In recent years, there has been a wave of politically-themed graphic novels that both help us to understand the past, as well as challenge the current status quo. Titles such as Guantanamo Voices by Sarah Mirk, Paying the Land by Joe Sacco, and March, a three-part series on the life of the late Congressmember John Lewis, use visual storytelling to untangle complex issues in a way that’s enjoyable to read but still rigorous and hard-hitting.
While nonfiction comics and graphic memoirs are now more popular than ever, I think it’s important to take a closer look at one of the authors who spearheaded the genre and whose work continues to shape it. Paul Buhle—a historian who has published books on everything from C.L.R. James to Jewish popular culture—began writing, editing, and producing graphic novels—a list now in excess of fifteen volumes.
Two of his early comics, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History and The Beats: A Graphic History, rely on a combination of oral histories, vibrant images, and humor (both were co-written by Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame), to offer a unique and accessible lens on often misunderstood moments in U.S. radicalism. More recently, Buhle has followed this same trajectory by coming out with visual biographies of socialist stalwart Eugene V. Debs and Latin American revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Paul Buhle of Madison, Wisconsin, is one of the United States’ most distinguished historians. As a chronicler of the American left, he is unparalleled. His books on the Hollywood left, Marxism, oral history, and related topics have set the standard for scholarly excellence. His magisterial Encyclopedia of the American Left, co-edited with Mari Jo Buhle and Dan Georgakas, is essential for anyone interested in the radical tradition of American radial history, culture, and politics (the third edition is due out in 2022).
For more than sixteen years, Buhle has also written, edited, and collaborated closely with other writers and artists to create many engaging graphic nonfiction books that appeal to a wide audience of all ages. His subjects are broad and extensive, including topics and themes that fundamentally chronicle the American experience through the twentieth century and beyond. This work complements his exemplary personal activism and writing for progressive causes.
The artwork in his graphic books are examples of popular cultural visual expression about hugely important topics, especially biographical drawings of figures who have unjustly faded into historical obscurity.
My focus here is on the significance of the graphic novel genre and specifically on three of Buhle’s biographies—one on Paul Robeson, the second of Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and the last about radical attorney Leonard Weinglass. These strike me as emblematic of Buhle’s work in this exciting arena of interdisciplinary intellectual discourse.
Let’s start with Robeson. In 2020, Buhle co-edited Ballad of An American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson, superbly drawn and written by Sharon Rudahl. The volume combines engaging art with biography and radical history and did tremendous justice to Robeson’s multi-dimensional life of art and political engagement.
It chronicled the entire trajectory of Robeson’s storied life and accomplishments, including his disgraceful blacklisting during the darkest days of McCarthyism in the early Cold War era. The book proceeded from his early struggles to his precocious academic, musical, and athletic triumphs in his youthful years.
Ballad of An American highlights how Robeson overcame the horrific racism during his time at Rutgers University, while becoming its first nationally recognized football star and All-American. It also details Robeson’s early involvement with the emerging film industry.
What truly elevated him, however, was his political awakening. He became one of the most effective and eloquent advocates for progressive political change in U.S. history during much of the twentieth century. Robeson’s advocacy encompassed the struggle against racism and for the rights of labor and for all oppressed people, both domestically and internationally.
But the blacklist destroyed his health, ruined his income, and catalyzed the historical amnesia about him and his legacy that remains to the present. Despite a Robeson revival at his centennial in 1998, he still remains “the greatest legend nobody knows,” as historian Joe Dorinson ruefully noted.
Buhle’s book combines Sharon Rudahl’s magnificent artwork and details of Robeson’s astonishing life with an afterword by himself and Lawrence Ware that provides compelling historical context.
The graphic biography Herbert Marcuse: Philosopher of Utopia, by artist Nick Thorkelson and edited by Paul Buhle and Andrew Lamas, with a foreword by Angela Y. Davis, attempts to herald a Marcuse revival. Once again, Buhle has assembled a superb team of professionals to add visual and intellectual depth to this enterprise.
The biography is a remarkable fusion of Marcuse’s life and philosophical development, set against the tumultuous historical events of early twentieth century Europe. It details his early studies with Martin Heidegger, his prominence in the iconic Frankfurt School and his crucial flight from Germany as a Jew from the growing threat of Nazi rule. Marcuse joined a large and distinguished number of intellectuals, artists, and others who fled Nazi tyranny, finding refuge in the United States and elsewhere.
Thorkelson’s drawings add enormously to the narrative. This reflects Paul Buhle’s commitment to the verbal and visual collaboration that has been the hallmark of this monumental focus of his later professional life in fostering radical graphic nonfiction.
Philosopher of Utopia addresses Marcuse’s personal struggles, his academic trajectory, especially at Brandeis University, and his growing stature as a radical political and public intellectual. Angela Davis was one of his star students at Brandeis and she came to realize, with his encouragement, that it could be possible to be an academic, a scholar, and an activist.
The book impressively summarizes Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, a scathing takedown of modern capitalist society. Its main theme is submission to a sophisticated capitalist scheme that demands and almost entirely ensures that “people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.” The only thing that has changed since 1964 is the growing level of capitalist manipulation and domination.
Marcuse was outspoken in supporting Black Americans, students, and other protesters, and in opposing the Vietnam War. By then, he had moved to the University of California at San Diego, a city well known for its conservatism. He attracted considerable hostile attention, including from the American Legion, the Ku Klux Klan, and then-governor Ronald Reagan. The book shows how he was even forced to go into hiding during those times, a victim of the reactionary responses to the Black liberation, student, and other movements sweeping the globe and to Marcuse’s unwavering support for them.
Marcuse continued to support resistance movements throughout his lifetime, including the women’s movement. He supported it as the most important radical movement of the time. He also did his best to support Angela Davis throughout her activism and unjust incarceration.
In the graphic biography’s foreword, Davis writes: “Fifty years later, as we confront the persisting globalities of slavery and colonialism, along with evolving structures of racial capitalism, Herbert Marcuse’s ideas continue to reveal important lessons. The insistence on imagining emancipatory futures, even under the most desperate circumstances, remains––Marcuse teaches us––a decisive element of both history and practice.”
Throughout much of the twentieth century and into the very early twenty-first century, radical defense attorney Leonard Weinglass also advanced the ideals of a just and humane society. Like Robeson and Marcuse, he blazed his own path for these powerful ideals. And like the others, he too remains mostly unknown in the mainstream.
Once again, Buhle collaborated with other prominent figures of the creative left, including artist/writer Seth Tobocman and lawyer/writer/activist Michael Steven Smith, to produce a powerful visually based account of a truly heroic lawyer who devoted his entire life to the defense of movement activists.
In Len, A Lawyer in History, we learn how Weinglass, a Yale-educated attorney, turned his back on privilege and monetary comfort; instead, he defended leftist activists, often in memorable cases, against the oppressive machinery of the capitalist state judicial apparatus right up until his death in 2011.
Proceeding chronologically, the book begins from Weinglass’s childhood on to his initial legal career. After his service in the Air Force, he worked briefly at a large law firm, and later the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, and then opened a small office in a poor Black community in Newark, New Jersey––generally uncharacteristic of Ivy League legal graduates. Tobocman’s drawings effectively convey how this was the real start in his lifelong struggle for racial justice.
Soon, he began representing Newark activists challenging the corrupt administration of Mayor Addonizio. He defended rent strikers and those who had engaged in civil disobedience. The 1967 Newark “riots” fully radicalized him and he soon emerged as one of the country’s foremost activist lawyers, a position he would occupy for the remainder of his life.
Tobocman continues on to illustrate many of Weinglass’s most celebrated cases. He came to additional visibility when he defended the people charged after the Chicago police riot, following the massive police brutality unleashed by Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley during the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
Len, A Lawyer in History further chronicles his drive to use his superb legal talents on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed. Among his clients were Native American prisoners, student protestors against the Central Intelligence Agency, and other reactionary targets and policies of the U.S. government, as well as the Cuban Five, men who were unjustly imprisoned in the United States and labeled terrorists after resisting continued attacks on the socialist government of Cuba.
The three graphic nonfiction works detailed in this article join Paul Buhle’s larger body of work in this genre to add a powerful dimension to our understanding and appreciation of history. He has brought his remarkable scholarly background and skills to this enterprise. All of these volumes make a huge contribution to the contemporary historical canon.
Buhle’s works have also shaken up the long hidebound field of art history, for the good. That discipline has been slow to change, but maverick art historians combined with the massive upheavals of sixties and subsequent protests and the creation of ethnic and gender studies programs have permanently altered the discipline.
In 2022, Buhle and artist Anne Timmons will release ¡Brigadistas!, a graphic history of the Spanish Civil War. This work will further ensure that his distinguished legacy continues.
Paul Von Blum is senior lecturer in African American Studies and Communication at UCLA. He is a longtime civil rights and political activist and the author of many books and articles on political art, expressive culture, education, and law.