This monumental work has a considerable backstory. Artist Noah van Sciver, the eighth of nine children, was born and raised in a Mormon home in New Jersey until his parents divorced when he was 12 and his mother brought him along a different path. This disjuncture, followed by others more typical of teens in the last third of the twentieth century, may have stirred his artistic impulse. No doubt he looked to the example of an older brother who went successfully into the Superhero comics big time. Experience, separation and a sort of rejoining the earlier world thorugh art: these are large themes in artists’ and writers’ lives for centuries. That Van Sciver has taken on Mormon founder Joseph Smith is no accident.
Van Sciver has a penchant for US history, especially the history of the nineteenth century, rife with religious and social contradictions, idealists, cranks, Protestant revivalists and utopians. Joseph Smith, unlike nearly all the others, was a successful institution-builder (Mary Baker Eddy with her Christian Science denomination might be another example).
The spectacular, world-wide growth of the LDS or Latter Day Saints, its weighty and deeply conservative political influence in Utah and beyond, is remarkable given the improbable origins of the Church. The extended and heavily institutional story of prophet Joseph Smith, considered by most non-Mormons a dubious self-creation, is offered here in splendid detail in remarkable color.
Van Sciver could have examined the saga from a psychological distance, and even chosen to play the iconoclast. His earlier books on U.S. history, from Lincoln to Johnny Appleseed and Eugene V. Debs, show something else: a penetrating treatment of personality within a vanished era. That he documents his study with careful explanations at the end of the book, and that he donated the original art for the book to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, is a measure of his seriousness.
Joseph Smith’s story is bizarre, a story about a discovery (he insisted) of golden tablets buried in the ground in upstate New York in the 1830s; a story about a church with outlandish views including (after a while) polygamy; a story that would not be the same in any other artist’s hands. Smith and his flock moved Westward with the great population shift of the mid-nineteenth century, and—this is crucial—they moved through natural and wondrous landscapes, which are drawn with stunning beauty and a certain strangeness by Van Sciver.
So much of the narrative has always seemed to critical observers as a magnificent case of American charlatanism, these days likely to be seen as pre-Trumpism. And yet Smith and his followers, staggering through bankruptcies, persecutions and the fatal defenestration of Smith himself, seen by Van Sciver, the observer-artist, looks like a revelatory detail of American history that seems in turn. . . a lot like the rest of American history.
It was my pleasure to connect with the Thaddeus Stevens Society and its president, Ross Hetrick. As a freelance writer and illustrator, I end up meeting a number of interesting people and learning a lot about so many subjects. In a visual thinker role, I can facilitate in clearing away the clutter, help organize thoughts, and make sure goals connect with results. That brings us to today’s infographic, a concise look at one of America’s lesser known heroes. Thaddeus Stevens was arguably the most important member of Congress during the American Civil War. His passionate and unrelenting work in support of civil rights helped lead the way to the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 14th, 15th and 16th Amendments to the American Constitution, all working to ensure the rights of Black Americans after the war.
A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020. Elise Engler. Macmillan. New York. 304pp. 2022. $34.
Just as we’re settling into 2022, there remains some of that deja vu all over again. We won’t shake off 2020 that easily and for good reason. Artist Elise Engler captures this monster of a year with her daily paintings of the news in this unique collection. What began as a more modest project, a daily painting routine begun in late 2015, took on a life of its own after Trump was elected president. At that point, Engler was compelled to follow the topsy-turvy trail of events all the way into 2020 and beyond. This book covers the first hint of Covid-19 in the news on January 20, 2020 all the way to January 21, 2021, the day after Joe Biden was sworn in as president.
Indeed, truth can be stranger than fiction. You just can’t make up some of the headlines from 2020. On May 19, 2020: “Despite FDA caution, Trump says he is taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventative, threatens to permanently end WHO funding.” And there you have the material for that day’s painting. Engler kept to a steady diet of WNYC radio, a credible news source with editorial positions that moderately favor the left. What’s interesting is the hybrid of sorts that Engler created with her work whether or not it includes an editorial slant. Part of it can function as an editorial cartoon or seem to. But, more to the point, you can see Engler mostly focused with just keeping up with the steady stream of news: a raging pandemic; racial tensions at a feverish level; and a most unusual presidential race.
At turns poetic, Engler’s dispatches can sometimes read as passages from a very compelling dystopian science fiction novel, albeit they’re all too real. Consider July 23, 2020, at random, but indicative of the whole: “House passes bill removing Confederate statues, other figures from Capitol; California surpasses New York in total COVID cases; Trump will send federal agents to Chicago.” All the elements in place, a perfect storm, a most frightening time to witness on any level. Page after page, Engler brings home the realities of our times in concise fashion.
Here’s the thing about the news, it’s hot one moment and then it can either heat up again or suddenly cool off. Bits and pieces, significant by themselves and part of a greater whole, are vulnerable to be trampled upon by the next freight train of even crazier and more explosive news. And heaven help those items of news with any hint of complexity from staying very long on the public’s radar, if at all. Consider November 28, 2020. Another day of news to be processed and lost: “Firing squad, poison gas could be allowed for federal executions under Justice Dept. rules; “Voters, not lawyers, choose the president,” judge writes in repudiation of Trump’s effort to halt PA election process; Iran top nuclear scientist assassinated.” Engler thoughtfully corrals these more elusive bits of data and pins them down in a compelling memorable manner.
Elise Engler proved to be at the right place at the right time having honed a means of production years in advance. To add to the urgency, Engler’s studio is in New York City, what became known as the epicenter of the pandemic, at least in the United States. From her drawing board, she was only a short walk away from a tent hospital set up in Central Park. As the violence and chaos unfolded throughout the year, the paintings became less formal, more open, more expressive. Some moments and images have become embedded in our collective memory. Smaller, more nuanced items, will recede into the background, but find a home in Engler’s book, a record from a seasoned artist who was there at her drawing board when it happened.
A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020 is available as of January 18, 2022 and his published by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Co., Macmillan Publishing Group.
This review begins with a personal revelation. I am more than comfortable to recall, privately and in public, the saga of my great great (maternal) grandfather, the farmer-abolitionist who marched with Sherman through Georgia. He lived long enough to spend time with my mother when I was a youngster and to regale her with stories of the Civil War. I am less comfortable contemplating my paternal grandfather, a pattern-maker and small shop-keeper who seems to have joined the KKK in Illinois shortly before he abandoned the family. Or was kicked out.
White folks by the millions have restless skeletons in their closets, of that there can be no convincing denial. How could it not be so in a deeply racist society? But some experiences are very different; and some involve real racial solidarity. The Day the Klan Came to Town offers us vivid details and precious insights. This story unfolds in African American comics writer Bill Campbell’s own home town in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, a town ironically and iconically named for one of the great cruel industrial tyrants of the American nineteenth century. (Admittedly, Andrew Carnegie was also the great benefactor of libraries and other public institutions.)
Clark reminds us immediately that the 1920s vintage KKK, perhaps as strong in parts of the North as of the South and largely in control of Indiana politics for at least a decade, could take shape as anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-black or all three, depending upon local circumstances. Campbell has taken pains to study the contemporary documents, maps and other records, of a conflict that really took place, one of many in the years shortly following the First World War. He reminds us that this is, importantly, often enough also an immigrant drama. Like many parts of Pennsylvania, industrial or mining, the conflict posed Irish, Cornish, Slav and several regions of Italians against each other as competitors for jobs, and against African Americans, in the schemes of rising capitalists to divert class resentments away from the strike waves of wartime.
Here we have, in Carnegie, Sicilian immigrants unlikely even to identify with a common national origin. They would not have been considered “white” until at least the 1930s in the US. Many a newly-erected KKK hall (as in my own hometown in Central Illinois) of the 1920s bore the proud self-identification of “WHITE AND PROTESTANT,” marking Catholics clearly unwanted. Most Italian immigrants, especially those from Southern Italy had little political background in the Left or labor, but many responded to the appeals of the IWW and its working class militancy, likewise to unions organizing in the mine fields among other places. We count leading Italian-American leftists as some of the greatest organizers and poets, but they don’t seem to have got themselves to Carnegie, PA.
Here, in the first pages of the comic, Klan organizers present themselves as leaders of a respectable civic organization out to protect “American” cities from purported outsiders and non-whites. We soon flash across the seas to Racalmuto, Sicily of 1915, where young miners suddenly face the draft imposed upon them for cannon foder in the First World War. They wisely choose migration.
Barely “Americanized,” they face a racist mob clothed in KKK uniforms. The African Americans among the city dwellers, not a large but a significant portion, respond first because they recognize the Klan. Sicilians, in turn, recall the Fascisti and the rise of Mussolini sponsored by the ruling classes to defeat labor’s claim on the government. The artist is especially adept at moving back and forth, continent to continent, language to language. They learn to fight back.
The author and artist strive to emphasize the multi-racial and multi-cultural, multi-lingual character of the fightback, and a more severe critic might say that they try too hard. The shifts, Irish and Jewish and Italian to East Indian and Latin American, not to mention women and men taking their own roles or battling hand in hand, can be jarring at times. But the fightback of the immigrant crowd against the Klan offers page after page of real comic action.
This is a tight, well-drawn work in the best of comic traditions.
Elegy for Mary Turner: An Illustrated Account of a Lynching. Rachel Marie-Crane Williams. Verso Books. 2021. 80pp. $17.46
“In this particular historical moment when young Black people are engaged in a renewed struggle against state violence, Mary Turner’s story resonates. She insists that we #SayHerName too.”
– Mariame Kaba, founder and director of Project NIA, from the introduction
The phrase, “Seeing is believing,” is apt when thinking about the killing of George Floyd. It echoes lynching in America, done in plain sight, the perpetrators confident there would be little to no consequences. But these heinous acts were seen nonetheless, witnessed and documented. Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, an artist and teacher, has created a visual testament to one of the most horrific of lynchings: on May 20, 1918, in Valdosta, Georgia, Mary Turner, 8 months pregnant, was brutally murdered, set on fire, her live baby pulled out and stomped to death. The mob then shot at Mary Turner’s corpse hundreds of time. Mary Turner was lynched because she dared to object to the lynching of her husband, Hayes, the day before.
A work like this achieves not only the goal of informing but also of haunting the reader. These images, not meant to shock but to testify, will stay with you. The full-color art and collage work names those who were killed, identifies the killers, and evokes the landscape in which the NAACP investigated the crimes when the state would not. In the big scheme, these lynchings occurred only yesterday. A book like this one brings home that fact.
Page excerpt from Elegy for Mary Turner
Williams chronicles all the events related to a series of lynchings which included Mary Turner. It all began as a quarrel between Hampton Smith, a plantation owner, and Sidney Johnson, a modern-day slave working indefinitely for Smith who had an ongoing scheme of paying off jail fines in return for indentured servitude. The quarrel became heated. Smith beat Johnson. Subsequently, Johnson returned and ended up shooting Smith and his wife. He killed Smith. And he nearly killed his wife. She was pregnant at the time. This incident triggered a lynching spree, between May 17 to 24, 1918, of any Blacks in the surrounding Brooks and Lowndes counties. This resulted in a mob killing 10 men, one woman, Mary Turner, and her baby.
C. Tyrone Forehand (great-grandnephew of Hayes and Mary Turner) provides a postscript. There you will find vivid chilling details like this:
“Rufus Morrison was only ten years old when he was hiding in a cornfield along Ryalls Road in the town of Barney and witnessed Mary Turner’s execution. The memory of a frightened and bewildered woman was forever etched in his mind as he saw the mob tie a rope to her ankles and hoist her upside down from a tree. They taunted and jeered a terrified Mary as they began to roast her alive. One of the members of the mob took a swig of moonshine from a jug and spat it on her as another dared him to slit open her abdomen where her unborn child was oblivious to the fate which was about to befall it.”
The fact is that “seeing is believing” but it’s reading the facts that will give you an deeper picture.
Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision, is known by many as essentially banning school segregation. The intent was to ban it altogether since it was ruled as unconstitutional. But first, there was resistance to overcome right from the very start. Today, we can look back at this process in many ways. One such path to understanding is legislation that secures the very places where history was made, the sites involved in the 1954 court case. It was not only a high school in Topeka, Kansas. The Brown v. Board case involved six different schools. In partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, these sites are now part of the National Park Service thanks to legislation sponsored by Rep. James Clyburn and Sen. Chris Coons.
George E.C. Hayes, left, Thurgood Marshall, center, and James M. Nabrit, the lawyers who led the fight before the U.S. Supreme Court for abolition of segregation in public schools, descend the court steps in Washington, D.C., on May 17, 1954. The Supreme Court ruled that segregation is unconstitutional. (AP Photo)
Today, September 17, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) held a virtual press conference to announce their new legislation to honor and commemorate the historic sites that contributed to the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
The purpose of this legislation is to expand the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, to include historic sites in South Carolina and designate National Park Service (NPS) Affiliated Areas in other states. It would recognize the importance of the additional sites that catalyzed litigation in Delaware, South Carolina, Kansas, Virginia and Washington, DC, and expand the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas. The legislation was crafted in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The sites involved are in Farmville, VA; Summerton, SC; Hockessin, DE; Claymont, DE; Wilmington, DE; and Washington, DC. This new legislation makes these schools part of the National Park Service and brings them to the forefront as teaching and learning sites. It dramatically increases the visibility of these sites. 50,000 people each year plan their vacations including National Parks. The legislation also secures curriculum for teachers as well as stabilization and preservation of these sites.
illustration by Henry Chamberlain
Altogether, this is a great opportunity for understanding and learning from history. This definitely opens a window to education and inclusion. As Rep. Clyburn pointed out, only 2 percent of Black Americans visit National Parks. Why is that? Is it because, historically, African Americans have not been fully included? As Sen Coons pointed out, it is only when you can see yourself as part of the discussion that you will feel compelled to join.
Dig deeper and you discover so many facts. One of the sad backlashes to desegregation was that it became more difficult for Blacks to qualify to become teachers. Pushing back on that, as Rep. Clyburn mentioned, are such initiatives as a program advocating for Black teachers, Call Me Mister. As you look closer, you find the road blocks, for every step forward, two steps back. Another such sad case sprouts directly from Brown v. Board. In reaction to the Supreme Court decision, Virginia closed down its schools. It wasn’t until 1959 that schools in Virginia reopened and began to desegregate–and not until the early ’70s that the state completely accepted desegregation.
This new legislation follows in the spirit and values of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to rely upon “the power of places to teach.” For more information on the work being done at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, visit right here.
Editor’s Note: It is a distinct pleasure to have Paul Buhle do the honors with a review of the new book by R. Sikoryak. As a side note, I had the opportunity to interview Sikoryak in 2019. You can read, and view, it here.
Deep thinking comic artists have been pretending to be non-serious since the early days of daily comic strip glory. Hard-working cartoonists stationed at their drawing boards would be seen as entertainers, and for a long time, they could hardly be anything else. If they had their own deep ruminations, they seemed to keep their seriousness to themselves. Even the fabulous Rube Goldberg, editorializing in 1949 about the fears of atomic warfare (the drawing got him a Pulitzer) made possible or probable catastrophe into a joke, his happy little domestic world, like any other domestic world, in danger of being blown to smithereens.
R. Sikoryak’s homage to Pogo in Constitution Illustrated.
“Pogo,” with a depth that at least a fair number of readers grasped in the work of Walt Kelly, may have marked a new stage, and never mind the earlier exceptions. Kelly was brilliantly droll but the issues were deadly serious. You could buy his books in oversized paperbacks, something that was also true of Li’l Abner, but for most readers, the heavy sexual suggestions of Daisy Mae surely overcame the New Dealish sub-content.
Talk about superheroes!
When comic art became “art” —from the most ponderous of underground comix to Raw Magazine—the old definitions seemed to go out the window. But did they? And so we get, sooner or later, to R. Sikoryak, the master of the droll, none better. If I were pressed to offer one candidate for author and book high definition comics today, it might well be Sikoryak and Masterpiece Comics (2009) and for this reason: the complex relation of text and image is not literal, random or even satirical in the usual sense. His art compels a second look or second thought, definitely not on the same wave length as the first one.
Sikoryak, born in 1964 and educated at Parsons, actually worked on Raw (so did Ben Katchor, among others), co-edited a Jam with Art Spiegelman, and set out on a career that includes books, illustrations for the New Yorker, World War 3 Illustrated and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He has also usefully raised the profile of other artists with his continuing Carousel slide shows.
He has one astounding narrative-artistic innovation, not entirely new but never so well developed before. As a post-modernist of the popular culture world, he recuperates the leading images of cartoonists of the daily and comic books perfectly, at least as well as the original artists drew them, but with entirely different dialogue. This could be a shtick and might be for other artists, but for Sikoryak, it is a serious method. The work of the original artists, be they E.C. Segar or Gary Larson, Chester Gould or Gary Panter, gains a new articulateness. The images are not randomly chosen, in other words.
The Unquotable Trump (2017), a political stroke, references what seems to me his seminal work, once again Masterpiece Comics, which quite literally goes through the Canon from the Bible to Dostoyevsky, with wonderful sidebars (Wuthering Heights re-enacted as an EC Comics horror-tale, for instance) taking apart the originals and re-enacting them.
Scrooge McDuck mashup.
His target in Constitution Illustrated is either more or less elusive. Precisely drawn versions of the most familiar and often the most familiarly banal comics, early classics to standard superheroes to the most miserable of the dailies—all are seen in these pages.
But wait. The text in Masterpiece Comics was taken from the apex of literature. The text in Constitution Illustrated is the…US Constitution itself.
What can you (that is to say the artist) do with THAT?
Americans now face the gravest constitutional threat within their own history, a history brief compared, for instance, to that the Chinese, but long in terms of a modern republic. Especially a republic claiming to be a democracy, even a model democracy.
Krazy Kat mashup.
The choices of “classic” comic art and excerpts from the Constitutional text are very carefully chosen. Popeye and Olive Oyl are seen on an eighteenth century frigate, warning Wimpy about Tax Duties on taxes and revenues. Albert Alligator (with a proper 18th century wig) warns a jury of Okefenokee residents about the rights of the accused at a trial. Nancy and Sluggo explain the apportionment principles in the election of a president. And so on.
One is more than entitled to ask: what does this add to the original? Or: are we only being entertained?
Sikoryak is too subtle to offer an answer. But there is an answer, underlying so much of his work. The inter-working of text and dialogue demands, like Brecht’s plays, the participation of the viewer. Passivity, the idea of this work as a joke, is repudiated. Whatever he was trying to do in The Unquotable Trump, he is also insisting upon here. Wake up, reader. Look at the constitution with new eyes. Or else.
Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, to be published in October, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.
American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and the Battles of Lev Gleason. By Brett Dakin. Toronto: Chapterhouse, 2020. 242pp, $24.99.
Lev Gleason is a storied figure, a part of the history of comics production and comic art that had yet, until this fascinating volume, to be told in any detail. A personal saga, a business history, and a detective story by a great-nephew pursuing a disappearing world: we have here a tasty package. For those interested in the popular culture angles of the American left, this makes an especially intriguing addition. A minor baron of the pulp world, Gleason supported left causes of all kinds by determined fundraising, meanwhile publishing a left-of-center imitation of the Readers Digest and even consulting the Daily Worker on how to win more readers.
During Gleason’s prime years of comics, the end of the 1930s through the middle 1950s, comics themselves were outselling any other periodical except the newspaper, and doing so with a market mostly (if by no means entirely) under 20 years of age. Gleason helped create this market through keen salesmanship and an eye to design. His very own comics, for reasons other than politics, would lead in part to the….suppression of comics, a genre denounced and hated by the elite. His best-selling Crime Does Not Pay series (1942-55) could not be described as the most garish or violent of comics, but the outright sadism of the criminals, the “headlights” looks of the dames, this and more was unmistakably—popular! If never as popular as war and its perpetual American glorification in and out of comics.
But let’s start at the beginning. The author, a contributor to distinguished journals like Foreign Affairs and The Guardian, had to learn about his great-uncle second hand. Lev died before Dakin was born. He learned only by his own research that Lev was the grandson of a prominent supporter of abolitionism in the border states of Kentucky and Ohio—not a small or even very safe thing to be. In family lore, Lev himself was the left-leaning financial dynamo who made a fortune and lost it. Also not a small thing.
A Bostonian mustered out of the Army in 1919, Lev wanted to make money (he had at least one ex-wife to support) and went into the magazine business as an advertising manager for a kids’ publication. He took his experience to New York in 1932, and became an advertising manager at Eastern Color Printing, an auspicious spot. Eastern actually did the printing of most of the Funny Pages of the big East Coast papers. Gleason has at least a solid claim, if not the only existing claim, to have invented the comic book format: 64 page booklets full of comics.
Far from over-the-counter, these were first sold to corporations as give-aways. But Lev and his friends convinced Eastern to let them try selling the pamphlets at newspaper outlets, starting in 1934. The dime comic was born or rather pre-born, because only a year later did a comic appear with all original material rather than reprints from the newspaper comic pages.
As the earliest editor of Tip Top Comics, Gleason made his first and most spectacular blunder: passing on the strip by a couple of young Jewish guys from Cleveland, called Super-Man. You could say this error cost him millions. In charge of Superman, he might have avoided the dreadful cheating of the artist and scriptwriter by the comics corporations.
Gleason pressed onward and Silver Streak Comics appeared just in time for the comics’ Golden Age, helping to make it possible. The soon-to-be-famous artist Jack Cole came up with a dreaded character, The Claw, and action scenes hinted at one of Gleason’s favorite motifs in the years to come: the scantily clad maiden, obviously in trouble but also somehow tempting (psychoanalytic critics would describe comic books as faintly masturbatory).
Daredevil, Comic House, August 1941
Daredevil, of this book’s title, was for years Gleason’s meal ticket. A handsome agent of derring do, he could punch Hitler in the face (even if no one was doing so in real life) without raising a sweat. But to make the comic work big, Gleason had to buy a “few million pages of pulp” on a promise of turning the comic around in a couple weeks in 1941. With several more of the artists and letterers destined to become famous in the business, especially Charles Biro, they did it. Daredevil was a smash hit.
But this was only one side of Gleason’s inclinations. The Popular Front oriented Theater Arts Committee (TAC) had made a name during the 1930s, bringing elements of progressive theater to ordinary audiences, but it re-blossomed along with other such entities in the antifascist war years. Gleason raised thousands of dollars for the TAC as he did for the Joint Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee, and a large handful of others, most of them destined to be placed upon the Attorney General’s list of “subversives,” despite most having actually ceased operation or even existence during the years shortly after the War.
Gleason had also published Friday, a popular magazine that set out in 1940 to gain part of the booming magazine audience, but did not have the advertisers to survive a single year. More important, he published Reader’s Scope (1945-49), a lively, pocket-sized, leftish version and would-be rival to the ubiquitous Readers’ Digest, with condensed versions of articles from the liberal press. Salute (1946-48) aimed at the returning GI, was no success. There were still other unsuccessful magazines, proving that he had ideas, probably not quite the right time for them or the financial backing, but he pushed the antifascist, reform and anti-racist message forward.
Amidst all this, Gleason lived rather palatially in suburban Chappaqua, New York, until the middle 1950s. Publishing a liberal daily (New Castle News) to combat the local conservatives, entertaining guests of all kinds, he traveled regularly to the city with or without his family for what one could properly call anti-fascist popular culture. He was a personality of his place and time, as anyone could see. And then it fell apart.
Pursued by the FBI, Gleason also bravely fought the threatened repression of comics that was coming in the wake of the Red Scare. Indeed, the charges made against the Reds and comics were surprisingly similar, out of the mouths of rightwingers: Jews were corrupting Christian youths. You could say that William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, faced the same enemies, but of course, Bill Gaines was an honest (Jewish) liberal without the dangerous political connections. Gaines turned the generalized collapse of the comic industry into the vast triumph of Mad Magazine. Gleason had no such backstop, at least not in publishing.
A real estate salesman in Upstate New York, living with his family in a small house, he was cut off from a sparkling social life. These had been shut down by McCarthyism anyway. Gleason survived for a while. He died in 1971. A year earlier, in a message to fellow Harvard graduates, he embraced the civil rights and antiwar movements that respectables shunned, evidently celebrating the renewal of the American Left.
Author Brett Dakin purses this part of his great-uncle’s life by driving around, talking to old people, and by checking FBI documents. It’s a change of pace for the book, but welcome in its highly personal tone. Dakin is a family member looking for roots, like so many others. He found the most interesting great uncle that almost anyone could find. I wish I had someone like that in the family tree.
Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, to be published in October, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.
Krazy Kat began as its own comic strip on October 28, 1913. That was 106 years ago. Much has changed and much remains in transition. For instance, we continue to struggle with race. But let me loop back for a moment. Many of you might be familiar with Krazy Kat and many of you might not. It was nothing short of a national sensation in its heyday, read my people from all strata of society. During that era, the early 20th century, you can argue that the common knowledge base was bigger than it is today while the universal sensitivity towards others was smaller. Today, the level of common knowledge and sensitivity seems to have become inverted. We seem to care more while we know less. That said, Krazy Kat, the comic strip, (1913-1944) held a position in pop culture akin to what Saturday Night Live holds today. Everyone read it, from paperboys to presidents, and it got under people’s skin. And, speaking of skin, race is the tie that binds and is in the background and in the foreground to everything I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the first full length biography of cartoonist George Herriman and one of the best recent biographies in general: Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, written by Michael Tisserand, published in December of 2016, by HarperCollins.
Krazy Kat and Ignatz in full swing.
Race, and identity, plays a predominant role in Krazy Kat as the main character is engaged in a never-ending journey of following an independent path while dealing with society. Krazy Kat is a cat with no particular gender and no particular purpose, really, other than attempting to find a little romance with Ignatz mouse. Today, you might think this gender-bending scenario would have been too sophisticated for the early 20th century but the comic strip steadily gained in popularity. People’s tastes were generally more raw and unfiltered and that sensibility carried over into the Krazy Kat comic strip. Over time, George Herriman was able to perfect a love triangle between cat, mouse, and dog. It was a wonderfully existential comic strip that especially appealed to intellectuals and inspired everyone from Picasso to Charles Schulz. Through it all, Krazy Kat was a black cat confused over whether it should be black or white.
A life in black and white.
Tisserand takes the reader along a bumpy, often violent and toxic, ride down the American experience byway of cartoonist George Herriman and his family. This is also a story of redemption and transcendence. The guiding refrain we hold onto dearly in America is a belief in resilience, not always quick but something we collectively want to keep alive. We can surprise ourselves, and emerge from tragedy. That said, Americans were living in highly dangerous times regarding race when budding cartoonist George Herriman, of mixed raced, came of age and was establishing himself. Herriman was born in 1880. Consider just one fact about the world that George was born into, as cited by Tisserand in his book: “Louisiana’s total of 313 blacks lynched between 1889 and 1918 was only surpassed by those in Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas.” That appalling and horrific fact alone undeniably makes clear why George and his family ultimately moved from New Orleans in 1889 to Los Angeles. The Herriman family from then on was to pass for white. That decision opened up a whole new world of freedom and opportunity.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White
Race back in George’s day, and today, is a complicated subject the deeper you dig. What may seem improbable and unlikely, might add up in proper context. So, I was in New Orleans recently and I got to chat with Michael Tisserand. I put to Michael a question about how Herriman had to tow the line and create comics that followed the racism of the era before he could eventually move on to create what is universally beloved transcendent art. There are no easy answers, he said, and he chose in his book to simply bring out the facts and not try to speculate. That is how he was able to reconcile, or move past, the fact that Herriman did his fair share of racist comics and even wore black face at an event put together by carousing co-workers. These were certainly not Herriman’s proudest moments. Perhaps they were simply moments to get through in order to survive. As they always say, it was another time. Remarkably, Herriman ended up redeeming himself many times over. That would seem to have been the plan all along.
Hiding his true identity was a choice that made sense for George Herriman. And his friends and co-workers were more than happy to follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding his heritage. George was simply known as “The Greek.” It wasn’t until decades later, in 1971, when a reporter discovered a birth certificate that labeled Herriman as “colored” that the news finally came out and, even then, it was dismissed and refuted for years. George’s big secret actually became a mixed blessing as it informed his life’s work. As Tisserand describes in vivid detail, Herriman developed what was to become a true work of art. Ahead of its time, and more married to art than commercial success, Krazy Kat became a vessel upon which to speak out about one’s own worth and identity. Krazy Kat was the gender-bending sprite that defied conventional wisdom. In the end, George may have been hiding but he was hiding in plain sight.
Michael provided me with an inspired guided tour of the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans and you can see it in the short film I created. Just click the link above. We went over all the old haunts and residences of the Herriman family and extended relations and friends. Michael was in fine form, engaged with the subject and bringing it to life. This is the same tour that he has provided to notable figures in comics such as Art Spiegelman, creator of the landmark work in comics, Maus; Patrick McDonnell, the creator of the popular comic strip, Mutts; and Paul Karasik, author of the best-selling, How to Read Nancy. Lucky me. I think you’ll enjoy the ride too.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White is a 592-page book, available in print and various platforms, published by HarperCollins. Visit Michael Tisserand right here.
It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art
What does it mean to be American in these strange times we live in? We have someone in power who behaves like a self-serving gremlin, determined to dismantle and foment unrest, boasting a horribly inarticulate screed. Here is a collection from some of the most respected names in the arts that acts as an answer to what it is to be American. It is entitled, It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art, published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. This title came out in 2018 and it deserves to be on everyone’s radar in 2019 and for years to come.
Vote Hillary by Deborah Kass
Sometimes, perhaps too often, we get such a gem of a book that deserves a whole new shout out. Let me run through for you what makes this one special. Gathered within 375 pages are works by talented artists and writers all tackling a common theme in refreshingly unexpected ways. The book is edited by celebrated artist and novelist Jonathan Santlofer, with an introduction by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. The roster of creators runs the gamut from exciting new talent to established legends. Each piece is a highly original voice. You’ll find, for instance, Hate for Sale, by Neil Gaiman, a poem tailor-made for today and yet unnervingly timeless. Or how about Joyce Carol Oates, “Good News!”a cautionary tale that nicely channels Ray Bradbury.
Little House on the Prairie Holding Company LLC by David Storey
Among visual art, one that immediately strikes just the right defiant tone is Vote Hillary, by Deborah Kass, a screen print channeling Andy Warhol with Trump replacing Nixon as the subject. Another compelling piece is The Ugliest American Alphabet, by Eric Orner, where he recounts all that is dismaying about Trump using every letter of the alphabet. Some other thoughtful work in comics comes from Roz Chast with Politics; and from Mimi Pond with Your Sacred American Rights Bingo. And one of the most beguiling works in comics in this book is a tryptic by Art Spiegelman. To be sure, all the work here is not espousing one particular point of view. You’ll find a bit of everything when it comes to articulating all things American. It’s not as easy as simply pointing fingers. It’s complicated, right? All in all, you have 52 distinctive voices here sharing with you just how complicated it all is in the best spirit of vigorous critical inquiry.
Your Sacred American Rights Bingo by Mimi Pond
I will finish up here by taking a closer look at the piece by Alice Walker, Don’t Despair. It is one of the shortest works and comes towards the end of this collection. She recounts how growing up in rural Georgia, all white men seemed to be like Donald Trump, petty and hateful. She looks back and wonders how she survived those times. Part of the answer is that Walker comes from a long line of ancestors who chose to live or die on their feet. Her family would survive, even proper, in the tiniest of spaces allowed to them by white people. Fast forward to today, Walker asks Is living under a dictatorship all that of a surprise? Her solution: Study hard! Study who you’re really voting for! And don’t rely on just voting for someone! “It is our ignorance that keeps us hoping somebody we elect will do all the work while we drive off to the mall.” Walker isn’t just offering hope. As she puts it, she’s offering counsel. Real change is personal and involves relating with each other. It is a time for an awakening and the choice is ours.
The Ugliest American Alphabet, by Eric Orner
It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art is a 375-page hardcover, with black & white and color images, published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.