Tragic comic

Howard Zinn’s American portrait
By MIKE MILIARD  |  April 16, 2008

Growing up in the 1930s, Howard Zinn pored over the pixilated pages of comic books. “I read Superman and Batman and all of that,” he says. “But I was more a reader of comic strips. Lil’ Abner. Joe Palooka. When I watch Kevin Youkilis batting, I think of Joe Palooka.”

The Boston University professor emeritus, political historian, and playwright never figured he’d be in a comic book. But there he is — speech balloons hovering above his rumpled tweed jacket and floppy shock of white hair — in the new A People’s History of American Empire (Metropolitan), in which artist Mike Konopacki and historian Paul Buhle commingle the scholarship of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States with the personal recollections of his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

“There’s a lot of stuff about my life in it,” says Zinn, 85, who admits to initially being wary of the starring role. “Mike decided to put me in it as a cartoon, a caricature of me. At least I claim it’s a caricature — he probably claims it’s an actual portrait. At first he had me looking like a super intellectual, with spectacles and so on. I said, ‘Please, tone it down. Make me look more like a musician or something.’ ”

“Comic” might not be the mot juste when describing a book that shows, in stark black and white, the Ludlow Massacre, the Sacco and Vanzetti executions, and the 9/11 attacks, all drawn in Konopacki’s cartoony but appropriately emotive hand.

But Zinn suspected the format could work. “I trusted them,” he says of Konopacki and Buhle. And “of course, when I read [Art Spiegelman’s] Maus, I realized you could do remarkable things with comic books. When I saw how many adults were reading them, I guess I got around to the idea.”

Indeed, says Zinn, images can be incredibly compelling. “There’s always a danger, of course, when adding a visual element, of watering down the ideas or distorting them. But if you’re careful with that, and if the artist has a very good sense of what is trying to be said, it can, instead of detracting from the idea, enhance it and make it more powerful.”

Every good comic book needs a villain. And as we hopscotch from Havana Harbor in 1898 to Operation Ajax in 1953, from My Lai to CIA “black sites,” there’s little doubt who Zinn thinks is the bad guy. I ask him to respond to one AP reviewer’s complaint that “[t]he villain in this book is the United States. . . . Zinn has a habit of presenting every action by US officials as sinister.”

He laughs. “Well, he’s mostly right. But the villain is the United States government, not the United States people. That’s an important distinction to make. When you’re critical of the government, as I have been, as my books have been, as these cartoons are, people will say, ‘You’re anti-American.’ Which is a misreading. You’re not being critical of the American people. The American people are the victims of the American government. But I don’t mind being characterized as someone who thinks the actions of the American government have been harmful to people abroad and people in this country.”

So we know he used to read Superman and Batman. Was Zinn a fan of Captain America, who first appeared about the time he was flying combat missions — dropping, he’d later discover, a prototype of Napalm — over Europe in World War II?

“Not really.”

Howard Zinn and Mike Konopacki read from A People’s History of American Empire at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge on April 24 at 6 pm. Call 617.876.6837.

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