Tuesday, July 7, 2015

There Is Strength In A Union

On the Ropes: written by James Vance; illustrated by Dan Burr (2014): The late-1980's graphic novel Kings in Disguise was also written by James Vance and illustrated by Dan Burr. It was an unapologetically Steinbeckian work set during the Great Depression in the United States. Realism and melodrama combined in that graphic novel to make for one of the lesser-known great graphic novels ever produced in the medium. 

It took about a quarter of a century, but Vance and Burr return here to the Great Depression, and to the youthful protagonist of Kings in Disguise, the now-17-year-old Fred Bloch. And it's great to have them all back.

The main narrative takes place in 1937, though Bloch narrates the events from an undisclosed but seemingly distant future time and there are also copious flashbacks. Fred Bloch now travels through the American Midwest with a carnival funded by FDR's federal Work Projects Administration to provide both work and entertainment in Depression-era America. 

Across the country, workers are unionizing. And across the country, businesses are hiring people to break up strikes, unions, and attempts to unionize, often by any means necessary up to and including murder. That last part isn't melodrama -- violence and even murder was often a tool used by businesses and the State against unions in 19th- and early 20th-century America. The Pinkerton Agency, for example, was at least as well-known during that time for its union-busting activities as it was for anything remotely resembling detective work.

Fred works for an escape artist with a tragic past, romances a fellow young carnival worker, gets a WPA-funded reporter interested in labour's battles with Big Business, and covertly helps organized labour by acting as a 're-transmitter' of union communications through the post. Mail was often intercepted if it were believed to be union-related (yes, this is also historical fact and not melodrama), so Fred's help is invaluable so long as he remains the unknown link in a chain of communication. Unfortunately, two murderous thugs hired by a steel company are on his trail. And one of them has a history with Fred's escape artist.

Vance's writing is solid, involving, and certainly heartfelt. If the climax of the story strikes me as being melodramatic -- well, it is sometimes nice to see a battle between good and evil in a graphic novel that doesn't involve bright costumes or muscular hyper-competence. Fred, navigating now more intellectually between the problems of the mundane world and the communal aspirations of socialism, remains a finely drawn and sympathetic character. 

Burr's art suits the material perfectly -- it's nicely rendered, skilfully laid out, and refreshingly normative in its depiction of the Depression era and all its characters, good or bad or humanly in the middle. Like Kings in Disguise, On the Ropes is work of admirable and quietly beautiful craftsmanship. Highly recommended.

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