Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A closer look at Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History

As I mentioned here Thursday night, I was planning on taking a somewhat closer look at Students For a Democratic Society: A Graphic History on the blog, as the limitless space of the Internet and the ability to scan and upload images makes talking in detail about art a hell of a lot easier than can ever be done with a few paragraphs of prose (But for an all-word review of the book, you can read my LVW review here; Cleveland Free Times also has a well-written review of it, and Ohio’s greatest newspaper the Plain Dealer has a not-so-hot one).

The cover says that the book is “written (mostly) by Harvey Pekar” and has “art (mostly) by Gary Dumm,” crediting Paul Buhle as editor. The who-does-what on this thing is actually pretty involved, as in addition to writing large swathes of the book, Pekar and Buhle seem to pull ringleader duty, finding artistic contributors and members of the ‘60s protest movement (and a few people who are a little of both) and get them to tell first-hand stories and anecdotes about the era.

The resulting “graphic history” is about 50 pages of a rather bone dry textbook-like event recounting by Pekar and Dumm, followed by 160 pages of or so by various contributors, exploring different aspects of the movement in shorter pieces.

I’m almost ashamed at how much of this stuff was brand new information to me, but considering the fact that my parents were still in high school by the beginning of the 70s, these events which seem so formative to the country as it exists today were ones that not only didn’t touch me personally, but didn’t directly touch my ancestors either—my parents were too young, my grandparents too old (With the exception of the Kent State shooting, a pretty cataclysmic event in my state’s psyche, a lot of the specific riots, actions, protests and the like covered here were completely new to me).

As a 30-year-old reading this in 2008, it’s almost impossible to imagine police swinging batons at college kids’ heads on a regular basis, or abortion being illegal and stigmatized to this extent, or such serious fears of Communist revolution among the establishment. The United States of the 1960s, for all the superficial similarities between then and now, is a really alien place to read about, difficult to even imagine. I suppose that’s a good thing; the good guys won, right? Not to the point where they toppled the military industrial complex and put a stake in its heart, or that racism, poverty and sexism were decisively defeated for all time or anything, but, culturally at least. What was once radical is now status quo, and that's a good thing. I mean, hell, I’d expect to see zoos full of cloned dinosaurs before I see a U.S. military draft.

Anyway, the setting isn’t the only weird thing about this book. As strange as it might seem to those of us who didn’t live through it the first time, it was real—this stuff all happened. No, the experience of reading the book is a little weird. Pekar and artist Gary Dumm’s blandly entitled “SDS Highlights” story is, just as its title says, the history of the group, and it is some damn peculiar reading—I don’t think I’ve read another graphic novel that read quite like this.

Non-fiction graphic novels are hardly anything new. I mean, it was just a few months ago the blogosphere went semi-ape shit over Heidi MacDonald saying there was too much non-fiction, right? But this doesn’t read like all the autobio or memoir stuff, wherein there are characters and story arcs. Nor does it read like, say, comics journalism along the lines of Joe Sacco’s Palestine or Safe Area Gorazde (wherein there are still characters and a story arc), or Understanding Comics or Alice In Sunderland, which had narrators walking the audience through all the information.

This first story is really comics as textbook, with the lesson being the narrative of the organization, rather than the people in it. There are names, of course, but they’re attached to events, and aren’t characters so much as people doing things in relation to other people. As a story, it’s frankly pretty boring, but then, it’s not really supposed to be entertaining, is it?

Now, comics straight up kick ass as a teaching tool—a week can’t go by without the major comics news blogs linking to some new example of an unusual institution using manga or comics for instructional purposes.

But Pekar and Dumm don’t take the Action Philosophers! approach, of using what’s unique about the medium to tell their history. This panel, for example, is extremely non-representative of the majority of those in their first story:

The symbolism there isn’t exactly clever or inspired, but there is some basic symbolism going on—it's more of a political cartoon than straight illustration.

Most of the story avoids that sort of image, instead simply putting Pekar’s straight-ahead essay into text boxes, with unnamed characters in panels below them, spouting detached dialogue referring to the subject being discussed, as if we've overheard them.

Like so:

In other words, it reads like an illustrated essay. It’s a lot of meetings, acronyms, nebulous political conversations, bureaucracy—despite the electric nature of the times, it’s actually pretty damn boring. I do like the boring pictures in the boring essay though; as I said, I think Dumm is a perfect artist for this project, as his style rather effortlessly bestrides some of the underground “comix” comics work of the time and the sorts of comics that appear in the altweekly newspapers of today.

Occasionally, it strikes me as pretty hilarious, too. I don't know why exactly, I just really like the juxtaposition of comic book art, in some panels with exaggerated expressions and posture, even a little explode-y background, against inter-factional discussion of social theory:

The only way that picture could be better would be if the dude on the left had completely fallen over, his feet in the air, like a manga character reacting to a bad joke.

As plodding as the first section of the book may be, the second section more than makes up for it, as it’s devoted to 26 shorter pieces exploring different aspects of the group and the movement. Dumm and Pekar continue to do the lion’s share of the work here, but Pekar is now either interviewing actual participants and/or adapting their stories into comics scripts, and there’s a real oral history feel to these pieces.

There are stories of individual experiences with movements in Chicago, Iowa, Madison, Cleveland, Austin, New Orleans; there’s a piece on singer/songwriter Phil Ochs and the role his protest songs played; there are two disturbing looking pages on Kent State and the Weathermen; there are personal accounts of riots and relationships; and there are fun little urban legend like stories, including one in which someone from Wisconsin’s State Historical Society saves SDS’s files from the police.

This is some powerful, fun, funny stuff…well worth wading through the tedium of the first part to get to.

Dumm gets to do some more creative work here, using pictures to simply communicate more complex ideas (As in a story by Fredy Perlman and Buhle in which an immigrant discusses the way the United States changed before his eyes, the people coming into possession by the objects they allegedly owned).

Here, for example, is Dumm illustrating Sandy Lillydah’s epiphany that she doesn’t have to do everything the male activists ask her to:

Dumm’s art is also used in service of an eleven page illustrated prose piece by David Rosheim and Pekar that looks like this:

I hate when prose gets in my comics, and while I like these pages as visual objects (the way the collage of images frame the text and so on), they were a gigantic pain in the ass to read, the font that is fine for comics dialogue and narration getting harder and harder to read the more centered paragraphs of it I read. And what the hell, this is a graphic novel, what’s this prose doing in here anyway? If you want to write a non-comic book, write a non-comic book, you know?

As perfect as Dumm’s art is for this project, several other artists are involved, and I really liked a lot of their work.

Here, for example, is a panel from Nick Thorkelson’s story “It’s a Long Way to Hazard,” about his 1964 trip from college to a miner conference in Kentucky:

You can see him taking full advantage of the medium, executing the sort of cartoon panel that gets a rather large amount of complicated information out in a brief, fun and (at least mildly amusing) way.

Thorkelson switches between these sorts of cartoon panels and more straightforward panels simply showing what happened as he remembers it throughout this five-page story.

I really liked the period details, which I have no way of knowing whether they were exaggerated and, if so, to what extent.

For example, check out the lower left-hand corner here

Did kids in 1964 just carry their books in sacks? Were back-packs really not en vogue yet? Huh.

Or here, check out the size of this car. I mean, I know cars used to be bigger but man,

My living room isn’t that big.

My favorite story is James Cennamo’s “A Children’s Revolution,” detailing his 1960’s childhood in Brooklyn. He and his friends didn’t really know exactly what SDS was, or what the anti-Vietnam counterculture was all about, but they new that they liked it and wanted to become involved.

He has a really nice, abstract, almost doodly style that seems so appropriate for the naïve innocence of his characters.

This part really cracked me up:

According to his bio in the back, Cennamo is the staff cartoonist for The Nantucket Independent. I thought everyone in Nantucket was super-rich? Can you be a former counterculture cartoonist and live in Nantucket?

Josh Brown has a pretty interesting piece called "My Mimeographed Career, 1968," in which the artist shares a few anecdotes while walking us through the art he created during the era, the results approaching collage, a comics story in which he embeds images of his art from back in the day. Here's one page of it:

Finally, artist Ed Piskor, who worked on Macedonia with Pekar, contributes a short, four-page piece about the current incarnation of SDS, which came into existence in reaction to the Iraq War and which hasn’t yet reached its second birthday.

Here’s a page of it:

I like the fact that it looks so much more modern that Dumm’s art. The details are sharper and yet it looks even more cartoony. And while Dumm’s work was stark black and white, Piskor’s is all shaded, and is thus full of shades of gray. It could just be a coincidence, of course, but it still seems to line up nicely with the changing times.

The other two artists involved are Wes Modes and Summer McClinton, both of whom have a similar style that seem to rely pretty heavily on photos for reference and, as a result, can look a little disturbing (Modes handles the Kent State story, including a drawing of one of the more famous images).


Ed Piskor said...

Hey man. Thanks for the good words on my contribution to the SDS book.

jamesc said...

Thanks so much for the kudos on my little piece in the book! And no, everyone on Nantucket is not rich!
---James Cennamo