Writing in the Margins

The new year in indie publishing: Howard Zinn gives us the answer to No Child Left Behind. Plus: Andy Singer's attitudinal comic brings back Camus and Sartre, and our author says goodbye to Will Eisner and Joe Strummer.

Published January 31, 2005 9:00PM (EST)

The year is not off to a very good start.

From natural catastrophes to mind-numbing death counts, it seems like the Lord is trying to tell us something. Too bad I don't believe in him. I like to keep some distance between the doomsday predictions of everyone from Seoul Methodist ministries to the Landover Baptist Church who believes that the tsunami was God's punishment to heathen Indonesia for its disbelief in Jesus. But with Bush's recent appointment of Bible-thumper extraordinaire Claude Allen as his chief domestic-policy advisor, it's getting harder and harder to be an infidel these days. Everywhere you look, state-supported religion is making a comeback, sometimes to the tune of millions for those lucky "faith-based" screw jobs out there.

Woe to you atheists who used to love America for its eroding freedom from religion -- we are fast becoming the minority round these parts. It's God's country; we're just mining it for the black gold.

But let's leave disturbing thoughts aside at this dawning of Bush's new term; Armageddon may be headed our way, but damn if we're going to let it ruin the new year. We're already lessened by the loss of Sontag, a passing that was duly noted by Salon here and here. But few journalists have discussed the demise of Will Eisner, a comics colossus conventionally known as the father of the modern graphic novel and for whom the industry's most prestigious award is named.

Eisner left us on Jan. 3, after succumbing to complications resulting from quadruple-bypass heart surgery, almost 70 years after co-founding the Eisner & Iger Studio (with Samuel "Jerry" Iger), which at one time counted superstar illustrator Jack Kirby and "Batman" creator Bob Kane among its ranks. Eisner's comic noir series "The Spirit" inspired everyone from Alan Moore to Art Spiegelman to pick up a pen and enter the fray, but it is his 1973 comic "A Contract With God" that is widely credited with kick-starting the graphic novel game. As with any artistic enterprise, you're going to have arguments (especially over Eisner's period-bound ethnic stereotypes like Ebony White, African-American sidekick to the Spirit), but most will agree that Eisner is probably sitting at the head of the table in heaven -- at least in the comics wing. For more on the massively influential artist, check out D.C.'s recently released "Will Eisner Companion" and its continuing "Spirit Archives" series. Long live the Spirit's creator -- and I don't mean Jesus.

Let's get to it.

"Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer"
Edited by Antonino D'Ambrosio

320 pages
Nation Books
Order from Powell's

While we're on untimely passings, let us have a moment of silence for one of global culture's most commanding figures. Joe Strummer, although he might not like the comparison, was the John Lennon of the punk age. There were few bands as galvanizing and inspiring as the Clash to come out of the late '70s and early '80s sonic landscape, but memories are short in our reality TV metaverse, and his death in December 2002 was noted for about as long as our shortened attention spans can allow these days. Which is to say, not very long at all.

Which is where D'Ambrosio's fine collection comes in. Less a hagiography than an earnest consideration of Strummer's political views and life, "Let Fury Have the Hour" is a rewarding look back at the man who made The Only Band That Matters, well, matter. Leaping confidently from timeless screeds by Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs to appreciations from Chuck D, Kristine McKenna, Michael Franti, Tony Kushner, Tim Robbins and out into the more analytical work of Bad Subjects vets Charlie Bertsch and Joel Schalit, this potent collection ably communicates the hunger for social, cultural and racial justice that made Strummer's work so engaging.

"I believe that Strummer certainly belongs alongside Dylan, Lennon and the rest of those musicians who were both music pioneers and political activists," D'Ambrosio explained to me in a recent interview. "I also believe that among his peers Strummer stands alone. He remained a dedicated social justice and human rights activist; he never wavered from creating music rooted in multicultural or global rhythms while addressing important issues of peace and justice. For this reason, he deserves deeper scrutiny. There are very few musicians of his time -- or any time -- that have had such a tremendous influence on musicians throughout the world. Whether it's America's The Coup and Public Enemy, France's Mano Negra, Italy's Spaccanopli, Mexico's Tijuano No!, Chile's Desaparecidos or countless others in Africa, Asia and Europe, Strummer was a primary influence. And that was due to his unique sense of fusing a diverse music sensibility with radical politics."

That desire to knit Marshall McLuhan's global village together with music and civil liberties is what made the Clash's deft mixture of punk, blues, reggae, dub, ska and more a real movement. But almost three decades after Strummer recorded "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," the world still needs a few good men not interested in Ashlee Simpson's latest manufactured mistake or George W. Bush's Texas imperialism.

According to D'Ambrosio, Strummer saw this all coming. "Certainly, one can say that activists like Strummer are being vindicated by the rise of not only the religious right but of the far right, which seems to be more fascist in its tendencies. This underscores the importance of creating political popular culture that reaches many rather than a marginalized subculture that reaches only the few. With the Clash, Strummer was able to create music that was both entertaining and vitally political, message music that moved beyond the punk world and into the pop world, serving as a counterpoint to the dominant right-wing ideologies of Thatcher and Reagan. And now that Bush will serve a second term, there is more of a need for Strummer's voice. He would be doing the best he could to initiate something to challenge what the Bush regime is doing. When I met him in April 2002, he was terribly distressed about the state of the world and Bush's efforts at the time to march toward war and further destabilization. If he were alive today, he would be writing the new soundtrack to struggle, offering us an alternative to what Bush is doing."

"Voices of a People's History of the United States"
by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove
736 pages
Seven Stories Press
Order from Powell's

"You can't hide from the truth/
Because the truth is all there is."
-- Handsome Boy Modeling School, "The Truth"

Speaking of struggle, it should be conventional wisdom by now that the birth of America was no tea party, regardless of what went down in Boston. For every lily-white Republican that plasters 14 American-flag stickers to his ozone-chewing SUV, there are thousands of descendants of Native Americans, slaves, union members, leftists and more who carry the burn marks of America's melting pot across their bodies. Not that we need to start the whole thorny reparations machine up and running; rather, a consensual acknowledgment of factual American history, and all its Manifest Destiny warts, would do fine, thanks. After all, as Rakim rapped in "The Ghetto," "It ain't where ya from, it's where ya at."

Problem is, too many Americans don't even know where they're "at," literally speaking. They think that Columbus "discovered" America rather than Salvador, and that slave-owner George Washington never told a lie. It's just part of our national pastime of creating histories and cultures on the fly, what literary critic Frank Lentricchia called the "desire for the universal third person ... a new self [for] a New World." No one's blameless in this endeavor.

So high schools of the United States should not wait one second longer to add as compelling and indispensable a book as Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove's "Voices of a People's History of the United States" to their reading lists. Which might sound like a radical move, but only if you think that the hungry knowledge-seekers that populate the schools of America can't handle the truth. In a country where a secretary of education, the woefully inept Rod Paige, calls the National Education Association a "terrorist organization" in the frenetic midst of a war on terror -- while shelling out a cool quarter million to Armstrong Williams to pump up his hamstrung No Child Left Behind program -- Zinn and Arnove's potent collection is a much-needed wake-up call.

Plus, as Zinn told me in a recent interview, American schools are changing anyway -- for the worse. "There is great pressure on the educational system to put the history of this country in a good light," Zinn argues, "to omit the lies and massacres that accompanied American expansion. A few years ago, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution asking that history be taught in such a way as to inspire patriotism. The distortion of the past always comes from a point of view about the present, and a fear that the new generation will be skeptical of present official policy."

"Our hope is the books like this will break through the solid wall of super-patriotism and give young people a realistic view of their government," Zinn says. "They should understand that the interests of those in the White House are not the same as the interests of the citizenry, and that there is an admirable tradition of resistance to authority."

The author is just as frustrated by Rod Paige's ridiculous statement about the NEA (which Morphizm brutally satirized in a comic strip here, receiving much hate mail in the process, for those who want to check it out). "It reminds me of the Cold War '50s," Zinn confides, "when Congressman Himmel Velde of Illinois opposed funding mobile libraries for rural areas on the grounds that education led to communism." Zinn's earlier book "Declarations of Independence" features this mind-boggling quote from Velde that No Child Left Behind cheerleaders might want to chew over while they're busy signing checks to Armstrong Williams: "Educating Americans through the means of the library service could bring about a change of their political attitude quicker than any other method. The basis of Communism and socialistic influence is education of the people."

Let freedom ring.

Look, if research skills are still a necessity for any good college student, then this book is a great place to learn why. Those studying Columbus would do well to brush up on their Bartolome de Las Casas, who ably took notes while Columbus enslaved the unlucky natives he happened to come into contact with. Those infatuated with the ideological purity of the Founding Fathers -- namely, every so-called Fox News expert -- would learn a couple things from Benjamin Banneker, the child of a freed slave whose letter to Thomas Jefferson (who owned 83 slaves, by the way) illustrates the stark hypocrisy of a country that rebelled so violently and successfully against British oppression only to oppress, in turn, an entire race.

Zinn has some of his own favorites. "Some are unknown," he explains, "like Harriet Robinson recalling with pride her first strike in the Lowell textile mills. Or the Rodriguez family writing to Bush after 9/11, arguing that their son, who died in the Twin Towers, wouldn't want the U.S. to retaliate with violence. Or Yamaoka Michiko, who describes what it was like to be in Hiroshima when the bomb dropped. And then there are some well-known people who possess unknown points of view, like Helen Keller speaking out against war and militarism. Or Mark Twain, who denounced Theodore Roosevelt after the president congratulated an American general for the massacre of 600 men, women and children in the Philippines."

Zinn has been carrying the torch for America's hidden history ever since his now-canonical "People's History of the United States" came out in 1980, but you'd still have a hard time knowing it if you were relying on CNN or Fox for your "news." You'd be surprised how many people on your block have never heard of Zinn -- or maybe not. With hundreds of pieces from voices as diverse as Thomas Paine, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Leonard Peltier, Michael Moore and many, many more, "Voices of a People's History of the United States" should be required reading for every individual lucky enough to call America home. Even Paris Hilton.

"Attitude: Andy Singer, No Exit"
By Andy Singer
128 pages
Nantier Beall Minoustchine Publishing
Order from Powell's

OK, now for some small disclosures. Unlike Armstrong Williams, I consider myself a serious journalist, even though I'm just as much of a small-time hack as he is -- not to mention $240,000 poorer. But there are things that get my fires blazing, and one of them is the UC-Berkeley-based online journal "Bad Subjects," which was noted in the piece on Joe Strummer above. I wrote a couple of essays for those unrepentant free-thinkers back in the late '90s, although they read a bit amateur compared to the highfalutin crap I'm writing for Salon these days. In either case, my cameos with B.S. had nothing to do with my selection of "Let Fury Have the Hour" for this month's column. That was more a result of my lazy perusal of Nation Books' catalog. There, all disclosed. Are you happy now?

To get serious, what I really enjoyed during my time in Berserkeley was reading Andy Singer's "No Exit" strip in UC-Berkeley's Daily Californian newspaper, where it appeared from 1992 to 2001. So I was pleasantly surprised to get a follow-up from NBM Publishing on my last column exposing the best of America's underground comic artists, notifying me that Singer's estranged hilarity was getting its own book. Singer's work has always pointed out the innate absurdities in everyday American life, but don't think that his strip's title is an homage to that father of absurdity, Jean-Paul Sartre.

"Actually, I just meant for the title to convey the idea that there's no escape from the world," Singer told me in a recent interview. "Whether it's politics, relationships, business, money or whatever, you gotta face it. I found Sartre's play cold and depressing -- so much so that I was inspired to write a parody of it, where Garcin, Inez and Estelle have a massive orgy. It ends with Garcin drawing on the walls of the room with Estelle's lipstick and realizing how happy he feels. Of the existentialists, I prefer Camus, who comes across as more compassionate."

Singer himself is a compassionate guy, although he often goes on the attack in his "No Exit" panels. Of course, the usual targets -- consumerism, militarism, arrogance, Bush-Cheney -- get the darts, but, hey, they deserve it. My favorite Singer strips are those that unmask the irrationality of everyday life, like the one where a guy on a cellphone in a sea of cellphone-using citizens complains that he feels "isolated and alone." Or another where a joyous rich man screams "Money buys freedom!" from behind a barbed-wire security fence panoptically decked out with video cameras and sunglass-wearing bodyguards.

Singer also possesses a Gary Larson-like ability to transmit the strangeness of humanity through the eyes of the animal kingdom, like the one where a dog complains to his analyst, "I have a fear of castration, my mother's a bitch and I feel guilty for lying on this couch." All in all, he's a conscientious artist raging against the machines of hypocrisy and unilateralism, not an easy thing to do when you're a starving cartoonist looking to make the papers.

"It's a tough business," Singer agrees. "There are talented people who are trying new things, but the magazine market has all but dried up. On the newspaper front, chains have a stranglehold on the nation's dwindling supply. They take over a paper and turn it into a clone of every other one, so we have the same syndicated cartoons, columns and stories running in 90 percent of the newspapers in the country. It's fast-food journalism based purely on economics."

Speaking of Armstrong Williams and the Bush administration, er, I mean fast-food journalism, Singer -- like many others -- isn't too optimistic about another four years of Republican rule. Although an incompetent, greedy administration allows Singer a wealth of material for his strips, he'd hand it in any day for some forward-thinking policy changes.

"What I worry about is the long-term social and environmental consequences of Bush's policies. Denying that global warming exists won't make it go away. Denying that oil is vanishing won't help create alternative energy. There's 'no exit' from this stuff."

By Scott Thill

Scott Thill is the editor of Morphizm.com. He has written on media, politics and music for Wired, the Huffington Post, LA Weekly and other publications.

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