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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
I 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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
But 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”.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mendoza 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.
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.
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.
Today 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.
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.
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.
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 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
Title: 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
Title: 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.”
Title: 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.
Title: 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.
Title: 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.
Title: 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
Title: 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.
Title: 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.
Title: 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.”
We are joined by a guest piece this week for Indigenous Comix Month – Sean Carlton is a PhD Candidate at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies & Indigenous Studies at Trent University. Please follow the links for more on this in-depth piece!
Rebranding Canada with Comics: Canada 1812: Forged in Fire and the Continuing Co-optation of Tecumseh
In the current age of austerity, the Harper Government allocated over $28 million to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. For many historians this proved to be an unpopular decision. It even drew the ire of the much-maligned Jack Granatstein, who pointed out, “This is also a government that’s slashing the national archives dramatically and killing the national library by cuts. On the one hand they’re good for history and on the other hand they’re bad for history—you sometimes wonder if they really know what they are doing.”
While historians are right to critique the controversial costs of the bicentennial celebrations in light of cuts to crucial public services, it is important to understand the government’s commemorative project as part of a more pernicious strategy of nation-building that historians Ian McKay and Jamie Swift identify as the “rebranding” of Canada as a “warrior nation.” In short, McKay and Swift contend that today there is a concerted right-wing effort to use the power of the state to “change how we think about our country and its history.” More specifically, they argue that “new warriors” are trying to rebrand Canada as a country “created by wars, defended by soldiers, and kept free by patriotic support of military virtues.” Canada’s history wars, then, are far from over.
In the case of the War of 1812’s bicentennial, the Harper Government pulled out all the stops to use the celebration as a rebranding opportunity. The commemorative project included a new national monument, a television commercial, and even a cell phone application, all showcasing the War of 1812 as a “defining moment” in what the Prime Minister called the “Fight for Canada.” Yet, this paper focuses on one aspect of the commemoration that received no critical attention: the representations of Indigenous peoples, and specifically of Tecumseh, in a free comic book called Canada 1812: Forged in Fire. The comic book was funded by the federal government andproduced by High Fidelity HDTV in partnership with Parks Canada, Zeroes 2 Heroes Media, Bell Canada, and the Smithsonian Channel as part of a multi-media project.Canada 1812 will appeal to a broad public audience that will no doubt enjoy digging through the free comic book. However, like the other War of 1812 commemorative initiatives, Canada 1812, and especially its portrayal of Tecumseh,is a problematic “rebranding” of history to serve a nation-building agenda that must be critiqued and challenged.
The 142 page comic book traces the stories of six individuals—Isaac Brock, Charles de Salaberry, Laura Secord, John Norton, Enos Collins, and Tecumseh—who are all portrayed as distinctly Canadian heroes because of the pivotal roles they played in forging “Canada” out of the flames of the War of 1812.Canada 1812 memorializes these individuals in six separate stories, extoling each figure’s various virtues such as courage, bravery, and patriotism. The comic book opens with a hero-worshiping story of British military general Isaac Brock and the first panel of the first page depicts him as simplistically stating, “War is coming. Good.” Similarly, the story of Laura Secord is full of stereotypical tropes about gender, race, and the nation, the likes of which have been expertly examined by Colin M. Coates and Cecilia Morgan. As the work of Coates and Morgan suggests, it is important for historians to spark critical conversations about the ways in which past figures are used by different groups to reinforce troubling narratives that legitimize colonialism and Canadian nation-building. In hopes of sparking such a conversation about Canada 1812, I will more closely examine the representations of Indigenous peoples in the comic book, specifically the depiction of Shawnee chief Tecumseh.
In this article, I argue that Canada 1812 is a prime example of how people manufacture and manipulate the image of Tecumseh for the purposes of Canadian nation-building, a process that historian Robin Jarvis Brownlie has recently labelled the “co-optation” of Tecumseh. Despite his inclusion in the comic book to show a sort of multi-cultural coming together to defend Canada, I contend that the representations of Tecumseh in Canada 1812 ultimately conform to racist stereotypes of Indigenous peoples that rationalize colonialism and Canadian nation-building as benevolent, even natural and inevitable. The way we are taught to see the past shapes our understandings of, and actions in, the present and future. Thus, the representations of Tecumseh in Canada 1812 are problematic not only because of their racist underpinnings, but also because they play important roles in forming perceptions of Indigenous peoples that continue to justify Canada’s colonial policies of coercion, displacement, and assimilation.
The Coretta Scott King Book Awards are given annually to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values. The award commemorates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honours his wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood. The Awards were founded in 1969 at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
“MARCH: Book One”, an autobiographical graphic novel by former Civil Rights leader and Congressman John Lewis, tells the complex, often troubling, often inspiring, story of freedom fighters launching a movement in the U.S. South that would change the entire country. The book is co-authored by Andrew Aydin, a member of Congressman Lewis’ staff, and by veteran comic illustrator and storyteller, Nate Powell.
A full list of award winners is below.
2014 Author Award Winner
Rita Williams-Garcia, author of“P.S. Be Eleven” published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. In this spirited stand-alone sequel to “One Crazy Summer,” the Gaither sisters return to Brooklyn after a summer spent with their mother in Oakland, California. Delphine, Vonetta and Fern thrive in the tumultuous era of the late 1960s, but Delphine is tasked by her mother to, “P.S. Be Eleven.”
Rita Williams-Garcia, the author of the Newbery Honor–winning novel “One Crazy Summer,” also a winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, a National Book Award finalist, and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Residing in Jamaica, N.Y., she is on the faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
2014 Illustrator Award Winner
Bryan Collier, illustrator of “Knock knock: my dad’s dream for me” illustrated by Bryan Collier and published by Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group. In “Knock knock: my dad’s dream for me,” Bryan Collier brings to life Daniel Beaty’s powerful narrative of a son’s longing for his absent father. With his distinctive watercolor and collage technique, Collier captures the nuances of the urban setting and the son’s journey to manhood.
2014 John Steptoe Award for New Talent
Theodore Taylor III, illustrator of for “When the beat was born: DJ Kool Herc and the creation of hip hop” written by Laban Carrick Hill and published by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership . Taylor’s stylish artwork shows young Clive Campbell’s transformation into the DJ who helped launch hip-hop in the early 70’s. Using retro cartoon-style illustrations rendered in a palette that emphasizes browns, greens, reds and greys he transforms words on a page into a rhythmic beat that brings the words alive.
2014 Author Honor
John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, authors of “March: Book One,” illustrated by Nate Powell, and published by Top Shelf Productions
Walter Dean Myers, authors of “Darius & Twig,” published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publisher
Nikki Grimes, author of “Words with Wings,” published by WordSong, an imprint of Highlights
2014 Illustrator Honor
Kadir Nelson, illustrator and author of “Nelson Mandela,” published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
The Coretta Scott King Book Awards seal images and award names are solely and exclusively owned by the American Library Association.
Although the name might mean little to modern readers, there was a time when the initials ‘IWW’ struck fear in the hearts of bosses, police and all other respectable elements of society. The Industrial Workers of the World, formed in 1905, was one of North America’s most radical and militant unions. Though much diminished since its heyday in the 1910s and 20s, there are still active IWW chapters around the world, including here in Toronto. What is less well known about the Wobblies, as they have been called for generations, is their rich history of political cartoons.
Their most enduring contribution to the graphic vocabulary of the left is undoubtedly the Sabo-Tabby. Seen here with claws out and back arched, the Sabo-Tabby was probably created by Ralph Chaplin, more famous for writing the union hymn “Solidarity Forever”. But their work also includes the hopeless ‘boss-head’ Mr. Block who could never quite see where his interests lay, and a proliferation of other editorial cartoons. The IWW truly forged an iconography of both union pride and class consciousness in their decades of activity.
In their cartoons, the IWW often sought to entice workers away from electoral politics. The IWW emphasis on direct action – strikes, foot-dragging and packing jail cells over free speech – finds ready expression in this cartoon. The heroic figure of the worker is coaxed by the politician on the one hand and the Wobbly on the other – where should he struggle? Washington’s distance is matched by the factory’s immediacy, emphasizing the workers’ true and immediate priorities. The stakes of this struggle are expressed in the preamble to the union constitution:
“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.”
In the first half of the 20th century, when millions of working people lived in conditions of poverty unimaginable today, the rich enjoyed lives of equally unimaginable luxury. The appeal of the IWW’s call is all too evident.
The refusal to deal with politicians, seen as agents of the capitalist class, is recurrent in Wobbly cartoons. The IWW’s antipathy to politicians began early, with a break from socialist politician Daniel DeLeon, who insisted on the primary importance of political struggle and the potential irrelevance of demands for higher wages. The Wobbly response to this attitude is summed up wonderfully in “Now He Understands The Game”, where the looming figure of a class-conscious worker looks skeptically on the capitalist’s puppet show. The demands clutched in his hand and the rising sun of the IWW at his feet are all a part of him seeing the political façade for what it is, and so the worker is labeled accordingly on his overalls. That the various political puppets are all on the strings of the same boss, symbolizing the capitalist class as a whole, showed that the bitter partisanship of mainstream politics was an irrelevance to workers who could legislate on the shop floor. IWW cartoons tended to construe politicians as a class, usually not differentiating between Democrat or Republican. But their jabs were also aimed at the parties of the socialist left. In this cartoon, the artist mocks the notion that transient workers can have their interests served by sedentary politicians belonging to the more mainstream Socialist Party, led by former Wobbly cofounder Eugene Debs. Farmhands, lumberjacks and other temporary migrant workers were the focus of many successful IWW campaigns; the idea that these precarious workers would cast their lot in with a politician representing a congressional district they might not be in for even a year was duly mocked by the Wobbly press. The only way to catch the pork chop of gainful employment was to join a union that would see to your getting a square deal – or at least a square meal! The Communist Party USA was, if anything, less favourably regarded by the Wobs. Like a great many other left organizations operating in North America, the IWW was constantly confronted with accusations that it was doing Bolshevik Russia’s work and that its members were agents of the communist state. This allegation was not helped by the emigration of leading Wobbly ‘Big’ Bill Haywood to Russia following the revolution, and the publication of his happy memoirs. But as this comic shows, the IWW did not want to be seen as leading the Russian Bear behind it. The cartoon draws on the popular representation of Russia as a bear, and the high population of lumberjacks in the IWW to create an image of a sinister woodsman. Other than the label, ‘One misconception of the IWW’, nothing in the cartoon indicates that the Wobblies and the Bolsheviks were anything other than friendly.
Although they were drawn by dozens of different artists, some of whom are speculated to have had separate careers as established comic strip artists working for commercial features, IWW cartoons share some commonalities. They are seldom subtle, and some feature such extensive labeling of elements of the image that one suspects the artist harboured grave doubts regarding their abilities as an illustrator. At times they attempt to incorporate too many elements to be coherent, though most of those selected here avoid that prospective pitfall. But they serve their purpose in their simplicity: politicians and businessmen are ugly with expressions of sinister intent on their face. For hungry workers making a pittance for long hours, the straightforward message of these comics must have helped to win them over to the Wobblies’ cause. When all the fiery manifestos in the world won’t do, sometimes a few comics can close the gap. MORE WOBBLY ‘TOONS…
Preamble of the IWW, by its membership: http://www.iww.org/culture/official/preamble.shtml Rebel Voice: An IWW Anthology Edited by Joyce L. Kornbluh. 2011, PM Press. The Industrial Workers of the World: Its First 100 Years. Fred Thompson and Jon Bekken. 2006, IWW. Bill Haywood’s Book: The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood New York: International Publishers, 1929
Comics, cartoons, and sex in art & literature carry a special kinship. Both have historically been taboo, “low” in status as genres of art; both have been avenues by which to mock and satirize the powerful… and underneath, despite it all, both have an almost universally popular appeal.
On November 24, we had a series of back-to-back workshops at Ohhh Canada’s new storefront on Queen West on the history of comic book erotica, exploring the long-standing relationship of sex in comics and the related struggle of freedom of expression that has come along with it.
For anyone who joined us for the workshop, we’re providing a list of links and references for further reading, along with a showcase of some of the books we’re carrying as a part of this section of our work. Enjoy!
Title: SECRET IDENTITY:
The Fetish Art of Superman`s Co-creator Joe Shuster Author: Craig Yoe, with an introduction by Stan Lee Artwork: Joe Shuster Published: Abrams Comic Arts, New York (2009)
It is a well-known fact in the comic world that the original artist and co-creator of Superman died having earned only pennies on the dollar for his contribution to the world`s most famous superhero—the rights to the character were won by D.C. Comics in the 1940s. So what to make of this work in later years? He never signed his name to it, but the Nights of Horror illustrations that depicted lusty ladies, titillating torture, and all manner of mild S&M scenarios were in fact Shuster. What`s more?! The characters of these filthy booklets all look, at great deal, like one Clark Kent and Lois Lane… Find out more in this curious twist in the history of comics and erotic art.
Title: LOST GIRLS (Combined 3 Volume Hardcover) Author: Alan Moore Artwork: Melinda Gebbie Published: Top Shelf Productions (2006)
Writer Alan Moore and his partner Melinda Gebbie, both legends in their respective fields, teamed up for years in the early 1990s to produce a kind of comic and a kind of erotica that the world had never seen: sophisticated, politically and historically conscious, yet honest, human, and sensual.
From back of book: “For more than a century, Alice, Wendy and Dorothy have been our guides through the Wonderland, Neverland, and Land of Oz of our childhoods. Now like us, these three lost girls have grown up and are ready to guide us again, this time through the realms of our sexual awakening and fulfilment. Through their familiar fairytales they share with us their most intimate revelations of desire in its many forms, revelations that shine out radiantly through the dark clouds of war gathering around a luxury Austrian hotel. Drawing on the rich heritage of erotica, Lost Girls is the rediscovery of the power of ecstatic writing and art in a sublime union that only the medium of comics can achieve. Exquisite, thoughtful, and human, Lost Girls is a work of breathtaking scope that challenges the very notion of art fettered by convention. This is erotic fiction at its finest.”
Title: 25,000 Years of Erotic Freedom Author: Alan Moore Artwork: Various Published: Abrams, New York (2009)
If there`s anyone who can put 25,000 years of erotic art into perspective, it`s Alan Moore. Infamous author of graphic novel classics like Watchmen and V for Vandetta, Moore is a fan of uplifting both comics and erotica into more highly respectable realms. Much as he has shown us the ability of a comic to be a work of literature, so too in this volume does he show us the long legacy of pornography being a part of our most meaningful and cherished works of human expression. A moving read!
Book is hardcover with a gorgeous Art Nouveau decal, spotted inside with dozens of colour illustrations and photographs.
Title: The ProAuthor: Garth Ennis Artwork: Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotty, Paul Mounts Published: Image Comics (May 2012) For those of us looking for the lighter side of sex in comics, meet the world`s first prostitute superhero. Superhero prostitute… whatever she is, she`s one hilarious, street-smart, trash-talking tough cookie. This is not only pushing the boundaries of what could legally be sold in an Image Comics title; it also playfully mocks the image of the superhero in the collective imagination—from the spandex,…on down. As mainstream comics legend Gail Simone says, “This is the comic that Garth, Amanda and Jimmy will be apologizing for in Heaven minutes before being sent directly to Hell. But hey, if their eternal damnation is the only downside, then I demand a sequel.”
Title: Sex Inc.
Creators: Nico and Richard Gallo Story: Stephanie Halley Edited: Ezra Mark Published: Gary Groth and Kim Thompson, Eros Comix (April, 1998)
From the book: “In the year 2117, the prostitutes of Sex, Inc. attempt to make their living in the urban decay of a collapsed world. Confronted with the limitless fetishes and fantasies of a desperate and enslaved public, the girls attempt to fulfill every while pursuing Sex, Inc.`s personal goals.”
An incredible work of sci-fi erotica, published by two very big names in the comic world, Gary Groth and the late Kim Thompson.
Title: Heavy Metal Magazine Authors: Various Artwork: Various Published: 1977-Present
Celebrated for over 35 years as a publication that welcomed new, unique sci-fi / fantasy comics, Heavy Metal also welcomed a fair share of erotica, and was cherished as a space where artists could freely express something of a “no holds barred” attitude toward their creativity. Select back issue magazines are available.
Some discussion has come up around Ad Astra Comix and a recent addition to our stock list– a graphic history of the Vietnam War. Not only does the book gloss over major historical events, like the Gulf of Tonkin incident (and the fact that it never happened, yet was a major cause for the war to escalate). The historical narrative, which has had 40 years of time for reflection, comes to some very troubling conclusions. As a new generation looks back on Vietnam as the war of their Grandmothers and Grandfathers, and as a generation that has been raised far too comfortably around operations in Iraq and Afghanistan being “business as usual“, there is a serious need to dispel this re-write of history in the comic record. -NMG.
by Allen Ruff, guest contributor
A Little Background
As the U.S. aggression in Vietnam escalated in the mid-1960s, the liberal Cold Warrior Walter Rostow, an advisor to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, spoke of the need of “winning hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese, at least those under the control of the US client regime in Saigon, if US force was going to prevail. As the barbarity of the venture — the toll in lives destroyed and the devastation exacted — spread, the invaders not only failed on that front in Vietnam, but also lost the campaign for political support, the battle for hearts and minds back in the States.
The war makers, of course, suffered a humiliating defeat despite their firepower. Failing to defeat militarily what was primarily a peasant-based anti-colonial and nationalist movement already decades old, it also lost the war on the political, ideological and cultural levels. Never having them in the first place, it never won the bulk of the Vietnamese people. The war machine murdered, maimed and debased too many and destroyed too much for that ever to happen. Those that survived, after all, were not about to buy the nonsense about “freedom” and “liberty” churned out by US propaganda specialists and parroted by a succession of corrupt, murderous regimes in Saigon. All the claims of the American “Free World” mission to save the country from “Communist Peril” rang hollow as that tiny land was scorched by what amounted to in a massive fly-by shooting.
Defeat in some sense became inevitable, a done deal, when the Washington war makers simultaneously lost large swaths of political support at home. They lost the battle of ideas, the claims and justifications, and explanations of what the war was about as the body counts and war costs mounted.
That loss of domestic political support for the war has never been forgotten, especially by those intent on winning future wars abroad who have come to view that home front defeat as a significant “lesson” of the conflict, not to be repeated.
In their ongoing efforts those still imagining that Vietnam could have been won and those already invested in current and future interventions have utilized every available means at their disposal to revise and reframe the story. At that level, the portrayals and accounts in the popular culture – television and film, in music, art and print media, even the comic book press – have long been been utilized in the campaign to mold “hearts and minds”, especially among the young and the impressionable, the potential recruits and fodder for future imperial campaigns.
Few recent examples illustrate that fact better than Zimmerman and Vansant’s graphic rewrite of the Vietnam war’s history. Well-illustrated by the clearly talented Vansant and shrewdly scripted by Zimmerman to include the actual words of participants, the book in some ways has more to do with the present than it does with some approximately accurate portrayal of what the US did to Southeast Asia.
Title: The Vietnam War – A Graphic History
Writtenby: Dwight Zimmerman Illustrated by: Wayne Vansant
Published: New York: Hill & Wang, 2009. 143pp
Now, of course, it can be rightly argued that the writing and depictions of history are always selective and that all historians make choices and have an agenda, an axe to grind. and that a graphic history could not possibly be comprehensive in any sense of the term. That all remains true since the agenda of this rightward revision of the war on ‘Nam comes clear right in the opener, in the foreword written by the retired Air Force General, Chuck Horner.
A combat pilot during Vietnam, Horner later commanded the U.S. and allied air assets during Desert Shield and Desert Storm. According to the publisher’s boilerplate accompanying his account of the Gulf War co-authored with fiction writer Tom Clancy, he, Horner “was responsible for the design and execution of one of the most devastating air campaigns in history.”
Horner, in one page, casts Vietnam in terms clearly pitched to the novice, the young high-schooler or working class kid, perhaps.
“Like other wars,” he tells us, America’s war in Vietnam, “began with a premise of good versus bad and which was which depended on whom you side with.” Well, okay for the obvious, war as some shape shifting morality play.
He then proceeds to explain that, “As the conflict dragged on, those views changed into the reality of a dedicated, committed North Vietnamese enemy and the committed-but-not dedicated US led-coalition.” The implication is simple (and simplistic): The US and its junior “coalition” partners (Who they were, he doesn’t say) lost because they weren’t dedicated enough, didn’t have the endurance or the will to win. Or, by implication, one running throughout the book, that their determination was undermined not so much by the tenacity of the Vietnamese adversary but by the falling away of support at home.
He goes on: “President Kennedy had committed our nation, but then President Johnson instituted polices that lacked dedication.” Here, immediately, one of the main themes of the conservative accounts creeps in: the war came to be lost because the civilian leadership, especially the politicians back home lacked the guts and the determination to see it through.
Following Johnson, “President Nixon became dedicated to getting us out of our commitment (to whom or what, Horner doesn’t say), but at “great cost to our honor.” Apparently even Nixon, known during the height of the war as the “Mad Bomber,” is viewed by this former Air Force lifer as aiding and abetting the commission of that sin of sins among the military, dishonor. (In some sense Nixon ended up getting a dishonorable discharge, but not for the major war crimes for which he should have been tried.)
What might be drawn from all that? Horner lays it out: “Years later, in Desert Storm, our politicians and our military, remembering the lessons of Vietnam, set goals and conducted operations that deserved our unqualified commitment and dedication.” That matter of dedication and steadfastness, once again.
Horner then raises a second read on the history commonly forwarded by the right: “In the case of the Vietnam War, the divergence of political will and goals resulted in constraints on our military operations.” Disregarding or not knowing that war is the extension of politics, he seems to suggest that the whole thing could have been “winnable.” If only the military didn’t have to fight with “one hand tied behind its back” and they weren’t “stabbed in the back” by the peace movement and their allies in the “liberal” media.
The old canards die hard.
Horner tells us, as well, that “our South Vietnamese ally’s leadership could not rally the dedication of its own people.” As venal, repressive and as illegitimate as the US-bolstered Saigon sham of a government was, could it have been any different? Horner may think so, but few others versed in the history appear to hold that peculiar line.
The Good General asserts, in closing, that Zimmerman and Vansant have come together to present the history, “in a clear and comprehensible way.” He concludes his foreword by describing the work’s present day purpose: “It serves to enlighten those for whom Vietnam is only academic history, so that we may be armed against making the same mistakes in the future.”
Interspersed with occasional accounts of heroic efforts by troops on the ground, the bulk of the narrative is loaded with half truths and craftily retooled tellings. Parts of it read as if it was selectively scripted by someone with the suppressed memory of a sleepwalking amnesiac.
This tale — an illustrated comic after all — might seem “comprehensible” to the novice, those unfamiliar. After all, if Vietnam was nothing but a series of mistakes made mainly by a civilian leadership at home, unwilling to fight to win, then a further mistake, perhaps, might be made by one looking to this work for some understanding, today, of what that criminal enterprise perpetrated against the people of Southeast Asia actually was about.
Allen Ruff is a U.S. Historian, Social & Political Activist; Host, Thursday’s “A Public Affair” – WORT, 89.9fm, Madison, Wisconsin; & Writer of Non-Fiction and an Occasional Novel. You can find more of his writings on his blog, Ruff Talk.