Tag Archives: historical comics

Talking with Educator, Writer & Comics Creator, David Robertson

There is a story dating back in time and region to the Roman Empire, in which a raven is observed dropping stones into a pitcher to raise the height of the water inside. From this, the raven drinks, and from this tale comes the notable phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

There is a terrible need in North America today for education about the history of colonization. As settlers advanced notions of Euro-centric “progress” for centuries, the catastrophic effects upon the first peoples of the land–from outright war to enduring forms of cultural genocide–were hardly noted, even by those claiming to possess a conscience. Now, like the raven, indigenous people and settlers alike are thirsting for this knowledge, and creative minds are coming up with new, innovative ways to bring generations of stories from the margins to the mainstream.

A strong indicator of the demand has been the public’s reception to the work of David Robertson, a Cree writer, comics creator, and educator in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In just a few short years, Robertson has developed his storytelling abilities to produce a number of works to great acclaim. This year alone, he has been nominated in three categories of the Manitoba Book Awards, including ‘Aboriginal Writer of the Year’, and ‘Most Promising Manitoba Writer’. Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, noted that his graphic novels “take advantage of an important means of communicating that history to Canada’s youth, especially Aboriginal youth, who have gravitated toward this genre.”

We were honoured to chat with David about his vision, his work, and his plans for the future. All illustrations are courtesy of artist Scott Henderson and Highwater Press.

books

Ad Astra: Looking over the stack of comics in front of me, first and foremost, I see the work of a storyteller. What brought you to this line of work? And secondly, what brought you to comics to tell many of those stories?

RobertsonSigning a bookDave Robertson: I suppose it’s a combination of three things: education, personal history, and writing. I grew up disconnected from the side of my heritage that is Cree. My parents were separated when I was very young, and I was raised by my mom in an upper-middle class neighbourhood. She raised me and my brothers well, but because my dad wasn’t around a lot, I wasn’t exposed to First Nations culture or history. So, I grew up exposed to the kind of ignorance we still see today. A lot of racism, either experienced directly or indirectly. I ended up having a low sense of self-worth. I saw myself how others saw indigenous people.

Then, when my parents reconciled, and my dad moved back in with us (this was over a decade later), I finally began to learn more about who I was as a First Nations person. So, it’s been a long journey, learning about myself in that way, and growing a strong sense of pride through knowledge.

Now, nine years ago, I wanted to do something so that other kids could be exposed to real history and real culture. I felt like, if I could bring something into schools that would engage kids with truth, it would help in some way to fight back against the difficulties we still see in our country. Education is knowledge. My parents are both educators, that’s probably where that came from. Now, I’d written since I was in grade three, so I knew I wanted to write something. And because all I ever read when I was growing up was comic books, I thought it would be an amazing way to get kids engaged and excited with history and culture. That’s how I got into writing graphic novels.

My thought was: if you gave a kid a comic book and gave a kid a text book, which one would they choose to learn from? Always the comic book. The thing is, after they read the comic book, they want to read more about the subject. So they read the text book afterwards.

AA: That’s an excellent point. There is an accessibility with comics that I find is really unrivaled. And unlike film or TV, it can move at the reader’s pace…

DR: They call that “Visual Permanence”. See, at first it was: ‘Comics are cool; let’s do this.’ After that, I realized all the technical ways they are so effective.

For example: reading comics connects with us in an almost primal way. And that’s because we used to communicate through pictures, not words. It’s the most ancient way to story tell.

AA: I feel like your first answer really knocks out several of my introductory questions, and you’re now moving into some of the deeper questions…

DR: I’m efficient. (LOL)

dave_presenting on TBS

AA: Regarding oral traditions and visual narratives… Dr Sheena Howard makes an interesting note in her new book “Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation,” connecting the comic medium to traditional African storytelling. Griots would memorize a lifetime of stories about the community or nation, heroes, gods and tricksters, and for many former slaves in the United States, there was no black-controlled medium of storytelling between these two (a bit mind-boggling to contemplate). I feel as though your comics are bridging the gap for indigenous narratives, in a similar way…

DR: I don’t disagree with that. At the launch of my first graphic novel, ‘The Life of Helen Betty Osborne’, Murray Sinclair said that while we have an oral tradition, we now are finding new ways to pass down our stories to future generations. One of those ways is through the sequential art medium. It’s also through art, dance, music, and other forms of writing. But I think graphic novels and comics are the most effective. And I think that’s due to the format itself, and the visual nature of the medium. And it goes back, again, to how ancient this form of communication is. It’s taking it all the way back to wall paintings, the first way we communicated with each other and passed down stories. The old always becomes new again.

AA: You mentioned presentations in the classroom. What age groups do you work with?

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DR: That’s the other thing with comics. For the same book, I’ve been to visit a grade four classroom, a junior high classroom, a high school classroom, and I’ve guest-lectured in university classrooms. They are the universal medium. There are reasons for this, too. Because of their visual nature, they connect with struggling readers or readers at lower skill levels. But because [the good ones] often have complex narrative structures and character development and so on, they connect with sophisticated readers as well. What novel can do that?

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AA: There is, understandably, a real sense of loss and despair in a lot of the characters you depict in your work. A few colleagues, indigenous and settler, have noted that the work is a difficult read emotionally, sometimes almost paralysing. What do you see as the goal of bringing these uncomfortable, even triggering histories to comics? Do they present any difficulties in groups, or working with people who have experience similar forms of trauma?

DR: Sure, they are hard to read. I remember passing by two teachers who were shocked by the scenes in Ends/Begins, for example. But they were shocked in a good way, because they recognized the value in bringing history to students in such a real way. But, I should add, in a way that is sensitive and respectful. But these stories need to be told. People need to know the history, and the uncensored history. That is the only way there will be an understanding of the historical impacts on First Nations people in this country. In terms of how to deal with that pain, some of that is in the hands of the educators who are sharing the work. If you are sharing it with kids who are second generation survivors, or survivors themselves, you need to ensure you have supports in place to deal with trauma. If you are showing this to non-indigenous people, you need to prepare to continue the dialogue the book begins, bring in a speaker, bring in supplementary texts, etc. Teachers often say: how can I bring this into the classroom? The content is too difficult. I say to them, consider what your students are inundated with today through media. The violence we see on television. The Walking Dead, for example (which I love, by the way). Yet what you are bringing them in these works is reality, history, and things we all, as Canadians, need to know. There is just too much ignorance out there not to find the best ways possible to educate.

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AA: Can comics and cartoons be problematic or trivializing when exploring violent and traumatic histories? How do you feel about settlers attempting to tackle these subjects? Is this part of a larger legacy of settlers dismissing the need for consultation in their “indigenous solidarity” activism?

DR: Well, settlers need to ensure they are doing things right if they are addressing histories of First Nations people. They need to consult with elders, indigenous peoples, and do the research, and research from the right resources. You know, Scott Henderson is white. But he has done the work to ensure that he is depicting things accurately, and we run our work through the proper channels to ensure we are being accurate and respectful. I think comics can trivialize violence, or show gratuitous violence. But they can also explore violence properly when it’s within the context of reality. The violence in my work is purposeful because it has its place within the story and within true history. Nothing is gratuitous. So, again, educators and readers need to choose properly.

Do I like settlers telling our stories? Not really. I think there is a growing movement of reclamation that needs to stay within the hands of the indigenous peoples. We just need to encourage youth to continue to get involved in telling stories. Our stories need to be reclaimed by our people, as long as those stories can be held to the right standards of excellence.

AA: You mentioned you were a comics fan growing up… comics is a strange medium, where indigenous people have been very *present* in comic representations, but almost exclusively created by white settlers for a white audiences, and very much from the white imagination of ‘manifest destiny’ and other white supremacist outlooks. Did you have any native comic role models? Which characters did you like growing up, and why?

DR: Honestly, I didn’t have any First Nations comic role models growing up and I still don’t. Part of the reason is that it’s still a growing medium within the First Nations community. There just aren’t a lot of First Nations comic book writers out there. But, that’s changing too. You know, Richard Van Camp just did one through my publisher. The Healthy Aboriginal Network does some amazing work. There’s Red, too, which you mentioned. So, I feel encouraged by all of this. In terms of characters. I’m not sure, really. There weren’t and aren’t a lot of great indigenous comic characters either. It’s so hard to create characters without perpetuating stereotypes or appropriating culture, I guess. But I think it’s doable. I loved Elfquest growing up, that’s as indigenous as I got when I was young! Other than that, I was typically into Spider-Man and Batman. I’d like to see work done for our culture that has been done so effectively for others, like King or Maus. Riel is a great one, too. I’d put it up there.

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AA: Helen Betty Osborne: What compelled you to choose Helen’s story as one to tell?

DR: Well, it was the first one I did. I suppose I saw in her story the opportunity to tackle several issues that were important to me, and that I felt should be important to many. Through her story, you learn about the residential school system, segregation, racism, sexism, indifference, the justice system’s treatment of indigenous people, and missing and murdered indigenous women. So, it was really a story that embodied so much of what I love about graphic novels: it’s this incredible foundation in education that allows teachers to jump off into a variety of important subjects. And, today, her story is more relevant than ever. Sharing her story allows us to talk about the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women in ways that effect people powerfully. When it’s real, it’s effective. Her story becomes so real through the graphic novel medium. And we suffer with her and learn from her.

AA: I love the way the story is framed around grassroots activism as well. I find myself noting the misfortune of many of your characters, but they’re almost always complimented with characters that represent empowerment and agency–characteristics that are difficult to portray within the victim or survivor identity.

DR: Thanks! I think, too, empowerment so often comes from knowledge.

HBO story _ protest

AA: What’s next for you? a) upcoming projects? b) more broadly, where do you see your work going?

DR: I always have projects on the go. As you know, Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story is coming out in May 2015. I think it’s my best graphic novel yet, and I am excited to see what it can do to raise awareness for Betty and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women across Canada. I have another graphic novel coming out in my Tales From Big Spirit series called The Runner: Joseph B. Keeper. That’ll be out in the Fall, hopefully. We have a bunch of names on the docket for future graphic novels but no firm plans yet on who/what they’ll be about. The Tales From Big Spirit series is envisioned as an ongoing series, so we’ll keep it going forever if we can. I’m also working away at my follow-up to The Evolution of Alice (a book with no pictures!!!). I’m about 1/4 of the way through that novel. It’s about a man who plans to commit suicide but how his life changes as he gets to know his father for the first time, and how his father’s experience at residential school affected his life, and his decision to end it.

In terms of where I see my work going… First of all, I want to constantly improve. I want to learn and get better and become the best storyteller I can become. That comes through writing and reading and learning from the best. I want to continue to do graphic novels, but I want to do more with them in the future. Tell stories that concentrate not just on history but on the amazing legends and myths in indigenous culture, and maybe tell some contemporary stories, create a super-hero we can be proud of and look up to. I’d love to do some mainstream work on my own terms, too. I’d love to, for example, take a crack at Spider-Man. He was my comic hero growing up.

That’s in the “out there” realm, but I don’t think any dream is too big. I’d like to continue to write novels, as well. And all of that work, graphic novels and novels, all, will try to educate in some way, shape, or form. That’s important to me.

Aside from that, I’d like to get into doing more work in television. I had a taste of it with my show called The Reckoner, that is currently in limbo but might see the light of day. I worked with some great writers for that show as well, like Jordan Wheeler and Sara Snow. I’d also like to write movies one day, when I have time. So, that’s what I hope for my work going forward. I just want to continue to evolve, continue to get better, and continue to challenge myself.

We do all of that by taking risks. For me, those risks involve stepping outside what I might be known for, and trying new things.

raven sketch

Many thanks to Dave Robertson for making himself available for this interview! Questions and comments to David are welcome below, through the WordPress commenting form.

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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.

Above the Dreamless Dead: A Review and Listing of WWI in Comics

Today marks the centennial of the beginning of World War I. For those looking to comics for a quick and easy fix to explain how WWI started, there is indeed a comic for that. But for those looking to take advantage of the medium’s great ability to disseminate a deeper understanding of the conflict’s human impact, there are some exceptional titles available this year. These include anthologies like Above the Dreamless Dead and To End All Wars, as well as re-releases of classics like Charley’s War and It Was a War of the Trenches, to name a few.

Book coverToday we’re taking a look at Above the Dreamless Dead (First Second, 2014), an anthology of comics written and drawn to WWI poetry and song. Contributions are made by Peter Kuper, Garth Ennis, Sarah Glidden, Hunt Emerson, Eddie Campbell, and many more.

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From the poem “Channel Firing,” by Thomas Hardy, adapted by Luke Pearson.

The space between a human being, their pen, and a piece of paper is a place not for patriotism any more than any other compulsory thought. In a time when you could have been arrested for resisting a war that saw thousands die for every mile of ground gained, poetry gave precious creative room for soldiers and non-combatants alike to process the trauma and stress of a life at war. Counting the years both during and after the conflict (1914-1918), World War I poetry, has grown to become a huge body of literary work. It is within this section of 20th century literature that dozens of comics creators have put together a creative and aesthetically varied collection for Above the Dreamless Dead.

when this bloody war is over
“I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier,” a WWI soldier song, adapted by Hunt Emerson

Soldier songs, like those illustrated by British cartoonist Hunt Emerson, satirize and make light of the harsh everyday of the soldier–whereas Eddie Campbell’s piece, illustrating an episode of Patrick MacGill’s “The Great Push”, plunges head-first into the darkest corners of the human soul. Still others transcend the ultimately subjective spectrum of human emotion, and attempt to seek solace in the naturalist truth that regardless of man’s follies, the earth will continue to be as it always has.

A scene from “All the Hills and Vales Along”, a song by Charley Sorley, adapted by Kevin Huizenga

Within the larger category of WWI poetry is the subcategory of trench poetry. Noteworthy space is given to the most well-known of these poets, namely Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon. Bearing witness to some of the most hellish of situations imaginable, trench poetry takes the reader to another world of blood, mud, and pain, at one both impending and uncertain. The stress induced by the battlefield lent itself well to art, where soldiers could perhaps hold on to their sanity by airing their demons.

In Isaac Rosenberg’s “The Immortals“, adapted here by Peter Kuper, we get a real taste of the fear and paranoia of the gunner who is tasked to shoot at an enemy that seems immune to death. The feeling of this unending hoard of soldiers leads Rosenberg to feel that he is fighting not a massive army, but the same undying soldiers over and over again.

"The Immortals" by Isaac Rosenberg, adapted by Peter Kuper.
“The Immortals” by Isaac Rosenberg, adapted by Peter Kuper.

The aesthetic diversity of the art presented in Above the Dreamless Dead is a reminder that WWI poetry is in fact a huge genre–and one that the book doesn’t even illustrated to its fullest, in my opinion. Above the Dreamless Dead focuses mostly on the poets proper of the era, and in doing so missed an opportunity to take a critical look at the growing argument for sexual and racial diversity of World War I poetry.

Focusing on young white men in documenting the First World War is obviously the norm, whether you’re interested in comics, poetry, or history in general. But historian Dr. Santanu Das (King’s College, London) states that our understanding of the war’s poetry is changing as we come to recognize the diversity of the work written at the time and on the subject. “Today, no serious anthologist can ignore the poetry of non-combatants, civilians or women, such as the poetry of Thomas Hardy, or Rudyard Kipling, or Margeret Postgate Cole.” Note that neither Thomas Hardy nor Rudyard Kipling were enlisted, let alone combatants, yet they both appear in this anthology. Margaret Postgate Cole, a wonderful poet, was not, although it is arguable that she was more personally affected by the war as a socialist and activist (her brother was jailed for refusing military orders, after his application for CO status was rejected).

Das continues, “We also must move beyond Europe, because there was war poetry being written in Turkey, India, and Eastern Europe. We cannot just limit ourselves to a narrow, Anglo-centric definition of First World War poetry. We should embed First World War literary memory in a more multiracial framework by investigating, recovering, and translating First World War poetry that’s being written often in non-European languages.” Suffice to say that there is no poetry here from a non-white or non-English-speaking perspective, in addition to there being no women poets.

This criticism could surely be echoed for most graphic interpretations of World War I, but it is a point worth noting from the perspective of our mandate (see Harlem Hellfighters below, for the ONE exception to this rule that we could find!). As 2014 invites us to meditate on the “War to End All Wars” we encourage our readers to keep a lookout for examples, comics or otherwise, of marginalized perspectives/histories of the World War I.

We hope that you pick up and enjoy your own copy of Above the Dreamless Dead, or any of the other WWI titles following!

World War I in Comics: A Reading List

Book coverTitle: Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics
Poets: Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Francis Edward Ledwidge, Patrick MacGill, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegried Sassoon, Osbert Sitwell, Charles Sorley, Edward Thomas
Creators
: Eddie Campbell, Sarah Glidden, Garth Ennis, Simon Gane, Luke Pearson, Hunt Emerson, Sammy Harkham, Kevin Huizenga, Peter Kuper, Isabel Greenberg, George Pratt, Hannah Berry, Phil Winslade, Stephen R. Bissette,  Kathryn & Stuart Immonen, Lilli Carré, Pat Mills, David Hitchcock, Liesbeth de Stercke, Danica Novgorodoff, James Lloyd, Carol Tyler, and Anders Nilson
Edited by: Chris Duffy
Published: 2014 by First Second
Dimensions: 21.7 x 15.9 x 1.7 cm, 144 pages
Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store

Great WarTitle: The Great War
Creator: Joe Sacco
Published: 2013 by WW Norton
Dimensions: 21.8 x 29 x 3 cm, 54 pages
Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store
Launched on July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme has come to epitomize the madness of the First World War. Almost 20,000 British soldiers were killed and another 40,000 were wounded that first day, and there were more than one million casualties by the time the offensive halted. In The Great War, acclaimed cartoon journalist Joe Sacco depicts the events of that day in an extraordinary, 24-foot- long panorama: from General Douglas Haig and the massive artillery positions behind the trench lines to the legions of soldiers going over the top and getting cut down in no-man s-land, to the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers retreating and the dead being buried en masse. Printed on fine accordion-fold paper and packaged in a deluxe slipcase with a 16-page booklet, The Great War is a landmark in Sacco s illustrious career and allows us to see the War to End All Wars as we’ve never seen it before.”

HarlemHellfightersTitle: The Harlem Hellfighters
Author: Max Books
Illustrator:
Caanan White
Published:
2014 by Broadway Books
Dimensions:
23.5 x 15.5 x 1.6 cm, 272 pages
Purchase:
Ad Astra Online Store

In 1919, the 369th infantry regiment marched home triumphantly from World War I. They had spent more time in combat than any other American unit, never losing a foot of ground to the enemy, or a man to capture, and winning countless decorations. Though they returned as heroes, this African American unit faced tremendous discrimination, including from their own government.

ToEndAllWarsTitle: To End All Wars : The Graphic Anthology of The Great War
Creators: Brick, Jonathan Clode, Michael Crouch, Steven Martin, Sean Michael Wilson, John Stuart Clark, Ian Douglas, Petri Hänninen, Bex Burgess, Stuart Richards, Lotte Grünseid, Chris Colley, Lex Wilson, Susan Wallace, Dan Hill, Faye Turner, Joe Gordon, Russell Wall and James Guy, Colm Regan, Andrew Luke, Sean Fahey, Pippa Hennessey, Steve Earles, Gary and Warren Pleece, and Selina Lock.
Edited by: John Stuart Clark and Jonathan Clode
Published: 2014 by Soaring Penguin Press
Dimensions: 26 x 17 x 2.5 cm, 320 pages
Purchase: from their blog!

An omnibus of 27 short graphic narratives based on actual events, characters, circumstances, incidents, myths or consequences of the Great War WWI. £2 for every copy of this publication sold will be donated to Medecin Sans Frontieres. Featuring the four theatres of war (land, sea, air and the home front), spanning four continents and drawn from both sides of the conflict, the stories range from 4 to 16 pages, each by a different author and/or illustrator from the world of independent comics.

CharleysWarTitle: Charley’s War
Author: Pat Mills
Illustrator: Joe Colquhoun 
Published: August, 2014 by Titan Books
Dimensions: 26.8 x 20 x 2.4 cm, 320 pages
Purchase: Through a few places on Seven Penny Nightmare

Arguably the most well-known WWI comic of all time. From renowned UK comics writer Pat Mills and legendary artist Joe Colquhoun comes a truly classic piece of British comics history, by turns thrilling, humorous and horrifying.  From its initial publishing in the 1970s and 80s, it was widely considered to be anti-war.

Line of FireTitle: Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier August – September 1914
Illustrated by: Barroux
Translated by: Sarah Ardizzone
Published: 2014 by Phoenix Yard Books
Dimensions: 25 x 18.2 x 1 cm, 96 pages
Purchase: Available soon!

One winter morning, Barroux was walking down a street in Paris when he made an incredible discovery: the real diary of a soldier from the First World War. Barroux rescued the diary from a rubbish heap and illustrated the soldier’s words. We don’t know who the soldier is or what became of him. We just have his words, and in his own words and Barroux’s extraordinary pictures

tardisWWITitle: Tardi’s WWI: It Was The War Of The Trenches/Goddamn This War!
Illustrated by: Barroux
Translated by: Sarah Ardizzone
Published: 2014 by Phoenix Yard Books
Dimensions: 25 x 18.2 x 1 cm, 96 pages
Purchase: Available soon!
Jacques Tardi is responsible for two acknowledged graphic novel masterpieces about World War I: It Was the War of the Trenches and Goddamn This War! To honor the 100th anniversary in 2014 of WWI, Fantagraphics has now released a two-volume boxed set collecting these two perennial classics. The first book, It Was the War of the Trenches, focuses on the day to day of the grunts in the trenches, bringing that existence alive as no one has before or since with some of his most stunning artwork. His second WWI masterwork, Goddamn This War!, is told with a sustained sense of outrage, pitch-black gallows humor, and impeccably scrupulous historical exactitude, in masterful full color.

trenchesTitle: Trenches
Creator: Scott Mills
Published: 2002 by Top Shelf Productions
Dimensions: 21.1 x 17.5 x 1 cm, 176 pages
Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store
When Lloyd and David Allenby arrive in the trenches of the Western Front, they have no idea of the misery and violence that awaits them. Can an aloof Major be the father figure and guiding force in their desperate battle for survival? Or will the estranged brothers be swallowed up before they can come to terms with each other, trapped in the clutches of the Great War? Trenches is about the beautiful stories that come out of dark times.

Ghosts of PasschendaeleTitle: The Ghosts of Passchendaele
Creator: Ivan Petrus
For more info: Check out his website!
Launched in 2014, this is the third book of a graphic novel trilogy by Ivan Petrus featuring Belgian, British and French soldiers and their true stories from the First World War. Painted in bold, dark, muddy colours, his art powerfully invokes the iconic post-war Passchendaele landscape. Petrus said: “My first graphic novel was about Nieuport, my second about Furnes and Pervyse, so the battle of Ypres in 1917 at Passchendaele was the next logical step. It was an iconic battle for the British and Anzacs troops. Plus, 1917 was the wettest year imaginable. Passchendaele is all about courage and fighting spirit – in deep mud.”

Previous Crowdfunding Projects

As part of our expanded Promotions section, we will be bringing together a monthly digest of political comics from around the world, in search of support. Here is a listing of past crowd-funding projects that we have publicized. 

Content compiled by Amy Miller and N.M. Guiniling



Title: Freaks’ Progress
Author: Gretchen Hasse
Crowdfunding on: Indiegogo

freaks progressFreak’s Progress is twenty-first-century take on the morality play, a traditional theatrical form that demonstrated morally and socially correct behavior. Hasse’s goal is “to explore the deep heterogeneity we live with, and how that heterogeneity can create both deep understanding and radical confusion,” based on her “experiences as an artist, educator, social justice advocate, and resident of urban neighborhoods in transition.”

Hasse has an extensive portfolio of her work available on her website.

This project is accepting funds through the end of the year.

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/freaks-progress
Title: Digitize History Comics for Reluctant Readers
Author: Bentley Boyd
Crowdfunding: On Kickstarter

Digitize HistoryStarting in 1995, Boyd has been adapting stories of United States history into comics featuring a Chesapeake Bay blue crab named Chester. Originally, the strip syndicated in Virginia with the goal to encourage voluntary non-reading children to engage with history. Now, Boyd seeks funding to digitize his entire collection to make them available to everyone.

During this digitization project, Boyd is also planning to expand on Chester’s adventures through American history by adding more jokes, more details, and by providing links to on-line history resources.

This project is accepting funding through Dec. 27, 2013.

 

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graphic noam promo image2

Recognize that chunky sweater?! That’s right, folks–that’s Chomsky, in comic form!
On Indiegogo now is an exciting new political comics project. Click the image above to check out the campaign – or any image on this page, for that matter!

Writer and Illustrator Jeffrey Wilson and Luke Radl are putting together a graphic novel developed from an interview Wilson conducted with Noam Chomsky in 2012. For those familiar with Chomsky, you may understand me when I say that he is a wealth of information that is perhaps difficult to take in all in one sitting. Most recently, I heard him interviewed on CBC Radio Q, on the topic of NSA and spying programs–and just as a side note, Chomsky mentioned a great deal of information with regard to COINTELPRO and the counterintelligence programs that waged war on progressive groups in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a lot of history and analysis to take in in 10 minutes. And that’s why I think a graphic novel interpretation of Chomsky is so promising. In the words of the creators,

“We take the historical examples used and give them a depth that might otherwise be glossed over. For example, when Chomsky mentioned the Free Speech Movement of the 60’s during the interview, we do the research and take you back to that time period so it is not just a passing reference but a real and dynamic moment.  This work is important because it will offer not only an introduction to the thoughts and insights of Chomsky but the graphic novel form allows us to layer information and move the reader through time and space in unique ways.”

With that said, Wilson and Radl have a lot on their plates…. and that’s AFTER fundraising $15,000.

chicago protest

As for artwork, I can’t think of many other contemporary comic artists who could do better than Luke Radl. He initially got my attention on Cartoon Movement with his comics journalism coverage of the 2012 NATO protests in Chicago, in which members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, led by 3 young Afghan women and peace activists, marched to the gates of the summit. Veterans, in the fashion of the protest on the Washington Monument during the Vietnam War, threw their metals over the fence in one of the most powerful acts of protest I have seen against the war in the last decade. It was an incredible thing to see illustrated. His full portfolio can be viewed here: www.lukeradl.com/illustration

Donate what you can. Share where you can. This looks like a wonderful initiative.

graphic noam promo image

 

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Terminal Lance on Kickstarer

the white donkeyJust came across what appears to be an amazing war comic project on Kickstarter. I highly recommend people check it out–if not to add to his already-attained goal–but to pre-order a copy of what is surely to become an incredible comic.
The White Donkey is the creation of Max Uriarte, an artist and US veteran who served on two deployments to Iraq. His regular web comic, Terminal Alliance, features often-funny shorts about army life. While not a military person myself, a lot of my closest friends (including my husband) are veterans–and the stories definitely ring true with what I’ve heard before.

There is richness in those stories that is baited with a bittersweet intrigue: war stories and military life draw just about every observer into it. And because war has a tendency to bring out both the best and worst in a human being, it will forever be a popular subject within all creative media.

Comics are no exception. In fact there is plenty of evidence to prove that comics pioneered a lot of the more realistic portrayals of war–I go into this at length in my post on Harvey Kurtzman, Two-Fisted Tales, and the birth of the anti-war comic.

Max is an incred

Comics with a Cause has just hit the $1,000 mark on Indiegogo. Let’s help them make this happen.

comics with a cause

News of this project totally hit me by surprise. My husband was the one to point it out to me- a new fundraising campaign for a web comic series, inspired by the question of “What men can do to end violence against women” launched by Rodrigo Caballero and his fiancee, Babette Santos in Vancouver last week. What struck me was that, not only did this project sound amazing, but that Babette–who I know completely outside of the world of comic books–was a bridesmaid at my wedding in Vancouver. What a small, wonderful world!
It sounds like this is going to be a pretty slick web comic with a great opportunity for it to be brought into print. The informative nature of the subject matter makes me happy that, once the initial funds are raised, there is no hindrance to anyone benefiting from its contents: a free web comic is a free web comic.

Through networking and contacts, Babette and Rodrigo have already drummed up a lot of initial support in the women’s rights community in the Lower Mainland– at women’s centers, shelters, and through advocacy groups. I think this project has the potential to do something amazing: please, instead of giving money to Gawker (a media company worth over $300 million) to see a 30 second cell phone video of my mayor smoking crack — support something positive. Support Comics with a Cause!

FIRST: Visit the Indiegogo campaign page!

NEXT: Check out their Facebook page for updates!

THEN: Follow them on Twitter at @ComicWithACause

ibly talented artist and storyteller. Check out his work, see for yourself, and consider pre-ordering.

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Title: Prison Grievances
Project Platform: Kickstarter
Author: Terri Leclercq, (author and educator) 

"Prison Grievances" is a graphic novel of guidance for U.S. prison inmates in their efforts to file complaints and protect their rights. Written by educator, Terri Leclercq.
“Prison Grievances” is a graphic novel of guidance for U.S. prison inmates in their efforts to file complaints and protect their rights. Written by educator, Terri Leclercq.

This project is not to create a book for a regular readership. Prison Grievances is written specifically for inmates of the U.S. prison system, fundamentally focused on education and empowerment. The book, reviewed by people at all levels of the prison system from judges to former inmates, details the step-by-step process for filing complaints with the court system, requesting a special piece of equipment due to a disability–whatever the case may be.

While this book may come across as little more than a practical tool for someone in a different situation than you, it serves a great purpose. The fact of the matter is that 1 in 12 Americans have been in the prison system, and over 2 million people currently sit in jail cells–that’s more prisoners than the People’s Republic of China (which, by the way, still has more people than the U.S.) Anyone who still thinks that the prison industrial complex isn’t a problem should do some more reading on the matter – maybe start with Shane Bauer’s recent heart-wrenching article in Mother Jones: “Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.”

Leclercq has taken the right approach in tackling this titanic challenge that we face as a society (whether we admit it or not–prisoners becomes ex-prisoners, who are then our co-workers, neighbours, and fellow citizens), and is attempting to hand these men and women a valuable tool. If this project speaks to you, please check out the pitch page and make a donation.

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Battle of the Graphic Biographies: Hill and Wang

Continuing on with my theme “Battle of the Graphic Biographies” begun earlier this year Che Guevera, this month I’ve had a couple different titles at Hill & Wang take each other on– all a part of their Novel Graphics series. I, somewhat arbitrarily, began reading these books in chronological order: Trotsky, J. Edgar Hoover, Malcolm X, Reagan. My interest is obviously to provide some aesthetic feedback, but more to point out political strengths and weaknesses of the titles.

cover gallery
My first note is that each book appears to be politically tailored for the audience most likely to pick it up—the biographies speak more or less favorably of the people they spotlight.  But my questions going in are, “Do I better understand the person I’m reading about?” “Am I hearing of their life in their own words–while seeing an interpretation of events from a 3rd person?” “Is this historically/politically accurate?”

trotsky bio

Title: TROTSKY: A Graphic Biography
Writer & Illustrator: Rick Geary
Published: 2009

I had serious suspicions about this one, going in. Whereas the other book covers are more or less realistic, Trotsky’s is purely mythological. We see him astride a horse as some kind of atheist St. George–all the while he sits underneath, naked on a pile of human skulls. These images come from two very different interpretations of Trotsky’s role in the Russian Revolution–both over-zealous and emotional, both incorrect. While I appreciate the re-visiting of historical cartoons and illustrations, it seems necessary for me to make note of the the point that both graphics were commissioned by opposing governments during one of the most highly polarized moments of the 20th Century: the rise of the Russian Revolution.

The cover of 'TROTSKY (The Graphic Biography)' took inspiration from these political cartoons of the time. On the left, Viktor Deni, an author working for the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) in 1918, depicts Trotsky as St. George, slaying the dragon of "counterrevolution". On the right, Polish government anti-communist poster to counter Bolshevik propaganda from Russia during the Polish-Russian war 1920, showing People's Commissar for the Army Lev Davidovich Bronstein (Leon Trotsky). Large caption reads: "Bolshevik freedom."
The cover of ‘TROTSKY (The Graphic Biography)’ took inspiration from these political cartoons of the time. On the left, Viktor Deni, an author working for the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) in 1918, depicts Trotsky as St. George, slaying the dragon of “counterrevolution”. On the right, Polish government anti-communist poster to counter Bolshevik propaganda from Russia during the Polish-Russian war 1920, showing People’s Commissar for the Army Lev Davidovich Bronstein (Leon Trotsky). Large caption reads: “Bolshevik freedom.”

I think anyone who sees a book of 100 pages claiming to tell the life of Leon Trotsky is pretty much kidding themselves. Once into the story, you might be able to tell why: this man was a mover and shaker of continents, social structures and financial systems in a way that practically boggles the mind. In a time before television, let alone the internet and social media, Trotsky was world-famous for his ideas and his conviction to carry them to fruition.

This book, albeit abridging-ly, details his early years as a landowner’s son in modern-day Ukraine, a student activist and intellectual, his political development, his multiple exiles by the Russian Czar. It’s a whirlwind. In fact, it’s a struggle just to get all of these points down, without even going into what made Trotsky’s ideas so intriguing/dangerous, let alone his various roles in the the Revolution. Despite the obvious limitations, I believe Rick Geary does a stand-up job trying to pull together an epic biography that at least attempts to discuss serious politics.  Geary’s style lends itself well to the time period: a bit cold and minimalistic–but not cartoony. The line-work reminds me of borsch and cold, dry winters. In a good way.

I can’t really blame this book for what it isn’t–it’s not an in-depth biography of the Russian Revolutionary, in any sense. It’s not a clear history of the Russian Revolution either. But it will give you a crash course that may peak your interest, and lead you to other works about one of the most interesting men of modern times.

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malcolm x

Title: Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography
Writer: Andrew Helfer
Illustrator: Randy DuBurke
Published:  2006

Like Trotsky, Malcolm X is one of those four-letter words of the 20th Century. People alternately love and cherish or hate and fear everything that the man stood for. It really is a testament to the power of their ideas and the charisma with which they disseminated them.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Malcolm’s story has been told in epic fashion many times: there is the Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley. Spike Lee’s “X” with Denzel Washington was an immediate classic. Once these essential biographies have been consumed, you believe that you know the man’s story. However this graphic biography, in fact, delivers additional information that even someone familiar with Malcolm’s story will find new and enlightening. Scenes I found most interesting included the details of his time as a hustler on the East Coast–as well as his final days in conversation with Nation of Island leader, Elijah Mohammed, whose candid remarks about women are better displayed here than anywhere else that I’ve read.

Malcolm’s entire life is characterized by a seemingly endless sense of change and evolution. In the end, the man who seemed tireless in his conviction, his self-confidence, was also likely his harshest critic. He went from being a pimp and a hustler to a raging animal in prison, a Nation of Islam preacher and black segregationist to working with whites when and where he could. And where we led, people followed. Because of his constant evolution, it is difficult for critics to demonize him. His radicalism has also made it pretty much impossible to water down his message–as has been done with Martin Luther King.

Of all the illustrators of this graphic biography series, I am in love with Randy DuBurke’s style. It is by far my favorite. He illustrates an emotion with what seems be a shadow-heavy photographic realism. Stylized but not cartoony, I even see some graffiti-stylized splatters in the background, that give it an additional grittiness. Given that author and illustrator are two different people in this work, I find their respective trades synching incredibly well.

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hoover bio

Title: J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography
Writer & Illustrator: Rick Geary
Published:  2008

Rick Geary is back after Trotsky with this graphic biography of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. Actually, this book was produced before the Trotsky one, but I’m going in some other kind of chronological order.

Unlike Trotsky and Malcolm X, I had never read a biography of Hoover before, although I was familiar with his role in Communist witch-hunting post-WWII, as well as his hand in the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO counter-intelligence programs. What hadn’t occurred to me was the length of his office. The man was active in government from Emma Goldman… to Ronald Reagan. Think about that. Through half a dozen presidents. He was arguably the country’s most powerful civil servant. His ability to avoid partisan politics and harness the power of government bureaucracy, ironically, reminds me very much of his arch-nemesis Joseph Stalin. These two men dominated their countries with iron fists, using many of the same tactics, for much the same period of time. The key to both of their success was securing and mastering the administrative machinations of their positions.

While I see Rick Geary showing the light and dark of Hoover in this biography, he is at worst portrayed as a bit of a maniac who dabbled in unconstitutional activities for the protection of his dear country–and the all-sacred “American way of life”. We see the mass deportations of immigrant unionists, communists and radicals more as the shuffling of ants from one place to another outside the country–not the same brutal inhumanity with which Trotsky is depicted, sitting on a pile of bones.

Do I wish the comic would take a little more interest in how J. Edgar Hoover was a detriment to the country? The historical precedents of jailing and deporting descent, spying and wire-tapping, infiltration into progressive groups? Yes, in fact I can’t really think of any other singular man who probably committed more damage to democratic movements of the 20th Century than J. Edgar Hoover. But that’s my opinion on the matter–and Geary makes little to no effort to hide the evidence that would lead someone to those conclusions. He includes his very trouble remarks on communists, unions, student activists, black people–alongside the sea of other people that rubbed him the wrong way.

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reagan

Title: Ronald Reagan: A Graphic Biography
Writer: Andrew Helfer
Illustrator: Steve Buccelleto and Joe Staton
Published:  2008

Of all of the graphic biographies, Ronald Reagan’s seems the most surreal. This is very much a theme of the book itself. Where was the threshold between Reagan the man and Reagan the actor? Reagan the actor and Reagan the politician? The book very much lends itself to the theory that there were no clear lines, even to Reagan himself. Acting was a part of him from a very young age, as were many of his political and moral influences.

Also more than any other comic in the series, this book relies very much on Reagan’s own interpretation of himself and his life–including instances like his student strike in university, which isn’t documented by the school–or his record 77 rescues as a lifeguard, even though there were many instances in those rescues where, hilariously, people apparently didn’t need to be rescued (THAT comic history vignette, I would love to see). More than many other American leaders, Reagan very much controlled what media and the public thought of him. That was his gift as an actor.

While there is some mention of his early days as an FBI informant, as a ‘friendly’ testifier in the mid-century Inquisition of American leftists and progressives, as well as his later involvement in the dismantling of unions, tax cuts for the rich, military intervention in Grenada… the underpinning theme Geary really seems to be driving home is Reagan’s mastery of the spectacle. It wasn’t really anything he did–and he did many things in his life–it was how he won support, how he charged through his competition and adversaries at the crucial moment. It wasn’t what he did so much as how slickly he was able to get away with it.

I find the artistic style of this work, shared by Buccelleto and Staton, to be my least favorite of the series. Faces and gestures are bubbly, cartoony, very “Leave It to Beaver”-ish, which works for Reagan but not for me. I feel like anyone who watched television during the last century knows this perspective of Ronald Reagan. So despite my distaste I understand perhaps why they went with it. Maybe, for all that time behind the camera, there really was no other way to see the man. He seemed to understand, at an early age, that public image is its own form of immortality.

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Of all the comics that I read, I enjoyed Malcolm X and J Edgar Hoover the most. Both had wonderful artwork and kept me intrigued with information that was new to me. However I appreciate the set as a whole for its fascinating takes on 4 totally different individuals. I have found much more intricacy in all of the books’ designs than I initially thought would be there.

Press Release: Fundraising Begins for Canada’s Oldest Graphic History!

example2FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

100 Year Rip-Off, A People’s History of B.C. to be Re-released After 40 Years
Canada’s Oldest ‘Graphic History’ on Record Highlights Stories of Working Class and People of Colour

July 20, 2013

Canada’s oldest recorded comic book history is coming back from the dead after more than 40 years—if it gets a little help. On the anniversary of B.C. joining Confederation, specialty comic book publisher Ad Astra Comics is launching a 40-day fundraiser for the comic book “100 Year Rip-Off: The Real History of British Columbia”. The campaign, which aims to raise a modest $800, will help to cover the costs of re-mastering and printing the comic for the first time in over four decades.

“100 Year Rip-Off: The Real History of British Columbia” is a blue-collar comic book history of the first 100 years of B.C.’s confederated history. Written by the late Robert Simms and illustrated by artist and current B.C. resident Bob Altwein, 100 Year Rip-Off was originally produced as a one-time 8-page broadsheet, accompanied by a counter-culture newspaper.

Ad Astra Comics, in consultation with Altwein, has digitized and re-mastered the work and provided complimentary additions to the content, including a map and glossary addressing the finer details of the original work. The text remains un-altered.

“100 Year Rip-Off is a graphic history that almost slipped into oblivion–right at a time when comic books and ‘graphic history’ comics in particular are reaching a peak in popularity,” says Nicole Marie Burton, campaign coordinator and founder of Ad Astra Comics, a micro-publisher that specializes in political and historical titles. The project is headquartered with the publisher in Toronto.

A quality printing of the re-mastered work means that 100 Year Rip-Off can get a new lease on life–and that means a new generation of readers will be able to benefit from these little-known stories of the province’s history.”
That history, according to 100 Year Rip-Off, includes a number of episodes in which B.C.’s residents were given the short end of the stick–as the name indicates. It documents, through meticulous research, the seizure of lands from B.C.’s First Nations alongside the banning of Indigenous cultural practices like the pot-latch. It progresses by chronicling the often-volatile history of labour struggles within the region, from the formation of B.C.’s first unions to the province’s recurring threat of a Winnipeg-style general strike. History enthusiasts will take interest in the detail of the text, while comic book lovers will enjoy the ‘School House Rock’ style of illustrations, so indicative of the contemporary comic and cartooning scene of the 1970s.

Burton points out that young activists may take interest in the rendition of the 1938 ‘Sit-downers Strike’ that took place at the Vancouver Art Gallery and in the Georgia Hotel–an action very reminiscent of the recent Occupy Movement.

100 Year Rip-Off is a standard-sized comic book of 30 black-and-white pages. Participants in the project’s IndieGoGo campaign can contribute for as little as $7 and get their own copy of the book mailed to them. Larger contribution packages include buying a bundle of comics at a reduced price–perfect for schools, unions, book stores, and special interest groups–along with a poster-sized version of the comic book’s reference map, which has been added to this specially re-mastered edition.

“The project is about revitalizing and popularizing the working class history of this province,” explains Burton. “But it is also celebrating the creative work of the comic itself, which in turn has become a part of our history.”
For more information, please visit the “100 Year Rip-Off” IndieGogo Campaign Page:

http://igg.me/at/100YearComic/x/1048985

Press Contact:
Nicole Marie Burton
c/o Ad Astra Comics
nicolemarieburton@gmail.com
647-863-4994
http://www.adastracomix.com

Review of “Fallout: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Politics of the Atomic Bomb”

Fallout_cover

At its offset, it would seem that Fallout may be a part of a bandwagon to which most of the world is unbeknownst. The history of the self-described “graphic history” is a relatively short one. A natural off-shoot of the also-overly-used term, “graphic novel,” it has become something of a gold rush in a struggling book industry. Their accessibility and palettability makes them ideal for classroom and other educational settings… they appeal to young and old alike, etc. In a saying that seems as tacky as it is unlikely to the everyday cynic, graphic histories make learning fun.

But they also, often, make learning simple. Simplistic. Too simplistic. In fact many ‘graphic histories’ that have come out recently appear to be about topics by which the authors themselves don’t even appear to be highly engaged or inspired.

But, that is not this comic book.

fallout2

Title: Fallout: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Politics of the Atomic Bomb
Written by: Jim Ottaviani
Artwork by: Various (including Janine Johnston, Chris Kemple, Steve Lieber, Vince Locke, Bernie Mireault, Eddy Newell, and Jeff Parker)
Cover Illustration by: Jeffrey Jones
Published: 2000 by General Tektonics (GT) Labs, as a part of a series of books about science and scientists

Originally printed in 2000, making it a bit ahead of the graphic history game, Fallout documents the Top Secret rise, gritty enactment of, and perhaps also the fall–if not materially, then politically, and above all morally–of the Atomic Age. It is a part of a larger series released by the publisher, GT Labs, of books that popularize (and perhaps humanize) science and the history of science to those not in the ‘know’.

Blending first-hand accounts and quotes with hypothetical dialogue–deemed at the preface of the book to be true “science fiction”–Fallout takes you from the inception of the atomic bomb, as it was first simply a theory in the minds of a handful of scientists–many of whom were struggling to escape the grip of fascism in Europe. An prime example is the physicist Leo Szilard, one of the Manhattan project’s founders, who barely escapes Germany as a refugee in one of the last trains out of the country (he explains that he avoided scrutiny by traveling first class).

It is in this climate that scientists begin to do what would otherwise be unthinkable: keeping their work Top Secret, not publishing their findings, enlisting not only the funding but considerable control of scientic research through the U.S. military. It was all for a greater good: to defeat the rise of Nazi Germany and to one day, possibly, hopefully, end the War–to end all wars. For in the scientific mind, if it were in fact a given that the world is ruled by reasonable men–what man would there be who would begin a war against a country with a nuclear bomb? The book is rivetting not only in its ability to explain the scientific basis of how a nuclear reaciton works (something that has never made sense to me) but also in seeing how these men, who were all more or less geniuses and culturally enlightened intellectuals, could be led to believe that this project was not only a good idea, but an absolute necessity.

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The read is intriguing, even gripping (the first test of a nuclear chain reaction being recorded on the panel with the “click” “click” “click” “click” of the counter–the sound we all now associate with radioactivity in fallout zones–kind of gives you this ‘lightbulb over your head’ moment… “Aha! So that’s what each ‘click’ represents!”). You can tell from the narrative that the book is not only painstakingly researched, but done so by someone who believes in the need to know and understand the story. Perhaps this is an obvious requirement for all books of quality, but one that I would never take for granted in the category of a “graphic history”.

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I would give this book the highest of recommendations. It is everything I hope a graphic history to be when I open it for the first time. And although I began this piece talking about the medium, an exceptional graphich history will in my opinion, pull you into talking about the content as much, if not more, than the form.

In 2013, we are all so familiar with bite-sized pieces of atomic energy–from nuclear power plants to the trademark mushroom cloud, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl and the meltdowns in Fukushima. But the introduction of such power into the realm of what was humanly possible was just as explosive, in the 1930s-50s, for everything from international Geo-politics to the limits philosophical and moral dilemmas that one human being can handle. In the words of Edward Teller:

“I made the great mistake of feeling relieved of my responsibility… the chance to show the world that science can stop a terrible war without killing a single person was lost.”

Or, more succinctly, of J. Robert Oppenheimer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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…)

 

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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