Power to the Panels: An Interview with Paul Buhle

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 in comics? 

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 reading.

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 success.

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 Konopacki.

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 Mike Konopacki.

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 medium? 

Panels from “G.I. Schmoe!” (Mad no. 10); art by Wallace Wood.

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 King Jr.

Panel from Students for a Democratic Society book; art by Gary Dumm.

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 comics issue? 

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 Coulson.

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 Wobblies!.

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 Sabrina Jones.

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 great credit.

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 international sense.

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.

About the Author: In addition to co-editing The Education Of A Comics Artist with Steven Heller, Michael Dooley often chuckles quietly to himself while at work as a Los Angeles-based creative director and writer.