The OF Blog: Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic Review

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic Review

Originally posted on my now-quiet other blog, Vaguely Borgesian, as I'm going to be porting over a few of the reviews I did there so they can be more readily found.

A few months ago, I received a package of Advance Review Copies from Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s graphic novel imprint, Hill and Wang. One of the books included was Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History, which was mostly written, edited, and drawn by Harvey Pekar, Gary Dumm, and Paul Buhle. In this 214 page novel, these three have set out to show via a combination of printed word and illustrations the wide-ranging impact that the radical 1960s Students for a Democratic Society had on issues such as the antiwar movement, women’s lib, the democratization of campus life, and the civil rights struggle.

The book is split into many sections. In these, the editors decided to begin with an overall history (comprising the first quarter of the book) of the SDS movement, from its genesis in 1960 to its disintegration into factional infighting in 1969. The writers/illustrators don’t shy away from several touchy topics, including the use of violence by various members and splinter groups such as the Weathermen (named after a line from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”). But this introduction serves as a backdrop for the very passionate and often tragic lives of SDS members.

It is in the chapters following the initial overview that one hears the stories of various SDS members, what they had to overcome in their personal lives, the prejudices of friends and loved ones, and in a few cases, the tragic deaths of lovers. While one may not sympathize with their political views, their stories, with some very well-done artwork to emphasize the action unfolding, carry a ring of authenticity that often is lacking in textbook accounts of the 1960s in the United States.

As a former history grad student and teacher of American and World History, at first I was skeptical that the book could achieve its overall aims, despite evidence from books such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus that illustrated the possibilities that a marriage of personal (and world) historical events and the graphic novel form could have in moving the hearts and souls of the readers. For the most part, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History achieves its aims. It does an excellent job of showcasing the very interesting and conflicted lives of its members. However, one should not read this book expecting an unbiased account. The editors did not write this with the aim of doing so and the book is very clear in its endorsement of what the SDS accomplished. But with that caveat in mind, I did find this to be well-written and informative, giving the reader often-overlooked facets of the radical 1960s to consider.

For those who are curious about the 1960s in America and who want to learn more about the Students for a Democratic Society, I recommend this book as being a stepping stone to reading even more detailed and rich historical works on this very important era of American History.

Publication Date: January 8, 2008 (US), Hardcover.

Publisher: Hill and Wang (Farrar, Straus and Giroux imprint)

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