Tag Archives: History

Joseph Smith and the Mormons review: The Mormon Saga—in Comics!

Joseph Smith and the  Mormons. By Noah Van Sciver. New York: Abrams, 2022, 454pp, $29.99

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

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.

Paul Buhle

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Thaddeus Stevens: An Infographic of an American Hero

Civil Rights Leader Thaddeus Stevens

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.

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Airbnb One-night stay at the Moulin Rouge

Belle Époque meets Airbnb. Photo credit: Daniel Alexander Harris

Airbnb in Paris. Photo credit: Daniel Alexander Harris

You go with your first thoughts on something like this. Given that it’s set in Paris, I thought maybe going wordless would lose the language barrier–or very limited use of words. This led to stronger drawings with any word usage helping to emphasize the scene. My next thought was to focus on a Belle Époque theme and see where it would lead me. More often than not, it’s those quick sketches that sum it up best, at least for the moment. The biggest question of all was whether or not to follow through on an impulse to create something in the first place. I’m glad that I did!
Well, that was fun. Airbnb had a similar offer a few years back when they held a contest where winners were given a chance to sleep inside the glass pyramid of the Louvre. That said, I’m in the mood for some kind of travel adventure and Airbnb is looking very tempting, whether it’s Paris or something closer to home.
Here are details on this amazing Airbnb Moulin Rouge adventure:

Airbnb One-night stay at the Moulin Rouge

For the first time ever, guests will be able to stay inside the never-before-seen interior space of the iconic red windmill. The secret room has been transformed into a Belle Époque boudoir to transport guests back in time to the origins of the Moulin Rouge.

Booking opens at 7.00 PM CET on Tuesday, May 17th for three individual one-night stays for two guests on June 13, 20 and 27.

The space

Situated in the heart of Montmartre, the Moulin Rouge is best known as the birthplace of the French Cancan, a delightfully energetic dance popular in cabarets through the ages. Throughout its colorful history, the windmill – which was first constructed in 1889 as a nod to the site’s rural origins and reconstructed three decades later following a fire – was never opened to the public… until now. The newly transformed space transports guests back to the Belle Époque with:

– An opulent boudoir filled with exquisite art nouveau features including a miniature paper stage to immerse guests in the spirit of La Belle Époque.
– A dressing area in the room featuring glamorous accessories from the Belle Epoque, including vintage costumes, fragrant perfumes and effusive letters from admirers.
– A private rooftop terrace adorned with an ornate pagoda and garden furniture characteristic of the Belle Époque era – an ideal setting for an après show cocktail!

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Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank by Eric Orner review – Tribute to a Liberal Giant

Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank. Eric Orner. Henry Holt. New York. 2022. 222 pp. $25.99

Barney Frank was a tireless public servant. We need more of his kind of dedication: someone who gets things done. He was a man ahead of his time and, sadly, a little too much of his time too. Frank came of age in the 1950s, great for some bright kids with bright futures, but not all kids. And hardly an easy time for a bright gay kid. For much of his life, the guy who got things done for so many, lived life in the closet. Critically acclaimed cartoonist Eric Orner provides a unique perspective on one of the great legislators of our time with his debut graphic novel. Orner is a former congressional aide to Frank and that shows in the level of detail found on these pages. It was my pleasure a few years back to review a collection of Orner’s comic strip, The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green, which ran from 1989 to 2005. And it’s a honor to share with you this most impressive work.

Orner has that particular sensibility you find with the best cartoonists: an inquisitive mind; a compulsion to get to the essence of a subject; and the ability to express complexities in a concise and clear way. Barney Frank may not appear to be an obvious choice for the subject of an in-depth graphic novel but, oh, he most assuredly is! The big mistake made my some marketing folks is to have tunnel vision and think that a protagonist in a narrative needs to look and act a certain way. Well, Barney Frank fits that unconventional profile and that’s part of the beauty of his story. Here we have a guy who didn’t dress well, or eat well, or was careful about social niceties. He could be curt and rude. But he cared, heart and soul, about improving the lives of others as a public servant. His weakness was that he was afraid that, if he was outed, that would end his life in politics. But it didn’t and he learns that he can have a good life too. Orner deftly conveys this whole arc of a fascinating life filled with one battle after another, both personal and political.

For my money, I’m just captivated by all the accounts of political intrigue. If you’re a political junkie, that alone is reason enough to read this book. Born in New Jersey, and graduating from Harvard, Frank proved to be an exceptional student of government with a decidedly New Deal inspired fervor to do good in the world. Determined to see through his PhD thesis, those plans keep being derailed in favor of the public arena. Massachusetts politics keeps beckoning. Right out of the gate, Frank impresses the right people. After helping to run a successful Boston mayoral campaign for a local scion, Frank is promoted to a top level position in the Mayor’s office. Frank’s star just keeps rises as he himself enters politics and wins election as a state legislator and, ultimately, as a congressman. Of course, it should come as no surprise that he makes some political enemies along the way as he’s no slouch for a good fight. It’s Frank’s fight for gay rights that takes him closest to the edge as he fears his involvement will lead to his undoing.

Orner has set up a graphic novel with as quick and urgent a tempo as his subject. It is packed with so many assorted details, all neatly presented, sometimes even itemized within a panel. All the better to evoke the whirlwind of activity. Orner’s Barney Frank is a hero to relate with and to root for, all the more so given one of the greatest of challenges a politician can face, a sex scandal. The story begins with it in a brief prologue leaving you to wonder what exactly is supposed to have happened. And, believe it or not, it’s complicated. From that teaser, the narrative mostly keeps to a steady chronology all leading up to that fateful denouement. By then, the reader has come to believe in Frank from a multitude of vantage points: as he runs to catch that last train to an important meeting; or simply struggles to be likable; or pleads with a man to understand he’s not quite ready yet to come out. Barney Frank is the “smahtguy” who, through conviction and sheer will power, is ready and willing to do the work that others would rather avoid. Politics is not romantic and can kill idealists. But if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and do the work, then there’s a chance to make a real difference. That’s the greatest lesson from Barney Frank and it adds up to a very compelling life story which Orner so vividly tells in this book.

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Interview: Artist Elise Engler and ‘A Diary of the Plague Year’

Artist Elise Engler is like all of us who love to document. It seems that we all want to have our say and tell not only our story but contribute to the bigger story. But only a few generations ago, the whole idea of self-expression, let alone self-portraits, was mostly in the artist’s domain. So, now everybody documents. A lot of it is ephemeral and only some of it has that everlasting quality, like the daily dispatches of news items collected in Engler’s book that chronicle the events of that infamous year, 2020. A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020 is out now. You can read my review here. And I invite you to my conversation with the artist.

Double Portrait of the Artist

It’s the persistent vision that wins out in the end. An artist engaging in a process for an extended amount of time is like mining for gold or anything else with a less than certain outcome. There will be trial and error efforts but a person with a certain mix of qualities, like sheer determination, will reach a breakthrough. Engler’s art is about keen observation from collecting data: everything in her apartment; or everything in a series of purses; or everything on every block of New York City’s Broadway! Each of these, and many more, have been subjects for Engler’s work.

Medical tents set up in Central Park in 2020 near the artist’s studio.

So, it is a pleasure to have a chance to chat with this artist. We have gone through so much in the recent past. It’s good to have an artist of this caliber to create this special record.

Highlight from The Cathedrals of Art (1942) by Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944)

A traditional question that I don’t always ask but had to in this case was to ask about influences. Engler’s choices, once I had time to consider, suggested to me a more earthy approach with Marsden Hartley; perhaps a spiritual connection with the Sienese School; expressive with Philip Guston; and whimsical with Florine Stettheimer. Well, I hope I got it right. Suffice it to say, Engler has a very emotive and energetic style.

I invite you to view the video interview. I also happen to have created a brief movie introduction so the interview begins right after that. In our interview, we cover all you would need to know before reading the book. We chat about the whole idea of documenting and the concept of a news junkie. As I suggest, documenting, as well as an interest in the news, is something we can all relate to. Elise Engler proves to be an exceptional participant, taking bits of data, giving them a sense of order, and finding something transcendent.

A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020 is available now.

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Interview: Jeremy Dauber and ‘American Comics’

Jeremy Dauber offers the reader an expansive and fascinating read with his new book, American Comics: A History, published by W.W. Norton & Co. I recently reviewed it and now I present to you this interview with the book’s author. Jeremy Dauber is a professor of Jewish literature and American studies at Columbia University. He is the author of Jewish Comedy and The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, both finalists for the National Jewish Book Award. We navigate our way through quite a lot of material and have a great time chatting about a subject we all seem to have something to say about.

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Paul Buhle Honored by The Progressive

Paul Buhle

Paul Buhle is an eminent historian who, from time to time, graces this site with his writings on comics and related issues. Today it is my honor to direct your attention to a wonderful tribute to Paul Buhle in The Progressive. Here you will find a very useful overview of what Mr. Buhle has accomplished in his lifelong exploration and analysis of progressive politics–and how he’s incorporated his work into the comics medium. Paul Buhle’s contributions are essential!

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Review: ‘COVID Chronicles’ published by Graphic Mundi

COVID Chronicles. edited by Kendra Boileau and Rich Johnson. Graphic Mundi. 2021. 296pp. $21.95

COVID Chronicles is a unique comics anthology, a testament to the collective response to COVID-19. The comics medium is exceptionally well-suited to convey, evoke and process the massive tangle of information and expression involved. We often say that comics is known for superheroes. However, on an even grander scale, comics is known for being a communication and educational tool able to make it possible to see the forest for the trees. This remarkable anthology was put together during the first half of 2020. We were lost amid the trees then and we’re still finding our way today. As a comics creator, I fully appreciate the challenges for a book like this to stay on point. I have seen countless comics anthologies and the biggest stumbling block for such an endeavor is a lack of consistency and vision. And then we have those gems that prosper because of a clear and compelling purpose. This is such a collection.

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Paul Buhle on Comics: ‘The Day the Klan Came to Town’

The Day the Klan Came to Town. Written by Bill Campbell, Art by Bizhan Khodavandeh, Foreword by P. Djeti Clark.  Oakland: PM Press, 2021. 128pp, $15.95.

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

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.

Paul Buhle

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Paul Buhle on Comics: ‘Mutual Aid: an Illuminated Factor of Evolution’

Mutual Aid: an Illuminated Factor of Evolution. By Peter Kropotkin, illustrated by N.O. Bonzo, with an Introduction by David Graeber and Andrej Grubacic. PM Press, 317pp. $20.00

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

This large and beautiful book is so much like a comic that it cannot be described effectively in any other way. “Illustrated text” would not convey, especially for the younger readers of graphic novels, what has been accomplished here, and especially because 21st century readers “see” the pages differently from their predecessors and perhaps closer to ways that children have always “seen” favorite books—or at least the ways this reviewer saw them, literally learning to read by reading comics.

That said, we come immediately to David Graeber himself as a 21st century comet, rising into the sky and sinking again with his sudden, untimely death in 2021. His final text, an extended exploration of archeological history seeking the presence of largely peaceful, pre-state societies, has not convinced all readers by a long shot, but made his political points effectively. Class society seems to have been a fairly recent experience for Homo Sapiens, and its supremacy does not seem to have come from superior production of needed goods or any variant, such as organized agriculture. Yugoslavian-born Andrj Grabacic, a past collaborator with Staughton Lynd, obviously brings his own anarchistic fashion of political analysis into the mix.

Kropotkin, the Russian aristocrat, had a lot in common with other 19th century reformers including Marx: society, they believed, could be transformed by better, more scientific information and application. We had not yet entered the 20th century, where war became the decisive factor “for the West” that it had already been for the colonized world since the 17th century, at least. The choices for human society appeared to be more open and more peaceful until the First World War smashed so many illusions.

Mutual Aid, with its splendid subtitle, argues that society engages in communal relations at all times, making “capitalism” and “nationalism” the intruders. Marx saw the new society within the old in the sphere of socialized labor, no matter how brutal and alienated. Kropotkin looked outward.

The charm of this reprint, with splendid art, begins for today with the prince’s insistence upon “mutual aid among animals,” a powerful argument for its time, but more likely to be recognized now. Kropotkin insists, for instance, that a greedy sparrow seeking to monopolize nesting areas will be stopped by the flock. Contrary examples can certainly be found, but from scientific discoveries of “mother trees” to closer examination of interspecies collaboration, it seems science may be catching up with the prince who famously resigned his title.

Of course, Kropotkin’s main subject is human society, and if his arguments are somewhat familiar, the drawings of Bonzo are startling. I do not even recognize the name of this postmodern, feminist artisan, who lives in Portland and helped to create the Antifascist Coloring Book. Whatever the case, this is the closest to a reanimation of Williams Morris’s visions that I have seen in recent times. “Swipes,” in old comic book language, are taken freely from illustrations six generations past, but updated charmingly. We discover for instance with “harm reduction,” widespread enough to become a social movement in itself, that modern-day cooperators are re-learning how to help others through easing their bouts of addiction.

The chapter called “Mutual Aid in the Medieval City” is bound to remain a personal favorite of mine, because here Kropotkin comes so close to Morris, drawing upon similar sources, such as the histories of the guilds. We see the words of the text, and around them the images of working men and women who believed deeply in what they did. We can see cooperation, in other words, in a new light.

Quite a book, quite a revival of Kropotkin.

Paul Buhle

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