Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Masks Of Anarchy: The History Of A Radical Poem, From Percy Shelley To The Triangle Factory Fire (Verso, 2013) is a historical-biographical graphic novel by Michael Demson, a historian at Sam Houston State University in Texas. It narrates the lives of English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and Jewish American labor organizer Pauline Newman, in parallel chapters, linking the two together through the Shelley poem that lends the comic its name. It is illustrated by Summer McClinton.
Aside from the foreword by Paul Buhle, that hits many of the big tropes of the standard narrative’s tired fight for comics’ consecration as “real” culture – comics were born in the American newspapers in the 1890s, they evolved from juvenile throwaway culture toward being real “art” – the actual comic is a very interesting read. Demson gives a background to why he wrote it, rooting it in his earlier studies of Percy Bysshe Shelley, noting that he wanted to make something popular, New York, and, like the radical Pauline Newman whom he puts at the center of the narrative, edgy. And, for the most part, I would say that he succeeds admirably. The juxtaposition of the two narratives works to great effect, lending force to each other so that when the story climaxes with Newman’s reading of Shelley’s poem after the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the story reaches a climax that sends a shudder down the spine.