More graphic non-fiction: The downtrodden and the risen people

The downtrodden and the risen people
LookLeft #15, May 2013

Looking at some recent graphic novels portraying contemporary and historical peoples’ struggles.

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Big Jim: Jim Larkin and the 1913 Lockout (O’Brien Press, 2013) is the latest offering in the O’Brien Press graphic novel series depicting Irish history.

Writer Rory McConville and artist Paddy Lynch transport us a century into the past, to a Dublin where the Irish working class is struggling to flex its industrial muscle in the face of attacks by the most powerful bosses in the country.

This is the tale of one of the bitterest years in Dublin’s history, when native Irish capitalists, led by William Martin Murphy, attempted to crush the fledgling Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, led by Jim Larkin.

Larkinism, as this brand of ‘new unionism’ (organisation of unskilled workers), coupled with syndicalism (uniting all workers regardless of profession and extensive use of sympathy strikes) was known, stood at odds with the pliant social partnershipesque nature of the traditional craft unions.

The threat to profits posed by such organisational methods was intolerable, and so on 26th August, following a strike on Dublin’s trams aimed at modestly improving terms and conditions, Dublin’s bosses locked out members of the ITGWU, beginning the largest industrial battle in Irish history.

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McConville’s writing is skilful and doesn’t suffer from stilted dialogue or hackneyed exposition, unlike other books in the O’Brien series.

The social conditions of Dublin’s poor are examined, and Larkin is presented as the brilliant organiser, but complex and difficult man that he was, and with Padraig Yeates as historical advisor, no liberties are taken with accuracy.

Lynch’s artwork is very effective, as rough and dark as the era it depicts, and interesting use is made of archival photographs cleverly interspersed throughout.

It is also quite witty in places, and there are cameos from the likes of Captain Jack White, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Delia Larkin and William Partridge.

There are some areas that could have been better explored; for example, although Constance Markievicz and Dora Montefiore get some page time, little is really said about the role women – including women strikers – played during the lockout.

The class antagonisms between revolutionary socialists and bourgeois nationalists, such as Arthur Griffith who described “the consequences of Larkinism [as] workless fathers, mourning mothers, hungry children and broken homes”, could also have been examined.

Overall, Big Jim is an enjoyable and unique read, as well as being a great introduction to the Lockout in its centenary year, and more accessible for those who would rather not begin with Yeates’ epic Lockout.

The Lockout would forge the consciousness of the Irish working class in the following decades, and should still resonate with us today; after all, the fight was ultimately about the right to join a union – a right still not recognised a century later.

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Journalism (Jonathan Cape, 2012) is a collection of comic journalist Joe Sacco’s shorter pieces drawn between 1998 and 2011 for outlets like Time and The Guardian.

For over twenty years Sacco has been travelling the world, brilliantly documenting the lives, hopes and fears of the marginalised, suffering and forgotten – covered previously in LookLeft #5.

Grouped into regional chapters, Journalism skips across the globe from African immigrants in Malta to India’s so-called ‘untouchable’ caste.

The section on Palestine deals with illegal Israeli settlers in occupied Hebron, who live amongst – and make life hell for – the indigenous Palestinians.

The presence of 500 right-wing religious zealots, under Israeli military and state protection, has destroyed the local economy and physical attacks on Palestinians are frequent. We are also shown the devastating effects of Israeli home demolition operations in Gaza.

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In Chechnya and neighbouring Ingushetia we are shown the heart-breaking situation of refugee families merely trying to survive, caught between the ruthless Russian military and Islamist separatist during the Second Chechnyan War.

In Sacco’s native Malta we discover the hidden world of African immigrants who arrive there after crossing the Mediterranean in the hope of landing in Italy.

Fleeing wars, poverty and famines, in the hope of a better life, they find themselves impoverished and attacked amongst a tiny population of 400,000 which largely hates and fears them.

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Finally, Sacco brings us to India. India is a neoliberal success story or so we are told to believe.

Success, however, is something unfamiliar to India’s Dalit caste, the ‘untouchables’, who are double victims of poverty and government corruption.

Relief programs are largely cash cows for local politicians, while villagers literally steal food from rats to survive.

Despite some, self-admittedly, relatively weak material this is a satisfying compendium of Sacco’s unique work.

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Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (Nation Books, 2012), a collaboration between Joe Sacco and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges, sees the duo dive into the dark heart of a US we rarely hear about.

The victims of US imperialism and transnational capitalism are obvious to those with eyes to see, but what of those who are internal victims of the US capitalist system?

Days takes us on a thoroughly depressing journey through the “sacrifice zones”, urban and rural ghettos whose inhabitants – Native Americans, mining communities, the urban poor, undocumented workers – have been gutted and offered up to the great market god.

We are offered a vista of demoralised and essentially defeated peoples, hollowed out shells of once thriving communities, meagre employment, omnipresent anti-social behaviour and rampant environmental destruction. It seems drug dealing –legal and illegal – is the sole growth industry.

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For example, chapter three provides an insight into the lives of once vibrant mining communities in West Virginia, now existing in the shadow of massive explosive mountaintop removal, which provides easier access to coal seams.

Not only has mining employment all but dried up as coal companies opt instead to literally obliterate the majestic Appalachian Mountains, but the by-products of this destruction have caused cancer rates, along with kidney and lung disease to skyrocket.

The coal industry is a political powerhouse with deep pockets, so government does nothing, leaving these communities to rot and die, dependent on welfare and highly addictive painkillers like Oxycontin, aka ‘hillbilly heroin’.

Those who do attempt to protest become victims of politicians, coal companies and even neighbours desperate for the little employment available.

Mostly written by Hedges, at his polemical best, it suffers slightly by the short length of the sections given to Sacco, who’s talents are somewhat wasted.

Regardless, it is a fantastic call to arms to from these two veterans of journalism from below.

As Hedges says in the final chapter, which focuses on the hope offered briefly by the Occupy movement, “If we persist, we can keep this possibility [for revolution] alive. If we do not, it will die”.

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