Garth Ennis has been writing comics since 1989. Credits include Preacher, The Boys and Hitman, with successful runs on The Punisher and Fury for Marvel Comics. As well as his own war series War Stories, Battlefields, and Dreaming Eagles, he recently revived the classic British aviation character Johnny Red, and has produced two series of World of Tanks for Wargaming.net. Originally from Northern Ireland, Ennis now resides in New York City with his wife, Ruth.
It is an honor to have the opportunity to discuss comics with such a notable comics writer as Garth Ennis. Even the most casual of comics readers will recognize the name behind such big hit titles as Preacher and The Boys. For this conversation, we focus on the exciting Garth Ennis titles being published by Dead Reckoning, particularly the newly collected, The Tankies. Any writer will easily relate to what Ennis has to say about growing up reading war comics. As a child, the only comics he could access back in Belfast in the 1970s was 2000 AD, a sci-fi anthology, and Battle, a monthly collection of the best British war comics. It was there that he read Charley’s War, a collected comic strip about a boy soldier who enlisted in World War I just in time to fight in the Battle of the Somme. What really struck Ennis was the veracity of these works. These were real stories about real people. It stood in stark contrast to fantastic themes he was reading elsewhere. And it stuck by him. Like any good writer, he has essentially been recreating what had the most impact upon him as a child.
For those of you who are longtime fans as well as new fans emerging from The Boys on Amazon, Garth Ennis has so much to offer the reader in incisive and highly engaging work. Our talk, in fact, pretty much focused on the collected Tankies as there was already plenty there to cover.
Stiles, the man you want in a clutch.
We discuss the main character of Stiles, an awful little man who redeems himself over and over again by leading his men into combat. Stiles may not be likable or pleasant but he knows what can and can’t be done on the battlefield. Stiles is the man. He is not much to look at but, in the end, he wins you over by sheer determination and integrity. And Stiles is the glue that holds together the three stories in The Tankies.
The Korean War. We forget it at our own peril.
As we progressed, we turned our attention to the Korean War. I pointed out that this trilogy of war stories could have easily been all from World War II. Ennis said that, by the time he came around to writing a third Stiles story, it became imperative to do a whole separate story set during the Korean War, a war that has somehow receded into the shadows of history. It’s a sobering thought to think such a war is sort of lost to history given it really had all the factors that could have led to World War III.
So, if you’ve read some Garth Ennis by now, I highly recommend his war stories and you will find a perfect selection of The Tankies, The Stringbags, and The Night Witches, over at Dead Reckoning.
Early in this latest Jerome Charyn novel there’s quite an evocative scene of a bohemian living room which includes a framed print of Paul Robeson. It is a telling detail that gives a taste of how a character lives and breathes in their world. In this case, we’re being made privy to the inner world of the estranged wife of playwright Eugene O’Neill. As a creature of the theater, and as a free thinker, it makes sense that she’d enjoy a portrait of a trailblazer of racial equality. All the more so given this was one of her husband’s greatest plays! It’s just a quick little reference but a tick of information that the reader makes note of. It is these ticks of information that accumulate and bring a picture into focus. It is these ticks of information that add up in this novel to give us an in depth look at one of our most celebrated of writers, J.D. Salinger, one who preferred not to be looked at in any close measure.
But Charyn dares to make “Sonny” Salinger the prime focus. To start with, Charyn brings the reader front and center into Salinger’s relationship with Oona O’Neill, the infamous daughter of Eugene O’Neil. Oona was only 18 years-old when she married Charlie Chaplin, who was 53. Truth being stranger than fiction, Salinger and Oona did actually date for a while. Charyn gives us a charming look into what that might have been like: more a frenzied exchange of hormonal excess than raw passion but, something to write home about, nonetheless. The whole affair is capped off by a masterful scene which involves Sonny and Oona obligingly having dinner with Walter Winchell as he holds court at his reserved table at the Stork Club. There’s much talk about Winchell’s chicken burgers. Mostly, there’s much talk about what’s the talk of the town, given Winchell’s prized roost as the leading gossip monger and media kingmaker. Winchell has everyone eating practically right out of his hand, except for the most stubborn like Ernest Hemingway, who makes a delicious cameo at Winchell’s table.
Utah Beach, D-Day Normandy Landings, June 6, 1944.
In keeping with the novel’s title, much of the action sees young J.D. Salinger doing his duty as an American WWII draftee assigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps, a band of secret soldiers who trained with the British. If that sounds complex and full of intrigue, well, it is. We find Salinger is witness to the whole Slapton Sands debacle where American soldiers, training for the D-Day Normandy invasion, become human targets, shot by British “friendly fire.” While that is being covered up, nearly lost to history in every real sense, Salinger moves on to the real thing and lands with a second wave on Utah Beach on D-Day all the way to Paris. There, he meets Ernest Hemingway who encouraged his writing. All the while, Salinger goes from one incident after another interrogating Nazis and collaborators. Ultimately, Sonny Salinger witnesses firsthand the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps, where corpses are piled high one upon the other.
No one can blame J.D. Salinger for going through one existential crisis after another. Talk about someone too close to a subject to be able to get some perspective and see the full picture! Here is a man who made his wildest dreams come true and then went on to live a life of the deepest regret. What if Sonny Salinger had managed to convince Oona O’Neill to run off with him and somehow he’d also found a way to avoid the draft? That was never going to happen! Each of them had stars in their eyes and were in mad pursuit of something greater than themselves. And Salinger would never have avoided the draft, it just wasn’t an option. It was definitely not a foregone conclusion that The Catcher in the Rye would ever be published either. But so it was. J.D. Salinger did not invent the contemporary teenager but his book caught on like wildfire as an emblematic work about quirky, neurotic, youthful rebellion. There it was–and still is. The great American novel at its most popular! Since it publication in 1951, it remains a bestseller at astronomically high numbers for book sales. Since it was first published in 1951, more than 65 million copies of The Catcher in the Rye have been sold. Around 250,000 copies of the book are sold each year, almost 685 per day. This is not what Salinger wanted. And yet it was profits from just this one book alone that allowed him to brood in seclusion for decades. The book that should never have been published–but was. To this, Charyn has an answer.
The Catcher in the Rye
If there is one thing that makes a case for the inevitable nature of Salinger’s celebrated novel it is his war experiences. This makes up the bulk of Charyn’s novel which places Salinger in numerous trials and challenges. Charyn is a master at creating haunting moments. He lays one upon the other and deftly makes his case. In so doing here, Charyn answers the question of how it was meant to be for Salinger to write that novel that unwittingly summoned the world. One such moment finds Sonny confronting a special Nazi bicycle brigade. One night, he spots one of these killers, in his rain cape and in his hunter’s cap. The reader can’t help but picture that strange image of a young man wandering the city in a hunter’s cap in Salinger’s novel. That same image is on the original paperback version of The Catcher in the Rye. Sonny witnesses the killer in his hunter’s cap shoot two of his friends at close range, execution style. Sonny, more an interrogator than a marksman, immediately responds and shoots the killer dead.
Back on Park Avenue…
Ultimately, Sonny Salinger must return to civilian life, to where he left off before going off to war in the first place. It means creating some distance to all things related to war, except for the greater truths that make sense for his version of the great American novel. At least that seemed to be what mattered most for a time and he would see it through. Sonny would pick himself up. He was back on Park Avenue, back on track to pursue his literary dreams, at least for a while. And so Charyn brings the reader up to this point. Sonny now has time to observe something other than horror. Sonny now can ponder, with his sister, Doris, the mysteries of a basement floor walker at Bloomingdale’s. Sonny now can ponder the mysteries of bananafish. And, in time, as if inevitable in more ways than one, Sonny can preside upon the unleashing of a literary and pop culture phenomenon, the story of a troubled teenager in a hunter’s cap.
Teddy. written by Laurence Luckinbill. illustrated by Eryck Tait. Dead Reckoning. 176 pp. 2021. $24.95
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) is ranked among the top U.S. presidents. Reasons for this include decisiveness, activism, and leadership. For even a casual observer, many people will easily recognize the hearty Teddy cheerful command: “Bully!” For me, as a precocious kid interested in history and politics, I instantly gravitated to the Roosevelts, and the two iconic presidents, FDR and TR. Only a handful presidents become so ingrained in the public mind to be known by their initials! FDR, even today, cannot be ignored, given his fundamental influence in steering the country through the Great Depression; introducing such landmark programs as Social Security and the Securities and Exchange Commission; and, of course, being a world leader in determining the outcome of World War II. FDR aimed to follow his cousin TR’s lead. Theodore Roosevelt did not preside over a war or an economic collapse but, nonetheless, TR was a most consequential president. TR’s presidency (1901-1909) was about grand progressive accomplishments like creating the Food and Drug Administration and the National Forest and Park Service. With that said, with Presidents Day upon us, it is a pleasure to share with you this recent graphic biography of Teddy Roosevelt.
Page excerpt from Teddy
This graphic novel originates from the author’s one-man stage show, Teddy Tonight. Laurence Luckinbill is a stage actor and writer known for his one-man shows of Teddy Roosevelt, as well as Ernest Hemingway, Clarence Darrow and Lyndon Johnson. Luckinbill’s script for this book adapts his stage show in words while Eryck Tait further condenses with his artwork. By anyone’s standards, this is a remarkable book, and while this is quite suitable for high school students, it can certainly be enjoyed by fans of history, theater and graphic novels in general. From the examples on view here, you can see that Eryck Tait has done an admirable job of following Luckinbill’s script. It’s a highly economical and functional style, clear and crisp. You don’t need any additional flourishes for a book like this. You are better served to stay concise and practical.
Page excerpt from Teddy
Given that this is coming from a one-man show, we have TR addressing a theater. He is now a former president there to review his life and times and comment on the news of the day. It is July of 1918, Woodrow Wilson is in the White House, and World War I is still raging. TR has received word that his son Quentin’s plane has been shot down in a dogfight over France. Ask any playwright or dedicated theater-goer and they will tell you that there are no limits to what can be done on the stage. It is as limitless as one’s imagination. Ask any cartoonist or comics fan and they will tell you that there are no limits to what can be done in a graphic novel. So, given that this book is a byproduct of the theater and of comics, you say can you’re getting the best of both worlds. Comics, by its very nature, is a creature of concise language, so you get a steady roll out of time and place, which is most fitting for a book focusing on history. And you also get the nicely composed scenes needed to tell a personal story as this is as much biography as history.
Page excerpt from Teddy
Teddy Roosevelt, creator of the modern American presidency and the bully pulpit, is a source of endless fascination. No one book will tell the whole story and that only seems right for such a larger-than-life character as TR. Theodore Roosevelt himself wrote nearly 50 books, from lengthy accounts on The Naval War of 1812, published in 1882; to four volumes on The Winning of the West, published in 1896; to his final book, Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children, published in 1919. So, how about a “picture book,” as he might have called it, about his life and times, based on a stage production, published in 2021? Well, Teddy would probably find that very agreeable and give it a hearty, “Bully!”
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.
For anyone interested in politics, history, the legal system, or a riveting story, there’s something for you in The Mueller Report Graphic Novel. Yes, it would be nice to have every potential voter read this now as we approach one of the most consequential presidential elections in US history. But, beyond that, this is a book that will spark interest in one of the most misunderstood and significant documents to come out of government. Bob Mueller gets the last word, so to speak, and tells a story every American can appreciate, no matter what your politics.
In conversation with Steve Duin and Shannon Wheeler
“Robert Mueller did not go in intending to bring anyone down. What he uncovered was plenty of evidence of very bad behavior.” So, cartoonist Shannon Wheeler sums up The Mueller Report in our interview I had the privilege of getting to talk to both creators of the book: journalist Steve Duin and cartoonist Shannon Wheeler. During our conversation, we got to explore the nuts and bolts behind the daunting task of creating a graphic novel adaptation of such a mammoth book. The truth is, Robert Mueller is an excellent wordsmith so the book itself is not really a slough as it is lengthy and so a graphic novel acts as a wonderful gateway.
You can read my recent review of The Mueller Report Graphic Novel, available as of September 16, 2020. And I hope you enjoy our freewheeling interview. Just click above. For more information, visit IDW Publishing right here. This is a fine example of the sort of books we want to see come out of the multi-layered world of comics. Bio and history are the backbone of graphic novels and this one stands head and shoulders above a lot of titles. You want a book that goes the extra mile and delivers satisfying results? Then this is it.
The Mueller Report Graphic Novel. written by Steve Duin. illustrated by Shannon Wheeler, IDW Publishing, 2020. 208pp, $15.99.
How easily we seem to forget or let ourselves become distracted. If you are still not sure about Donald Trump, then consider this fresh new look at a book all of us need to better understand. Take a look at The Mueller Report Graphic Novel. I speak as a reasonable person in search of the truth. I have read many passages from the actual 448-page Mueller Report along with a very insightful pamphlet-sized digest e-book from the Lawfare Institute, Reflections on the Mueller Report. My conclusion well over a year ago was that there is plenty to work with to compel Trump’s removal from office–but then the screws were tightened, as in Barr’s own meddling, and nothing ever happened. What if there was a truly compelling movie that people could watch? Well, how about one better: here is a concise and incredibly clear presentation putting to use the power of comics, visual storytelling at its best! Alright, I have an advance copy. Let’s dig in and have a look.
All the President’s Men.
The simplest way to tell a story is to keep it simple. This is a story that explores criminal acts as well as ways of obstructing the investigation of said acts. It’s a story crying out for a narrator! Duin and Wheeler give the floor over to Bob Mueller and, quoting from his report, manage to pump some fresh blood into the telling. Mueller, as narrator of this book, goes right to work. One of Trump’s favorite tactics is to call anything that calls him out a hoax or a witch hunt. The Mueller Report was all just a witch hunt, according to Trump. However, as Mueller clearly states, real indictments were handed down. Leading the pack: Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Michael Cohen, and Paul Manafort. All of them were found to have lied to Mueller’s investigators about their connections to Russia. While compelling evidence has either been destroyed or made unavailable that would most clearly demonstrate collusion, the facts remain that a lot of key players were willing to lie about their own involvement.
William Barr redacted Mueller Report.
I suppose the saddest thing would be if the general casual reader cannot invest two hours to read this graphic novel. Is it just a fantasy to think that enough readers for this book could emerge and it could turn the election in favor of Biden? One can dream! The fact is that Duin and Wheeler do their best to keep partisan politics at bay and stick to the facts in the report. Maybe they know better than most that this is a labor of love that simply had to be completed. Like any JFK conspiracy scholar understands, whether anyone reads their book right away or not, at least the book is out in the world. Readers will emerge, one way or another. History may not change from this book. But the book will have done something to shed some light on our recent history.
Shouldn’t we be concerned more than ever?
Just follow the money.
One thing that really sticks with me about the whole 2016 Russian collusion saga is that infamous June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. You know, the one where key Trump players meet to discuss obtaining dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russian operatives. Even Duin and Wheeler get caught up in the Russian adoption red herring thrown in whenever this meeting comes up! This is my Trump Tower test and Duin and Wheeler, following the report, chose not to emphasize a key fact. Mueller simply didn’t bother with this little fact or it just never registered. Anyway, the reason that Russian adoptions always come up is because that was the excuse used for holding that meeting. But, not only that, this was code from the Russians. The reason for using the subject of Russian adoptions was to signal that Russia would maintain a ban on Americans adopting Russian babies for as long as Russian human rights violations were sanctioned through the Magnitsky Act. In other words, this cover story was a way to bring home the point that the removal of the Magnitsky Act was high on Putin’s wish list. In my book, if I were to do one, this is a very interesting little fact and a telling clue.
Sow discord and ramp it up! It worked in 2016. And it looks like it’s working in 2020.
All in all, I’d love to follow the progress of this book in real time as it makes its way to readers. The drawing style here is a steady functional look and that’s really all that is required in this case. In fact, the sometimes gritty and cobbled-together look of the art adds to a sense of urgency. It fuels the idea that there is crazed hope to get the book out in time for it to possibly influence this presidential election. It’s a great fast pace that will draw the reader in, now and twenty years from now. In fact, the more I go over it, the more I’m fascinated by it.
The long tortuous process of “covering your ass.”
I can’t help but get that creepy feeling that we are living through this again but we just can’t seem to see it. Yes, believe it or not, the calls are coming from inside the house! Yeah, that sort of feeling. Trump is here and he is well on his way to sticking around. Ideally, a book like this should sway enough voters away from Trump. No doubt, that thought has crossed the minds of everyone involved with this book. Yeah, what if every potential American voter was up to speed on the contents to this report? In a lot of ways, I believe that the American public has already gotten the gist of it. Liars lie and Trump & Co. do lie, and not particularly well. But that was never the point, was it? As Roy Cohn and Putin, and all the other baddies figured out long ago, the only thing that matters is to lie, lie, lie. Keep lying. Hit them hard. Hit them harder. A graphic novel can do many things but it probably won’t remove Trump from office. That said, I’d love to be proven otherwise. Looking forward, Trump and Russia is far from over with and this graphic novel will be ready whenever someone needs it. And, who knows, once all the MAGA hats have been lost and forgotten, maybe we’ll be in the mood for The Mueller Report, The Musical.
So many dots to connect.
On March 24, 2019, the White House released a four-page press release presenting its summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 Presidential election. On April 18, 2019, the actual redacted report was finally provided to the public.The difference between these conclusions have led to much debate, and while clearly Mueller’s findings are pivotal to our understanding of modern political history, national security, and American democracy, most Americans have still not read the entire 448-page report to be fully informed on the topic. It seems like right about now would be a good time to make up for lost time. Well, it will definitely remain a must-read well past this election. You can read the actual report for free right here. And you can order The Mueller Report Graphic Novel, available as of September 15, 2020, right here.
This will not end well for Donald Trump.
In The Mueller Report Graphic Novel, Eisner Award-winning New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler and veteran Oregonian journalist Steve Duin reach for truth against a torrent of political spin to lay bare the findings of Mueller’s investigative team. Wheeler and Duin capture history in ink, providing a clear, concise, and entertaining way for readers to truly understand the conclusions that Mueller recorded during his exhaustive investigation.
Encouraging readers to ignore the interpretations of political parties and cable news pundits, this comprehensive graphic novel brings to life a range of key scenes, beginning with Trump’s campaign and continuing over three years of his administration. The staggering laundry list of Trump’s inner circle’s controversial contacts, statements, and perhaps even coordination — enough to overwhelm any student of the U.S. Constitution — provides a roadmap to understanding events of the past four years.
With a bite familiar to fans of his long career in political cartooning, Shannon Wheeler reflects on the subject: “I look forward to the day when I no longer have such rich material to work from.”
For more information on IDW’s library of political cartoons, visit IDWpublishing.com, and be sure to follow IDW on social media for the latest information on The Mueller Report: Graphic Novel.
Panel excerpt: Allison and Bonnie amid a backdrop of emerging unrest.
Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio. by Derf Backderf. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2020. 288pp, $24.99.
The connection between journalism and comics runs very deep. You could say the first cut is the deepest of all. Comics and journalism in America goes back to its very roots. So, it is no surprise that many of the comics I am drawn to and that I feature here have that connection. In fact, more have it than don’t; some more than others. That said, it makes a lot of sense why some cartoonists have one foot in art and the other in writing, specifically nonfiction, more the literary journalism type. This brings us to Derf Backderf who is an excellent example of the cartoonist auteur compelled to explain and report. In his latest graphic novel, Backderf takes his formidable visual storytelling skills and presents, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio.
Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Derf Backderf
It’s a little silly to call yourself a graphic novelist unless you’ve really established a track record of creating graphic novels. Usually, it’s just fine to call yourself a cartoonist. That said, Derf Backderf could, if he chose to, claim such a title. Beginning with his comic strip, The City, a favorite in numerous alt-weeklies, Backderf was building the skills required to take on a longform work in comics. Then things started to evolve when Backderf created a 24-page minic-comic about his high school friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer, who later became the infamous serial killer. That project developed into the 2012 award-winning graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer. This led to another graphic novel about sanitation workers, 2015’s Trashed. And now, after more than a quarter century of creating comics, perhaps Backderf could call himself a graphic novelist, if he chose such a title! What is clear is that Kent State is a masterful work: a sprawling narrative with great clarity and sense of purpose.
KENT STATE by Derf Backderf
Backderf, like an auteur movie director, focuses in on one specific character and action after another, then rolls back to provide perspective, and so on. The reader gets to know a set of main characters who can speak to events from various vantage points. Some are in the thick of it. Some have their facts wrong. Some are simply caught in the middle. Backderf gives the narrative a journalist’s objective framework with the goal of setting the record straight: events are presented in chronological order, backed up by dates and documented facts, all leading up to May 4, 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State University demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine Kent State students. The book spans five days: April 30 to May 4, 1970.
Every great cartoonist has a certain predominant approach and sensibility. What is clear about Derf Backderf is that he’s very empathetic. When you want someone to bring a subject to life and make sense of it, call on a cartoonist like Backderf. We are living in very chaotic and complex times now and so were we at the height of the Vietnam War. Backderf begins his graphic novel with a quick look back at himself at the time of the Kent State shootings: a 10-year-old boy aware of the world in a “kid’s clueless way.” But it’s where you were at such an age that will stick with you for the rest of your life. So, just as once working as a sanitation worker or somehow briefly being friends with a future serial killer can compel a creative mind, Backderf confronts the big story brewing when he was a boy waking up to the world-at-large. In fact, the Backderf family was living only a few miles away from Kent State which adds another layer. It all adds up to a personal quest to understand and get the facts right.
Page excerpt: Protests, 1970.
It’s quite impressive how Backderf intertwines his research within this book. The reader is never taken out of the narrative and all the moments specific to each character. When you wonder about the future of transmedia storytelling, if you even do, I highly recommend a book like this that lets you know all is well with simply processing information one page at a time. For instance, there’s a sequence following the misadventures of Terry, the most inept of student protest infiltrators. At one point, a segue is made to get a deeper look at the historical record. Here, Backderf provides a lot of eye-opening information like the fact that the CIA’s Operation CHAOS is still not fully declassified. This was during the Cold War and the Nixon administration’s full tilt war on student protestors. These factoids then give way back to more intimate circumstances like the relationship between two students, Sandy and Jeff. While Sandy cooks dinner, Jeff confides in her his being scared of even leaving the house for fear of being spied on or stopped by soldiers. Maybe listening to the new Paul McCartney album can relieve the tension for a little while.
Panel excerpt: Sandy and Jeff try to find a little peace.
You see the world a certain way. And a auteur cartoonist writes and draws the world in a certain way. Backderf’s people are imbued with a fierce earnestness that leaves them looking determined but also quite vulnerable. Even the most formidable villain in Backderf’s world is susceptible to the most utterly heartbreaking self-doubt. These are mostly melancholy people who aspire to some possible happiness. And that’s a profoundly good place to start any story. In this case, this is a story of young men who are trapped by the military industrial complex eager to draft them off to war. Protesting the war comes as natural as breathing. Each one of these young men protesting, along with their female compatriots, wishes to breathe. An older and conservative generation mostly doesn’t understand and it can be easy for some to demonize the protestors. In order to steadily keep track of events, Backderf’s empathetic voice makes a big difference. It is this empathy that will guide the reader and provide an accurate and insightful look at what happened at Kent State fifty years ago. Has it been that long? Well, it can feel like it was only yesterday and, in a way, it was.
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.
There’s a moment in my graphic novel, Alice in New York, when my alter ego character questions how such an absurd statue could stand in America’s melting pot. At the time the story was set, in 1989, such statues were not only allowed to exist but were meant to be revered, although no one could say exactly why. Anyway, that now infamous statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback with an African tribesman on one side and a Native American chief on the other is on its way out. I’d never noticed this but the darn thing only dated back to 1940. As anyone who knows their history can attest, Teddy Roosevelt was a good guy. He was a man of his time but he was also progressive in both word and deed. Look him up and you’ll find that he’s the real deal. But that statue showcases Teddy in the wrong light to put it mildly. The idea behind it has to do with Teddy being an avid explorer, not an enslaver. It would have fit into the less than woke 1940s. But Theodore Roosevelt, the actual human being, would have absolutely understood that this statue was a problem and it was time for it to go. Here is an excerpt from a wonderful opinion piece in The Washington Post:
As president, however, Roosevelt preached tolerance and encouraged equality. He famously broke bread with Booker T. Washington — the first president to dine with an African American in the White House. He cleaned up the Interior Department, ensured federal jobs for minorities and reconciled many land disputes with Native Americans. He promoted a brand of American nationalism that guaranteed civil liberties for all, regardless of personal identities.
From Alice in New York
In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “The American Museum of Natural History has asked to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue because it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior. The City supports the Museum’s request. It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue.” Okay, but now there’s the matter of an even more problematic statue and it’s a doozy. Mayor de Blasio, are you ready to take down the landmark statue of Christopher Columbus, the centerpiece to New York’s famed Columbus Circle?
From Alice in New York
In a statement released yesterday, Decolonize This Place said it welcomed the decision to remove the statue but noted that two of its demands to the city and the museum still remain unanswered: renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day and “transforming the museum’s racist exhibition spaces,” in addition to repatriating humans remains and sacred objects, and “taking on the work of reparations.” Yes, the fact remains that, if you take a tour of the exhibits inside the Museum of Natural History, you’ll find even more stark examples of racial insensitivity. And, again, any group asking to rename Columbus Day can definitely get behind a campaign to tear down Columbus Circle! A petition has started on change.org asking for the renaming of the circle and the removal of the statue “from public view,” but recent comments from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggest that neither the statue, nor the name of the circle, is going anywhere. Lastly, let me add that I appreciate and am sensitive to the problems with Columbus Circle and state as much in my recent illustrated novel, Max in America.
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.