Monday, November 11, 2013

Spirited argument

In Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith, Paul Buhle and his collaborators bring a redeemer to life in novel form

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.

As a public intellectual, Paul Buhle has had as protean and prolific career inside as well as outside academe as anyone in the last half-century. An acolyte of William Appleman Williams at Wisconsin, and an early member of Students for a Democratic Society, Buhle established himself at the forefront of labor history  -- he is the author of a widely read history of the Communist Party of the United States, which has just been reissued in an expanded edition -- before going on to write an authorized biography of Trinidadian writer and activist C.L.R. James. In the 1980s and '90s, Buhle's work turned toward cultural history, producing books on the Hollywood blacklist, among other topics. From his perch at Brown University at the turn of this century, Buhle taught courses in oral history, taking his work in a more ethnographic direction before his retirement from teaching and return to Madison.

Reviewing, however briefly, this storied career seems like a necessary prerequisite for explaining -- and, for this publication at least, explaining why one would review -- Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith, in which Buhle collaborated with well-known artists Sabrina Jones, Gary Dumm, and Nick Thorkelson. In recent years Buhle has argued that historians must take alternative media seriously if they wish to have an impact on the young, and he regards the graphic novel as a promising avenue of that outreach. To that end, he has collaborated on graphic histories of major historical figures as well as graphic renditions of works by writers including Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn.

Radical Jesus, for which Buhle wrote much of the text, is divided into three parts. The first section, by Sabrina Jones, rests heavily on scripture, using the words of Jesus of Nazareth -- not surprisingly, his role as Jesus Christ is not prominent here -- as a point of departure for images that illustrate the political implications of his ideas. A strong element of willful anachronism animates these panels; Jones uses contemporary settings alongside ancient words to vivify the ongoing relevance of Jesus's message. A dramatic sense of line in these black and-white-drawings provide an animating friction for the rectangular organization of the pages.

The second section of the book, "Radical History," is a series of chapters on the role of Christian activism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Some of these tales, like those of the Lollards, are well known (but with lots of details likely to be of interest to novices). Others, like the story of the Hutterite Brethren, are more obscure. But this mix of what might be termed canonical history along with obscure byways widens the appeal of the stories Buhle and artist Gary Dumm (a frequent collaborator with the late Harvey Pekar) choose to tell.

The final part of "Radical Jesus," by Nick Thorkelsen, carries the to the modern day by looking at a wide variety of social justice issues around the globe. Thorkelsen has a distinctive pluralistic approach to his art -- which is colorful in more than one sense -- that rounds out a distinctive, yet overlapping set of stories, images, and messages.

As a matter of religion, popular culture, and historiography, then, Radical Jesus is a rich and striking social document. It is one worth considering as art, pedagogy, and history.