Comics Review: “The Young C.L.R. James: A Graphic Novelette.”

C.L.R. James (1901-1989) was a Trinidadian-British Marxist and pan-Africanist historian, writer, political theorist and activist. If you’re a halfway serious student of twentieth-century radical thought, you know that already. If you’re not, here’s a quick, and incomplete, summary of his achievements: His 1936 novel Minty Alley was the first novel published by a West Indian living in Great Britain. Two years after publishing Minty Alley, James wrote The Black Jacobins, a history of the Haitian Revolution that remains a critical touchstone in Africana studies; he also wrote the first history of the Communist International. His 1965 semi-autobiographical meditation on cricket, Beyond a Boundary (check out my review here) was an early exemplar of a new field of intellectual inquiry that emerged in the 1960s, cultural studies.

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Beyond his literary and scholarly achievements, James was at the forefront of some of the twentieth century’s key liberation movements. A tireless champion of the oppressed, he mobilized resistance to European colonialism in Africa and the West Indies starting in the 1930s, and spent fifteen years in the United States organizing working people. In the 1960s, he became an critical touchstone to a new generation of Black activists looking to understand, and ultimately topple, racial and class oppression, and he remained an active thinker, writer and speaker up until his last years. Reading James’s work and life story, what emerges is a vision of of freedom in which the popular masses liberate themselves; James was, in the truest sense of the word, a democrat who never lost faith in the ability of the common man and woman to understand the dynamics that kept them down and to work in concert for total liberation.

This vision of the capacity of regular people to work towards a future in which they are truly free is a central theme of Milton Knight’s new comics biography of James, “The Young C.L.R. James: A Graphic Novelette,” published by PM Press. Knight is a comics creator, animator, illustrator, writer and fine artist from Mineola, New York. “The Young C.L.R. James” reflects his maxim that “Art springs first from an observation of life, then a philosophy from the heart and mind of the artist.” Knight has obviously read James’s life and work closely, and the observations he has taken from his study are clearly informed by a set of political values that he shares with his subject. Knight’s book highlights the idea that the way to freedom lies not with following a vanguard leadership, but with the collective self-actualization of the popular masses.

The Young C.L.R. James” reads as a single chapter from what I hope will be a longer project that will cover the entirety of James’s life and legacy. The book follows James’s life from his early childhood to the 1936 production of his play (written in 1934) about Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture. It also features a short vignette on swing music and dancing, an aspect of American culture that fascinated James. A brief introduction by James scholars Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware provides background information about James’s life, work, and his broader historical context.

The Young C.L.R. James” begins with a encapsulation of the first chapters of Beyond a Boundary, in which James recounts his youth in colonial Port-of-Spain. James was a leading figure in the anticolonial movement, and yet he was, in many ways, the proud product of British imperial culture. To him, such touchstones of English identity as Shakespeare and Thackeray were parts of an intellectual heritage that spoke to the revolutionary potential of the people. In a talk given in Montreal in 1966, he argues that dialogue delivered by servants in King Lear reveals “the role of the peasants in the crisis of society.” [1]

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Wright’s dynamic style captures the sense of movement that defined James’s vision of the West Indian people.

James’s understanding of the possibilities for liberation that were embedded in colonial culture emerged most strongly in his passion for cricket. As Knight argues, cricket was introduced in colonial societies like Trinidad to “indoctrinate” colonialised people “with the values assuring that they will be ‘good’ subjects under British rule.” However, James understood that cricket gave the West Indian people a stage on which to show the world their innovative spirit and ability to excel on their own terms. Cricket is central to James’s, and Knight’s, recounting of the development of James’s racial consciousness: as young man looking for a cricket team, James had to navigate a complicated caste system in which skin colour and social class, as much as athletic skill, determined where one could play. Ultimately, a comment from the West Indian cricket great Learie Constantine – “You have it all wrong you know … They are no better than we.” – shocked James into awareness, and marked the start of his commitment to the anti-racist/anti-colonialist cause.

Cricket allowed James to understand how everyday West Indian people expressed their revolutionary nature within a context determined by imperial power. His novel Minty Alley further explores the daily culture of the Caribbean people, depicting the quotidian lives of those on the margins of colonial Trinidadian society. As Wright emphasizes, Minty Alley reflects James’s growing fascination with the question of the possibilities for liberation that dwelt within the popular masses. After finishing the novel, James left Trinidad, joining Constantine in Lancashire; as James writes in Beyond a Boundary, “the British intellectual was going to Britain.” [2] (Christian Høgsbjerg’s C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain, which I review here, is an excellent overview of James’s political development in those years.)

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Paul Robeson as Toussaint Louverture

While he was in the UK, James wrote a biographical play about Toussaint Louverture that starred the African-American actor and activist Paul Robeson. The last few pages of the comic are a brief recounting of the Haitian Revolution drawn from James’s script, ending with Toussaint’s death in a French prison. Again, in this episode, Knight brings us back to the central idea that emerges from his reading of James’s work: as Toussaint reflects on a white man spouting the alleged biological reasons underpinning white supremacy, he realizes that “If the negro is to be set free, he must free himself.” The only people with the power and insight to bring down oppression are the oppressed.

My favourite James quote comes from Beyond a Boundary. The West Indian people, James wrote, were, on the verge of their political independence, “moving too fast for any label to stick.” Knight’s work effectively captures the dynamism that James points at in this analysis. Whether in his triptych rendering of a batsman in full swing or a two-page dialogue-free sequence depicting James talking to – and ultimately being seduced by – the people he would write about in Minty Alley, Knight’s drawings capture a sense of movement that was central to James’s conception of freedom and progress. I’ve read a few comics biographies of political, intellectual and literary figures likes James, and these often end up being text-heavy efforts in which the artwork may complement the words, but does little to open up an expressive space in which the artist can move the reader to a deeper understanding. Knight’s decision to forgo huge blocks of text in favour of using his amazingly expressive imagery to show the reader – and not just tell the reader – where James came from and what he wanted to say makes this book a must-read for both people who have never heard of C.L.R. James and serious James scholars.

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[1] C.L.R. James, “Shakespeare’s King Lear,” in You Don’t Play with Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James, ed. David Austin. A.K. Press, 2009. p. 84.

[2] C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary (50th Anniversary Edition). Duke University Press, 2013. p. 111

[3] James, Beyond a Boundary, p. 148.

Comics Review: Julia Kaye’s Super Late Bloomer

VANCAF – the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival – is where I often learn about comics and creators that might otherwise fly underneath my radar. My personal highlight of the 2018 edition of VANCAF was discovering the work of the Los Angeles-based cartoonist Julia Kaye. The strips she had on display immediately caught my eye, as they perfectly embodied the ability of comics to put words and images together and express something that neither can on their own. Her work takes maximum advantage of the unique synergy of the medium: the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts. Her drawings are simple, and she uses as few words as possible. But while Kaye gives the reader only as much visual and textual information as they need to grasp her message, her work has an emotional impact that belies the seeming simplicity of her visual aesthetic.

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The comics Kaye had on display were from her recent book Super Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition, a collection of diary-style comic strips that chronicle her experience with gender transition. Kaye’s style may be simple, but her work addresses an issue that is laden with complexities. Her genius – and I don’t use the word lightly – enables her to tell a deeply personal story with heart-wrenching immediacy. But beyond her ability to tell a profoundly moving personal story, her work has critical social and political implications.

Kaye is the creator of a comic titled Up and Out, which is available on two platforms: a GoComics page and a Tumblr page. This review, however, only addresses her book, which stands on its own and doesn’t require any other reading for context.

Super Late Bloomer is a series of daily strips covering five months in 2016, each strip focusing on a particular moment, event, or insight as Kaye embraces life as a woman. Kaye typically follows a three-panel format, which doesn’t give her a lot of room in which to explore the issues that arise, and yet each strip has a clear emotional impact. The format makes me reluctant to classify Super Late Bloomer as a memoir in the strictest sense of the word: while the book proceeds in a chronological fashion, the strips are more a series of distinct reflections than they are a unified narrative. Kaye lets us in on the quotidian challenges, setbacks, and victories she experienced during a crucial period in her life. The strips address topics like the emotional blow that comes with episodes of misgendering, the frustration of dealing with the bureaucracy of changing one’s name, the discovery of sometimes unexpected allies at family gatherings or in a cosmetics shop, and moments in which Kaye realizes that the acts that help her embrace her womanhood, such as wearing makeup, have become routine. Each strip has a sense of resolution, but those resolutions are as likely to be uplifting as they are heart-breaking. Sometimes Kaye celebrates a moment in which she overcomes an internal or external obstacle that she has encountered. On the other hand, she sometimes suffers difficult setbacks as she works to accept herself for what she is and struggles against people and a society that fail to see her for what she is.

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Some strips express deep pain and frustration…

Ultimately, this book is about acceptance; Kaye’s journey to self-acceptance, and her struggle to be accepted by world that too often rejects people who challenge our preconceptions about how people are supposed to live their lives. Sometimes, for Kaye, the former brand of acceptance is armour against the absence of the latter. And this is where I see this book as profoundly political.

Radical liberation movements like abolitionism, the civil rights and Black Power movements, multiple waves of feminism, anti-colonial and Indigenous rights movements and the struggles for gay and lesbian equality do more than strive to end the oppression faced by a particular group for at least two reasons. First, they force societies to interrogate and ultimately discard the intellectual and conceptual frameworks that justified the oppression of a targeted group. Second, they force societies to confront, and ultimately acknowledge, the full humanity of people who had been historically been excluded from enjoying that status. The struggle for trans acceptance requires us to shed concepts and constructs that have been with us for so long that they are considered “natural.” The gender binary is fundamental to our concept of what it means to be a human being, and to how our society arranges itself. As I finished the first draft of this review, a friend on social media posted a video taken at a “gender reveal” party for a family member who is pregnant (It’s a girl, apparently). Before we even come into the world, people are put into boxes that are determined by physical markers, whether or not those markers accurately reflect the human being who inhabits that particular body.

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…while others are amazingly uplifting.

The movement for trans acceptance forces us to examine the fundamental “truths” that inform cultural, legal, political, economic, and social structures that shape who we are and how we live. This is not easy to do. Trans identity not only unsettles the status quo, it challenges elements of even the most radical political ideologies. The existence of TERFs – trans-exclusionary radical feminists, a movement that seeks to delegitimize trans women– reveals how deeply the gender binary is baked into how we see ourselves and the world we inhabit.

The act of existing as a trans person is a profoundly revolutionary one, and requires an incredible amount of courage. Kaye’s elegantly-delivered insights help us understand the challenges of being trans and the stakes of the trans struggle, both for the people living that struggle and for a society that will have to radically overhaul itself so that trans people may be fully accepted. The stakes of Kaye’s struggle are huge for her, but they’re also huge for those of us who are committed to building a truly just society.

Comics convey meaning in a direct and intimate way while requiring that readers actively engage with the material in front of them. This makes them an ideal medium to help readers grasp challenging ideas, arguably better than text alone, or passively-received moving images. Kaye combines words and pictures to create a whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts and tells a story that is intensely human and ultimately deeply political. Read this book.