Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 11, 2005

The Wobblies

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,swans — louisproyect @ 10:08 am

Wobblies! A Graphic History of the IWW by Louis Proyect
Book Review

Wobblies: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World, Edited by Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman, Verso, ISBN 1-84467-525-4, 305 pages, $25.00.

(Swans – April 11, 2005) Wobblies: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World is edited by Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman. Buhle is a long-time chronicler of the American radical movement and popular culture. Schulman is an artist on the editorial board of World War 3 Illustrated, which began “seventeen years ago as an anti-war comic book, inspired by the experience of growing up under the shadow of nuclear weapons and by the shock of a second rate actor’s finger on the button.”

Wobblies is timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the IWW and a traveling exhibition of IWW memorabilia that Buhle helped curate (http://www.wobblyshow.org/). For today’s radicals, the IWW has a powerful mystique since many of the leading figures were martyrs to the cause, including the hobo and folksinger Joe Hill. Hill’s songs have enormous staying power as demonstrated by Billy Bragg’s cover of “There is Power in a Union”:

There is power in a factory, power in the land
Power in the hand of the worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand
There is power in a Union

Wobblies tells the story of Joe Hill and many other legendary figures such as Emma Goldman and Big Bill Haywood through the comic book medium. Buhle’s love for and commitment to this medium is about as long-standing as his ties to the radical movement. In a May 16, 2003 Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “The New Scholarship of Comics,” Buhle writes:

“Mad comics (1952-55) were the most special. The editor and frequent scriptwriter of that early Mad, Harvey Kurtzman, was a hero of my childhood; when I interviewed him, decades later, as to why he had fallen to the depths of scripting a Playboy strip called Little Annie Fanny, he could only say that he had been unable to live up to his own promise. Actually, the moment had passed: Due to the pressure of the Comics Code, EC Comics, Mad’s publisher, turned it into a successful black-and-white magazine that Kurtzman quit after failing to gain a controlling interest. But what a run he’d had!

“The influence of Mad comics on later comics artists has been testified to by Robert R. Crumb (of Zap Comix and more), Bill Griffith (of Zippy the Pinhead), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker artist Art Spiegelman, among others. Mad ridiculed, but also interpreted and demystified, the invasion of the childish mind by movies, television, tabloid newspapers — and also comics, both strips and books. I was a little young to enjoy all the original Mads, but several 35-cent Ballantine paperbacks put the best of the early material on the drugstore shelf, albeit with panels squeezed down to size, lines blurred, and in black-and-white rather than the color originals. No matter. Those were my alternative to schoolbooks and classic novels, because they put the details of popular life under the microscope.”

The comic book medium lends itself to the story of the IWW since it is essentially one of the underdog battling powerful evil forces. Whether it is Spiderman or Big Bill Haywood taking on fiendish captains of industry, the artist has a lot to work with.

The artists who worked on Wobblies are a who’s who of the contemporary underground comic book scene. Josh MacPhee, who provided the artwork for the Big Bill Haywood story, is a well-known graffiti artist based in Chicago. In an interview with drawingresistance.org, MacPhee stated:

“There are very few laws I feel shouldn’t be broken. For artists in particular, I think we need to attack all laws that continue to enclose our ‘commons’ and privatize everything and anything, be it space, economy, intellectual property, plants or human DNA. It is becoming increasingly difficult to do any sort of art in what we used to call public space.”

In other words, MacPhee has the same attitude toward private property that the Wobblies did. If they chained themselves to a lamppost while making incendiary speeches in pursuit of free speech rights, artists like MacPhee mount the same challenge with a spray can.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy24.html

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