Paul Buhle: Collaborates on a comic-book history of SDS

Historians in the News

[Paul Buhle is a senior lecturer in history at Brown University. He is editor of the forthcoming A People's History of American Empire (Metropolitan Books, 2008), an adaptation in comics form of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (Harper & Row, 1980).]

History comics seem to have been a long time in coming, but readers of graphic novels have probably been expecting them for years. Art Spiegelman's Maus, drawn from the oral history of his father, a Holocaust survivor, was arguably the work that lifted respect for the craft toward its current level. Contemporary historical accounts of the Middle East and the Balkans by the cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco have brought home to thousands of readers, otherwise bewildered by events in these regions, the heavy weight of the past. And though most of today's book buyers would not know it, a multivolume graphic history of pre-state Texas, by the late Jack Jackson (his pen name was Jaxon), is revered by regional scholars as a serious effort to do justice to all sides of a complex conflict.

My involvement in representing history dates to the founding of a history magazine for Students for a Democratic Society, back in 1967, with the seemingly odd title of Radical America. The idea was to find our own collective radical traditions rather than fishing for them abroad. The one-shot Radical America Komiks, which SDS published in 1969, wasn't all that historical except as a phenomenon of the new, uncensored comic art that was emerging at that time. But I was moving toward oral history as a calling, and I think now that there is a thread of commonality between the life-story interview and the comic-art narrative in the storytelling of history.

Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History owes its inception first to a publisher whose aunt was an SDS leader in Austin, Tex. He suggested the project to me. Second, it is owed to the comics scriptwriter Harvey Pekar, who developed the book's overarching narrative of SDS's history, within which the book's more intimate, local, and personal stories make sense. ...

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