FDR and the New Deal For Beginners, by Paul Buhle, Sabrina Jones and Harvey Pekar

Posted by on September 14th, 2010 at 9:21 PM

FDR and the New Deal for Beginners. Written by Paul Buhle; comics by Sabrina Jones; afterword by Harvey Pekar. Danbury, CT: For Beginners, 2010. 160 pp; $14.99 pb; numerous black-and-white illustrations and short stories. ISBN: 978-1-934389-50-8.

The epic story of how “a lonely member of the gentry” became the country’s only four-term president offers a comfortable fit with the “for beginners” series. While many baby boomers grew up around family members who had lived through the great depression and the war years, subsequent generations have mainly learned about Roosevelt and the New Deal via textbooks rather than informal conversations. This hybrid volume, which combines short graphic narratives, prose chapters and reprinted illustrations from the 1930s-1940s, is squarely aimed at both the general reader and contemporary high school students, for whom the entire twentieth century is at best an intriguing blur.

Sharing a passion for non-fiction comics, as well as history from the ground up, Paul Buhle and Harvey Pekar collaborated on several book projects, including The Beats: A Graphic History (2009), Stud Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation (2009) and Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History (2008). They also labored together on the forthcoming volume Yiddishland, which is being published by Abrams in 2011. According to Buhle, Yiddishland tells “the story of secular Jewish-Americans who carried on the centuries-old legacy of Yiddishkayt, and did wonderful things with the language and culture until time ran out.”

As it happens, Sabrina Jones contributed a piece to The Beats volume, and also worked on Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World (2005), which Buhle coedited with Nicole Schulman. Buhle is even listed as the editor of Jones’s Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography (2008), which I reviewed here. (My reviews of Buhle’s Comics in Wisconsin (2009) and The Beats are here and here.) Anyone with more than a passing interest in contemporary political cartooning is likely to have run across work by Buhle, Jones and/or Pekar.

Harvey Pekar’s contributions only take up a few pages, but his spectral presence lends poignancy to the proceedings. In a two-page piece, “FDR As Seen From February 2010,” Sabrina Jones depicts a conversation she had earlier this year with the then-ailing Cleveland-based writer and publisher. “You were alive when Roosevelt was in office?” “Yeah,” Pekar replies, “I was alive the last six years of his life. I’ve never seen a president as beloved as FDR…My uncle said at a family get together: ‘I’ll tell you, FDR was a mensch, even though he came from a rich family.'” At this point the uncle starts excitedly waving his fork in the air.

In a brief afterword, Pekar says that the story of FDR and the New Deal holds “lessons for today’s world.” Studs Terkel, he points out, “called his classic Depression work Hard Times, and they certainly were. But some of the best things about American life took shape then, and remain at risk all these years later. We need to be reminded how the powers of privilege were beaten back, and how they might be beaten back once more.” He doesn’t quite come out and say it, but his underlying message seems to be that the times call for a revival of 1930s-style militant leftism:

The author and artist of this volume are to be congratulated for highlighting the dynamic driving forces of the New Deal emerging from the bottom tiers of American life. The rent strikes, farm holidays, general strikes in cities, the sit-downs, the rise of industrial unions, anti-fascist popular movements among blue collar ethnic groups – all these forces pushed the President and New Dealers leftward, to places they might not have gone otherwise on their own…During the generations since, conservatives and sometimes liberals as well have sought to chip away at entitlement programs, loosen control upon financial institutions and eradicate entirely the egalitarian spirit that infused the best of the New Deal 1930s.

These themes echo those sounded by Sabrina Jones in her dozen or so compressed graphic histories, as well as by Paul Buhle in his five chapters on the crisis of the 1930s and the rise of the New Deal. The book all but shakes the reader by the lapel and shouts, “wake up!” The publisher’s clever youtube promotional video, which can be seen here, draws a clear connection between the FDR’s times and our own, without hitting the viewer over the head about it. The video also does a nice job of highlighting Jones’s vivid black-and-white compositions. In comparison to the book the promotional video is rather understated.

An avid conservative who despises the social democratic paradigm might nevertheless find themselves admiring the video, or the book itself, which is affordably priced at $14.95. “Why can’t our side put out a graphic novel version of Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man?” this opinionated bookstore browser or Internet surfer might ask himself. “That would show them!” These days the compulsion to refute the other side’s propaganda is almost pathological. For all I know, a book called Why FDR and the Communistic New Deal Sucked for Beginners is already in press.

Sabrina Jones’s self-contained stories are complemented by single-panel cartoons that Buhle and his collaborators have culled from two sources – drawings by Bits Hayden that originally appeared in On the Drumhead: A Selection from the Writing of Mike Quin (1948), and the pages of The New Masses (1926-1948).  Among the talented artists whose work was featured in The New Masses were Adolph Dehn, Fred Ellis, William Gropper, Gus Peck, Mische Richter and Sylvia Wald. It seems safe to say that less has been written about the comic art of Popular Front-era journals than the subject deserves. From the evidence provided here, Bits Hayden has also been unfairly overlooked, despite the scholarly and journalistic gold fever that all-things-comics has inspired in recent years.

While Bits Hayden has not left much of a web trail, copies of On the Drumhead can be found from various online sources. Here is the only Bits Hayden drawing that google images turned up. Titled “Labor Buries Its Dead,” it’s from 1934.

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