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Book Report: Eugene V. Debs, A Graphic Biography

I read Eugene V. Debs, A Graphic Biography by Noah van Sciver, with script by Paul Buhle and Steve Max, and with Dave Nance. This is my report.

When I was in the tenth grade, my high school, a small agricultural school in northeastern Connecticut, piloted a new course. This course, called "American Studies," was a combined two-period course studying American history and American literature. It was a test to replace the upper-level American history and English courses normall taken during the sophomore year. By linking our historical studies with literature from the time period in focus, the idea was that we would develop cultural context to our understanding of history, rather than mere trivia. It was in this class I first learned of socialist leader, Eugene Debs.

It's pretty rare that American public school students learn anything about socialist leaders from the early 20th century. Anti-communism was then, and still is, a prevailing force in public education. So naturally, it wasn't through our textbooks that I learned of Debs's presidential campaigns and socialist movement. Rather, it was through local folk music. Growing up, the nearest "city," if you can really call it that, was Willimantic, Connecticut. Not even 15,000 people strong, Willimantic is a forgotten mill town in the quiet corner of New England. The historical lifeblood of the city was the American Thread Company. During Willimantic's heyday, the city was a junction of three rail lines, an important stop between Hartford, Boston, New York, and Providence. Wealthy mill executives built a number of Victorian-style "painted ladies" on Prospect Hill, overlooking the Willimantic River.

By the mid-1980s, however, the company moved its operations south, shuttering the mill and leaving the city to decline and the mill to fall into ruins. Residents of nearby suburban and rural towns, like the one I grew up in, would often rather make the 30-minute drive westward along Route 6 to do their shopping in Manchester, or work their jobs in the Greater Hartford area. The painted ladies began to fall into slow decline, some being partitioned into duplexes and triplexes. By the mid-1990s, the city was known as a drug center.

But with the Eastern Connecticut State University sitting on the hill, and the University of Connecticut barely 20 minutes away in Storrs, Willimantic retained an artful charm throughout the years. Alternative culture thrived in the city. Wealthy, mostly-white liberals, aided by university radio, kept alive a culture of art and poetry and music. And it was from a local folk artist that I learned about Debs. My teacher had introduced us to Hugh Blumenfeld, a Connecticut folk musician who wrote several songs about the area. One of those songs, "How Long," is a ballad about the history of Willimantic and names Debs explicitly:

I saw Eugene Debs rise up on Wobbly legs
I heard Amy Hooker dressing down American Thread
They took up the strikers' signs back in 1925
When the cutbacks at the mill ate our grandparents alive

My understanding of Debs and his life, therefore, has always been rooted in storytelling media that reach beyond dry political theory and historical trivia. So when I found the graphic novel, Eugene V. Debs, A Graphic Biography by Noah van Sciver, at my local Charlottesville comics shop, I knew I had to buy the book. Published in 2019, the book targeted an American political ecosystem where a resurgent Bernie Sanders campaign looked promising, one where newly-resurgent activism by the Democratic Socialists of America began to find its legs. The book tries hard to paint Sanders in Debs' mold, but is careful not to lose sight of its bookjacket's promises. The graphic novel roughly covers three phases of Debs political career: Debs's relationship to the rise of socialism in America in the late 19th and early 20th Century; the emergence of the socialist movement as a promising third party in the early 20th century; and the rapid death of the movement as America entered World War I. There are at times when the socialist movement is depicted with suspiciously rosy outlook; was the movement really as egalitarian as the text would like the reader to believe? It is hard to say within the confines of this medium. Simply not enough time is spent developing these histories to convince the reader.

This ends up being the fundamental flaw of the book. While van Sciver's art is a suitable medium for telling this history, and plenty of narrative text introduces each chapter, each chapter feels like it could benefit from more development of the secondary characters and storylines that make Debs's historical role so interesting. Not enough time is spent exploring how the Espionage Act was used to silence the anti-war movement, including socialists. Not enough time is spent really exploring the dynamics of Debs's presidential campaigns. They are presented as they happened, but they lack the context needed to really educate the reader of the political dynamics of the era. In some cases, only one panel is contributed towards building the historical narartive.

Nevertheless, the book does cover Debs' life in detail and makes the reader sympathetic to his causes. The art is good and easy to follow. The final chapter rapidly brings us through time by introducing the other socialist movements in America that existed between Debs and Sanders. I almost wish this was a three-volume series rather than a simple biography; the medium is engaging and it would help teach more people the history and theory of American socialism in a way that most contemporary texts are unable to.

The book is overall worth a read. It is important entry-level material to those unfamiliar with the socialist movement in the United States. I have no regrets in buying it. If nothing else, it brought me back to summers spent riding my bike along the streets of Willimantic, exploring an evolving city trying to find its way forward in the ruins of capitalism. But complete it is not. It will whet your appetite, but not sate it.

Eugene V. Debs, A Graphic Biography
Art by Noah van Sciver,
Script by Paul Buhle and Steve Max,
with Dave Nance
ISBN 978-1-78663-687-4
Buy online at your local bookstore or online at Powell's

Author

EG

Emily is a data scientist and activist. The opinions shared herein are her own.