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Comics have always been an unruly medium. No longer content to
stay put in the Graphic Novel sections of bookstores, they have
inevitably moved into History, Politics and Biography, too. The
most prodigious force of this evolving movement's left wing is Paul
Buhle, a senior lecturer in the history and civilization
departments at Brown University who has initiated, written and/or
edited a half-dozen such books in the last few years alone and who
has plenty more in the works. Four decades after the most
tumultuously revolutionary year in late 20th-century America and on
the occasion of a new, comics adaptation of Howard Zinn's popular
A People's History of the United States, Buhle and I spent
some time discussing the past, present and future of factual,
radical comics stories.
Dooley: How would you characterize your current involvement
Cover of Radical America Komiks (Radical America vol. 3, no. 1);
art by Gilbert Shelton.
Buhle: I seem to be the instigator of a specific sort of
comics—nonfiction comics—that recuperate radical traditions that
have some definite value in contemporary society, especially—but
not only—for the under-30 readers who have “normalized” comic art
In one sense, it's my response to the fact that my students,
undergrad and grad alike, read fewer “regular” books each year. But
more important is the sense that the day for comic art in the
United States, long postponed, has finally arrived… at the
historical moment when the empire has entered another profound
moment of crisis... first time in 30 or 40 years. I'm trying to put
the two parts of this equation together and having some
I have been using Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse in my
“Sixties Without Apologies” survey course at Brown and it is
invariably the students' favorite text. And for good reason—it
teaches! This is his only graphic novel, and it is the best graphic
novel about the 1960s, for many reasons. The South of that era
seems like “another country” to most students and many of the rest
of us. Cruse provides wonderful detail into daily life among
restless young people.
I expect A People's History of American Empire to
have the same role: the textbook that the students keep at the end
of the semester.
Dooley: Not too many serious histories devote a chapter to
the jitterbug and rhythm 'n' blues. How did A People's
History come together?
Page from A People's History of the American Empire; art by Mike
Buhle: The chief scriptwriter of the Zinn volume is Dave
Wagner, who is a former music, film and theatrical critic for the
Madison Capital Times—until he led a strike at that
newspaper in 1977—and my best friend of 40 years. Dave worked from
my notes and sources and outline. We had been talking about
recuperating an unrecognized radical history since the 1970s. Dave
worked from my notes and sources and outline. Mike Konopacki is a
labor cartoonist and also a long-time associate. He joined the
strikers' daily, The Press Connection, and is now the
official political cartoonist of what remains of the Capital
Times. He looked up visual sources on the web. They then spent
a crucial week together at Dave's house. Both have a passionate
commitment to the subject matter, and the creative process was full
of complications. Ultimately, the book benefited from the dynamic
interaction between writer and artist.
My own special contribution—beyond the project being my idea—was
to insert Zinn's own life and make him a unique kind of narrator.
In the original book, Zinn's own humanity was only implied,
modestly. Here, he is part of the story, a life in the 20th century
and beyond. And this makes the other characters in the story more
vivid as well.
Panels from A People's History of the American Empire; art by
Dooley: What's been the response so far?
Buhle: Still too early for feedback. Librarians here and
there are basing public programs for young people on a common
reading of the book. A few leading historians, notably Eric Foner
of Columbia, have told me that they will be assigning the book for
U.S. history survey classes. In many bookstores, the book is in the
Young Adults section. More than that, I can't say. I suppose we
will know a lot better in the fall.
But it sure does make the point that history—serious history—can
be done as comics.
Dooley: How did you first develop your interest in the
Panels from “G.I. Schmoe!” (Mad no. 10); art by Wallace
Buhle: My comic book interest—or obsession—goes back to
my way of learning to read, before first grade. And when I saw
Mad comics in the early 1950s they became the text that I
reread dozens or hundreds of times, a sort of prophetic text that
explained everything to me. Harvey Kurtzman was so much my idol
that I wrote a high-school English paper about him.
“Mickey Rodent” was a wonderful Mad comics story—at once
a detailed examination of comic art clichés, an attack on Walt
Disney as rightwing authoritarian, and, well, so much more. “What's
My Shine” explained the Army-McCarthy Hearings to me. The satires
on various military comic strips were incredibly insightful in
taking apart war-hero propaganda... or entertainment. And so on and
on, the commercial world of images in front of me, as a child and
adolescent, was “deconstructed”—a word now being forgotten, and
rightly—by Mad. Shortly I would be listening to Lenny Bruce
records and marching in demonstrations inspired by Martin Luther
Panel from Students for a Democratic Society book; art by Gary
Dooley: One of the stories you wrote for the Students for a Democratic Society comics book depicts
you in the role of founder and editor of Radical America, an
SDS house organ. What was the genesis of that magazine's first
Buhle: In the spring of 1968 I was sent a copy of Gilbert
Shelton's Feds 'n' Heads. It was at once really funny, great
storytelling, political satire and an expression of comic art that
I hadn't seen since Kurtzman, Walt Kelly's Pogo, Jules
Feiffer and a very few other places. I immediately ordered 20 to
sell at the SDS table of the University of Wisconsin campus, and
when I got $2,000 from the Rabinowitz Foundation, I sent the money
to Gilbert. I left the contents of Radical
America Komiks in his hands.
Cover of Cultural Correspondence vol. 2, no. 1; art by David
It was the all-time favorite of Radical America bookstore
buyers. The few professors who subscribed were rather shocked.
Dooley: In 1975 you started Cultural
Correspondence, a journal that reveled in lively analyses
of mass media in general and, quite often, cartoons in particular.
Who read it?
Buhle: I was told that Cultural Correspondence
sold best in punk-rock record stores and in radicalized theological
seminaries. The issues with underground comics folks was especially
popular. It was a great idea for a magazine but radical
intellectuals, by and large, didn't like it much, or at least did
not support it actively. A sense of humor was badly lacking. And
unlike Radical America, which had a natural appeal to
history graduate students, it had no special appeal to English
graduate students. It was altogether too vernacular and not part of
a career path.
Page from A Dangerous Woman; art by Sharon Rudahl.
Dooley: After two decades of producing purely text-based
books, as well as the comics-tinged From the Lower East Side to Hollywood, how did comics
come to regain your center stage?
Buhle: My return to comic production as such was prompted
by the approaching centenary of the Industrial Workers of the
World. With Wobblies!, I raised the money for the artists, organized
the contract and put together some of the old Underground milieu
with the World War 3
Illustrated comics folks. The process of doing this, and
the popular reception to Wobblies!, gave me confidence to go
on and make production of comics my main interest. I had a number
of books in mind and sold the ones that could be sold. I selected
Sharon Rudahl for A Dangerous Woman [about Emma Goldman] and Sabrina Jones
for Isadora Duncan because of the pages they had done for
Dooley: A comics book on an anarchist, and even one on a
dancer, seems like a tough sell.
(from top) Page and close-up on panels from Wobblies!; art by
Buhle: The idea of radical biography is an old one and
sometimes very successful, but only for icons. Emma and Isadora are
those icons. Their memoirs sold heavily for decades, and seem
“cultural” as much as “political.” Only a few publishers so far
take the risk of producing such books and those publishers deserve
The publishers are delighted at the results. And I think the art
in these two books is fantastic.
Dooley: What's the connection between your upcoming
Che: A Graphic Biography, due this fall, and the new
Steven Soderbergh movie starring Benicio Del Toro?
Buhle:Che was waiting to be done, and the
prospect of a second major film [on Che Guevara] was definitely a
factor in the contracting process. [Writer/artist] Spain Rodriguez
had probably wanted to do this for decades and is incredibly
brilliant in every aspect of it. In my view, this is a global
classic in the making and, I hope, a marker for future work in an
The Zinn adaptation has a long future ahead of it, via
recommendations from friends to friends, librarians' interest,
response to the vicious attacks on the book that are bound to come,
and use in classrooms. I would expect the response to Che to
be just as great, though in somewhat different directions: it will
be published in seven languages, including English, of course... an
instant global phenomenon! The sales of the Zinn and reception of
Che may make a difference in publishers' willingness to
accept fairly radical themes but also to accept nonfiction comics
as important and viable.
Dooley: What else is in the works?
Panels from The Beats; art by Ed Piskor
Buhle:The Beats is
completed, as is Jews and American Comics. I think of The Art of Harvey Kurtzman as another kind of comic in
itself. The adaptation of Studs Terkel's Working is ongoing.
I have one more year to teach at Brown, then I hope to devote my
retirement years to the production of comics. After Working,
I am going to do an anthology of previously published comics with
some title like Empire in Trouble Funnies. The idea would be
to bring together some of the great underground stuff of the 1960s
and '70s on the topic with some World War 3 Illustrated
stuff. And also begin an “archives” series where the great,
forgotten radical comics like “Rufus the Radical
Reptile” can be brought back to light and to another
generation... with artists splitting whatever royalties happen.
I also hope to create a comics anthology called
Yiddishland and a “radical bible book,” among others. My
highest commercial priority—that is, possible work for artists—is a
music series with Elvis, Janis Joplin, Ray Charles, etc. But I
haven't been able to swing it so far.
What I need is a sympathetic, hard-working agent to get my
projects the kind of commercial support needed for artists to do
their own best work.
Harvey Kurtzman took a film director’s approach to creating comics. Dooley reflects on the artist’s legacy and the Kurtzmania that lives on today.
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