Posted tagged ‘joe sacco’

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

May 15, 2013

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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The Art of History: Non-fiction through the medium of graphic novels

April 30, 2011

The Art of History: Non-fiction through the medium of graphic novels
LookLeft #5, February 2011

Many intelligent people still stereotypically consider comics to be for “kids and teenagers”. However today there is no escaping this fact: comics are big business. A slew of Hollywood films based on comics have led to the medium’s repopularisation – while the humble comic has progressed vastly since the early days of characters like Spiderman and Batman. In the late 1970s and 80s there was a revolution as comics like 2000AD, RAW and Warrior introduced intelligent, controversial writers like Alan Moore to the world. The underground became more mainstream, gone were the Boy’s Own style adventuring and all-American heroes, replaced by altogether darker themes and characters. If Moore’s Watchmen (1986-87) and V For Vendetta (1982–89) – both now mediocre films – proved that comics could ‘do’ serious and thoughtful fiction, then the Pulitzer-winning Maus proved that comics could tackle important issues of non-fiction too – in Maus’ case, the darkest episode of 20th Century history, the Holocaust. Below I review some of the best (and unfortunately, in one instance, not-so-best) graphic non-fiction available today.

Maus: A Survivors Tale (1977–91) – Art Spielgleman

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Maus is the story of Spiegelman’s father Vladek’s Holocaust survival, and also of Spiegleman’s strained relationship with his father as he interviews him about his experiences. Vladek was a Polish Jew and Maus follows his story fighting in the Polish army, escaping deportation and living on the run, eventual capture and his survival of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.  Interwoven into the Holocaust narrative are snapshots of Vladek’s contemporary life in American suburbia where we see the psychological effects the Holocaust has left on his family; his first wife’s suicide, second loveless marriage and tense relationship with his son.

A truly harrowing work, it is also brilliant, standing out among reams of Holocaust literature – original in concept, human and complex in narrative (Vladek is no hero, he just resourcefully does what he must to survive) and steers away from cynical ‘Holocaust exploitation’. The artwork – minimalist, monochrome and bleak – works perfectly, while the portrayal of Jews as mice, Germans as cats etcetera was meant, Spiegelman says, to “self-destruct” the idea of Nazi racial divisions.

Of course, graphic non-fiction existed before Maus, but there is little doubt that this work ensured comics were viewed as legitimate a medium for non-fiction as literature and film. Indeed, as one review said, Maus is a work that would be “impossible to achieve in any medium but comics”.

Palestine (1993-95) and Footnotes in Gaza (2009) – Joe Sacco


Sacco is a Maltese-American ‘graphic journalist’ – he travels to conflict zones and illustrates (visually and verbally) his experiences, the people he meets and their stories. Sacco first travelled to Palestine in 1991/92 during the dying days of the first intifada, and Palestine is a chronicle of this era. Sacco presents us with ordinary people’s everyday stories and oral histories, giving us entwined narratives that both reflect then-contemporary events and outline the broader historical injustices – 1948: expulsions of 700,000+ Palestinians to facilitate the founding of Israel, 1967: occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, 1987: outbreak of the intifada etc – that have resulted in Palestinians’ woeful situation. Above all, unlike many dry texts I’ve read, Sacco achieves the humanisation of Palestinians – they are not statistics or pawns, they are people and – agree or disagree – have valid things to say. In telling this story, Sacco is knowledgeable, self-depreciating, humourous and critical. Sacco’s artwork is amazing and has an unparalleled ability to convey emotion. That this is an illustrated work gives it added potency as he can draw what would be unavailable to a photographer and descriptively unwieldy for a writer – eg, Israeli torture and sensory deprivation methods.

Click for full size

Click for full size

Footnotes in Gaza sees Sacco return to Palestine to investigate the story of two overlooked Israeli massacres in Gaza during the 1956 Suez Crisis. UN reports say Israeli forces killed 275 civilians in Khan Younis and 111 in Rafah in acts Sacco describes as “airbrushed from history”. As with Palestine, there are two narratives – the contemporary set against backdrop of the second intifada in 2003 as he searches for stories, and the historical as he unlocks people’s memories.

Both Palestine and Footnotes are fantastic, if ultimately human stories and therefore subject to human error. For me they are better introductions to Palestine than many history books – indeed I would argue that Palestine is one of the greatest works about the region in any medium.

Che: A Graphic Biography (2008) – Spain Rodriguez


Che Guevara’s iconic image is an ever-present feature of life, adorning everything from t-shirts to beermats as capitalism continues to commodify the “revolutionary chic” of this unyielding fighter for socialism. As Lenin said, great revolutionaries are hounded by the ruling classes during their lifetimes, and converted into harmless idealistic icons upon their deaths. Rodriguez’s book is a conscious antidote to this tendency, using the visual medium to recontextualise Che’s image, life and ideas. On a short, exciting journey through Che’s equally brief and eventful life, Rodriguez takes us from his birth and travels in Latin America – which would have a politically formative effect on him as he experienced the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala – to his first meeting with Fidel Castro. We then explore his leading role in the Cuban Revolution, both as a commander and later as he dealt with post-revolutionary and geopolitical realities, and finally his futile militant activities in Congo and untimely death, aged 39, at the hands of the CIA in Bolivia.

Thankfully this is not one man’s wild and romantic adventure story, Rodriguez is careful to place Che in the context of his era; social and political struggles against economic realities are not ignored in pursuit of some ‘great man’ theory of history. This Che will be familiar to those who have read J.L. Anderson’s biography – Che is not presented as an infallible secular saint, he is a man who makes mistakes in pursuit of a better future for humanity. Hopefully those picking up this comic and knowing little beyond the iconography will develop an understanding of this socialist fighter who believed in, fought and died for the unity of all oppressed peoples – something as necessary today as in Che’s lifetime.

Blood Upon The Rose: Easter 1916 (2010) – Gerry Hunt


The best that can be said about this work is that it is unique; it is basically an Irish Boy’s Own comic – which for someone who grew up reading English and US war stories was an interesting experience. Unfortunately, for an adult this is a major failing – Hunt’s version of 1916 is pure militaria, lacking in socio-historical context, interesting characters (and given those involved in 1916 that in itself is an unenviable achievement) or engaging dialogue. It simply bumbles along from one badly-drawn shootout to the next.

From an historical point of view, the story is accurate. However, making history interesting depends greatly on an author’s storytelling skill – a good writer can make even the most boring subject engaging. A major failing of this work is that it’s very much a history of the 1916 Rising as a military event; we begin on Easter Sunday and end with the execution of the Rising’s leaders. It lacks historical context – what are the motivations of those involved? What is the historical, social and economic background? How did such an “unlikely band of freedom fighters”, as Hunt calls them, get to this point? What did they realistically hope to achieve?

Instead, we are presented only with the deconextualised brave rebel leaders and volunteers of bourgeois republican myth, who fight and die for “dear old Ireland”. The dialogue rarely raises itself above the level of a 1980s British war comic, indeed if the British were German they would be screaming “Achtung! Achtung!” and “Gott in Himmel!”  However, the main failing of this work is that it is just not engaging – perhaps because it just flits from firefight to firefight, one doesn’t build a relationship with the rebels. I think the author recognises this, and bookends the main story with Plunkett’s death-bed marriage in a failed attempt to give it some human context – but given how little we see of Plunkett in the story it feels crowbarred in. It is not impossible to weave an ‘ensemble piece’ in graphic format, but perhaps this would have fared better had it focused only one or two of the leaders or volunteers and showed us the Rising from their unique perspectives.

Undoubtedly there is a gripping comic to be written about the Irish Revolution. This, alas, is not it.

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