In the 18th and 19th centuries one of the more popular forms of protest against authoritarian governments or regimes was through the publication of satirical illustrations or short picture stories frequently created with both literate and semi-literate audiences in mind. Using familiar or reoccurring images, symbols and caricatures political dissent or contrary opinions could be disseminated far and wide, the readers understanding and appreciating the visual cues presented to them. From the revolutionary struggles in France and North America to industrial unrest in England and Germany artists and cartoonists offered partisan commentary to the masses. By the latter half of the 1800s many of the larger newspaper or magazine titles in Europe and the United States maintained small teams of artists on their staff, some illustrating contemporary news events while others specialised in grotesque caricatures that appealed to notions of national or class chauvinism.
With the development of photography and later film the field of political cartooning was gradually narrowed to the role of comedic-satire and ephemeral “cartoons of the day”. However the emergence of the liberal and at times anarchic “counterculture” of the 1960s and ‘70s gave birth to a new genre of “underground comics” some of which were activist-inspired publications presented in a seemingly non-political form that proved attractive to rebellious youth. Since that era overtly radical comics have not disappeared entirely though they have largely remained in the domain of the “small press”. Occasional ventures by mainstream publishers have proved problematic, more often than not the contrarian views being subsumed by traditional story-telling techniques or sacrificed for commercial gain (notable early examples in Europe are the late 1980s’ British comics “Crisis” and “Deadline“). In most cases political messages were safely hidden behind a non-political front, a misdirection created by the use of familiar genre tropes such as “super-heroes”.
So it is still relatively unusual to see an avowedly political graphic novel being issued, one that wears its heart on its cover (so to speak), which in some ways harks back to an earlier era of instructive pamphleteering. “Fight The Power! A Visual History of Protest Among the English Speaking Peoples” is a collection of illustrated potted histories from across the last two centuries of political and social struggle in Europe, the United States and Africa. Written and edited by long-standing comic-creators Seán Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson with artwork by Hunt Emerson, John Spelling, and Adam Pasion the book ranges in time from early 19th century England and the Luddite movement to the contemporary United States and the Occupy protests of the early 21st century. Each era and the events within it are given several pages of an overview, some more detailed than others. The chapter titled “Irish Rebellions (1791-1922)” is the most sparse in some ways since it tries to cover the furthest ground while others are more successful by focusing on one point in history. However though the quality of the artwork can sometimes be uneven all of the stories are of interest especially those that highlight some of the more unusual – and largely forgotten – events in the struggle for social equality (the unprecedented Boston Police Strike of 1919 and the 1934 The Battle of Toledo spring to mind).
ASF: Can you tell us a little about your background and that of the other members of the team behind “Fight The Power! A Visual History of Protest Among the English Speaking Peoples”? What prompted you and your collaborators to produce such an avowedly political work at this time and why in the format of a graphic novel?
Seán: I’m a professional comic book writer born in Scotland (from an Irish family), who now lives in Japan. I’ve had more than a dozen books published with a variety of US, UK and Japanese publishers. I write both ‘western’ style graphic novels, such as adaptations of classical novels, and manga style books with Japanese and Chinese artists. I’m currently writing books for big Japanese publisher Kodansha, being the only Scottish writer to do so (or indeed the UK or Ireland – but I don’t mind a few more of you coming over! Dozo yoroshiku…). I’m also the editor of the critically acclaimed collection “AX:alternative manga” (one of Publishers Weekly’s “Best ten books of 2010″). I often do comic books that are different from the normal superhero/fantasy brands, working with a variety of “non-comic book” organisations in the process. My main influences remain British and American creators – such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Eddie Campbell and Harvey Pekar.
The other folk involved in the book are Benjamin Dickson, my co-writer, who I’ve invited to answer some of these questions too. The artists are Hunt Emerson, who is yer actual “living legend” of UK underground comics since the ’70s. A real pleasure to be working with him, especially since I first read his stuff when I was 13 years old! John Spelling is an excellent artist living in Devon, and Adam Pasion is from the US, but a guy I got to know here in Japan. The cover art was by an Australian, Eva Schlunke working in tandem with left wing cartoonish, Polyp. A good team!
Benjamin: It was Seán’s idea initially, so I’ll let him answer that one! But in terms of why a graphic novel, we’re both comic writers, it’s our chosen medium as creators, and being active in the comics scene is also how we know each other. So we never really considered doing it in any other medium – but to answer your question more directly, comics as a medium are inherently good at communicating complex ideas in ways that are easy to access and understand. If the purpose of this book was to introduce the layman to the subject of protest and its historical importance in the shaping of society, the graphic novel is a good format to work in!
Seán: Initially, the idea for this book first came to me as a parody of the history series by Winston Churchill (A History of the English Speaking Peoples). Instead of “great leaders” and battles, I thought why not do one about ordinary people’s struggle? Calling it “A visual history of protest amongst the English speaking peoples” occurred to me as a joke at first, then I thought, “Actually, that could be good.” Obviously it’s visual because it has illustrations. I decided to keep the “English speaking peoples” aspect, to give the book some focus and because that already encompasses a lot. But we intend to do a volume 2 that looks at popular rebellion in the wider world.
Why a graphic novel? Because it can – there is still a very silly outmoded idea that comics are just for kids. That is wrong and always has been. So, us doing this Fight the Power book as a comic book is just one more little example of how comics can be used to do sophisticated stories and take on culture and history, etc. In fact, there’s a case to be made for saying that comic books can do this type of thing better than normal text books. Because the interplay between the visual aspect and the textual helps to bring these kinds of complicated issues to life. The text can remain complex while the visual aspect makes it easier to take in, and the combination is apparently more memorable than text alone.
ASF: The book ranges through a history of political agitation across the globe, from industrial unrest in 19th century Britain to the Occupy Movement in 21st century United States. How were the subjects chosen?
Benjamin: There were so many subjects that we could have looked at that it really became a matter of what we couldn’t afford to leave out rather than what we wanted to include. We started with the Luddites because that happened around the time of the industrial revolution, which is when the modern world, and modern Britain in particular, as we know it was born. Before then it’s quite hard to connect society as it was back then to society today, so it seemed a good place to start. Then we just threw a whole load of suggestions into an online Google document, argued and bartered over who was going to write what, and pretty much went from there. We tried to include a broad range of stuff, ideally not covering more than one protest per decade/era. But we didn’t really have a specific agenda over what to include.
ASF: Were there any subjects that were proposed but excluded? Were there any additional ones that you wished to see included?
Benjamin: Yes, lots! The Miners’ Strike, Bloody Sunday, Cable Street… We could easily have tripled the size of the book without ever expanding our remit, but we had to have a cut-off somewhere. It’s a shame that many stories weren’t included, but then the idea of the book was to serve as both an introduction to protest, and as a demonstration that political change usually comes from the ground upwards – 14 examples was enough to show that I think.
ASF: The book is published by Seven Stories Press, an independent publishing house in New York, and is now available for purchase from Amazon amongst others retailers. Was it difficult to secure publication and distribution of the collection?
Seán: Not difficult to get publication, as this is about my 17th book published so far, so I have a good track record. Seven Stories (and the UK publisher, New Internationalist) have a pretty good distribution system too. The main problem is sales. Even nowadays, with all the higher level of appreciation of graphic novels, these kind of mature books don’t sell much. Not that selling a lot and making tons of dosh is the aim. Few people in comic books achieve that! But we do need to sell a decent, medium, amount – for two reasons: to help us creators pay the bills and to encourage the publishers to continue doing this type of graphic novel. If, in 5 years time, the many good publishers now doing great comic books, have got to cut back because there is simply not enough sales, then we will soon see this recent comics renaissance fall back into the dark ages. These publishers operate in a capitalist world where sales are the bottom line. That is a very bad state of affairs, and yet another example of how capitalism is a barrier to creativity (despite pretending that is helps it). I have written an article about how in an anarchist system (that I favour), comics books would prosper much more than now. But, for the time being, what we need is for folks to go out and buy interesting graphic novels. For the sales to be good enough to keep things moving ahead nicely – so we can all keep on making good comic books.
ASF: Who are you hoping to reach with “Fight The Power!”?
Benjamin: Personally I’m hoping to reach people who aren’t involved in protest movements, who maybe thought Occupy was a little pointless or who think protest doesn’t really change anything. I see little point in preaching to the converted, though this book should provide plenty of information for people who do think protest is important. In terms of age, I would say it’s aimed at an audience from teenagers upwards, though there is no sex or swearing in the book (apart from the word “tits”!) so you could certainly show it to a younger child if you wanted to.
ASF: Tariq Ali, the well-known Pakistani-British author, journalist and activist has written an introduction for the book. How did you secure such an impressive recommendation?
Seán: Basically I just asked him. I find that if you simply ask, and the idea is good, that you get a decent response much of the time. Or I suppose if the figure involved can see that you have a past record of doing other such good stuff, they think it’s worth getting involved. As it goes, my previous “social issues” type book, “Parecomic“, has an introduction by Noam Chomsky. That was his first official connection with a comic book, and he had previously been rather dismissive of them. So perhaps Tariq noted that. To be rather shallow about it, the first thing that impressed me about Tariq is that he influenced John Lennon and the Rolling Stones song “Street fighting man”. It’s hard to top that, in my books!
ASF: I know that some promotional appearances are planned for “Fight The Power!” in the UK. Have you any plans to promote it elsewhere, including Ireland?
Benjamin: It’s a little difficult for Seán as he lives in Japan, but I’d love to come to Ireland! I’ve never actually been, but if someone invites me then I’ll come…
Seán: Coming from an Irish family I’ve been to Ireland many times, of course, though I was born in Scotland. Bit hard for me to pop over, as Ben says, living in Japan now. But since there is a chapter in the book on Irish popular movements I want to do some promotion of it in Ireland. We look at United Irishmen of the 1790s, the “monster meetings” of Daniel O’Connell, the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s, Parnell in the 1880s and right up until the establishment of the Irish Free State. There is also a chapter which looks at the “Bloody Friday” protests in Glasgow in 1919 and how that was an important stage in the development of a far more socialist inclined Scotland. So, we’re doing some promotion in Scotland too.
ASF: On a personal note, being a Scottish writer and editor living and working in Japan, what are your views on the forthcoming independence referendum in Scotland? Are you eligible to vote?
Seán: I’m not eligible, because I live in Japan now. But that’s fair enough, the residence rule is ok. Emotionally, I think I’ll be happy if the vote is a yes. But I’m not keen on narrow nationalism, I’m an internationalist! In practical matters what is important is the chance for Scotland to become a progressive left wing country, since most Scots in the last 50 years or more, seem to favour that. If Independence can help that then I’m for it. And, if that is successful – we would have to make sure we don’t balls it up – then the model would hopefully have a good influence on the region in general.