Guest Review by Paul Buhle
The Minamata Story: An EcoTragedy. Written by Sean Michael Wilson and drawn by Akiko Shimojima. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2121. 205pp, $14.95.
The Many Not the Few. Written by Sean Michsel Wilson and drawn by Robert Brown. Oxford and Lancashire: Workable Press, 2019. 200pp, $18.95.
Sean Michael Wilson: Left Comics Sui Generis
A marvelously talented Scottish script writer, Sean Michael Wilson, is notable in the fast-emerging world of the nonfiction graphic novel, with a handful of awards and some twenty graphic novels to his credit. Like the most talented of left-wing film screenwriters from Hollywood to London to Tokyo and far beyond—suffering blacklisting and severe persecution in the Cold War era and not getting many good jobs right up to the present day—Wilson knows how to prepare his work for the next step in production. The writer works behind the scenes, so to speak, and becomes in a sense invisible, all the more so because the artist “adapts” any script, by necessity, to the demands of art and audience.
The first remarkable thing, from a comic art point of view, is that Wilson is clearly as much at home with Manga styles as with mainstream visual narratives. The Minimata story is fairly minimalist when it comes to dialogue, at least until the grim lessons must be drawn. The Foreword by environmental journalist Brian Small reminds us that the telling began long ago, in one of the early sagas of environmental contamination. A Japanese factory in the postwar years released large doses of mercury into a river near a fishing village, with ever more devastating effects. Documentary photographer Eugene Smith “iconized” the suffering of one family, and famed essayist/art critic John Berger devoted his talents to describing the photos.
Here, as we read the story, a Japanese boy grows up to college age, and looking for a topic, learns that the story has been a sort of local secret. Although strange symptoms appeared in the poplation, the fishermen could not or would not acknowledge the full effects of the discharge. The factory had brought a new vitality to the impoverished area. Our protagonist, with the help of his grandmother, learns that as death spread from the ocean to the people, panic ensued. Decades later, it remained difficult for survivors to prove their illnesses had come form the most obvious source, and the companies used the legal system to pay little or no compensation. Toward the end, the story turns didactic, inevitably. Those who protested or supported the protests during the late 1950s and remain in the field, despite aging, are heroic for the campaigners to follow.
The Many Not The Few is the finest graphic novel history of a nation’s working class ever published, or at least I have not seen any better. It was the first book ever introduced at a session of the British Parliament, and carries the stamp of the wider work of the national union federation, a partner, so to speak, with Labour’s day schools, theater and song workshops in various parts of the UK. It begins with a quotation from my very favorite character (along with the mythical Robin Hood) in English history: John Ball, the street preacher with the message that becomes the Radical Reformation idea across Europe, centuries later. “Things cannot go well in England, nor ever will, until all goods are held in common, and until there will be neither serfs nor gentlemen, and we shall be equal.” I could only complain, mildly, that I do not find here the famous bit of contemporary folk wisdom that became a favorite iconography of the socialist movement, thanks to an illustration by Williams Morris’s friend Walter Crane: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” That is; there were no capitalists or royals in Paradise. Never mind. The thought is felt throughout these pages.
Robert Brown, a veteran commercial illustrator with his own comics series (Killjoy, from 2011 onward) is more than equal to the task of moving from century to century, milieux to mileux. His adaptation has an old working class socialist sense to it and includes a character important to the narrative who is a multi-racial granddaughter of Indian descent, who looks maybe 12 or 13. The fellow has been researching for years, on his own, and she is ready to hear what he has to say. She asks good, intelligent questions. Thus Wat Tyler of the 1381 Rebellion bearing the leader’s name and the message of John Ball, leads a seemingly successful rebellion against the Crown. Tyler was murdered through conspiracy and massive suppression swiftly followed. History moves on. By page 30, we see famed historian E.P. Thompson and Karl Marx himself (no stranger to the British libraries) explaining the next step in oppression and fight back. “Enclosure,” the theft of the heretofore common lands to support and royalty and the expansive States brings misery beyond measure and deep resentments. Now we are in the sixteenth century with armed uprisings more intermittent but no less intense, leading to the famed Levellers and the Diggers of the English Civil War actually overthrowing the monarchy without themselves gaining power.
By the time we get to Pilgrim’s Progress, the granddaughter is the one who can do some of the teaching. More centuries pass and we arrive at something they both can chew on: William Blake, whose illustrations for the literary classic might be described as a proto-anarchist graphic novel. The old man is in his own with the rise of the Chartists, following the Tolpuddle arrests of peaceful marchers, a rare victory when 80,000 signatures proved too much for the authorities. Asking only the simplest of democratic reforms, Chartists gathered three million signatures in vain. and then marched, in vast numbers. The ruling classes were put on the defensive through peaceful action, a major step.
Contradictions are not avoided in these pages. Craft workers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries too often shunned cooperation with the unskilled, through the rise and fall of unions and the often fractured organizations of the Left. Wilson plays to his own strong Scottish collective memory for a moment with the glories of the Clydeside shipbuilders of Glasgow and their 60,000 militants of 1919. Their struggle and the consolidation of the miners’ unions during the First World War set the background for the General Strike of 1926. No doubt, these events, however effectively suppressed in their own time, made possible the victory of Labour in 1946 and the creation of a modern welfare state, later diminished but never destroyed.
The coal miners’ defeat by the Thatcher government, the crushing conservatiism consolidated by the neoliberalism of Tony Blair’s Labour government, brings our story close to the present. Chapters earlier, granddaughter Arushi asks about the failures of the Left and “Granda” answers squarely: these are part of the old and long process toward liberation. Unions seem now, to many young people distant from them, no longer the building block of a better society. But as she says, “We should run our own lives, workplaces, communities. Have some real democracy.” It’s a good parting note before the pair head off for some fish and chips.