The underground comic book of the year

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A People’s History of American Empire By Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki and Paul Buhle (with additional scripting by Dave Wagner) Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2008 288 pp., paperback $17.00

“A People’s History of American Empire” brings the writings of Howard Zinn to life in a new, visual manner. Think comic book, but in full book-length form. Don’t worry this is far from a guilty pleasure. The team that brought this project to life has all of the credentials to keep both sides of your brain enticed. This book features the talented Howard Zinn, the dean of left historians, Paul Buhle, writer and/or editor of over 30 books about struggles against injustice and the blacklist, noted labor cartoonist/activist Mike Konopacki, and writer/unionist Dave Wagner.

In recent years Buhle’s taken to presenting his people’s histories in graphic form, including histories of the IWW, SDS and Emma Goldman. Now he successfully has taken on Zinn’s invaluable “A People’s History of the United States.” To clarify, Buhle and company take chunks of writings from Zinn’s original, and add pieces of the old master’s own life story and later writings. In fact, Howard Zinn, befittingly, is this book’s central character and narrator.

But the real stars here are the otherwise lost gems of history. The imagery within this book, including the drawings, photos and striking historic prints, refute the sanitized documentation taught in most American schools. The results are jarring. The reader is invited into Zinn’s study, as he painfully contemplates the 9/11 attacks as they occur, and all of the obvious fall-out to come, before being taken on a journey through time. The reader then becomes witness to a priceless Howard Zinn speech, one that artfully explains the rise of the United States as an empire. We, with the magical eye of a roving camera, observe from all angles the micro and the macro. This graphic history is more storyboard for the film between the book covers.

The real-life dramas here add new meaning to the word “graphic.” The history of the ruling class and its murderous attempts to keep its privileges are a common thread. The empire oppresses and kills off enemies, both local and overseas, and the people rebel. The Robber Barons, the Pullman Strike, the Spanish-American War, the rise of labor legend Eugene V. Debs, straight through to the present. It would have been impossible to depict all of Zinn’s original copy in his “People’s History” in graphic form, lest the book be an endless tome, though more detail into HUAC and the Cold War would have offered an even more intense read. Regardless, this book is exactly what we need now, in a period when we as a nation move onto a new chapter in real-time history.

Like its predecessor, this “People’s History” should be a staple among teachers with a backbone. The sense of déjà vu comparisons of then and now—are chilling. All that and the flair of an underground comic. On this particular walk through history, you’ll have on hand the tool to also reach across generations.

John Pietaro is a labor organizer and cultural worker from New York – www.flamesofdiscontent.org.