Category Archives: Uncategorized

ROADTRIP! Ad Astra Comix is [Back] on Tour!

Last year, we packed up our apartment in Toronto and hit the road from December 2015 to April 2016. From the American Southeast to the Pacific Northwest, we met with incredible people doing important work.

In 2017, we’ve decided to do it all again. Stay posted to our social media accounts for updates, photos, and event listings. And, for old time’s sake, here’s the comic we made from our tour last time…

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Social Media Contradictions: Sharing Knowledges of Life and Death in Story of Helen Betty Osborne

Pamela Jayne Holopainen.
Amanda Sophia Bartlett.
Tina Fontaine.
Delores “Lolly” Whitman.
Maisy Odjick.
Jennifer Catcheway.
Elizabeth Mary Dorion.
Bea Kwaronihawi Barnes.
Lisa Marie Young. Leah Anderson.
Helen Betty Osborne.
Danita Faith Big Eagle.
Shannon Alexander.
Brittany Sinclair.
Danielle Creek.
Amber Marie Buiboche.

These are a few of the too many indigenous women missing and murdered across North America.

Projects like Walking with Our Sisters commemorate and raise awareness of missing and murdered First Nations women and girls. This project began through social media as an attempt to value to the lives of missing and murdered indigenous women as well as raise awareness for the posthumous ‘violence of silence’. Here, social media has proven a powerful tool for amassing histories and sharing stories, like that of Cree woman Helen Betty Osborne, who had hoped to become a teacher, but was kidnapped and murdered while walking down the street in La Pas, Manitoba.

Betty

Title: Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story
Author: David Alexander Robertson
Artist: Scott Henderson
Published: Highwater Press, 2015
Specs: 30 pages, B&W, softcover
Age Group: For grades 9+
ISBN: 978-1-55379-544-5
Price: $16.00

In the age of hashtag revolutions, social media can be a powerful tool for sharing histories and directing action. But it is a double-edged sword. At the same time that it is a vehicle for sharing love and honour, digital media also helps to spread hate.

Continue reading Social Media Contradictions: Sharing Knowledges of Life and Death in Story of Helen Betty Osborne

110 Comics Workers Sign Petition, Saying “No Business As Usual” with Israel

110 Comics Workers Sign Petition / Bondoux Refuses / Op-Ed by Organizers In French Newsweekly

An open letter addressed to the head of the of the Angouleme International Comics Festival and the broader comics industry demanding an end to “business as usual” with Israel has reached 110 signers as the Festival opened on January 29th, including Alison Bechdel, Jaime Hernandez, Ben Katchor, 2013 Grand Prix winner and Charlie Hebdo contributor Willem, 2012 Grand Prix winner François Schuiten, 2010 Grand Prix winner Baru, 1984 Grand Prix winner Mézières, Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle (author of Jerusalem and special guest at the 2014 Palestine Comics festival), and Lucille Gomez, the cartoonist hired to draw comics by Sodastream at the 2014 Festival.

The full letter and updated list of signatories can be found here.

The letter specifically calls out the Angouleme Festival’s relationship with the Israeli company Sodastream, which operates manufacturing plants in the Palestinian Occupied Territories and in the Naqab desert region of Israel. Franck Bondoux, the director of the Festival, who in 2014 denied that Sodastream operated in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, this week shifted his defense and claimed it was inappropriate to talk about Palestinian rights due to recent events in France. He was quoted in the French newspaper Sud Ouest on January 23:

“We are no longer in the same situation as last year,” remarked Bondoux, whom we reached last night. “SodaStream announced in 2014 that the factory under discussion will be moved. This means that the problem is in process of being resolved and has been understood.” The executive director of the festival further believes that the letter “moves into a broader proposal with terminology that goes much farther in its call for a boycott.” “We have moved from a discussion where one speaks of a specific problem to a total generality.” “This is an incitement to a stronger, more militant form of resistance.” Bondoux refuses to “judge” or “comment” if only to say “that in the current situation [reference to Charlie Hebdo and Kosher supermarket attacks], I’m not certain whether this is a time to welcome such proposals.”

Organizers of the open letter, Ethan Heitner (NYC) and Dror Warschawski (Paris) published a response to Bondoux in the French newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur.

Open letter and signatories: lettertoangouleme.tumblr.com

To add your name: lettertoangouleme@gmail.com

Great Moments in Satire: A Love Note To The Haters

With over 2,000 likes on Facebook (where it is glibly listed under  the category “Wine / Spirits”), many may still be unfamiliar with Great Moments in Leftism, an amateurish strip by a self-confessed bad artist.

With an accompanying blog that only dates back to April, this nascent phenomenon in left-loathing has yet to let the echoes of the internet bring its natural audience out of hiding in the squats, university classrooms and purposeless circle-marches that constitute their natural habitat. But with a willingness to speak truth to power, albeit in a state of relative anonymity, it’s only a matter of time before strips from Great Moments in Leftism make their way onto Facebook pages and the doors of grad students’ shared office space everywhere.

Activist affiliations are as logical and easy as checking a couple of boxes! It's funny because... it's true?
Activist affiliations are as logical and easy as checking a couple of boxes! It’s funny because… it’s true?

Although the acid tone mocks leftist tropes and organizations with enthusiasm, the author demonstrates such a familiarity with their subject that they must either have a background on the radical left or be a singularly dedicated hater. Just about every left group is sardonically skewered by the author, with many comics fixing a single organization – the IWW, Kasama Project or the International Socialist Organization – in the crosshairs. The best comics, however, identify tendencies on the broader left and cast them in the awkward limelight of absurdity.

I'm an organizer!
I’m an organizer!

For example, the man in the above comic (complete with creepy John Waters moustache) identifies as an organizer. That this role seems to consist mainly of insular participation within existing activist circles, falling short of actually organizing any communities, seems lost on him. The buttons on his chest demonstrate the easy retail nature of the activist identity, advertising to like minds that here is a person who has dropped by the bucket of pins offered at their student union and fished out the best of the bunch. Left implicit is the idea that the ‘organizer’ identity is so insular that it precludes the possibility of actually organizing anyone who doesn’t already attend your reading circle, punk show or vegan potluck.

What are you thankful for, Grandma?
What are you thankful for, Grandma?

The theme of the activist as The Other makes another appearance in this comic. A cross section of apparent radicals at their respective Thanksgiving dinners are seen scolding the rest of the table. The politics of the comic as a whole suggest that the author is sympathetic to critiques of colonialism and consumerism such as those offered in the comic. But the implicit critique in the previous comic – that activism is an insular, primarily social activity with no potential for mass struggle – is made all the more evident. Not for nothing does Google turn up 13 million search results for ‘surviving Thanksgiving’, many of which emphasize the importance of avoiding politics. Whether the author thinks activists should hold their tongues or seek more constructive engagement on holidays, the contempt for humourless blathering is everywhere evident.

One Day Strike

If the left misses opportunities to engage with a broader community, as the author sometimes seems to suggest, there are evidently reasons why. In this comic, a smug union staffer is seen explaining to a handful of labour protesters agitating for higher wages. Even the status of the protesters as workers or merely fellow activists is left ambiguous, but one thing is not: the character of the event as a stage-managed show for the media. As the union staffer makes a self-congratulatory exit, he reflects happily on his prospects for career advancement. The theme of careerism in the left is a frequent subject of criticism, and while it is often directed at those who put financial advancement ahead of the movement, it is sharpened here to demonstrate that certain types of organizing may do more for the organizers than any intended beneficiary.

United Front

Of course, even organizing ‘the left’ to come out in any collective capacity is like herding cats. The point is ably made in this comic, where a group of leftists holding a banner calling for left unity scowl at one another. Barely able to share a banner, how are these men meant to accomplish its stated purpose and unite the left? The fact that they are all men does not seem incidental, as the comic does regularly feature women. Without knowing for sure if the decision is deliberate, it seems unlikely the endless echoes across the radical left that feminism is divisive would have escaped the artist’s notice. But then, the idea that misogyny is the real divisive force on the radical left never quite occurs to figures like the ones in the comic.

Occupy_ClassStruggle

MJ's take on MJ.
MJ’s take on MJ.

“Whither the left?” seems to be the snarky inquiry on the tip of the artist’s pen. The answer that flows forth is left to the individual interpretation of the reader, but a common theme seems to emerge: we are going in smug circles. The idea is perhaps most succinctly captured in this comic. A man in a flannel shirt and flat cap holds a sign denouncing capitalism, with the initials of the International Socialist Organization on it. When the last panel closes on his face, he reflects contentedly that he’s in the class struggle, though by all accounts he appears to simply be at a protest. This is the recurrent theme of many of these strips: whatever our grouping or politics, we have become content with the ritualized politics of symbolic dissent. To many, there would be nothing immediately laughable about the man’s belief he is in the class struggle, and a few comments on the Facebook page complain of not getting the joke. Maybe the best explanation is the commenter who simply said “Still feels damned good.” True as that may be, Great Moments in Leftism seems calculated to disrupt our pleasant reverie and ask the uncomfortable question: What are we doing wrong?

Gender, Race, Forgotten Pasts and Hopeful Futures: The Best of Political Comics in 2013

Who Were the Movers and Shakers in Comics for 2013?

In and out of the comics world, it’s been quite a year! For Ad Astra Comix, it was a year that we came to be. But how was our own growth reflective of the rise of political comics elsewhere? Listed below are the people, projects and titles that our contributors believe made the absolute best of the past twelve months, in many different ways. Follow the links to find out where you can purchase their work and learn more about them!

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The Ladydrawers Comics Collective

sexmoneyracegenderTwo Thousand and Thirteen was a big year for comics introspection. At the forefront of alternative comics, comics activism, and raising awareness about some of the deficiencies of the industry is the Ladydrawers Collective, who have gained a wider audience from their contributions to the progressive website Truthout.org.

“We are not just readers and fans of comics; we are also creators and active participants in comic book culture,” they explain in their Kickstarter project last summer, which successfully raised over $15,000 for a documentary film about diversity in the industry. “…[A]s a medium as well as a mass cultural instrument, comics should not only represent our society by mirroring genuine aspects of human thought of emotion, but also nurture critical thinking and creativity.”

In addition to creating original works on topics as wide-ranging as feminism and unfair labour practices, the collective has curated comic art exhibitions, interviews with others in the comic industry around these issues, and given much-needed fuel to the fire calling for nothing short of a revolution in comics and the way we use them.cartoon-ladydrawers


Black Mask Banner
Black Mask Studios

Although founded in 2012, Black Mask Studios really heated up this year with a full slate release of titles from this new indie/political/punk publisher. Primary titles of interest: Occupy Comics and Liberator.

Occupy Comics (with 3 issue releases this year) has done much more than just tell the story of Occupy Wall Street. The series captures the feel of the movement. By reaching out to artists and writers from around the genre (Frank Miller need not apply). Occupy Comics offered powerful stories of struggle from early labour history, to OWS, Occupy Sandy, and other elements of the world wide movement for economic and social justice.
Liberator, written by Matt Miner in New York City, has taken an often marginalized sector of the activist community, the animal rights movement, and brought it into a powerful story that can be appreciated by both supporters of animal rights and everyday fans of good storytelling. This story from the political margins earned 4 out of 5 stars from Comicvine, and was described on the website Bleeding Cool is “A fiercely strong book that refuses to preach”. Speaking to the busy year he’s had in comics, (he and his family were still recovering from Hurricane Sandy when he launched his Kickstarter campaign for Liberator–since then, he’s released a first volume of four issues, and is collaborating on a project in the new year with the hardcore band Earth Crisis):

“The launch of Black Mask Studios has certainly helped bring political issues into comics in a bigger way.  I feel that as comics continue to grow and expand we’ll continue to see new and different types of stories that are relevant to the society we live in.”
“…I mean, Liberator isn’t Batman but it’s out there being read and enjoyed by a bunch of people who read Batman.  10 years ago the idea of an animal vigilante justice book never woulda happened.”

Certainly there are “non-political” titles that Black Mask is investing in, such as Ghostface Killah’s and RZA’s Hip-hop crime drama 12 Ways to Die, or Ballistic, a futuristic adventure about a man and his pet gun. But perhaps one of the most innovative and notable actions of the studio is its distribution strategy. Actively seeking out an alternative audience as well as traditional comic fans, Black Mask has placement in record stores, alternative book stores and uses an online subscription model to reach their audience. Black Mask has brought a slate of avant guard and openly political offerings into the wider marketplace.
Imagine: any average kid walking in to pick up the latest X-men or Batman (let’s face it: Superman fans probably weren’t interested) could see titles that made no bone about their politics of Animal Liberation, punk rock anarchists or the 99% sitting proudly beside old favourites. The times, they are a-changin’!

But the evolution of political comics is certainly not limited to North America, or to the new issues rack at the local comic shop.


so close faraway

So Close, Faraway!

If you live homeless in 2013 Brazil, you face extreme risks. The country has an incredibly high murder rate for its most vulnerable citizens, and they aren’t getting a lot of help. A true case in point: last year, eight homeless people were poisoned when a passerby gave them a bottle of water spiked with rat poison.

Shedding light on this dark and treacherous life, Brazilian creators Augusto Paim, Bruno Ortiz & Maurício Piccini created an interactive webcomic that–for a day–puts you next to Jorge, a 43-year old homeless man from Porto Alegre, Brazil.  So Close, Faraway! a self-described “interactive piece of comics journalism,” is a pioneering effort that stretches the capabilities of the comic medium while forcing us to look at a social issue we often ignore.
Vigorously researched by Paim, the SCF! combines the story of Jorge’s life with real statistics about homelessness in Brazil, like those mentioned above. Ortiz’s art reminds us of the tropics in that it seems almost two bright, yet startlingly accurate, even in the blur of the final page. There are also multiple photos that demonstrate that the artwork rarely takes any liberties, and the harsh conditions on each page accurately reflect the harsh reality of homeless life in Brazil.
Bringing the story of Jorge to the online space is computer science graduate Piccini, who creates each page in layers that let you add or remove statistical or story dialogue boxes to give you some freedom as to how you read the comic. There’s something empowering about having control over the text on a comic page, allowing you to appreciate the art, and giving you the chance to read as deeply into the details of the story as you like.


From left to right: Nate Powell, Congressman John Lewis, and Andrew Aikin standing on the bridge where police had beaten Lewis and his comrades decades before. The scene is depicted in March: Book One.
From left to right: Nate Powell, Congressman John Lewis, and Andrew Aikin standing on the bridge where police had beaten Lewis and his comrades decades before. The scene is depicted in March: Book One.

MARCH: Book One

John Lewis is perhaps one of the few members of American Congress who deserves to be there. As a leader of the Civil Rights Movement and the only person still alive to have spoken alongside Martin Luther King at the Washington Monument rally in 1963.

march__mlk_600px_lgAnd so kudos to him, Andrew Aikin, and the rest of their team for recognizing that the way to pass on this important chapter of American history—a history so often white-washed and told to have a happy ending—is to tell it as children and young adults like to learn it: with comics (electronic orders of this title, available through Top Shelf Productions, even include an electronic copy of vintage comic Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a 1950’s-era title that inspired Lewis to re-visit the medium). March: Book One shows us that our history is beautiful, terrifying, and can be powerfully relevant to our own lives. And who else could illustrate this with more grace than comic artist and illustrator Nate Powell?

If a comparison is acceptable, Powell is also another hard-working person who uniquely deserves every ounce of credit for what he has achieved in his life. After self-publishing comics since he was 14, Powell completed a few critically acclaimed and award-winning works like Swallow Me Whole, The Sounds of Your Name, and recently more politically-charged work like The Silence of Their Friends, and Any Empire. In 2011, he appeared at the United Nations alongside the world’s foremost writers of young adult fiction, to present on his contribution to the anthology What You Wish For: A Book For Darfur.

As John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell so eloquently show us in MARCH, the Civil Rights Movement was a bloody, uphill battle, and should be remembered that way. The struggle and its gains were not the results of a few actions by those now famous historical figures; the movement moved and shaped by thousands of committed activists, many of whom were students, and many of whom lost their lives.


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Boxers and Saints

Gene Luen Yan’s Boxers and Saints is a hugely innovative and visionary dual graphic narrative for all ages, from First Second Books. Using cutting-edge creative technique, we can now begin to think about history (and comics) in a very different way.

They are in fact, two separate but complementary graphic novels, Boxers, and Saints, that challenge a traditional black & white world-view.  They are also available together as a boxed set and share trade-dress (including connecting imagery on covers/spines), and the reading of both is highly recommended to fully appreciate the richness of the larger world and the historical backdrop of China’s Boxer Rebellion.

Even though Boxers is the heftier of the two physical volumes, both are balanced in substance. Yang has tackled the problem facing anyone trying to fairly depict two sides of a conflict, and finds a rather eloquent solution: each is given it’s own stand-alone (albeit interrelated) story, and it’s own protagonist.

Boxers tells the story of Little Bao, an ignorant farm boy turned rebel leader, while Saints follows a young Christian girl, whose lowly status does not merit a proper given name until she chooses her vocation.  The two meet only briefly, but with significant repercussions on the lives and ultimate fates of both.

In addition to being a critically acclaimed and award winning Graphic Novelist (American Born Chinese won an Eisner and other honours in 2007), Yang is a high school teacher. He shows deftness and ease at breaking complex concepts and events into accessible, yet entertaining, ways for his primary audience of children and youth.

He crafts fictionalized version of very real events, using what we as adults might liken to “Magic Realism”.  It’s not surprising that Yang also writes the graphic novel adventures of Avatar: The Last Airbender. He has essentially turned his protagonists into superheroes, while the very human reactions of his adolescent characters remain easily relatable to young readers.

Yang’s work pushes the boundaries and demonstrates the potential of the medium. Boxers and Saints highlights the complexities and ambiguities of political/social/economic conflicts, and illustrates to his readers that the world isn’t cleanly divided into “good guys” and “bad guys”.


symbolia logo

Symbolia – A Periodical of Comics Journalism

Symbolia Magazine started out this year doing something that seemed very logical: an electronic periodical composed entirely of comics journalism. In fact, it seemed so logical that many of us forgot that this had never been done before. Celebrating the genre in and of itself and not merely as decoration for other more “legitimate” pieces of print journalism, the periodical format reminds us that this category of work is alive, kicking, and packs a healthy dose of diversity (and punch, in case anyone’s wondering). The latest instalment just came out on December 24. and the electronic-only format means that the editorial board can focus on quality content and not pinching pennies to make the next full-colour print run (electronic comics also mean interactive comics, of which the magazine takes full advantage!)


femalesuperheroesTom Humberstone and Female Superheroes

For those unfamiliar, Tom Humberstone is an award-winning comic artist and illustrator based in London. This year, he launched the platform Female Superheroes on femalesuperheroes.nl (with access in English and Dutch), featuring inspiring stories about ordinary women from around the world, who face great adversity and overcame it to do extraordinary things with their lives. The platform is unique because, “it showcases how Comics Journalism can be combined with a game-like interface, 360-degree photography and video to create an immersive experience”. Pretty awesome.


Screenshot of the interactive Female Superheroes website, available in English and Dutch.
Screenshot of the interactive Female Superheroes website, available in English and Dutch.

Tess Fowler, Mari Naomi, and the “Open Letters” to the Comics Community of 2013

Similar to this last project was some of the initial work released by Tess Fowler, who gained recognition for her modern remix of Disney heroines, called “Apocalypse Princesses.”

For better and for worse, Fowler arguably made less waves with her incredible artwork this year than for her calling sexist foul on Brian Wood, a leader in the mainstream comics industry for sexually harassing her during a comic convention social. Open letters such as hers and other women in comics (most recently comic artist Mari Naomi re-lived, in comic form, how she was repeatedly sexually harassed during a panel at a comic convention) are pointing to a deep and powerful undercurrent of male chauvinism in comics.

Certainly, these talented women would like to focus on what they love doing most, which is telling stories and drawing comics. But for the purpose of this post talking about who has had the most significant impact on comics from a political perspective, their public positions against harassment in the industry have been huge. The ripple effect of these public-yet-very-much-“inter-community” criticism is going to be felt for years to come, and has very likely changed the titanic course of the comics industry as we know it. The letters, each as they pop up, have obviously been constructed with great caution and forethought, but ultimately released for the betterment of the comics community, and are therefore courageous and worthy, more than any other buzz news or gossip, of our time to read.

Contributing Writers:
Zachary Dunlop-Johnson
José Gonzalez
Raisha Karnani
Sam Noir
Nicole Marie Guiniling

Citation for Comic Books

citation neededHey All.

While the place of this blog is very openly casual in its review and analysis, I see that slowly changing. As time goes by, I’m finding that the people who take interest in my writing and research are not looking at it for its entertainment value, but for its [potential] scholarship. The fact that there is not yet an established, comprehensive guide to citing the graphic arts (in all their variance of work) is testament to the fact that comic studies is still something of a Wild West, academically speaking.

Since taking on a research project earlier this year, I’ve struggled with the notion of comics citation. How would  it work? There are so many different types of comics out there. Likewise, comics is so rarely a single-person effort. How to you properly cite for Writer, Editor, Illustrator (not to mention penciller, inker, colourist, etc.)

I came across a piece on Academia.edu that I wanted to share. Maybe not a read for everyone, but if you’re within the realm of comics research, it might interest you.  (Heads up: Academia.edu is a social media platform for academics – just sign up like you would on Facebook, and you get access to millions of articles on every subject imaginable… yes, even Citation of comic books.)

Referencing Comics: A Comprehensive Citation Guide

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