This Labor Day I am thinking of my mother . . . .
In a 1940s photograph, her womanly face glows with confidence. She sits at a dinner table with a handful of men, their suits and ties matching her festive dress and upswept hair. As a child, I already knew that Mom had been a “Rosie the Riveter,” working on World War II battleships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But how did this photograph fit into her past? Only its chance discovery revealed that my mother had also been a union leader then, the shop steward for many other machinists. The snapshot had been taken at a yearly union banquet. My child’s curiosity satisfied, I could not imagine how decades later I would circle back to this photograph and this time in my mother’s life. It would take that long for me to appreciate how that union experience was the pinnacle of Mom’s work life—the only opportunity she ever had to use fully talents curtailed by the Depression and post-war economy. The Depression had forced her to drop out of high school; after World War II, most “Rosies,” including my mother, were replaced by male workers.
So, in tribute to my mother and others who weathered the Depression, finding some fellowship and reward in labor unions, I am blogging this month about two phenomenally powerful graphic novels set in 1930s America. The youthful protagonist in Kings in Disguise (1988; 2006) and its brand-new sequel, On the Ropes (2013), written by James Vance and illustrated by Dan E. Burr, is about the same age my mother was during the years they cover—1932 to 1937. Fictional Fred Bloch also has his education cut short by the Depression and his life affected by union activities. Fortunately, though, my mother never experienced the violent, real-life strikes and union-busting activities that are the factual basis for these historical novels. These events and similar ones are explained further in the nonfiction graphic works about labor leaders and history that I briefly describe at the end of this entry. While Vance and Burr’s novels are best appreciated by older readers (tween and up), three of the nonfiction works are suited to younger readers too.
Californian Fred Bloch is nearly 13, anticipating his bar mitzvah, when his jobless, desperate father abandons Fred and his older brother to search for work. In 1932, that difficult search leads Mr. Bloch to Detroit, where he writes that he has gotten a job in “the car factory.” That is Fred’s destination when he flees his home town to avoid being placed in an orphanage. Kings in Disguise follows Fred’s life over the next year and a half, as the movie and book-loving boy discovers that what he had “once thought of as ‘adventure’ . . . . was what was inflicted upon those who couldn’t run and hide.”
For most of this time, Fred rides the rails as a homeless hobo, seeing both the worst and best in human nature. He is befriended by older, tubercular Sam, who jokingly makes light of their straits by calling himself “the King of Spain” and Fred “the King of France.” Sam selflessly protects Fred from sexual predators, but he cannot protect him from the nightmares Fred has about those predators, or railroad guards who bludgeon hobos, or townspeople who destroy the ragtag, packing crate communities sometimes built by otherwise homeless wanderers. Burr’s black-and-white illustrations wonderfully communicate the hallucinatory, overwhelming nature of these nightmares, with images shown from different, at times distorted angles; faces sometimes drawn as gloating, cartoonish masks; and styles that vary from sharp, bold lines to swirling, lighter ones. Swathes of darkness, cross-hatched backgrounds, and frameless panels that alternate with or bleed into framed ones are also used to great effect. In these scenes and elsewhere, Burr’s visual narrative is so strong that entire pages are frequently wordless, yet they eloquently communicate both action-packed scenes and thought-filled revelations. Vance’s dialogue winding through other pages keeps readers in the moment with slang and expressions suited to the era—as Sam admiringly tells Fred at one point, “Boy, you said a mouthful!” Yet what he experiences in Detroit and nearby Dearborn, Michigan leaves even Fred speechless.
Befriended by union organizers, Fred takes part in the real-life Ford Hunger Strike, sometimes also called the Ford Massacre. When three thousand laid-off auto plant workers, carrying picket signs that declared “We Want Bread, not Crumbs,” in March, 1932 refused to leave Ford factory grounds, armed guards and Detroit police shot into the crowd. Five were killed and at least 60 were injured, many as they attempted to flee. Vance and Burr dramatically show the impact of this experience on Fred in a remarkable double-page spread. The left-hand page contains only the large hobo sign or shorthand for “Danger.” The right-hand page has four top panels in which Fred reads a Bible while thinking back to the recent massacre. The bottom-two thirds of the page shows bodies littering that scene, as police look on, arresting or questioning some wounded strikers while others hobble away. In ironic counterpoint to this devastation are the Biblical, life-giving words “And the spirit of God moved the face of the waters.”
Young Fred learns of the dangers of union-organizing, and he also sees how racism and anti-Semitism are the unquestioned norms of many white working-class lives. After Sam draws one bigot aside for a remark about Jews, the man apologizes to Fred, saying he did not know he was “one of those.” Yet Fred feels he has learned something even more important: “that by banding together [workers] could avoid destruction entirely, they could even fight back.” As the older Fred narrating this work says, “I put my childhood behind me and resumed my leftward journey.” (That direction refers to the Socialist and Communist Parties, frequently involved then in union-organizing.) The Eisner and Harvey Award winning Kings in Disguise concludes with one of young Fred’s dreams. He peers sadly into a coffin containing, one assumes from its shipping address, the body of his father, and then moves on, literally walking out of a lamppost’s light into the dark night. While Fred, now barely 14 years old, says I am “on my own” he also feels “accompanied by multitudes” seeking their fair share of the American dream.
On the Ropes (2013) begins in 1937, with 17 to 18 year old Fred at work in the travelling WPA Circus. (This real-life organization was one of the more unusual groups sponsored by President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration to employ performers and artists.) Fred is the assistant to Gordon, the circus’s featured “Escape Artist,” who each performance defies death while hanging from a noose knotted around his neck. Hard-drinking, cynical Gordon—a disillusioned WW I veteran—early in the novel tells his impoverished, entertainment-hungry audience that “We’re all scared these days, my friends . . . on the ropes, like a nation of punch-drunk fighters.” This bleak view echoes the novel’s narrator, an older Fred who warns us right away that his adventure-filled tale is a grim one. As we see a young boy smiling up at the show and then see assistant Fred offstage, this narrator reflects that “So few understand that even though most of us escaped with our lives—that doesn’t mean that any of us survived.”
In flashbacks to the years between 1933 and 1937, Vance and Burr show us the physical as well as emotional costs Fred has paid for his life on the rails. Burr’s spot-on illustrations of period clothing, hairstyles, and settings transform into a surreal, photographic “negative” and then fade to black as Fred is maimed while trying to hop a ride . . . and briefly escapes into unconsciousness. Fred re-finds purpose for his life by becoming a travelling mail ‘drop’ for union activists; in the circus, he even finds his first, true love with manager’s assistant Eileen, herself not yet twenty. A journalist writing about the circus encourages Fred to rework his own writing into a book. Yet harsh realities—part of real labor history—crash into these dreams. Visiting that journalist, Fred witnesses the Republic Steel Strike, also known as the Memorial Day Massacre. In May 1937, Chicago police shot into and then beat a crowd of 1500 people outside the gates of the Republic Steel Factory. The police killed and injured not only laid-off workers but wives and children who had accompanied them on that holiday. While Fred is away from the circus, two thugs hired as union-busters—another labor history fact—come in search of him. Their brutal activities have been a subplot throughout the novel. Sexual violence, plus one thug’s past relationship with Gordon, tinges their actions. Not finding Fred, the union-busters ‘question’ Eileen. While this crime is not shown, Gordon and returning Fred’s final encounter with these murderers is depicted in a crescendo of violence. Close-ups, shifting points-of-view, and dramatic swathes of inky black and dark grey, along with pages of fast-paced, wordless action, sweep readers along at a breathless pace. Is what happens then justice, a “vigilante bloodbath,” or both? Regardless of the answer, what follows—in two nearly wordless pages in which Fred reaches towards a dying Gordon—is a remarkably wrenching visual coda.
As older Fred narrates the novel’s final panels, showing his younger self leaving the circus, he notes that it would take “years to understand” these events and figure out how “not to waste my life.” Older Fred remarks, “I’m still trying to take that step.” Author Vance has written that there is a chance he and Burr will create another novel about Fred Bloch. Vance already knows what happens next to Fred! Yet On the Ropes is satisfyingly complete as is—and so well done that I fully expect it to be become another award-winner for its creators.
For more about labor history, leaders, and the conflicts between and within unions, older readers can turn to the non-fiction anthology Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World (2005). Its editors Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman provide clearly-written comments explaining and linking the entries they have chosen, created by 35 graphic authors and illustrators. These pieces display a wide range of graphic techniques and storytelling, many extremely effective, and cover less well-known events and figures as well as prominent ones. This is fascinating, sometimes disturbing reading.
Younger readers interested in labor history and leaders will benefit from these non-fiction graphic works: Cesar Chavez: Fighting for Farmworkers (2006); Mother Jones: Labor Leader (2007); and The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (2006). The fast-paced storytelling of these books, part of Capstone Press’s Graphic Library series, and their distinction between original quotations (shown against a yellow background) and “made-up” dialogue are pluses that respect the abilities of all readers, regardless of age. Second language learners will also find these books worthwhile.
Finally—since I began this entry with “Who knew?” bit of family labor history—I think it appropriate that I end it with a “Who knew?” item of global labor history. I discovered this in a book with a mouthful of a title—Masks of Anarchy: The History of a Radical Poem, from Percy Shelley to the Triangle Factory Fire (2013), written by Michael Demson and illustrated by Summer McClinton. This non-fiction graphic work focuses on the impact one poem written by British Shelley had nearly a century later on the life and work of American labor organizer Pauline Newman. His inspirational words to suffering workers—“Ye are many, they are few.”—became her lifelong motto. I did not know that!
Chapters there alternate between Shelley’s life and Newman’s, showing us how he came to write “Masks of Anarchy” and how she as a child immigrated to America. Later, we see the rest of Shelley’s life unfold (supposedly from his second wife’s viewpoint) and see Newman (supposedly writing about herself) working first as a child laborer and then as a union organizer. Newman did piecework at the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory long before she rallied workers after the terrible, death-dealing fire there. McClinton’s high angle drawings of the British Peterloo labor massacre, which galvanized Shelley, along with a montage of frame-breaking, overlapping images of the Triangle fire deaths, are particularly moving.
Readers tween and up will appreciate this book, though some may have questions about Shelley’s own lack of care and respect for women and servants. It seems clear here (as it does elsewhere) that this poet “talked the talk but did not walk the walk” in these areas, however inspirational his writing. The book’s Foreword by historian Paul Buhle, itself a labor of love and appreciation, is geared towards other historians rather than casual readers. Buhle’s careful analysis need not be read first or at all for readers to understand and appreciate this hybrid graphic novel, effectively combining non-fiction with two “fictionalized” autobiographies. I know my own mother, whose first job was on the assembly line of a Manhattan candy factory, would have relished learning about Pauline Newman.