut out of the movie due to lack of time or actors pulling out due to scheduling conflicts remain as scenes in the comic. (Who pulls out of a Tarantino film due to a “scheduling conflict?” apparently half a dozen well-known Hollywood stars…)

More than the film, the comic is a straight-forward look at the barbarity of slavery in the sunset days of the pre-Civil War South (before it transformed itself into the share-cropping/Jim Crow system). Much like any Issue 1, we see a layout of the plot and characters here, and little deviation from the movie.

Some general observations…
I will note that the comic and film DO NOT sing a song of revolution — one in which, say, Django would team up with other slaves, and with their strength in numbers, lead an insurrection. So let’s stop talking about how there isn’t enough of this or that in the film: it’s obviously not meant to be seen that way. The story sings the undeniably individualistic tune of revenge, in which our singular hero and [sometimes] his de-facto side-kick, Dr. King Schultz, go it alone in a hostile environment without anyone’s help.

If you’re looking for a film with strong female roles, you’re barking up the wrong genre tree. The last time someone in Hollywood thought a bunch of strong women belonged in a Western, disaster struck. Someone, someday, will change this–but not here, and not today.

I’m looking forward to the possibilities of this comic series. I’m looking forward to seeing scenes that were cut, and seeing stylistically what it might bring to the table. But so far, nothing remarkable. Stay tuned.

A People’s History of American Empire: Zinn’s Graphic Adaptation

PHAE coverIt was two years ago this month – on January 27, 2010, that Howard Zinn passed on. He was 87 years old. While he was arguably the most important American historian of the 20th Century and wrote a library of work–including his milestone, A People’s History of the United States–a fun fact is that the last publication he released during his lifetime… was actually a comic book.

 

Title: A People’s History of American Empire (A Graphic Adaptation) Author: Howard Zinn Artwork: Mike Konopacki Editor: Paul Buhle Published: 2008 through Metropolitan Books

 

The gravity of Zinn’s legacy tends to make singular reviews of his work impossible. A review of one work necessitates a contextual understanding of his life as a radical historian who in turn, participated in making history during his own time. That being said, I will assume that readers will go elsewhere to get their crash course on Zinn, so my review stays under 10,000 words.

This book is beautifully presented. It is now available in soft- or hard-cover, and at about 12″ x 20″, is a little too big to comfortably sit in my lap as I’m reading it. My assumption is that the creators chose a larger format because the work is so text-heavy.

That text is important, because Zinn is arguing a still-contested notion, and needs as much evidence to back up his arguments as possible. It begins with the annexation of Indigenous lands across what is now North America in the later 1800’s, and takes us to the present post-9/11 era of relative global military hegemony.  Zinn’s thesis is relatively clear: all of modern U.S. history is a history of empire; however, there is a parallel history of life and resistance by many. This includes poor and working people, who have played major rolls through unions, churches, and other community groups; women, students, and minorities of many stripes have all had interesting parts to play in a history that is largely told, in Zinn’s words, from the perspective of only “certain white men” (implying the rich and powerful).

Compared to A People’s History of the United States, which first appeared as a piece of academic achievement, American Empire reminds me more of a documentary film. Zinn is shown giving a lecture at an anti-war event, introducing and concluding the book’s chapters, which jump to varying times and places. Major historical figures like Black Elk, Mark Twain, and Eugene Debs are in these chapters, speaking as if to the reader, in scripts pulled largely from their real-life quotations and writings. The creators have chosen to accent this large-scale historical narrative with Zinn’s own personal history, as a young unionist, a WWII Air Force bombardier, and finally, as a young radical professor during the Civil Rights and Vietnam War eras.

 

PHAE mark twain

 

What you get here is an interwoven account of his research and his own personal account of the 20th Century.  It’s a moving way to look at a history that was told to most of us very differently in school.

Visually, it’s all a lot to take in, especially if you want to appreciate the illustrations as well as the text. I see this book being most appreciated when you can read it in segments. This makes it perfect for classrooms or study group. Each chapter is about 6 pages.

We are looking at a graphic adaptation of Zinn’s work. But we’re also looking at a graphic adaptation of the man as a modern-day intellectual icon. (Ex: These great little “Zinnformation” boxes pop up from time to time in the chapters, depicting a little light bulb with Howard’s tell-tale white hair-‘do.)
zinnformation
But just because I support the work in principle doesn’t mean the review is all roses, right? I have a few critiques of the book, rooted in my perspective as a comics lover + writer, and as a history enthusiast who cannot overestimate the impact Howard Zinn has had on my education.

I’ll get right to the point:

I’m not a fan of comic book adaptations–of books, movies: anything. My experience with them has been largely that they are a lose-lose product: the comic book becomes a simplified medium for what was in its first stage a more complete and highly-developed creative product. (Insert any comic book adaptation of anything here: Game of Thrones, The Last Unicorn, Ender’s Game, etc. etc. etc.) On the other hand, the comic medium is dis-serviced by simply being a highly-saleable vessel by which to re-release something that’s already out on the market. In short, if you’re doing a graphic adaptation, you’d better be bringing something incredibly special to the table.

In this regard, I think this graphic adaptation of Zinn’s past work has both some hits and misses.

First, let’s talk about the hits.

(+) Of course, a comic book makes available a lot of the information that Zinn has, largely, buried in pages upon pages of academic text, filled with all the usual footnotes and supplementary reading. So it’s accessible, and that’s especially important to young adults or classroom settings, as I mentioned before.

(+) The book does in fact compile some new information, largely the primary sources used to assemble its “interview”-styled segments with historical figures like that of Mark Twain shown above. That and the additions of Zinn’s personal experiences make it a more colourful work than any *one* of his texty-texts.

 

(+) Some of the graphics that have been added to this volume, including the contemporary photographs, political cartoons and other artwork of the time does much to enrich the narrative. It’s always illuminating to have this kind of media–text is, after all, highly prone to editorialization–but a photograph or political cartoon can reveal something of an un-altered reality for the time period. Now, some of the downers.

 

(-) Personally, I find the cartoon-ish fashioning of the illustrations to be a little out of the mood of the book. This is a serious, often grim, telling of American history–there are many chapters that would have rightly moved me to tears, if not for drawings that look like they came out of a storyboard for Quick-Draw McGraw. I would have gone with a different overall style. Still, even if the manner isn’t to my liking, at least it’s consistent, and professionally rendered.

 

(-) Many graphics are modified photographs–that’s fine–but what irks me is that whoever photo-shopped them didn’t clean them up. It’s like writing a milestone book and then not bothering to format it properly.  I don’t know why political comic books continue to disappoint me in this arena. It’s as if they see the quality of form and content as mutually exclusive. Or they think that readers just won’t care. peopleshistory1

 

Some won’t: that’s true.
But for comic book connoisseurs as well as artistically-minded comic readers, this is what ultimately determines the quality of the work… i.e. the amount of love that went into it.

In my opinion, we’re in the beginning stages of a second golden era for comic books–with political and historical comics, for the first time, being seriously included in the festivities. The last thing you want is to be invited to that party and then let people down. Think I’m making a mountain out of mole hill? Maybe. I’ll come back to this in a moment…

 

…first I gotta to drill into your heads, again, why Howard Zinn was (and IS) so important. Don’t worry, it won’t take 10,000 words.

 

As I touched on before, when A People’s History of the United States was published in 1980, the words “People’s History” were neither a mainstream term nor a methodology. Academically speaking, it was a new argument: History didn’t have to be that of kings and “great men”, or, as Henry Kissinger put it, “the memory of states”. It was revolutionary. He introduced the historical equivalent of ‘the 99%”–an overwhelming proportion of human history sits in the stories and memories of common folk–and it was right under everyone’s noses, being largely ignored.

By 2008 when this book came out, Zinn was already an icon. This book has led to countless additional volumes written or based on that first People’s History.  Like supplementary reading satellites, they revolve around the foundation of that first work. Here are a few:

  • Howard Zinn’s (A People’s History of) The Twentieth Century
  • Voices of a People’s History of the United States
  • A Young People’s History of the United States, adapted from the original text by Rebecca Stefoff; 
  • A People’s History of the United States: Teaching Edition

Audio renditions of his work are narrated by Matt Damon, Viggo Mortenson, and others moved by his work.

Here are a few books written by other historians, composing a “series” founded on Zinn’s original work:

  • Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World
  • A People’s History of the Supreme Court by Peter Irons with Foreword by Zinn
  • A People’s History of Sports in the United States by Dave Zirin with an introduction by Howard Zinn
  • The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World by Vijay Prashad
  • A People’s History of the American Revolution by Ray Raphael
  • A People’s History of the Civil War by David Williams
  • A People’s History of the Vietnam War by Jonathan Neale
  • The Mexican Revolution: A People’s History by Adolfo Gilly

What we are reviewing here is one of those publications. There is no other historian, mainstream of no, who can claim such a franchise, nor such a significant intellectual imprint.

 

What I’m trying to say is this: when I see imperfections in comic books, I think of two things:

 

– Creators/editors who lack experience in comic books (lots of indie/underground comics, as well as quite a few political comics, whose creators are firstly activists or academics; not comic book-makers). This often points to a lack of necessary funds and time.

 

– A rushed attempt to make money (most often the case in the department of “Comic Book Adaptations’… yet another reason for my distaste of the category…)

 

howzin

With People’s History of American Empire,  with all due respect, a little may be true of both.

But it kind of doesn’t matter what I think. At the end of the day, what’s important to me is figuring out what the end user (the reader) is thinking; and that’s what I’ve tried to do here.

Why does it concern me? Because I would never want someone to read this book and find out that their lasting impression of a work was “rushed attempt to make money”–when its origins are so profoundly the opposite in motivation.

Political comics will catch on. As the importance of non-fiction comics grows, more and more investment will be put into making a product with a cause that is indistinguishable from the mainstream players. But for now, the fact that this is one of the most well-circulated political comics of the past few years shows that we’ve got a little ways to go.

NMG

The First Political Comic in American History

Some of you may recognize the logo that I use. Originally, it was depicted over the words, “Join or Die”, with sections of the snake labelled for the early British colonies. It is a woodcut attributed to Benjamin Franklin, circa 1754, and is widely considered to be the first political cartoon in American history.

Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_DieIt was altogether a cry, at least at first, for unity amongst the colonies against their enemies, the French and native nations.
But, as memes do, it was copied and re-used widely in the colonial era. Eventually, it was re-introduced in the context of uniting these ‘states’ against Britain–and became a de-facto logo for the Revolutionary War.

It is important to note that this wasn’t Franklin’s original intent. After all, one isn’t born a revolutionary–and in the days before Pop culture could depict what a revolutionary could look/act like without necessarily providing any political or philosophical substance to their identity, one wasn’t compelled toward that conclusion quickly. No, revolution was for those who had exhausted other avenues–for Ben Franklin, one of those was the Albany Plan.

“Join or Die” was printed and published first in Franklin’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, as a push for this Plan. Largely driven by him, it proposed (among other things) a unifying Grand Council and President over the British territories of North America to address new matters of concern–namely, security and defense (including a standing army) in the wake of France’s growing alliances with many North American indigenous groups.

The Crown, sensing that this idea smelled some too much of a push for independence, did not approve. Colony representatives, from New York to Virginia, were too embroiled in their own local squabbles to really care.

With regard to the Albany Plan and its rejection, Benjamin said:

“The Colonies so united would have been sufficiently strong to have defended themselves; there would have been no need of Troops from England; of course the subsequent Pretence for Taxing America, and the bloody Contest it occasioned, would have been avoided. But such Mistakes are not new; History is full of the Errors of States & Princes.”

Despite it coming about as the banner of an essentially failed campaign, it is interesting to see how this image has lived on. One can’t help but note that ‘JOIN OR DIE’, which has survived centuries, was crafted by a man who had a knack for effecting lasting imprints .

The premise of the cartoon, by the way, is somewhat obvious but has some interesting aspects. At the time, it was apparently common superstition that a severed snake could be re-connected (and brought back to life) if the severed pieces were reattached before sunset (… the more you know!). It was a fascinating way to convey that there was precious little time to act on an urgent matter.

The pieces, of course, are the colonies, who were all separate entities. Franklin was among the first to argue that they are recognizable as something of a larger whole, distinct from England and its other world colonies. The era of colonization in America was an era of massive change, and ‘JOIN OR DIE’ was part of a budding outlook… the earliest and most rudimentary depictions of a sense of national identity.

A page from the Penn Gazette- May 9, 1754.
A page from the Penn Gazette- May 9, 1754.

I’ve since seen it used for a lot of references to the Revolutionary War– Paul Giamatti’s “John Adams” series on HBO immediately comes to mind. I’ve even seen [modern day] Tea Partiers use it, somewhat to my confusion and amusement. Fundamentally, its significance isn’t so much about patriotic fervour as harnessing the sentiments of many into an idea–an idea that proposed tremendous action, which was represented with a simple symbol and but a few words.

history_john adams

My interest as a writer and as an activist is in connecting dots. With art as the form and history as the content, I think there are many sentiments in our world today that need harnessing–from depression to hatred, narcissism to nihilism–and media like comics can begin to make sense of it all in a way that is accessible.

Interview from the makers of MAYDAY: A Graphic History

“The work we do defines how we live, and how we fit into society.” That’s the first sentence in MAYDAY:  A Graphic History, recently re-published by Between The Lines Press for the group known as the Graphic History Collective. To me, the depth in that simple statement speaks volumes. It’s on the first page of the book, but it’s probably my favourite panel.

MAYDAY is an entry-level look at labour history, and as such is more P.S.A than prose. I’m pleased to be able to share this interview with Sean and Robin of The GHC about this project. In it I feel they’ve offered some important insight on how politics and history can be simplified without being dumbed down… the trials of indie comic book publishing, and the ongoing importance of a political holiday that began with blood more than a century ago.

NMG) I like the way that Graphic History highlights the importance that Mayday has had for working people through the ages, and its transformation from a seasonal/cultural holiday to a socio-political holiday. From your research, when were the earliest expressions of Mayday in relation to labour contracts?

“May Day as a day of celebration for honouring the seasonal transition from Winter to Spring has roots in pre-capitalist traditions. May Pole dancing is perhaps the most familiar expression, but celebrations of this seasonal change also appear in many Indigenous cultures around this date, although “May” was not used to as a term to define time. However, as capitalism began to emerge as a mode of production, the first of May also became the day for renewing contracts in some areas. This possibly could be identified as the real emergence of a relationship between May Day and labour contracts, but the more recognized starting point for May Day as a day of worker resistance, renewal, and protest is generally talked about later, in relation to the fight for the 8-hour working day and the 1886 Haymarket Affair. Out of that grew the 1889 declaration for May 1st to be recognized as an international day for workers (Blogger’s note: This was made by the Second International, a pre-union federation of workers from some 20 countries). Since then, celebrations continue, in different forms and in different contexts, but consciously linked to identities as workers.” 

NMG) How long did this take, from beginning to end?

“The project happened in stages, sometimes with long lapses in time going by without too much progress. It was a side project for all of us, and we worked on it when we could. Research began in 2006, but things really started to come together in 2008-09. We self-published for May 1, 2009, did another print-run in 2010, and then worked with Between the Lines Press for the most recent release in 2012.”

NMG) How are you drawn to history, and what makes the graphic experience of history interesting to you? (This is sort of that essential “Why history? Why comics? Why politics?” type question.)

(Sean) “I have always followed and enjoyed comics; however, when I first read Maus: A Survivor’s Tale in the early 2000s I realized that the genre was capable of so much more. I started following the graphic novel phenomenon more closely and found that there were many politically minded projects out there (Persepolis and A People’s History of American Empire were two very influential ones.) For me, political graphic novels are appealing because they are visually appealing and yet are very accessible and quick to read. Not everyone can sit down on a rainy afternoon and finish Marx’s Capital, but they can get through May Day: A Graphic History of Protest and a few other novels and get that itch to do something personally about the injustice in the world.” 

(Robin) “The history I usually find most inspiring wasn’t part of what I learned when I was younger. Once I began to study history seriously–and moved to a larger area where there were bookstores and bigger libraries–I had the opportunity to more critically engage with ideas. I realized a lot of what I had thought true was actually limited in scope and that the stories were always much more complex.

“This myth-busting component of history really appeals to me, and carries over into my interest in politics. The two are very much linked, and the past is frequently referenced to make political points in the present. History is used as a means to define or shape identity, which in turn influences decision-making processes in many ways.

“All of the Collective members engage in our own separate projects that explore history, politics, and education, and enjoy experimenting with new ways to translate big ideas into smaller chunks of information. Reading detailed, in-depth studies and essays do serve a purpose. Songs, posters, poetry, plays, films, and of course, comics, also serve a purpose and can be used to share information and spark interest in a topic. Comics are also great because of the flexibility and wide range of options that are available for the visual side. I love comics that layer narratives through the text and visuals, particularly when there are story details hidden in the images. These hidden gems compel me to read and re-read comics, historically-focused or otherwise.”

NMG) The larger audience outside of comix culture has been pretty slow in realizing that comics aren’t “just for kids”. Most comics written and published today are for the 20 – 35yr old crowd. Who is MAYDAY’s intended audience? Were you picturing a particular readership when you were writing/drawing?

“Over the past few years an increasing number of scholars, librarians, educators, and youth have started to make the case that comics can be used as teaching tools, and this idea is something that speaks to all of us. We wrote and illustrated the comic influenced and inspired by the growing numbers of really great comics out there. In our own project, we are hoping to appeal to a number of different communities. The comic will likely appeal more to those who know little about the history of this day; it is more of a general overview than a deeply detailed analysis.”

NMG) How did you create this comic as a collective? What was the division of labour? Did one person research while another wrote – or did everyone research? How did the writers contribute to the graphics? etc….

“Creating the graphic history unfolded in many stages and the boundaries of labour were fairly blurry. Robin, Mark, and another researcher, Jeremey Milloy, originally spearheaded the research and drafting. Robin continued on with the drafting of scripts and coordination and then Sean came on to help with writing and editing. From there the three of us, with Sam and Trevor’s suggestions and guidance, wrote and finalized the “script.” At different times, we each took on some of the other work–tracking down graphic designers, making choices about printing and costs, coordinating our launch party, for example–depending on our paid work load and familiarity with the task at hand. We’ve all learned a bit more about that “behind the scenes” work and it has been useful elsewhere in our lives.”

NMG) I’ve recently seen postings by the Collective to collaborate with readers and followers on other historical events. Can you say a little about the ideas and aspirations of any future projects right now?

“We are currently embarking on a new project with Professor Paul Buhle, who has an impressive level of involvement in documenting political graphic histories. Our intention is to create a new “Graphic History Project” which would bring together all those people interested in radical graphic histories and help promote them and the medium at the same time. We are still calling for submissions to the project and the deadline is 21 November 2012.”

“Full details as well as an example of what we are looking for is up on our website.”

For more information about MAYDAY: A Graphic History, the GH Collective, or their call-out, please visit their blog:

graphichistorycollective.wordpress.com/

(And one final Blogger’s Note: There is, in fact, a comic book version of Marx’s Capital that I’ve yet to read–but if you’re interested, you can find more information about it here. I hope there are speed lines used to depict workers’ alienation towards capitalist production, in true Manga fashion…)

Americana Weekend: Looking Back on Banned Books & an Addiction to War

It’s a big weekend in the Motherland.

Today is October 6, the last day of Banned Books Week (as observed in the U.S.), and tomorrow is the 11th anniversary of the U.S. Invasion of Afghanistan.

Opening appeal of a report on the content of comic books in the early 1950s, by Paul Coates – first aired 57 years ago this week. Many of the comics he refers to were in fact used as evidence in the 1954 U.S. Senate Subcommittee hearings on juvenile delinquency–which were televised, and very high-profile. Many of these comics were thereafter banned, and the “Comics Code Authority” was born. For more info: http://www.cbldf.org

To commemorate both occasions, I’ll be looking through some interesting reads – a few quick reviews, a few more graphic samples for you to peruse and consider looking into further. (A side note- The list of political comic books that I’m finding just gets longer and longer… as time goes on, I find that this blog isn’t really the place for long-winded analysis–more, it’s a platform for sharing and promoting political titles. If I ever attract a little more attention to the blog, I may delve further into the regions of research and critique.)

Consider this clip as a bit of an introduction to the role comics have had within the question of banned books.

Comics have been criticized, censored, and outright banned from time to time over the course of their existence… particularly in the U.S. in the McCarthy-Era 1950’s. Nothing can really compete with the dishing of defamation they received as an entire medium for many years. The arguments are as numerous as they are close-minded: comic books cause criminal behavior; comic books encourage drug use; comic books discourage “proper” reading by including pictures to interpret a story in addition to words.

Dateline: OCT 7, 2012 — YEP, WE’RE STILL ADDICTED TO WAR

Consider not only the reality that tomorrow marks the anniversary of the U.S. Invasion of Afghanistan, “Operation Enduring Freedom” (a campaign, which, within the first months of carpet-bombing, was said to have wiped tens of thousands of souls out of existence). It also marks the anniversary of the country’s longest (ever!) war/prolonged military engagement. Longer than WWII. Longer than the Civil War. We are raised considering these conflicts and the catastrophic damage inflicted by them as definitive pieces of our country and its character–so what has been learned from the Global War on Terror?

As an American, I say: We are, as we have never been, truly addicted to war. I’m taking some time to peruse my war comics to show you some of the ways that comic artists and writers have approached this in the past few years…

I’ve held onto this photo-copied zine comic (below) for about 10 years now… it amazes me that it hasn’t begun to disintegrate, although there is some serious creasing and ink erosion. I’m sorry to say that some of the text is now completely unreadable (maybe it always was, and I just didn’t notice?)… Although I know very little about this comic (I can’t find a record of it online), I want to give credit where credit is due: All artwork is (c) D. Ferrera, Amber Mclean & Dan Mchale.

Anyway, I’m a HUGE fan of the illustration style here. There is an obvious realism, some straight-up brutal imagery (the section on depleted uranium and its effect of the Iraqi birth rates is devastating, but certainly not the fault of the artist). Although out-dated, there is a lot of useful information here, good enough to give anyone a crash course on the consequences of the U.S.-led, U.N.-OK’d sanctions against Iraq, which devastated the country even before the 2003 invasion of Baghdad.

I think, despite some really low-rate copy job, that this is (or was, at some time), a pretty amazing indie anti-war comic. Hope to track down its creators some time soon, at the very least to ask for a better copy to post here.

An essential is Joel Andreas’ anti-war comic, Addicted to War–cover image at the beginning of this thread–which first came out, like the above publication, as a result of U.S. aggression against Iraq in the 1990’s. Andreas, who already had experience making political graphic novels, decided it was time to take on America’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for military conflict. He approached this book with the idea that it could be used as an educational tool – in High School and college class rooms, study groups, religious centers, etc. And eventually, it was. After going out of print in the late 1990’s, it was re-printed, given some decent publicity (now available through AK Press, it’s been widely distributed through various grassroots channels) and has since sold over 200,000 copies.

In 77 pages, from ‘Manifest Destiny’ to ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, Andreas covers a lot of ground and strings it together to show the historically documented economic and social interest of war for American men and women of power. There is more educational value in this book than in the four different U.S. History textbooks I was issued as a secondary student – combined.

The book was updated to include information about the Iraq War (the copy I’m holding is a 2003-er), but it’s already so out of date. There was barely time for him to include information about Iraq and Afghanistan… of course this just means we should press him for a revised 20th Anniversary edition.

“WAR” – An anthology to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

My final addition to this edition of Political Comics Review is a bit of both topics – a 2004 anthology printed to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and its theme was “WAR”.

Much more artistically/aesthetically driven than political driven, this volume gives credit to the artists and their work to be able to raise some social commentary without it being outwardly political – and hey, it’s fundamentally political anyway, because it’s funding a good cause that’s solely dedicated to Free Speech and First Amendment protection.

The book is mostly fiction, all short stories, all having something to do with war. I’ve got a few favorites, like a short at the beginning where three guys are holed up in a gunned-down building (they appear to be under siege)… and there’s this great build-up to see the enemy… suddenly, thousands of leaflets fall from the sky, and you see these poorly translated messages, illustrated with PSA-style icons, of alien invaders asking them to lay down their arms and to cooperate “to make a unity planet with happiness people!”

Funny, sad, goofy, serious. The contributions are all diverse and all a good read, approaching the subject of ‘War’ from a multitude of angles. It is a reminder of how varied the scope of “political comics” can truly be.

For more information on the subject of banned comics, please please please check out the CBLDF’s website – some incredible documentation on a subject of which I’ve barely scratched the surface.