Redrawing the New York-Comics Relationship

Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project

Comics Review: Michael Demson and Summer McClinton’s “Masks of Anarchy”

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.

The sections that represent Newman’s life are rooted in the radical environments of New York’s Jewish Lower East Side in the late 1800s through the first decades of the 20th century. McClinton’s illustrations borrow heavily from representations of this environment from that time, lending the narrative a visual correspondence to the radical New York history the script recounts. The result is a comic in which the political history and conditions of New York City inhabits a central role. While the writing is at times a bit heavy-handed, and the chronology sometimes gets a little jumbled (the worst chronological editorial error is rather glaring – the last chapter, about the fire, is introduced as taking place in 1819), the graphic novel is definitely worth a read for anyone interested in New York labor history, radical poetry, or the socialist Lower East Side.



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