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.
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.
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!
COVID Chronicles. edited by Kendra Boileau and Rich Johnson. Graphic Mundi. 2021. 296pp. $21.95
COVID Chronicles is a unique comics anthology, a testament to the collective response to COVID-19. The comics medium is exceptionally well-suited to convey, evoke and process the massive tangle of information and expression involved. We often say that comics is known for superheroes. However, on an even grander scale, comics is known for being a communication and educational tool able to make it possible to see the forest for the trees. This remarkable anthology was put together during the first half of 2020. We were lost amid the trees then and we’re still finding our way today. As a comics creator, I fully appreciate the challenges for a book like this to stay on point. I have seen countless comics anthologies and the biggest stumbling block for such an endeavor is a lack of consistency and vision. And then we have those gems that prosper because of a clear and compelling purpose. This is such a collection.
This review begins with a personal revelation. I am more than comfortable to recall, privately and in public, the saga of my great great (maternal) grandfather, the farmer-abolitionist who marched with Sherman through Georgia. He lived long enough to spend time with my mother when I was a youngster and to regale her with stories of the Civil War. I am less comfortable contemplating my paternal grandfather, a pattern-maker and small shop-keeper who seems to have joined the KKK in Illinois shortly before he abandoned the family. Or was kicked out.
White folks by the millions have restless skeletons in their closets, of that there can be no convincing denial. How could it not be so in a deeply racist society? But some experiences are very different; and some involve real racial solidarity. The Day the Klan Came to Town offers us vivid details and precious insights. This story unfolds in African American comics writer Bill Campbell’s own home town in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, a town ironically and iconically named for one of the great cruel industrial tyrants of the American nineteenth century. (Admittedly, Andrew Carnegie was also the great benefactor of libraries and other public institutions.)
Clark reminds us immediately that the 1920s vintage KKK, perhaps as strong in parts of the North as of the South and largely in control of Indiana politics for at least a decade, could take shape as anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-black or all three, depending upon local circumstances. Campbell has taken pains to study the contemporary documents, maps and other records, of a conflict that really took place, one of many in the years shortly following the First World War. He reminds us that this is, importantly, often enough also an immigrant drama. Like many parts of Pennsylvania, industrial or mining, the conflict posed Irish, Cornish, Slav and several regions of Italians against each other as competitors for jobs, and against African Americans, in the schemes of rising capitalists to divert class resentments away from the strike waves of wartime.
Here we have, in Carnegie, Sicilian immigrants unlikely even to identify with a common national origin. They would not have been considered “white” until at least the 1930s in the US. Many a newly-erected KKK hall (as in my own hometown in Central Illinois) of the 1920s bore the proud self-identification of “WHITE AND PROTESTANT,” marking Catholics clearly unwanted. Most Italian immigrants, especially those from Southern Italy had little political background in the Left or labor, but many responded to the appeals of the IWW and its working class militancy, likewise to unions organizing in the mine fields among other places. We count leading Italian-American leftists as some of the greatest organizers and poets, but they don’t seem to have got themselves to Carnegie, PA.
Here, in the first pages of the comic, Klan organizers present themselves as leaders of a respectable civic organization out to protect “American” cities from purported outsiders and non-whites. We soon flash across the seas to Racalmuto, Sicily of 1915, where young miners suddenly face the draft imposed upon them for cannon foder in the First World War. They wisely choose migration.
Barely “Americanized,” they face a racist mob clothed in KKK uniforms. The African Americans among the city dwellers, not a large but a significant portion, respond first because they recognize the Klan. Sicilians, in turn, recall the Fascisti and the rise of Mussolini sponsored by the ruling classes to defeat labor’s claim on the government. The artist is especially adept at moving back and forth, continent to continent, language to language. They learn to fight back.
The author and artist strive to emphasize the multi-racial and multi-cultural, multi-lingual character of the fightback, and a more severe critic might say that they try too hard. The shifts, Irish and Jewish and Italian to East Indian and Latin American, not to mention women and men taking their own roles or battling hand in hand, can be jarring at times. But the fightback of the immigrant crowd against the Klan offers page after page of real comic action.
This is a tight, well-drawn work in the best of comic traditions.
This large and beautiful book is so much like a comic that it cannot be described effectively in any other way. “Illustrated text” would not convey, especially for the younger readers of graphic novels, what has been accomplished here, and especially because 21st century readers “see” the pages differently from their predecessors and perhaps closer to ways that children have always “seen” favorite books—or at least the ways this reviewer saw them, literally learning to read by reading comics.
That said, we come immediately to David Graeber himself as a 21st century comet, rising into the sky and sinking again with his sudden, untimely death in 2021. His final text, an extended exploration of archeological history seeking the presence of largely peaceful, pre-state societies, has not convinced all readers by a long shot, but made his political points effectively. Class society seems to have been a fairly recent experience for Homo Sapiens, and its supremacy does not seem to have come from superior production of needed goods or any variant, such as organized agriculture. Yugoslavian-born Andrj Grabacic, a past collaborator with Staughton Lynd, obviously brings his own anarchistic fashion of political analysis into the mix.
Kropotkin, the Russian aristocrat, had a lot in common with other 19th century reformers including Marx: society, they believed, could be transformed by better, more scientific information and application. We had not yet entered the 20th century, where war became the decisive factor “for the West” that it had already been for the colonized world since the 17th century, at least. The choices for human society appeared to be more open and more peaceful until the First World War smashed so many illusions.
Mutual Aid, with its splendid subtitle, argues that society engages in communal relations at all times, making “capitalism” and “nationalism” the intruders. Marx saw the new society within the old in the sphere of socialized labor, no matter how brutal and alienated. Kropotkin looked outward.
The charm of this reprint, with splendid art, begins for today with the prince’s insistence upon “mutual aid among animals,” a powerful argument for its time, but more likely to be recognized now. Kropotkin insists, for instance, that a greedy sparrow seeking to monopolize nesting areas will be stopped by the flock. Contrary examples can certainly be found, but from scientific discoveries of “mother trees” to closer examination of interspecies collaboration, it seems science may be catching up with the prince who famously resigned his title.
Of course, Kropotkin’s main subject is human society, and if his arguments are somewhat familiar, the drawings of Bonzo are startling. I do not even recognize the name of this postmodern, feminist artisan, who lives in Portland and helped to create the Antifascist Coloring Book. Whatever the case, this is the closest to a reanimation of Williams Morris’s visions that I have seen in recent times. “Swipes,” in old comic book language, are taken freely from illustrations six generations past, but updated charmingly. We discover for instance with “harm reduction,” widespread enough to become a social movement in itself, that modern-day cooperators are re-learning how to help others through easing their bouts of addiction.
The chapter called “Mutual Aid in the Medieval City” is bound to remain a personal favorite of mine, because here Kropotkin comes so close to Morris, drawing upon similar sources, such as the histories of the guilds. We see the words of the text, and around them the images of working men and women who believed deeply in what they did. We can see cooperation, in other words, in a new light.
Editor’s Note: This book is ready for pre-order purchases. Available in the US as of 11/09/21.
Tenderness is a feast of a novel. This is easily one of the best current reads. And it all has to do with what once was an obscure novel nearly killed in the cradle. Many people have at least heard of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence, originally published privately in 1928 and finally made available in 1960 after an infamous obscenity legal battle in the UK and the US. Oddly enough, even after surviving the courts, this most misunderstood of novels was nearly killed again in a self-imposed academic attempted murder by feminist scholars because of what they deemed as certain less than enlightened depictions of some female characters in the novel. It is a case of cancel culture from another era. Today, the novel has well cleared the hurdle of extinction. At this writing, Netflix is in production for a spectacular new film version starring Emma Corrin (The Crown) as Constance Chatterley. Now, back to the novel in question. Tenderness explores the world of Lady Chatterley primarily from the inner world of the author and the behind the scenes tug-of-war between killing and saving the book. This culture war is led by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on the side to suppress, and future First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy on the side to save.
1960: Lady C helps usher in the Sexual Revolution! Keystone/Getty Images
The hallmark of any great historical novel is how it juggles many points of view. One of the paths this novel cuts is political. Jackie Kennedy is a classic icon: familiar while shrouded in mystery. There is nothing officially documented about Jackie Kennedy in support of Lady Chatterley but, for the sake of this historical novel, she makes for a perfect advocate. MacLeod places Jackie in attendance at a 1959 public hearing on Lady C which, in turn, results in an FBI surveillance snaphsot of her that sets in motion a whirlwind of clandestine activity by Hoover and his henchmen to bring down JFK’s presidential bid. Anyone who knows anything about Lady C, or has actually read the book, knows that this novel has as much, or more, to do with political power than with sex. Clearly, Jackie is the ultimate symbol of a political bedfellow. In 1960, Jackie was still closer to the limited world of Lady C, trapped in her own sexless marriage. The only power a woman in her position could rely upon was found through marriage. And the only control a man could rely upon over a woman, at that time, was through marriage. It is the institution of holy matrimony that is threatened by Lawrence’s controversial novel. That is actually the most “obscene” thing in the novel any detractor could say against it.
The day in 1960 when Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published after a long legal battle. Derek Berwin/Getty Images
MacLeod’s love for literature rings true in this novel which acts as a love letter to Lady C and great fiction. As any masterful writer knows, one of the most appealing aspects of embarking upon a novel is the opportunity to treat it as a vast canvas upon which you can paint your greatest passions. This passion for storytelling is brought out in the character of Dina, an ancestor to friends of the family of D.H. Lawrence, and a budding literary scholar. It’s more than a good chance that Dina stands in as an alter ego for MacLeod. It is through Dina that MacLeod can express her greatest admiration for Lawrence’s landmark work, both erudite and heartfelt. It may have been only a matter of time before just the right author came along and channeled D.H. Lawrence. Tenderness was to be the original title for Lawrence’s novel as it gets to the heart of his theme that we inevitably must give way to the demands of the body. MacLeod honors that theme with her invigorating book.
The Last Mona Lisa. Jonathan Santlofer. Sourcebooks. 2021. $27.99
It was back in 1987 that I made my first visit to Paris, which included viewing the Mona Lisa. My more recent visit was in 2019. I can tell you that the ’87 visit was not like the uber-spectacle it is now. It wasn’t even in the same location. As I recall, it was a huge square of a space and the Mona Lisa was housed in a booth that made me think of a carnival fortune telling machine. The gatherings of people were left to do as they pleased and behaved like instinctively polite starlings. People seemed to know just how to behave! Now, it’s like a cramped and narrow airport terminal with everyone jockeying for position, queued up for a few seconds of viewing, and then directed off by guards. Really, I’m not kidding. Anyway, I had to say that because I figure it will strike a chord with some of you and it’s a perfect opening observation to a book that I believe would satisfy a lot of the curiosity out there for the mega-famous painting. The book is entitled, The Last Mona Lisa, by a truly captivating writer, Jonathan Santlofer. I’ve been intrigued by Santlofer for some time as I’ve observed how well he’s done as both an artist and a writer. I was quite moved by his memoir and that led me to check out some of his crime fiction, which is a lot of fun. His new book takes his skills and passions and distills them into an urbane thriller that will stay with you just like a memory of your favorite dinner overlooking a beautiful sunset. So, yeah, it’s that kind of book. In fact, if it’s not already, it should be stocked in the Louvre gift shop. And, yes, the museum is now open, albeit with health restrictions. Also, I should add here, this is a book that is ideal for any book club as you may imagine.
Mona Lisa Mania!
The Last Mona Lisa is about the greatest museum heist of them all, the theft of the Mona Lisa by a Louvre museum guard in August of 1911. It was a sensation in newspapers all over the world and catapulted the Leonardo Da Vinci painting to world-famous masterpiece status. Santlofer takes that story and weaves a narrative that explores the inner life of the thief, the frustrated artist Vincent Peruggia, and present day attempts by his great-grandson, Luke Perrone, along with a rogue INTERPOL detective among others, to unravel the mystery behind the details of this most unusual museum heist caper. All this investigating leads to the possibility that the real Mona Lisa was never returned to the Louvre and now some people will stop at nothing to get the real thing. Among the various subplots, it’s the story of Luke, the great-grandson of the original thief, that leads the way, neck and neck with following the drama of Vincent, the thief and aspiring celebrated artist.
It’s fun to follow Luke’s progress as an unlikely hero who grows into his role as a sleuth. He stumbled upon the story of his infamous great-grandfather when, as a boy, he’d been tasked with cleaning out the family attic. One look inside a chest reveals the tell-tale mugshot of Vincent Peruggia which triggers a lifelong obsession with finding out the truth about the thief of the Mona Lisa. Fast forward to the present and Luke finagles his way to gaining access to a rare books section in a prominent library in Florence, Italy. It is there that he becomes involved with a mysterious beauty, a striking blonde who just so happens to be pursuing her own scholarly search at the same table that Luke is camped out at. This, of course, sets in motion some of the key elements needed for the romantic thriller that ensues.
Santlofer paints a portrait of Vincent Peruggia as the classic malcontent would-be bad boy artist who just so happens to fall into the company of Pablo Picasso and other notable figures of the Parisian art scene, like Max Jacob. Vincent Peruggia is no Vincent van Gogh! Instead, he’s a somewhat competent artist of the most obvious subject matter like pretty still life paintings. He’s resentful of the avant-garde cubist work by Braque and Picasso which he dimly understands. Vincent is the Lee Harvey Oswald of the art world, destined for infamy.
The Mona Lisa was indeed “stolen” in 1910, a year prior to the famous 1911 heist.
The building blocks to Santlofer’s novel are all true. The Mona Lisa was, in fact, “stolen” a year prior to the celebrated heist by Vincent Peruggia. Santlofer provides a news clipping of the story that sort of just came and went in 1910 but, without a doubt, documented a robbery of some kind. It’s a fine piece of detective work on Santlofer’s part as it doesn’t readily come up on a casual internet search. For whatever reason, that story ended up an odd blip without a follow-up. Nothing was ever officially said again about any theft. Not until the story that would not go away, the celebrated story of 1911. It is this incongruous situation with the ignored “theft” of 1910 that has fed countless rumors and conspiracy theories. It is this stranger-than-fiction phenomena that was just waiting to be plucked and processed into Santlofer’s latest delightful page-turner.
For more information, and how to buy this book, go to Sourcebooks.
A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman. by Sharon Rudahl. edited by Paul Buhle. The New Press. 2007. 115pp. $17.95
Emma Goldman (1869-1940) is not an obvious choice for the subject of a graphic novel. Unless you’re into political science, you probably have never heard of her. But since when is it an obstacle to read a book about someone you’ve never heard of? It’s absolutely not an obstacle. More of an invitation. You see, Emma Goldman was a trailblazing anarchist who became known as “Red Emma” and, when she was deported from the United States in 1919, J. Edgar Hoover called her “one of the most dangerous women in America.” Comic artist Sharon Rudahl brings Emma Goldman to life in her graphic novel. It was a pleasure to review Rudahl’s graphic novel on Paul Robeson. You can read that here. And it seemed only natural to take one more look back to her graphic novel on Emma Goldman.
Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson
Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson. Art and text by Sharon Rudahl. Edited by Paul Buhle & Lawrence Ware. Rutgers University Press. 2020. 142pp. $19.95
There once was a time when it would have been as common to find a framed print of Paul Robeson (1898- 1976) as it would have been to find one of Bob Dylan. Paul Robeson became ingrained in the public mind from his landmark performances in such classics as 1933’s The Emperor Jones, and 1936’s Showboat. Robeson went on to become a popular champion of progressive ideals stemming from his scholarship and activism. With the same spirit as a powerful painter or incisive novelist, an industrious cartoonist like Sharon Rudahl (Wimmen’s Comix, A Dangerous Woman) can transport, enlighten and entertain. So is the case with Rudahl’s graphic novel adaptation of the life and times of Paul Robeson.
Onward to England.
Sharon Rudahl’s comics narrative provides the kind of compelling content that goes a long way to helping the reader process this multi-layered narrative. Images and concise passages of text are highlighted in subtle and direct ways by Rudahl, all the better to be suitable for lingering upon by the reader. It is a long and compelling journey for Paul Robeson, already a promising star during his time as a student at Rutgers University. Robeson was a major figure in the rise of anti-colonialism in Africa and elsewhere, and a tireless campaigner for internationalism, peace, and human rights. Later in life, he embraced the civil rights and anti-war movements with the hope that new generations would attain his ideals of a peaceful and abundant world. This graphic novel is published in conjunction with Rutgers University’s centennial commemoration of Robeson’s 1919 graduation from the university.
Ancestors denied justice.
The story of Paul Robeson begins by looking back a few generations. This graphic novel begins in North Carolina in 1828. We steadily progress to 1901 and the struggles of Rev. William Robeson, at odds with Princeton University for daring to “rise above his station” and for actually speaking out about lynchings. He is chastised for “stirring up trouble between the races” and fired from his post at Witherspoon Presbyterian. The reverend’s firing was finally triggered by his repeated requests for Princeton to admit his son, Bill. It’s interesting to note how Rudahl cuts into the space to cleanly highlight various pieces of text. The Princeton committee members tower over Rev. Robeson and he is trapped by a series of hateful statements. But the tide would indeed change.
The Emperor Jones leads to iconic status.
What really strikes me about Rudahl’s work is how organic it is and how her free-flowing approach totally supports the narrative. I have a number of theories about comics and one essential one is that auteur cartoonists need to have the freedom to pursue their vision. Some cartoonists have a signature style and others have their own particular approach. Both style and approach are very closely aligned. For instance, an artist like Milton Caniff has a very distinctive look. Maybe it’s a marriage of style and approach. It’s a balancing act. In general, an artist-cartoonist in pursuit of art does not want a signature style to rule over them. It’s better to have a robust set of options in your tool kit and so you follow your own particular approach–and that’s what I see coming from Rudahl, a pure artist doing her own thing.
Show Boat meets Black Power
You see what I’m saying with each and every example here. It’s like any given page could be turned into a painting. The potential to do that is there. So, with a cartoonist too caught up in just delivering a signature style, you can run into issues of it getting too repetitive and descending into, more or less, eye candy. But with an artist like Rudahl, you have someone who is genuinely invested in telling a story. It’s this kind of artist who will get into a zone, create a vision, that will resonate with the reader.
Paul Robeson, the activist.
The story of Paul Robeson is one of struggle and perseverance. Robeson was an exceptionally gifted, talented, and driven individual. And, despite that, he had to struggle to prove himself. Even after he had gained undisputed recognition and notoriety, he still had to overcome obstacles thrown his way. First, he overcame racial barriers. Later on, with a platform to voice his views, he could find himself at odds with the U.S. government. And, finally, with the passage of time, he had to overcome any distrust from a younger generation that might have seen him as somehow out of touch with current trends. It is fitting to have a visionary like Rudahl tell Robeson’s story. It is all the more fitting to have Robeson’s alma mater, Rutgers University, publish such a work. Also, it is worthwhile to mention that it is a university press that will most likely be most receptive to more artistic material like this than other publishers. That said, Sharon Rudahl, and editors Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware, have all worked together to create a unique tribute to an All-American hero, Paul Robeson.
Singing at the Peace Arch, in Blaine, Washington, bordering the U.S. and Canada.