I couldn’t get thru this thing. A People’s History of American Empire carries left-wing comics to their logical point: the conclusion that the left should try some sort of trading-card arrangement and leave comics alone. The motive behind Empire — and the Beginners books, and even Rius, who’s a lot more visually adept — seems to be to liposuction away all those gunky words and details and leave a few talking points bare to the reader’s view. You might as well park each factoid on its own card with a decent illustration. You could do the thing in quiz form. “Q: How did the United States bring peace and freedom to the Philippines? Look on the other side!” “A: By killing more than 200,000 men, women, and children! This early counterinsurgency campaign shocked the conscience of,” etc. There’d be room for a picture there someplace, and a logo along the lines of “Prof. Zinn’s U.S. Empire Fact Parade,” with an eagle wearing an eye patch and clutching a round, black anarchist-style bomb, its fuse burning down like a sparkler.
For people who live to get their particular truth across, left wingers generate lousy propaganda. Nowadays only Michael Moore has the touch. Howard Zinn certainly doesn’t, not in print, in the theater (catch his Marx in Soho sometime), or in comics. Empire is a big, hardbound coffee-table book adapted by Paul Buhle from Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, the world’s most earnest volume not to involve flossing or Jesus. The art is by Mike Konopacki, who did a job that’s as adequate as adequate can get. Like anyone who has ever drawn a comic book, Konopacki isn’t much good at drawing recognizable public figures. His particular style reminds me of ads for small-time bank chains or of pamphlets for junior high kids in need of advice on healthy living. Doe-eyed, perky-nosed little chaps stand around as the bloody mechanism of American history chomps its way thru the peace of the world. But the book’s biggest formal problem is that the art is there to fill space. Sticking a quote by Woodrow Wilson next to a picture of Woodrow Wilson doesn’t really do much. The same points could be communicated just as well by text alone. Take out the pictures and you’d have a sequence of subpar op-ed pieces, but at least there’d be fewer pages to turn.
The best parts of Empire are the reproductions that pop up here and there of political cartoons from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There’s one calling upon the U.S. to take up the white man’s burden in China, a very elaborate affair involving a giant Uncle Sam setting foot on a miniaturized Chinese coastline, with tiny Chinese residents representing various aspects of Chinese life and society that the cartoonist thought ought to be corrected. A whole argument and fleet of sub-arguments are summed up by picture-making. You’d think somebody who wanted to do a comic book analyzing U.S. history would have something like that in mind. But such is not the case. Instead we have the elaborate dental care pamphlet that is the left’s idea of effective communication. The left is like the tourist who raises his voice so foreigners will have an easier time understanding English; pictures take the place of shouting, but the principle is the same and pretty soon you just want the guy to shut up.
In short, I couldn’t get thru this thing.
EDITED because I got Rius’s name wrong first time out.
UPDATE: Rius and the Beginners books aren’t really comics. See here.