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.
UPDATE: The Trump rally in Tulsa is now scheduled for June 20. However, especially during this pandemic, the correct action would be not to hold a rally.
With Trump set for his rally in Tulsa on June 19, Juneteenth, he and his henchmen continue to stoke the fires of racism. Juneteenth memorializes June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger read orders in Galveston, Texas, that all previously enslaved people in Texas were free. Trump’s response to CNN on his rally coinciding with this date, well-known as a date to commemorate emancipation from slavery: “Uh, no, but I know exactly what you’re going to say. … Think about it as a celebration. My rally is a celebration,” Trump said, adding, “Don’t think about it as an inconvenience.” Add to this the fact that Tulsa was the site for the infamous race massacre of 1921.
Cartoon by Daisy Scott, 1921
Daisy Scott in the Tulsa Star. Caption: “Isn’t it time to start cleaning your own mess?
Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921
Writer Michael Tisserand remembers Daisy Scott, a cartoonist who predicted the troubles ahead for Tulsa in 1921. This is from a social media post today:
“Among the many things that history has ignored about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is that the first regularly published Black female cartoonist was working at the Tulsa Star at the time, and she saw what was coming.
The Tulsa Star would be destroyed in the fires. Daisy Scott never worked as a cartoonist again. Yet she remained in Tulsa with her husband, Jack Scott, a boxer, and they would raise a family together.
During the fires, Jack Scott had risked his life to help stop a lynching. He, like others, would be baselessly indicted for murder; that charge would not be officially dropped until 2007.”
Sarah Mirk is a visual journalist and author. She is a dynamic person who you’ll enjoy getting to know. She loves storytelling and has carved out a place for herself that allows her to do just that. I recently reviewed her engaging Year of Zines. In September, a new book edited by Mirk will come out, Guantanamo Voices (Abrams). Mirk, among her many accomplishments and activities, is a contributing editor at graphic journalism website The Nib. And, among her teaching positions, Mirk is an adjunct professor in Portland State University’s MFA program in Art and Social Practice. For this interview, we discuss many of the aspects of zines and how this modest home-made magazine can lead to bigger projects or be an essential work all to itself.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: So, let’s talk about zines and their wide potential. I love how you describe in your introduction to Year of Zines the zine you did for your high school chemistry class. I wish I’d been as inspired to do that in my own chemistry class. What can you tell us about the power of zines to make information accessible?
SARAH MIRK: For anyone not familiar with them, I define zines as any independently published multi-page work that is made primarily for passion and not for profit. “Zine” is short for “magazine.” It can be about anything. When I was a teenager, I loved making zines before I’d even heard of the word. I just loved combining images and text and making little publications for fun. The story in the introduction is that, for my high school chemistry class, we were supposed to create a timeline about chemistry through the ages. It was just supposed to be a line on one page. Instead, a friend and I spent an entire weekend creating an epic zine of us traveling through time meeting a bunch of chemists. Our teacher was perplexed but she accepted it.
From Interviewing 101 zine by Sarah Mirk
From your experience, do you think turning in a zine as an assignment might not catch a teacher by surprise so much today?
I think, if you’re assigned a one-page report and you turn in a comic book, a teacher will be surprised. But zines are being used much more in classes than when I was a kid. A lot of teachers use zines and see them as a really great teaching tool. Zines allow people to engage with a topic and really make it their own. A form of zine that I started making ten years ago is the history comic. You research a topic and then you create a story from that piece of history as a little multi-page zine. The ones that I published are called, Oregon History Comics. We did a couple of workshops where students in junior high school researched a topic in their neighborhood and then drew up a comic about it. I think it’s always powerful to put pen to paper and see what happens. It’s a powerful statement that goes to show you don’t need to be a famous author with a big publisher. You have all the tools you need to create something on your own.
Page 1 and 2 from Interviewing 101
You give an excellent explanation of what is considered the classic zine format, the one where you keep folding a piece of letter-sized paper and end up with a booklet that doesn’t need staples. Can you talk about that format and how you can get the most from the limits it sets up? It basically features six small panels, and functions like a comic strip.
Exactly, it has a lot of the same feeling as a comic strip. When you think of comic strips, you think of panels in sequence. These little zines are just like that: a front and back cover and six interior pages with just enough room for one drawing per page, and a little bit of text. So, it’s just like comics. The key is to keep it short. Keep it brief. Keep it as succinct as possible on the text. With the zines that I make, I’m always trying to have the visuals tell the story and not cram the space with text. I want the visuals to tell the story. I love this format because it’s cheap and really easy to make anywhere. My tools are just a clipboard and a piece of copier paper. And a little bag of pens and pencils. That means I can take my supplies to the park. I can make a zine on the bus, on a train, in the backseat of a friend’s car, or on a hike. I can take it anywhere. I do all of it by hand and, if anyone wants a copy, I’ll scan it at home and send it out. Or I can photocopy it and mail it to them. Pretty much all the zines I make are freely available to anyone, especially teachers and educators. They can then print them out at home and use them in their classrooms or wherever they want to distribute them. It’s important to me to help get my zines out and let people know they don’t have to pay a lot of money to get them.
Pages 3 and 4 of Interviewing 101
I have memories of making zines. On occasion, I might still make zines. But the whole scene of zines has changed so much. I think of going down to Kinko’s and you might see someone else also making a zine, amid all the copiers. And it used to be a massive amount of copiers at your typical store. Now, you’re lucky if there’s four at the most, but more like only two. It was a gradual change. FedEx bought out Kinko’s in 2004 and, back then, it was still a big scene. You didn’t feel a shift but now everything has shifted so much.
I’d love to read a punk history of Kinko’s. I grew up in the early ’90s. I’m 33 now. So, yeah, that high school chemistry zine I was telling you about, I made that at Kinko’s at two in the morning. The only other people there at that time were some sad office workers copying reports and punk kids making flyers and that kind of thing. These days, I mostly make my zines at a place here in Portland called The Independent Publishing Resource Center, or IPRC. It’s a collective studio space with all the tools you need to publish artwork. They have two photocopiers. It’s a pretty rad nonprofit version of Kinko’s. It’s wonderful. Since the quarantine has started, I went to Office Depot and bought a home photocopier printer so that I can still keep making zines while under quarantine.
Pages 5 and 6 of Interviewing 101
Another factor in the changing scene is Instagram and that started in 2010. All the energy, all of the content, of a zine can fit on Instagram. I was looking over your Instagram and you know right away what I mean. And yet people still want a print version.
I think it’s important to be able to still have a physical copy that you can give to somebody and share, and through the mail. It’s just a different experience to be able to have a physical thing in your hand as opposed to having it on your phone. I post my zines on Instagram because it’s a great way to share and find other artists. But I feel conflicted using that as a platform because it’s a big tech company owned by Facebook. They don’t care about my privacy rights. They are basically mining my data. So I feel bad about creating a lot of content for a big tech company which is why I publish them in a bunch of different formats. I put them up on Instagram but I also send them out as PDFs for anyone who wants one. And I send them out in the mail. I sell them at zine conventions. So, there’s not just one way to get them.
Back cover to Interviewing 101
Let’s talk about different aspects to zines. I think of them as being able to function as a vehicle to brainstorm. They can be the first step towards a bigger project. Or a zine can be a project all to itself.
Yeah, you really nailed it. I often use zines to help me process what I’m thinking throughout the day, whether it’s a big topic, small joke, or a little interaction. I’ll think: “If I turned this into a zine, how would that experience be turned into a narrative?” Sometimes I’ll make that into a zine and I’ll feel that I’m done or maybe I’ll feel that I have a lot more to say and I want to turn that into a big comic, another zine, or an essay. I find that zines are a great place for that kind of brainstorming, processing, and thinking through of what I’m experiencing–and then being able to share that with others in an accessible way.
Last year, I injured my wrist and I had to wear a wrist brace for three months. It was nice being able the share that experience in a zine format and be able to have people tell me about their experience with being injured. Or maybe they had chronic pain and could tell me about that. Sharing this experience with others helped me feel less alone. What could have been an alienating experience instead made me feel closer to friends and to strangers out in the world.
Zines don’t have to be just a starting point. Sometimes they’re a great encapsulation that stands alone. One of my favorite zines will be a complete story, something that is a bite-sized chunk but also really meaty.
Your wrist injury makes me think about a really bad fall that I experienced. It wasn’t my wrist but the palm of my hand. Once I was at urgent care, my hand was quickly sealed into a cast. I was on the verge of completing an installment to an ongoing comic series I was doing at the time, what became the graphic novel, Alice in New York. So, once that cast was on, I thought I was screwed. Luckily, my partner, Jennifer, finished some of the still incomplete panels. And my pal, Dalton, completed the rest. I remember that was the year I went to the MoCCA Arts Festival with my latest installment. I consider that a zine, although it’s definitely a comic.
I don’t get too hung up on the definitions. It can be pretty free-form. A zine could be a comic. A comic could be a zine. As long as it’s printed out on paper with multiple pages, I say it’s a zine. And, if people don’t want to identify that way, they can call it a pamphlet or a comic. The only thing that bothers me is when big companies publish an ad and call it a zine. Zines have a real spirit of being anti-authoritarian, anti-corporate and anti-consumerist. Zines are about people making something that is authentic to them–and putting it out there in the world. It’s not to sell a product. It’s not to boost their own ego. It’s more a way to try to participate in the world. That’s the spirit of zine-making.
The corporate world will always find ways to harvest the counterculture.
That’s definitely true.
Oregon History Comics by Sarah Mirk
Talk to us about your Oregon History Comics, something that takes more planning than the type of zine that might be more impulsive.
That project, which I started ten years ago, was a series of ten little mini-comics or zines. Each of them focuses on an overlooked or marginalized story from Oregon’s past. I researched and wrote all of them and each is illustrated by a different artist. Each page is just one or two lines of text and a drawing. So there’s these pretty big topics but told very succinctly, not too many words, super-easy to read and super-accessible. And it’s sold together as a box set. You can buy all ten. It was originally a fundraiser for a civic education nonprofit, Know Your City. So they distributed them and sold them and used the money to fund programs around the city related to getting to know Portland and its community.
I thought it was going to be really simple. I definitely underestimated how complicated it would be. At the time, I was working as a reporter for a newspaper here in town. I was thinking, “I write articles all the time. How hard can it be to write a comic? It’s basically the same thing, right?” It was a massive undertaking that took years and wound up involving over 150 people in terms of donors and workshops we did at schools and people who helped fold, staple and glue the final product–and then mail it out. And all the artists involved. It taught me about how to do a really big project that took a long time to plan, to make and complete.
I’ve taken that experience and applied it to the rest of my work. I’ve just completed a big book, Guantánamo Voices, an oral history of Guantanamo Bay told through comics. Similar to Oregon History Comics, there are ten different artists involved with this book. I’ve been working up the skills to take on such a project and do it well.
Guantanamo Voices by Sarah Mirk
Creating something like a really worthwhile graphic novel is years in the making. I totally appreciate where you’re coming from. In your introduction, you talk about how creating a zine each day helped you with working on Guantanamo Voices. I’ve heard that from other creators, that they work best when they’re juggling more than one project. Can you talk about that?
I’m pretty bad at just doing one thing at a time. So, writing a book is a really hard process no matter what the topic is. It’s going to take years. No one is going to see it for a long time. You’re at your desk every day, doing research, reading other books for material. You’re working on this thing but you can’t share it. That, for me, is really hard–to be working on a years-long project and not have anything to show for it. And I think that isolation is compounded when the subject is pretty dark. It’s about Guantanamo Bay prison from many perspectives: lawyers, service members, former prisoners. That topic is really hard to face every day: reading about torture, violence, finding all these loose ends, and finding all these questions that we don’t have answers for. That’s the kind of mess I was wading through every day. So, I really wanted to have something that was just for fun and just for me–that I could publish every day, have an outlet for all those feelings I was going through from working on the book, good or bad. I really believe that making the daily zines was like building a scaffold to keep me sane.
Secret Life of Gitmo’s Women by Sarah Mirk and Lucy Bellwood
I read a wonderful piece entitled Secret Life of Gitmo’s Women that you did with cartoonist Lucy Bellwood. Is that pretty much the starting point for what led to Guantánamo Voices?
I’m so glad you found that. This project started for me in 2008 when I met someone who was a veteran who had served at Guantanamo. They were actually making a zine at the IPRC, The Independent Publishing Resource Center, that I mentioned earlier. I just struck up a conversation. It turned out to be a zine about when they had worked as guard at Guantanamo Bay. This person had all these tattoos, a full punk, and didn’t look like someone I’d think had served in the military. I didn’t know anything about Guantanamo Bay and meeting this former guard, whose name is Chris Arendt, really blew my mind.
Chris was invited to go on a speaking tour around England, along with former prisoners. Former Guantanamo prisoners had formed an advocacy group called, Caged, which advocates for former prisoners from the U.S. war of terror. I knew I had to go along. I asked for permission to join them and they agreed. I went with them and kept a blog of the trip that I called, Guantánamo Voices. That was January 2009. At that time, President Obama was determined to close down Guantanamo Bay. That was the atmosphere we were all in during that tour. I had always planned to do something else with my blog entries but I honestly didn’t know how to. At 22, I didn’t really have the skills then to write a book about it or even embark upon such a project. And I didn’t know, emotionally, how to deal with all of those feelings. How do you, as journalist, present that level of drama and complexity of history?
I didn’t do anything with it for a few years until another former veteran, Laura Sandow, contacted me because she’d read my blog, Guantánamo Voices. And she wanted to talk to me about how to process what she’d experienced at Guantanamo. And we decided to form a project where I’d interview her and she and I would interview another female veteran who had also served at Guantanamo. And we’d turn this into a comic. It wound up being really powerful, Laura taking her raw feelings and being able to turn that into a narrative that made sense and was something you could share. It resonated with readers. From there, I thought it would be great to do more of these kind of pieces, to illustrate more of these kind of interviews. And that took another six or seven years before all of that happened. It just takes a long time to get these kind of projects together.
I really needed a publisher to put this out. I’m a big advocate of self-publishing. Obviously, I love making zines and comics. But, for a project of this scale, I needed a publisher who would distribute it world-wide and be able to make it a big deal and be able to pay people. We needed to pay the artists a fair rate to be able to do this and that required the money from a publisher. It wasn’t something that I could just do on my own. And it took a long time to find an agent, write a book pitch, get a publisher to buy it. Now, the book is coming out into the world.
That’s the power of the right publisher. Would you recommend keeping the book out of view until you’ve secured a publisher–or an agent?
No, I’d give the opposite advice. I think it’s totally fine to publish stories about a topic and build on that toward a book. I had the blog that was out in the world. And then the comic that was published. I could take that to a publisher and show them proof of concept, show them why it was powerful. It’s pretty hard, especially with comics, to tell a publisher what you intend to do without any actual work to show for it yet, to just say, “Imagine the images that would go here.” It’s pretty impossible to get a publisher on board with that. I would say put all your work out there in the world and build on it to pitch to a publisher if that’s what you want to do with your project. I don’t think every book project requires a publisher. Often, it’s not the way to go. But, if you have a project that requires a lot of money, legitimacy and global distribution, then a publisher can often be necessary. And a publisher wants to be able to see what you’ve already done. So, you can have some work that you can send them and say, “It’s just like this–but more. Give me some money.”
How are things going for you as contributing editor to The Nib?
At The Nib, we publish nonfiction and political comics. We were previously funded by Medium.com. And then Medium pivoted and disrupted their industry and we were cut loose. Then we became part of First Book Media, another big media company funded by an eccentric billionaire. Last year, they pivoted; we were cut loose. So, now The Nib is an independent publication with a super-small staff of one, which is Matt Bors, who runs it and the rest of us are freelancers who do editing, and also the people who write and draw for the print magazine. It’s actually going pretty well. We have a lot in the works despite having a limited budget. We’ve got a lot of subscribers who back the magazine and the site. We have a lot going on. In addition to publishing five new comics per week at least, we have an upcoming new print issue called, Power, that comes out in July. And two books coming out over the next two years, one is a queer comics collection called Be Gay, Do Comics, that’s an anthology by all LGBTQIA creators. And the other is called Greetings from the Wasteland by a bunch of creators during the Trump era. It’s really cool to be a part of The Nib.
You are an adjunct professor at Portland State University. What can you tell us about what you might expect from your students and what students might expect from you? From this vantage point, what do you see coming from a new crop of storytellers?
At Portland State University, I teach in a MFA program called “Art and Social Practice,” which is for people who are artists and working on socially engaged art of some kind. And they’re super creative and innovative and creating work that explores different mediums. So, they’re not all just working in print or online. They’re working in both. And out in the community. I’m excited about the work they’re doing. They’re nothing if not adaptable. They’re all about how people are engaging with work and how to reach them in different and interesting ways.
I also teach at Portland Community College. I teach a Media Studies class there. Most of the students are 19 to 25 years-old. And they’re awesome. I love them. They’re super political. And they’re really anti-capitalist. Every student in my class is an avowed anti-capitalist! I didn’t even make them that way. That’s how they came into the class. I have great admiration for the 19-year-old of today. Their politics are pretty cool. And they’re really engaged with the world in an inspiring way. I’m like, Let’s all give power to the teens!
Any final thoughts?
I always tell people that, if they want to be a writer or an artist, to just start writing and drawing.
Yeah, it’s a lifetime adventure. Thank you, Sarah.
Thank you, Henry.
Guantanamo Voices is a 208-page fully illustrated hardcover, available as of September 8, 2020, published by Abrams.
Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children
Last June was the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. This year we observe 75 years since the liberation of the Nazi death camps beginning with the Soviet Army’s 322nd Rifle Division entering the concentration camp at Auschwitz. One book that helps young readers understand these events from the perspective of children has recently been published by Sourcebooks entitled, Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children. What is striking about this book is how accessible it is through its honesty and specificity.
Stepping into history, at the start of the Second World War.
It is understandable if you might think the subject of the Holocaust is too much for a young reader but this book finds a way that honors young readers ages 10 and up. It is as if a thoughtful grandparent is telling their story. Each vignette is told my a real survivor in terms that inform and enlighten. The layout is inviting. The characters are engaging. The stories are revealing as with any good reportage. These are stories of the displacement and survival of Jewish children and young people amid the backdrop of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party’s persecution of millions of Jews across Europe between 1933 and 1945.
A growing international crisis.
Because these are stories told by individuals, you get very specific points of view. For example, the reader is there with Ruth as her family manages to escape from Germany to England and she hears the official start to the war on the railroad intercom. Or, another example is Martin and his family, along with other Jewish families, who are rounded up by the Nazis. In order to avoid crossing into Poland and triggering an international conflict, the Nazis force Jewish families to walk along the railroad tracks that separate the borders. That strategy works, at least for a while. Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children is an essential book for young readers interested in better understanding one of the most tragic events in modern history. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Sourcebooks right here.