Tag Archives: graphic history

Cartooning History – An Interview With Larry Gonick

While we were traveling America last year, we came across Vol 3 of Larry Gonick’s fantastic ‘Cartoon History of the Universe’ series. Endorsed by everyone from Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau to the late Carl Sagan, the series more than lived up to the hype. This led us to his website whose work spans topics ranging from history to physics to pure math.

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That’s how we found out that since the very beginning, Larry has seen comics as a way not only to entertain and inform, but to change the world we live in. Once we’d seen that, we knew we had to interview him. Thankfully, he obliged.

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Larry Gonick

1) How did you get into reading comics? What was the first comic you ever owned? 

My father used to read me the comic strips from the Sunday Denver Post when I was four years old. I’ve been reading comics ever since. I couldn’t possibly remember my first. I’m pretty sure I Go Pogo entered the house by the time I was six. Kelly was surely my strongest stylistic influence.

2) On your website, it says you dropped out of math in 1972. What’s the story there?

Five years earlier, when I was applying to grad school, I had a sort of existential crisis. I suddenly realized that I was marching along a path leading to a career in a math department, without ever consciously having decided to walk that path. It was a chilling sensation, a sort of claustrophobic response to an intellectual realization about how futures are made. At that point, though, I saw no alternative, so grad school it was. Later, with social change erupting all around, a friend brought me a proposal to do a comic book on tax reform, inspired by the political-education/propaganda comics of Rius in Mexico. Rius (Los Agachados, Cuba for Beginners) was an eye-opener. He may not be the first, but he’s by far the greatest cartoonist to use comics to inform rather than simply to satirize. A soon as we started working, I was hooked.
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 The key for me was this: although I drew a lot, I had zero confidence that my brain alone could generate enough comic inspiration to last a lifetime—until I saw this use of the medium. Here, I realized, was an endless source of material, and that’s how it’s turned out. When I got my first weekly comic strip, pathetically paid though it was, I dropped out of grad school.

3) You also say that “My crazy hope is that this crazy medium will somehow improve this crazy world.” That describes our work pretty well, too. But you’ve been doing this since the 70s. What made you think comics were a good medium for social change?
It’s hard to say. In the absence of a movement, not much. In the presence of a movement, plenty. I once (around 1975) had this argument with Jules Feiffer. I maintained that cartooning could work in support of a social movement (or even a political party). He insisted that the artist has to maintain independent judgment. At this point, I’d like to think that both are true, to some extent. It’s a rare social movement that doesn’t develop its own load of cant and shibboleths, and though the artist may support the movement’s goals and principles, she or he will have an overwhelming internal urge to make fun of the bullshit. It’s complicated!
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4) Your background is in math, but your bibliography covers an incredible diversity of topics from history to chemistry to sex! Did you have co-authors for some of those titles, or did you research it all as you went along?
 cooperationI had co-authors for all the science titles but one. I did the math books myself and found them tough going, because I’m so far removed from the classroom. My collaborators, being teachers, all had a good sense of what students find easy and hard, whereas I felt myself groping straight through. And the collaborations, despite occasional struggles, have always been a great experience for me. I learn a lot, and I like to think that my relentless cross-examination can lead the scientists to a little rethinking, too.
History I did all myself. For 35 years, I read almost nothing but history and biography. I love the stuff.

 5) Something that really stood out to me when I was reading the first three volumes of ‘Cartoon History of the Universe’ was how deliberately you avoided falling into a Eurocentric narrative of history. The Islamic world, the Indian subcontinent and China all feature prominently in your account of world history, with attention paid to the Eurasian steppe and sub-Saharan Africa as well.
 This was a conscious decision, obviously. My original political impulses made me mistrust traditional approaches and seek new narratives and connections, and believe me, they were easy to find.
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But in Vol 4 (rebranded by the publisher as Cartoon History of the Modern World, Vol 1) the focus shifts dramatically to Europeans, apart from a good account of Meso-American civilization and some coverage of the Inca. There’s still some coverage, but it isn’t at the level of the previous books. Why was that?
That’s where the narrative leads. The European conquests in America, Africa, and Asia led to European domination of world politics. In retrospect, I may have included too much European dynastic stuff, but the religious wars certainly mattered, and the story of the United Provinces of the Netherlands has been too little told.

6) I know you’ve just finished a book, and there’s a question about that coming up. But do you have plans for any future ‘Cartoon History’ or ‘Cartoon Guide’ titles, or anything else?

I’m in the middle of The Cartoon Guide to Biology with Dave Wessner, a biology professor at Davidson College (Steph Curry’s alma mater. Go Warriors!). It will surely be the longest of all the science books. I’m also working on my first project explicitly meant for the classroom: a large series of quiz questions for beginning physics.

 7) Looking at your website led me to the ‘Commoners’ series, which I read as short comics about the enclosure of different commons by transnational corporations. What led you to produce those?

 An old friend and associate, the late Jonathan Rowe, who spent his life in activist writing, put me on to the idea and found some funding to support the strip.

8) Do you still make time to read comics? Have you read anything good lately?

 I have the time to do it but little inclination. I mostly read novels, with a little non-fiction on the side. My problem with graphic novels is that they’re quick to read and you rarely want to go back. In this, they’re different from the great comic tradition of work like Pogo, which I re-read until all the pages fell out. I’m proud to say that the Cartoon Histories are books that people return to again and again. I realize this sounds dismissive, and in fact I still read comics. I love Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant  and check in with Randy Monroe’s xkcd pretty often. Of more-or-less recent book-length pieces, my favorite by was Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

9) You’ve got a new book coming out in the winter: “Hypercapitalism?” Can you tell us a little bit about it? What moved you to write it?

Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College, approached me about doing a book on capitalism and responses to it. I thought, Hm, why not go back to my political roots? The time was right. I especially liked approaching the subject from an unconventional direction: the psychology of money-chasing and material gain and what it does to more humane values and pursuits like community feeling and care for the planet’s future. Tim insisted that we finish the book with a long section on what people are actually doing to address our out-of-whack values, and I’m hoping that the book will stimulate some productive discussion out there in the discussion-sphere.

10) Inevitably, interviewers miss an important question. If there’s a question you wish I’d asked but didn’t, feel free to pose it yourself and answer it here.

 

Q. What’s your Social Security Number, Larry?
A. I prefer to remain a man of mystery.

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Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times

Well, it’s the first week of November. I don’t know about any of you, but I’m always late to the punch for Halloween, preparing a costume, organizing parties and such. If you love Halloween as much as I do, it’s a tragedy that calls for remedy every September. Well, if you’re looking for a spooky piece of history to read about in the lead-up to next year’s All Hallows Eve, consider reading ‘Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times’.

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Title
: Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times
Author: Rocky Wood, Lisa Morton
Illustrator: Greg Chapman
Publisher: McFarland, 2012
Pages: 185 pages,
ISBN: 978-0786466559
Dimensions: 7.25” x 11.25”

The ‘Burning Times’. Just this phrase sends a shiver up my spine. It’s difficult to believe that, from the 15th to 18th centuries, hundreds of thousands of Europeans, mostly women, were condemned to death for the more-or-less imperceptible crime of witchcraft (exact numbers are disputed). This graphic history is an accessible look at the era, offering anecdotal evidence for a lot of good starting points for further reading.

The book is divided into many short chapters: 1) Before the Trials, 2) The Trials Begin 3) The First Witch Hunter, 4) The Contagion Spreads, 5) Joan of Arc, 6) The Trial of Arras, 7) The Hammer of Witches, 8) Witchcraft and the Reformation, 9) The Trials in Würzburg, 10) King James and the North Berwick Trials, 11) Matthew Hopkins, 12) Witchfinder General, Salem Witch Trials, and 13) The Frenzy Fades.

Perhaps the breadth of this book is its greatest shortcoming; history is a difficult subject to abridge, and even more challenging to illustrate. But the author and illustrator do their best to give us a basic synopsis of everything, as opposed to an in-depth look at any one time or place.

18 The backdrop of this period was one where political and economic opponents would use the fledgling structures of ‘law and order’ and the ignorance of a population as the stage for their power plays. The book opens with a compelling example, pre-trials: the burning of the Knights Templar in 1314. King Philip the IV of France owed this wealthy organization a great deal of money, but had successfully condemned them to the stake with charges nearly impossible to prove: idolatry, heresy, and sorcery. In Jews, Muslims, pagans, and even uncooperative Christians, men of courts and men with connections found infinite ways to scapegoat these “others” in dark and difficult times.

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In Medieval Europe, the most common “others” were women. Women served a number of roles that were unknown to most men: the midwife, prostitute, and herbalist were all relatively common vocations. Healing was a craft that was passed down from women in families and communities for generations, and served  a community need. As time passed and private land ownership overtook The Commons, a woman who was widowed would inherit her husband’s lands, doing with them what she wished. Even in these very limited realms, women were granted a certain amount of power and reverence in society.

As men took various stations within Church and state, many found ways to usurp the authority of women in these traditional roles through what became known as the Witch Hunts, or Burning Times. Women were blamed for premature deaths, plagues, and failed crops. They played on locals’ greatest fears, which were were impossible to disprove.  In turn, midwives and herbalists would be replaced by male doctors or “barbers”, landholding widows could be removed, their land parceled between Church and state. It became a veritable gold rush of opportunity, in a time when misogyny allowed such distrust and outright contempt for women of a community.

kramerpage1But ignorance can take on a life of its own, in time. As the book explains, the Catholic Church outright denied the existence of witchcraft for some time. This required Witch Hunters to make their accusations and arguments on grounds of heresy, or demon worship. Still, belief in witchcraft spread until the Church and its adherents took a more committed position. This was manifested in the works of Heinrich Kramer, a witch hunter and the author of Malleus Malificarum, or “The Witch’s Hammer”.

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As mentioned, the book has its shortcomings. The illustrations are very busy, and look more like sketches opposed to final proofs. The writing lacks a feeling of wholeness, as if these various chapters of history have all been thrown together without additional analysis, which isn’t altogether wrong, but isn’t particularly to my liking. Rather, what I see is a missed opportunity to connect all of these cases together to answer questions about the changing relationships of religious, political, and economic forces in Medieval Europe. The transition from The Commons to private property; organic or pagan communalism to communities with the Church as the uncompromising epicenter of public life; and the role of women as healers and community leaders to second-class citizens under a rigid patriarchal order. Those looking for this kind of analysis would greatly benefit from works like Caliban and the Witch, and the 1990s documentary, The Burning Times. Both are available online for free.

Ultimately, I place most of the blame for the book’s drawbacks on a curse of bad, uninspired editing. Graphic histories like these require an editor and publisher who are passionate about both the design and content of such a product, and yet I’m given the perception that this book was released  by McFarland little of either. Despite this, “Witch Hunts” remains an intriguing and chilling read.

Blue Collar, Black Ink: NYC’s Strand Bookstore as a Site of Class Struggle

It probably doesn’t need saying that I love comics. I would not have committed myself to a life of reading, writing, researching and reviewing comics if they were not very dear to me, masochistic tendencies aside. But while I adore them, political comics put me in a jam so thick I consider spreading it on my mid-morning toast. Maybe my partner’s thinking has infected me; when she started Ad Astra Comix close to two years ago as a review site, she said it was in part because the quality of political comics was generally so low.

Continue reading Blue Collar, Black Ink: NYC’s Strand Bookstore as a Site of Class Struggle

Land, Labour, and Loss: A Story of Struggle & Survival at the Burrard Inlet

By Taté Walker, Mniconjou Lakota

Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota) is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. She is a freelance journalist who lives in the Colorado Springs area. She can be reached on Twitter at @MissusTWalker or www.jtatewalker.com.

 

Speaking as a former middle school teacher, it isn’t easy feeding bloodless and battleless history lessons to the masses. Even more difficult is featuring published histories from marginalized perspectives – either they don’t exist, or people don’t care to know them.

So when I read “Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land: Indigenous Labour on Burrard Inlet,” from the Graphic History Project, my first thought was, “This will totally appeal to young people.”
Working on the Water
Title: Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land: Indigenous Labour on Burrard Inlet
Authors: Robin Folvik and Sean Carleton
Illustrator: Tania Willard (Secwepmec Nation)
To be Published: by Between the Lines in 2016 (part of Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories About Working-Class Struggles)
More information: To see the full preview, visit the Graphic History Collective website.

Art has a way of connecting us to ideas, or, in this case, a time in Indigenous (and Canadian) history recognized or known by few. Writer and illustrator Tania Willard (Secwepemc Nation) uses relief print panels in captivating black-and-white to draw out a nonfiction narrative of economic survival. The comic was co-written by Robin Folvik and Sean Carleton with the Graphic History Collective.

On her blog, Willard says, “… [T]his work will tell the story of Indigenous [longshoring] on Burrard Inlet and how early labour organizing by Indigenous people [helped] to support the wider land struggle against colonization and capitalism.”

A quick geography lesson from the comic: Burrard Inlet connects the traditional territories of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ (Tsleil-Waututh) Coast Salish First Nations in what is today known as Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s in area perfect for hunting and fishing, and easy-access resource exploitation.

working on the water1

The narrative itself is straightforward, and easy enough for elementary-aged readers to comprehend: Colonizers came in, territory was acquired, resources were identified, brief working relationships were achieved until guaranteed unfairness ensued, Indigenous people protested, protests were squashed by excessive force and bullying, and a legacy of underemployment began.

For context, it’s important to note the labour environment in modern times. Quick summary: It’s not good.

According to the Canadian Labour Program, workforce disparities for Aboriginal people include an over-representation in low-skilled occupations, and under-representation in managerial and professional occupations, according to the latest statistics. At 18 percent, the national unemployment rate for Aboriginals is three times the rate for non-Aboriginals; comparatively, the employment rate is just 48 percent among Aboriginals. If that weren’t bad enough, the wage gap continues to widen between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal full-time workers; the latest numbers show Aboriginals make 73 percent of their non-Aboriginal counterparts’ incomes ($37,356 to $51,505). Dismal.

The government attributes this gap to lower educational attainment for Aboriginal people. Using that logic, the government itself is then responsible. Consider the history of oppression faced by Canada’s indigenous populations, in particular the education system dedicated to first wiping out Aboriginal children in boarding schools and then inadequately teaching (or simply refusing to teach) Aboriginal history, accomplishment, and impact on modern-day Canada in school curricula. In this light, one sees clearly the role and connection the government and its policies played in the contemporary Aboriginal workforce outlook.

But Willard’s comic flows matter-of-factly through basic labour moments from the mid-1800s through the 1920s and early 1930s and stops there, although the last panel notes how longshoremen continue to work the inlet today. The bulk of the narrative discusses how Indigenous workers unionized themselves to varying degrees of success. Unsurprisingly, when the highly skilled Indigenous longshoremen went on strike in 1918 to earn 5 cents an hour more, non-Indigenous workers swept in and took those jobs, which left the tribal people of the inlet in desperate situations.

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I appreciate that the text isn’t pumped full of stylized drama. It’s very, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” In an era where much of what non-indigenous people know about us is less fact, and more fantasy, the no-nonsense style of writing rings with authenticity, and is a breath of fresh air from shape shifters or mutants.

Reading as an outsider, the story Willard is telling feels unfinished, and perhaps that’s purposeful. However, the title (‘Fighting for the Land’) leads readers to believe there will be some sort of reclamation (or attempts, anyway) by the longshoremen or tribal communities. Outside of “processing ancient timbers,” there isn’t really anything land-based happening.

Regardless, the lino-cut drawings are the star of this show, and I went back over the panels again and again, because previously missed camouflaged images and symbols kept swimming to the surface with each pass. With Indigenous history – and ours being a history traditionally told through stories, not written words – perhaps this is the point.

A quote from Willard made during an unrelated interview 10 years ago addresses this: “I draw comics because I like them. I think it’s a really intimate thing, creating comics; I like the solitude and the hours of drawing. And, again, I think they are a better way sometimes to tell a story than a long boring essay or position paper. In reality, especially in the Native community and other poverty-affected communities, who is going to sit down and read a whole academic revision of history? It’s great and needs to be out there, but it also needs to be represented in popular mediums and popular culture.”

The comic is part of an anthology, Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories About Working-Class Struggles (to be published in 2016), which will focus on Canadian labour history. star

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DOGS: A webcomic history of the North

Click on panels to enlarge files.

This comic is shareable, but please cite Ad Astra Comix as the source, and provide a link to the Qikiqtani Truth Commission with any re-postings. Interested in buying a glossy, high-resolution poster of ‘Dogs’? E-mail us for details

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1415About this comic:

Handling indigenous subject matter is always a challenge for settlers, and to be clear, we are white settlers. We have done our best to avoid speaking on behalf of the Inuit who are more than capable of making themselves heard when qallunaat take the time to listen. But it is a narrow beam to balance on.

Even before Franz Boas wandered into the Arctic and began scribbling, white people have been misrepresenting the Inuit. They were not trapped in the Stone Age until the 1950s; they had already been adapting European technologies to their purposes for more than a hundred years at that point. Southerners love to depict the Inuit as ‘noble savages’ who were ‘ruined’ by civilization. Needless to say, that is not only incredibly racist, it’s frankly wrong.

There’s a great NFB mockumentary called ‘Qallunaat: Why White People are Funny” we recommend if you are interested in seeing the colonial gaze reversed. There’s also a film where the descendants of Nanook of the North (obviously not his real name) laugh at the many inaccuracies of that early documentary.

We have done our best to faithfully render the period and the people. This is a comic and we are working for free so in some places, we have gotten the details wrong. This comic is not a substitute to listening to the stories of the Inuit themselves, or visiting Nunavut to learn from them in person (assuming they’ll have you, which you shouldn’t take for granted). We both had mixed feelings about telling such a sensitive story – both because we are white, and because it is difficult to depict it in all its painful complexity.

Ultimately, the reasons we did it are close to the reasons for our concern. This story badly needs amplifying. It is part of the larger story of the genocide of indigenous peoples carried out by the Canadian state, but it is not so well known as the violence of the residential schools system. We hope this comic can be a starting point to help settlers find more substantial lines of inquiry and in doing so, reach a broader audience than the Qikiqtani Truth Commission has yet done.

Which brings a final disclaimer: Ad Astra Comix is not affiliated with the QTC and this work has been undertaken without their permission. Peter Irniq was contacted to give his consent for the quote we have used, but has not seen the comic as of its release. This is a labour of love and hope, and we only wish it calls attention to this period in Inuit history so that settlers can understand that people live up there, god damn it, not just inukshuks to appropriate when we need a symbol for some imaginary shared nationhood.

Peace,
Hugh Goldring & Nicole Marie Burton

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

To Hell, and Black: The Harlem Hellfighters’ race to the Rhine

A historian, the old joke goes, is someone who chases after you calling out “that’s not how it happened!” Good history sees the devil in the details. It looks past the obvious events to understand the human relationships that lie underneath. But beyond good history, there is great history. Great history links these human experiences to the systems of power and domination that shaped the past and continue to shape the present. In exploring the experience of black men serving in the American army during WWI, ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ achieves both.

HarlemHellfighters

Title: The Harlem Hellfighters
Author: Max Brooks
Illustrator: Caanan White
Published: Broadway Books (2014)
Pages: 272 pages
Other Specs: Colour cover with B&W interior
Purchase: In the Ad Astra Online Store


The Harlem Hellfighters is not about WWII, a fashionable war regardless of your politics. It is about the Great War for Civilization, now often described as World War One, though the first global war was the Seven Years War. There was nothing particularly civilized about it, and ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ does a great job of tracking this from the United States to the artillery-chewed meadows of an exhausted Europe. It follows the eponymous Hellfighters, an all-black combat regiment, at a time when there was a great deal of anxiety that if people of colour were allowed to shoot white people, they might get a taste for it. This racism ran so deep that the army was sending their rifles out to private gun clubs and issuing broomsticks to the Hellfighters. Nonetheless, they made it to the front, and the comic takes us along for a flame-throwing, bomb-dropping, trench digging slaughter of a tour through humanity’s most wretched moments. We see through mud and clouds of poison gas- the death of the romance of war.

harlem_hellfighters1The obvious way to write this story was to showcase the heroic determination of black Americans who enlisted in the US army. Military service and citizenship are tied in a very tight knot in American culture. For black Americans, who were persecuted and marginalized throughout the United States, participating in this ultimate expression of citizenship is easy to hold up as a virtue. There are certainly times when the narrative takes this route. In one instance, a black recruit is walking through a southern American town during training and is attacked by a gang of white racists. Following orders to keep his cool, he endures their violence silently. On another occasion, a black soldier is rescued from a gang of his white ‘comrades’ by a military policeman. When the MP encourages him to drop it rather than press charges for assault, he ends up beaten and imprisoned, but he doesn’t leave the army. All of this is an accurate depiction of the determination that it was necessary for black soldiers to show in the openly white supremacist American army. It highlights the courage, patience and endurance necessary for these men to stay their course.

This kind of easy liberal narrative is a popular one for general histories. Liberal history has no trouble acknowledging that things were bad in the past. But it stops there, often tying up the narrative strings in a neat little package of self-congratulatory nationalism. ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ could have stopped here. But it didn’t, thank fuck. Instead, it calls out the ugly facts of history. It opens by explaining how bloody, how pointless and how ultimately futile the First World War was. It has a character cheekily explain that the cause of the war is that having made a hell for peoples of every colour all around the world, there was nothing left for the white man to do but turn on himself. And it shows, at every opportunity, the shabby treatment of black soldiers in the Army. This goes beyond blacks being second class citizens and actively shows that the Army made policies specifically to keep black people from getting the idea they were equal to whites.

The problem with liberal history is that it stops with the personal. It situates discrimination in the past and leaves it implicit that of course our great, open-spirited democracies have long since overcome the kind of chauvinism that marred the dignity of our otherwise distinguished forebears. It is comfortable with showing the ills of the past, precisely because it needs those ills to tell a story that things are continuously getting better. While ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ does not come out and name colonialism, white supremacy or capitalism as the root cause of the suffering endured by black Americans, that level of explicit political consciousness would seem out of place in the mouths of many of its characters. But they understand these things intuitively from experience, and they offer their own understanding to each other and to the reader. This is a more valuable thing.

There is some worrying sentimentalism towards the end of the comic, with the usual lines about America being founded as the first nation of ideals. But the founding myth of American exceptionalism was often used by black Americans resisting white supremacy, and if it is not politically appetizing, neither is it out of place. The comic tells a story, not only of individual suffering and solidarity, but of the systems of violence that run underneath. It makes it perfectly clear that it is not bad people here or there responsible for incidents of discrimination; it is a system supported by the American government and maintained by the American military for the benefit of white people.

harlem_hellfighters8We talk about visual styles being striking, but in Caanan White’s case it doesn’t strike so much as barrage the reader. The detailed, expressive style can be a bit busy at times and one gets the sense that this is a comic that deserves to be printed in colour. But the faces and postures of the men convey their emotions expertly, and the trenches come to death in gory detail from peeling flesh to rotting corpses. If the style were a little cleaner, it might explode more exactly on target, but I suppose war is a busy, confused business too. This is not to say that it is unworthy of the narrative; far from it. But the devil’s in the detail and I can’t help feeling there’s a bit too much of it.

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There is something a little bit disturbing about the blood-lust of the soldiers in ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’. The comic does not quite express their motivations for being there, unless we are meant to believe that they share the sentiments of the man who says he couldn’t down an opportunity to be paid by white people to shoot white people. But the eagerness to fight instead of rot in the trenches waiting for a shrapnel squall to shred your flesh was a real enough part of the First World War. Trench warfare traumatized a generation of men who coped in whatever way they could. Displaying the grim brutality of that conflict underscores the moral ambiguity of the story as a whole. For all that ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ is about racism, it is the story of a group of men determined to cross the ocean and kill strangers who have never harmed them. If it is uncomfortable at points, it should be. ★

Mendoza The Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

Fluid Prejudice Re-inks Australian History

“The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” – Mark Twain

Review by Sky Croeser

Unlike most histories from above or below, Fluid Prejudice stands out as one that doesn’t provide a coherent narrative. Instead, it’s a dream-like journey through Australian history, haunted by the violence of colonization. Single-image cartoons jostle with longer stories, and well-known figures sit side-by-side with personal stories. Some characters recur in different forms across stories, shifting from the foreground to the background. This jumble creates a more radical approach to history which leaves questions and contradictions unanswered, rather than offering the reader an easy vantage-point.

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Title: Fluid Prejudice
Creators: Sam Wallman, Aaron Manhattan, Safdar Ahmed, Katie Parrish, and others (50 contributors in total)
Editor: Sam Wallman
Published: Self-published in 2014
Page Count: 175 pages
Other Specs: Softcover, black and white interior with colour cover
Purchase: In the Ad Astra Comix online store

While it may be tempting for many white activists to dissociate themselves from Australian racism, the collection doesn’t allow the reader to imagine that they can be outside processes of colonization. In one comic, two environmentalists engaging in direct action query whether this is part of the continuing white colonization of the forest. In another, white Occupy protesters pause to consider the irony of following the chant “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land” with “Whose streets? Our streets!”

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“Memory from Occupy”. Contribution by Sam Wallman.

Similarly, we never get to wholly lose identification with the middle-class Australians who are so often the target of activist derision. For example, a comic about the destruction of old growth forests is followed by another in which a man looks at a newly-opened suburb, daydreaming about a home there. While the image hints at typical narratives of suburbia as a site of ecological destruction and bland whiteness, there’s also an element of sympathetic identification.

fluid_prejudice_singlesAustralia’s history as a penal colony, too, is treated through a overlapping stories which never quite settle into a single perspective. Fluid Prejudice focuses on stories of escape, with convict William Buckley reappearing several times throughout the collection. Mary Bryant, a transported thief, escapes and is later pardoned. However, the optimism of these stories is balanced by the stark list of different convict occupations in 1847 Tasmania, and the subtle reminders that convicts also played a role in the violence of colonization.

Both cities and the landscape become haunted sites. The Tasmania tiger, hunted to extinction as a part of the effort to impose a European approach to agriculture, reappears throughout the book stalking the supposedly-tamed undergrowth. Within the city, state and social control is undermined by a lesbian beat, working-class resistance to restrictions on free speech, and an underground city of train station platforms and graveyards which remain below the streets. No place is more authentically a site of struggle than others.

Contribution by Karina Castan
Contribution by Karina Castan

Fluid Prejudice rejects the erasure of the violence Australia was built on, but it also highlights moments of solidarity and hope. One comic reminds us that the only known protest against Germany’s persecution of Jewish people following Kristallnacht came from the Australian Aborigines’ league in 1938. In another, people run over rooftops and onto the top of trams as part of attempts to escape police crackdowns on public speech. We’re reminded of a period when unions were more radical, and prepared to down tools to save public space and support other struggles.

As well as these more overtly political stories, many of the notes of optimism and humour in this collection touch on the politics of gender and sexuality: Percy Haynes is followed by a policeman and charged for wearing women’s clothes, only to have the magistrate decide that since women can wear pants, there’s no reason men can’t wear dresses if they choose. Zeki Müren, a Turkish singer, performed in drag in Sydney in 1974 to an enthusiastic crowd of homesick Turkish immigrants.

fluid_prejudice_lesbianbeatPart of the beauty of this collection is the inclusion of mundane scenes and lives that would not usually reach the history books. There are fragmentary scenes of an Aboriginal embassy, passengers on a tram, a trip to Healesville sanctuary, even a dumpster. We learn about Rosaleen Norten, the witch of King’s Cross, and then about cartoonist Ruby Knight’s mother. Arlene Textaqueen replaces the front cover of conservative newspaper The Australian with responses to the question, ‘Where are you really from?’

Through the combination of explicitly political and more personal stories, resistance is written through many different forms and spaces. This is a helpful alternative to the ‘one true way’ approach to activism, in which a single set of tactics and strategies is the only way to be radical enough (or, conversely, polite enough).

Fluid Prejudice, as we might expect from an alternative history, undermines the myths Australia is built on, from heroic stories of settlers eking out a living in the bush to the ongoing erasure of the violence against Aboriginal people and other marginalized groups. However, it also encourages more critical reflection on our positions as activists and the ways in which we do—or don’t—identify with others within Australian society.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Hugh Goldring, Staff Editor

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