Tag Archives: History

¡Brigadistas!: An American Anti-Fascist in the Spanish Civil War

From Brooklyn to the Spanish Civil War

¡Brigadistas! Monthly Review Press. by Miguel Ferguson Edited by Fraser M. Ottanelli and Paul Buhle. Art by Anne Timmons. 120 pp. 2022. $18

The Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) may bring to mind Ernest Hemingway and his 1940 novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. This is a war that pitted a new leftist government elected in 1936 against Fascist and extreme-right forces. Freedom was on the line, a harbinger of what lay ahead in Europe. Outside of Hemingway, this graphic novel provides a stirring recount of events sure to stay with the reader. It features the true story of Abe Osheroff, a lifelong activist, along with two of his friends, who joined the fight.

The look and feel of the book evokes wholesome family movies from the 1930s, spiked with a decidedly leftist view; or vintage comic books imbued with an earnest propaganda. I think that is a great way to go to get readers into the mindset of that era and especially the players in this drama. The first few pages steadily set the tone. Page One depicts Woody Guthrie singing an activist ballad. This is followed by a few pages with Abe and a couple of his friends helping a neighbor lady who hasn’t paid her rent. They move her belongings back into her apartment after her landlord threw them out. This leads to a scuffle with a brutal local police officer. Followed by Abe falling in love with Caroline, a local activist. In no time, these lads will be fighting Franco in Spain.

The immersive quality of this graphic novel is, as I suggest, due to a compelling narrative (the fictionalized true story) putting to use many of the tricks of the trade employed by the war comics and romance comics of yesteryear. All in all, this method proves to be an excellent educational device. The reader isn’t expected to look for too much in the way of subtext to distract from the prime account. There are some artful flourishes to be found in dialogue, the flow of the narrative, and the overall clever use of the vintage comics format. And there are certainly moments within the comic that feel as lively and relevant as anything today. Lastly, I must point out that the art is dazzling. Timmons isn’t just reworking old comics but she’s channeling them and making them her own. Any student of history will find much to be engaged with. This graphic novel proves to be an excellent portal into a bygone era and makes the case that history is always sitting on a shelf awaiting to be rediscovered.

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Paul Buhle on Comics: World War 3 Illustrated #52

Tragedy and Hope

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IDEAS CAN BE WEAPONS, a George Mosse comic

Bill Barr & Co. would have you blame Machiavelli.

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

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

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

This monumental work has a considerable backstory. Artist Noah van Sciver, the eighth of nine children, was born and raised in a Mormon home in New Jersey until his parents divorced when he was 12 and his mother brought him along a different path. This disjuncture, followed by others more typical of teens in the last third of the twentieth century, may have stirred his artistic impulse. No doubt he looked to the example of an older brother who went successfully into the Superhero comics big time. Experience, separation and a sort of rejoining the earlier world thorugh art: these are large themes in artists’ and writers’ lives for centuries. That Van Sciver has taken on Mormon founder Joseph Smith is no accident.

Van Sciver has a penchant for US history, especially the history of the nineteenth century, rife with religious and social contradictions, idealists, cranks, Protestant revivalists and utopians. Joseph Smith, unlike nearly all the others, was a successful institution-builder (Mary Baker Eddy with her Christian Science denomination might be another example).

The spectacular, world-wide growth of the LDS or Latter Day Saints, its weighty and deeply conservative political influence in Utah and beyond, is remarkable given the improbable origins of the Church. The extended and heavily institutional story of prophet Joseph Smith, considered by most non-Mormons a dubious self-creation, is offered here in splendid detail in remarkable color.

Van Sciver could have examined the saga from a psychological distance, and even chosen to play the iconoclast. His earlier books on U.S. history, from Lincoln to Johnny Appleseed and Eugene V. Debs, show something else: a penetrating treatment of personality within a vanished era. That he documents his study with careful explanations at the end of the book, and that he donated the original art for the book to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, is a measure of his seriousness.

Joseph Smith’s story is bizarre, a story about a discovery (he insisted) of golden tablets buried in the ground in upstate New York in the 1830s; a story about a church with outlandish views including (after a while) polygamy; a story that would not be the same in any other artist’s hands. Smith and his flock moved Westward with the great population shift of the mid-nineteenth century, and—this is crucial—they moved through natural and wondrous landscapes, which are drawn with stunning beauty and a certain strangeness by Van Sciver.

So much of the narrative has always seemed to critical observers as a magnificent case of American charlatanism, these days likely to be seen as pre-Trumpism. And yet Smith and his followers, staggering through bankruptcies, persecutions and the fatal defenestration of Smith himself, seen by Van Sciver, the observer-artist, looks like a revelatory detail of American history that seems in turn. . . a lot like the rest of American history.

Paul Buhle

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Thaddeus Stevens: An Infographic of an American Hero

Civil Rights Leader Thaddeus Stevens

It was my pleasure to connect with the Thaddeus Stevens Society and its president, Ross Hetrick. As a freelance writer and illustrator, I end up meeting a number of interesting people and learning a lot about so many subjects. In a visual thinker role, I can facilitate in clearing away the clutter, help organize thoughts, and make sure goals connect with results. That brings us to today’s infographic, a concise look at one of America’s lesser known heroes. Thaddeus Stevens was arguably the most important member of Congress during the American Civil War. His passionate and unrelenting work in support of civil rights helped lead the way to the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 14th, 15th and 16th Amendments to the American Constitution, all working to ensure the rights of Black Americans after the war.

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Airbnb One-night stay at the Moulin Rouge

Belle Époque meets Airbnb. Photo credit: Daniel Alexander Harris

Airbnb in Paris. Photo credit: Daniel Alexander Harris

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

Airbnb One-night stay at the Moulin Rouge

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

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

The space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Double Portrait of the Artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview: Jeremy Dauber and ‘American Comics’

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

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Paul Buhle Honored by The Progressive

Paul Buhle

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

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