Category Archives: Labour Comics

Keeping the Faith – “Wobblies! A Graphic History” and 100 Years of Labour Martyrs

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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.

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A ghoulish portrait of organizer Frank Little’s murderers.

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.

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Famed “hobo doctor” Ben Reitman wasn’t even a wobbly, but that didn’t stop the San Diego thugs that did this to him.

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.

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Calling life in the mines “hard” would be a tragic understatement.

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.

Two graphic depictions of martyrdom: LEFT: Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of holy Christian death, among other things. RIGHT: martyrs of the Egyptian Revolution are depicted in the cartoon "The Massacre of Maspero" The text reads: 'I died as a martyr on October 6, in a tank.' (the war with Israel) / 'I died as a martyr on October 9, under a tank.' (Courtesy of CartoonMovement.org)
Two graphic depictions of martyrdom: LEFT: Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of holy Christian death, among other things. RIGHT: martyrs of the Egyptian Revolution are depicted in the cartoon “The Massacre of Maspero” The text reads: ‘I died as a martyr on October 6, in a tank.’ (the war with Israel) / ‘I died as a martyr on October 9, under a tank.’ (Courtesy of CartoonMovement.org)

 

The success of the Lawrence strikers came at a high cost.
The success of the Lawrence strikers came at a high cost.

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.

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Big Bill Haywood addresses the founding convention of the IWW

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!”

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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!”

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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.

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There’s hope for us yet.
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Tintin: Breaking Free of Class-Only Politics

By Hugh Goldring | @ooHugh

“The Adventures of Tintin: Breaking Free” is a comic about class war. If that doesn’t sound quite like Tintin’s typical adventures through Orientalist portrayals of the 1930s, there’s a reason why.

Published under the pseudonym J. Daniels, ‘Breaking Free’ expropriates Hergé’s classic images of the reporter turned adventurer and remakes him as the central protagonist of a general strike. Featuring a cast of familiar faces in entirely unfamiliar roles, ‘Breaking Free’ is as much a blueprint towards revolution as it is an exercise in wishful thinking.

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Title: Breaking Free / The Adventures of Tintin
Author: ‘J. Daniels’
Illustrator: ‘J. Daniels’
Original Release: February, 1992
Published: Attack Intl (UK)
Other Spec’s: Softcover, 176 pages, black and white interior.
Of central interest is that, for a comic about class war, ‘Breaking Free’ has a lot to say about other struggles: the fighting proletariat are not all gruff blue-collar blokes in flat caps, though there’s no shortage of them here. But the story teems with the diversity of the systemically oppressed: housewives tired of devalued housework, lesbians running away from intolerant homes and elderly being driven out of their communities by gentrification. The idea that all our struggles are connected is intimately threaded through the narrative of the general strike, driving the strike on by recognizing that all are allies in the fight.

Before the strike begins, Tintin and his uncle (a transformed Captain Haddock) head out to take in a football match. In the crowd outside, a fascist is selling a newspaper. As this excerpt shows, this is no crude caricature of a fascist. Employing language about safety and economic security, the fascist organizer plays on the worst fears of the working class. But the Captain is no stranger to solidarity, and makes the left-wing argument very ably: black or white, it’s us against the bosses.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

The Captain aptly deconstructs the notion of a ‘white’ race in simple terms, demanding to know which sort of immigrant the fascist descends from. In the sincerity of its depiction of fascism and nuance of the Captain’s arguments, the comic treats the issue of race seriously. Certainly more can be said on the tendency of white men to dominate within even progressive social movements, but at least it addresses the issue seriously.

The question of women’s roles in the struggle also crops up, as in this excerpt, and gets a broader showing than race. Tintin treats Mary as little more than a domestic servant, prompting a well deserved dressing down.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

Mary emphasizes that she’s neither swayed by lesbians nor middle class feminists, debunking those chauvinistic myths about feminism by speaking from her own experience. Rather than be easily persuaded, Tintin flies off the handle, and needs time to cool off before coming around to understanding her point of view.

In just a few short pages, the comic covers domestic work, working class feminism and sexual assault. These are not abstract problems for academics to write endlessly on – they are issues affecting left-wing organizing in the 21st century. Tintin later puts in his time as a babysitter so that some of the women can get out to the strike meetings.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

Although Tintin wises up about feminism quick enough, he still has some internalized homophobia to deal with. Rather than coddling him, his squatter neighbour Nicky puts it to him very frankly. Tintin is just as guilty of breaking society’s rules, and all Nicky asks is that he live and let live. If his acceptance seems to come a little too easily when she forces him to admit that homophobia is one more way the rich divide us, Tintin is not completely reformed.

But Tintin learns, albeit slowly. When Nicky and the rest of a queer contingent at the strike are hassled by a protester who quickly resorts to homophobic slurs, Tintin turns up out of the crowd to tell him off.

Breaking Free of Ignorance

The point the comic is making is twofold – first, that gay and lesbian people have as much of a stake in the class struggle as anyone else. Fairly elementary stuff, all told. But the more radical insistence is on visibility – not only are they welcome, but their banner demonstrates public support of the strike, reflecting both diversity and solidarity.

Granted that the origins of many liberation movements are in fact decades older, Breaking Free came out in 1992, at a time when intersectionality was still working to get a foothold in leftist organizing, particularly within the realm of labour. It is a great read for anyone involved or interested in progressive organizing.