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Reviewed by:
  • Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle ed. by Graphic History Collective
  • Candida Rifkind
Graphic History Collective, ed., Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle (Toronto: Between the Lines 2016)

Comics and the labour movement have a long and entwined history that could begin with 18th-century satiric and editorial cartoons. Even if we take the definition of comics to be multi-panel sequences rather than single panel images, there is still a century of material for contemporary cartoonists to cite. One branch of this tradition is strip cartoons that poke fun at those who have not yet come to class consciousness, such as the 1910s Industrial Workers of the World Mr. Block series by Ernest Riebe in The Industrial Worker. Another branch is orientation comics produced to teach new workers about their unions and workplace issues. A third important type of labour comic is devoted to commemorating important moments in labour history. No less educational than satiric or orientation comics, contemporary labour history comics tend to also have close aesthetic ties to the radical traditions in alternative, underground, and indie comics pioneered by Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb in the 1960s. They often eschew the regular panel grids and realistic styles of mainstream comics for more fluid, disruptive layouts and expression-istic caricatures that echo the woodcut tradition of early-20th century proletarian art, pamphlets, and posters.

This is the context for the nine short Canadian labour history comics collected in the Graphic History Collective's (ghc) anthology, Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle. As the editorial collective explain in the Introduction, in the early 2000s the ghc received Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada funding to create accessible materials to raise awareness of Canadian working-class history. The first collaborative work they published was May Day: A Graphic History of Protest (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2012). Following its success, the ghc solicited proposals from new cartoonists for short comics for website and potentially print publication. To their credit, the ghc applied for all available funding to provide the artists with at least an honorarium, and there was clearly an effort to include female cartoonists in a field traditionally dominated by men. Guided by Paul Buhle's and Howard Zinn's commitments to popular history as a politically transformative tool, the ghc seeks to reclaim comics as a working-class art form that can inspire hope. The final product is this volume of Canadian labour history comics that tell inspiring, although not always politically successful, stories of 20th-century working-class organizing that includes Indigenous, feminist, and immigrant worker struggles.

Brief introductions by labour historians and organizers precede each of the comics, and Acknowledgements and Notes appear at the end of each chapter to cite sources and suggest further reading. Members of the ghc contributed to the writing of many of the chapters. [End Page 255] Various combinations of Sean Carleton, Julia Smith, and Robin Folvik co-wrote five of the nine comics, two are illustrated and written by a single artist, and two are based on the words of historical figures themselves. There is quite a lot of variation between these black-and-white comics. The first chapter, "Dreaming of What Might Be: The Knights of Labor in Canada, 1880–1900," uses Sam Bradd's sketchy cartooning style and plenty of typed text by Carleton, Smith, and Folvik to tell this story of a movement that, while flawed, is still inspiring. The same team collaborated on Chapter 6, "Madeleine Parent: A Life of Struggle and Solidarity." This comic reveals how Parent's lifelong commitment to labour and feminist issues charted some of the most important struggles of the 20th century.

One of the most visually interesting and lesser known stories appears in Chapter 2, "Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land: Indigenous Labour on Burrard Inlet." Illustrator Tania Willard (Secwapemc Nation) and co-writers Folvik and Carleton focus on the 1910s and 1920s struggles of Squamish longshoremen and the organization of Indigenous workers on Vancouver's waterfront, ending with today's fight by the Coast Salish to protect the land and sea. This sequence is...


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pp. 255-257
Launched on MUSE
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