A People’s History of American Empire

I should be smack in the middle of the target audience for this book. I love graphic novels, including non-fiction ones, and popular history, plus I have grave misgivings about the choices made by the current government of this country in the name of security.

A Peoples History of American Empire cover
A People’s History of American Empire
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Thus, I was stunned to discover that I couldn’t force myself past the second chapter. It’s much too hectoring and didactic, even to those already inclined to be interested in reading a “greatest hits of America’s sins”. The only group I can see welcoming this book would be students who think that the comic format is much preferable to reading prose history texts.

It’s not even good comics — there are too many talking heads and photocopied photos, as one runs the risk of with a project like this. It takes skill with the medium to keep journalism-style comics interesting, and while I don’t know, based on the non-specific credits, exactly who did what, none of them seem to have it. The credited names are Howard Zinn, writer of A People’s History of the United States, on which this is based; cartoonist Mike Konopacki; and university lecturer and author Paul Buhle.

The prologue is all about how angry America’s response to 9-11 made a cartoon character I think is supposed to be Zinn. That rant on the futility of “violence met with violence in an unending cycle of stupidity” continues for several pages before the chapters, each covering terrible times in American history, start up. It made my head hurt with its sledgehammer sermons on murder and racism and class warfare.

I don’t like using the term “cartoonish” as a pejorative, but that’s what this is, in the worst sense. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect that this was created by the right-wing goon squad as a satire of the kind of “liberal anti-American brainwashing” they fear in schools. Tom Spurgeon felt similarly. (A complimentary advance copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)


12 Responses to “A People’s History of American Empire”

  1. Jim Kosmicki Says:

    I really like some of Zinn’s works, and his People’s History (non-comic) is a classic in the field. But he’s like so many people with an agenda: as he gets older, and he sees the limited effect he has had on society, he gets more strident and shrill. Given the US’ turn so quickly towards fascistic thought and behavior in the post-9/11 timeperiod, I have seen that his recent writing has begun to resemble hectoring more than argumentation.

    But I’m torn, as I want to support non-fiction comics like this, but life is too short to spend the time or money on something that I’ll never actually finish reading because of the tone and approach. Hopefully a bookstore around here will get a copy and let me peruse it a bit to make up my mind.

  2. GARY HUCK Says:

    only a person who doesn’t draw would attack mike konopacki’s skill. if you truly don’t know what your talkink about, perhaps, just perhaps, you might consider NOT TALKING.
    as for “If I didn’t know better”…guess what? YOU DON’T!

  3. Johanna Says:

    I don’t have to know how to rebuild an engine to know when a mechanic is ripping me off, and I don’t have to produce commercial art to know when comic storytelling isn’t working for the reader.

    You might make a better case for your friend if you provided links to outstanding examples of his work. I’d be curious to know more, since I am willing to blame a lot of the problems on the text and the nature of the project itself.

  4. Dan Grendell Says:

    @Gary Huck

    Being belligerent and abusive isn’t conducive to making me consider your opinion worthwhile, by the way. It just makes you look pathetic.

  5. GARY HUCK Says:

    Being belligerent and abusive is my job title… but my point remains the same it is possible to not like a cartoonist’s stlye, but appreciate their skill. mike konopacki is an accomplished cartoon artist. I AM WILLING TO BET NO CARTOONIST WOULD CHALLENGE THIS, AS A MATTER FACT I KNOW QUITE A FEW WHO RESPECT HIM DEEPLY.
    the project itself was a bear, converting an existing history, no less howard’s, was a major undertaking. i, of course think mike did an excellent job.

    a note to don: “I don’t like using the term “cartoonish” as a pejorative, but that’s what this is, in the worst sense. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect that this was created by the right-wing goon squad as a satire of the kind of “liberal anti-American brainwashing” they fear in schools.”
    belligerent? abusive?
    or just good writing?

  6. Johanna Says:

    That’s an argument from authority — “these people you should respect think his work is good” — and even worse, an anonymous one. If your point was really to convince anyone, you’d be providing names and links (as I asked before). You’re just here to be obnoxious.

  7. kelly Says:

    I strongly disagree with your review. If you knew Zinn & his work you wouldn’t label him “right wing” at all. The man has worked hard for decades not only documenting and bringing to light most of the American history that is pushed under the carpet and behind the scenes, but also with his hands on activism. Zinn’s A People’s History of the U.S. is a book that belongs on the shelf of most schools instead of the usual stuff we are spoon fed. A People’s History of American Empire is a fascinating, important and well written (and illustrated) read. The history of the U.S. is woven with “murder and racism and class warfare”. Yet, we are often told to look the other way and it’s ok if it happens to our neighbor as long as it doesn’t happen to us. Zinn should be applauded for his work not dismissed.

  8. FZ Says:

    Howard Zinn is a Left-wing hater of America and a well documented LIAR like Noam Chomsky. In case the comic industry is wondering why readers like me, of comics and graphic novels, no longer buy their books, garbage like this is a prime example.

  9. John Says:

    FZ,
    Calling someone a “hater of America” is really a pathetic piece of childish name -calling, and strongly suggests that you don’t have the self awareness that you yourself have been just a much captured ny agenda as you seem to be accusing Zinn to be.

    Kelly, I suggest you read the item again, Johanna clearly says “if I didn’t no better”..just because yours was a left kneejerk doesn’t make it any better than FZ’s right knee-jerk.

    Furthermore, since I for one haven’t read the book, FZ almost certainly hasn’t, and I don’t know whether you have, so it really is rather hard us to “argue” with Johanna’s comments.

  10. Johanna Says:

    Thanks, John. I was about to point out to FZ that this publication isn’t part of the traditional “comic industry” — it’s produced by a book publisher — but I doubt that would make any difference to him/her.

  11. RinS Says:

    I do not respect Howard Zinn, and I think it is a shame that his “proctologist’s view of America” is so widely peddled at colleges, universities and even high schools. Were that readers of this knew as much of Russel Kirk, Paul Johnson, Alfred Regnery, et al.

    I do find it humorous, however, to find that those who would otherwise be Zinn’s supporters are rejecting this mass marketing of his anti-American screed.

  12. tavia la follette Says:

    The word “propaganda” has an almost universally negative connotation. Whenever we use it, we generally mean to refer to systematic and deliberate misinformation. But it’s worth remembering that the word is etymologically derived from the same root as the word “propagate,” to increase or grow. Propaganda, as the word was originally used, is simply a means of spreading the news, of getting the word out to large numbers of people, of disseminating information that needs to be disseminated.

    It’s in this original sense of the word that A People’s History of American Empire is propaganda. Using the medium of the comix or graphic novel, Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki, and Paul Buhle get the word out about a side of U.S. history that almost never gets taught in public schools, and about which many Americans even today remain clueless. Their treatment is entertaining and accessible–which means that it has a potentially huge audience–but neither patronizing nor simplistic–the book contains an extensive bibliography, and references both graphics and narrative claims. It’s ideal for folks who have neither the time nor inclination to read Zinn’s bulky classic A People’s History of the United States, from which much of the volume is mined.

    The format is ingenious. Zinn (wonderfully drawn, by the way) is the up-close narrator of the book. He begins by expressing bewilderment that the U.S. response to 9/11 has followed the same old violent pattern that the U.S. (and, of course, not only the U.S.) has typically adopted when threatened. This response, Zinn argues, ultimately only makes matters worse because it does nothing to get to the root causes of unrest. It is “an old way of thinking,” one that tragically keeps following the same destructive script, and Zinn proceeds throughout the rest of the book to chronicle its many historical manifestations, ranging from the Wounded Knee massacre to the invasion of Cuba, Hawaii, the Philippines, and Central American nations such as El Salvador and Nicaragua (according to a list published by the State Department in 1962, the U.S. militarily intervened 103 times in foreign countries between 1798 and 1895). Zinn also discusses governmental and big business response to domestic workers’ strikes (the Pullman strike and the Ludlow massacre, for example), and draws a connection between this “internal” imperialism and the “external” variety.

    Of particular interest are Zinn’s treatments of what he calls the “cool war,” a culture and ethnic battle over black music in the 1950s, and the current Iraq War.

    Another especially interesting feature of the book is its inclusion of Zinn’s life story (derived from his autobiographical You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train) which traces his childhood poverty (and tenderness for his parents), his radicalization, his repudiation of violence following his service in World War II, his activism at Spelman College (which led to his dismissal), and his anti-war work–including the famous peace mission to Vietnam–during the Vietnam conflict.

    Although the story of the insidious partnership between state and money is shocking and even horrifying at times, Zinn ends the book on an upbeat note. There’s much to be hopeful about, he insists, when one considers the extraordinary achievements of the last fifty years. Legal racial apartheid in the U.S. was ended; the Vietnam war was stopped by public protests; velvet revolutions throughout Europe and South Africa succeeded in overthrowing tyranny in relatively bloodless fashion. So “to be hopeful in bad times is not foolishly romantic,” Zinn concludes. “It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness” (p. 263).

    Both of those messages deserve propagation.

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