The authors have tried to produce an accessible introduction to the life of the US’s most renowned socialist from the early 20th century.
The format of the book is very odd. Each chapter starts with a straight prose introduction to the following pages of graphics. The prose sequences are highly partisan written as they are (in part) by Steve Max, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
The DSA has experienced a huge leap in membership from 6,500 members in 2016 to 55,000 today. The DSA is a reformist party and insists it stands in the political tradition established by Debs.
The graphic novel claims Debs for the reformist “democratic” (electoral) tradition and the work bends over backwards to disassociate him from revolutionary socialism. Debs is portrayed as a pioneer of “what an American socialism might look like.”
Debs, working on the railways by the time he was 15, quickly became the national secretary of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He was jailed for leading a nationwide strike across 27 states.
While in jail Debs read Marx and declared himself a socialist. He went on to be a founding member of the Socialist Party of America and ran for president of the US five times between 1900 and 1920.
In the 1904 presidential election Debs finished third to Theodor Roosevelt. In the 1912 election Debs won over 900,000 votes. By then the Socialist Party of America had over 118,000 members. In 1918 Debs was jailed for agitating against the war in Europe. He fought the 1920 presidential election — his last — from behind bars.
There’s an exciting life waiting to be drawn here. Sadly artist Noah Van Sciver isn’t up to it — telling Debs life through such feeble and pallid graphics it begs the question why it was felt necessary to use the graphic novel form at all.
Part of the problem is the book tries too hard to capture Debs as a “national treasure” and secular saint.
In addition much of Debs’ political life was played out in electoral campaigns and in courtrooms.
Debs was, by all accounts, a nice man who thought capitalism was bad but that doesn’t translate well into sequential art. Deb’s was also, apparently, a great orator but that doesn’t work well in comics either.
Debs didn’t leave a body of ideas on how socialism could be achieved so there’s no room for the great graphic acrobatics of the sort Kate Evans used in her Red Rosa.
But what really hobbles this book is its insistence on portraying Debs as “democratic” in the bourgeois sense.
It’s true that Debs was a reformist but he was also capable of great radicalism. In 1919 Debs wrote: “In Russia and Germany our valiant comrades are leading the proletarian revolution, which knows no race, no colour, no sex, and no boundary lines... Let us, like them, scorn and repudiate the cowardly compromisers within our own ranks, challenge and defy the robber class power, and fight it out on that line to victory or death! From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet I am Bolshevik, and proud of it.”
Debs gave no strategic thought as to how the American working class could make a revolution, which was a great weakness, and he broke with the Bolsheviks in 1924, two years before his death, but the authors would have us believe he had no sympathy with the October Revolution at all. Their Debs is nothing but a saintly man who was just after votes. They do Debs a disservice.
This book fails as a work of art and as a political biography. Debs deserves better.