A Bohemian Comic Rhapsody

by

Bohemians: A Graphic History is an ideal medium for the history it presents. There is a growing understanding that comics are one of the few art forms considered purely American in origin. Arguably, the other four are the mystery novel, the banjo, jazz, and the musical comedy. I might throw bluegrass music into the mix, but the focus of this review is comics. The collection of comics appearing in Bohemians is a broad reaching display of the varieties of the art form and the artists include many new cartoonists along with some well-known artists who began drawing during the 1960s and 1970s underground comics renaissance. Mostly freestyle in form, the artwork in other stories is more linear in form, even using typeset for the word balloons.bohemians-verso-buhle-berger-2014 The real story here though is the one the artists and their writers tell. While not nearly a complete history of bohemianism, this book is a delightful effort cataloging the phenomenon’s beginnings in Europe, its migration to North America, and its eventual integration of the US African-American community. Indeed, it was often the latter group that provided the inspirations for latter day bohemians. Although Bohemians is mostly the story of the bohemians of the art, music and theatre worlds, there are also lively vignettes describing the intersections between the arts and politics. Once again, many of those overlaps occurred because of the opposition to Black Americans’ second rate status in the United States. Individual stories are told and summaries of historical epochs in between these covers. Included among the former are biographies of Claude McKay, Victoria Woodhull, Walt Whitman and Stretch Johnson. The historical periods presented to the reader are primarily artistic and literary in nature. A particularly fascinating take on one such moment is Dan Steffan’s multipage history of modern art in New York. He tells the story of Dada’s interlude on the twentieth century stage and much more. Spain’s brief but classic collaboration with cartoonist Jay Kinney (Anarchy Comics) and writer Joel Schechter is an interesting look into the world of Modicut’s intellectual puppet shows and the Yiddish bohemians. Naturally, sexual freedom and sexual preference, not to mention gender identity, were (and are) an important part of the bohemian life. Individuals like Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein flourished in part because of the acceptance of their homosexuality in bohemian circles. Unlike today, there was little acceptance of non-heterosexuality. Indeed, homosexuality was criminally outlawed in most of the world, if not all. The brief biography of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas presented here provides no new details, but does tell the story in a refreshing and accessible manner. Perhaps the most interesting story in Bohemians is that of Josephine Baker. Like many jazz musicians of her time (including a few included in this history in a wonderful piece titled “Bebop”) Baker was a dancer whose life involved constantly dealing with individual and systemic racism. In addition, Baker is one of the few persons highlighted in this history who took a political stand, risking her life in the partisan struggle against the fascists of the Third Reich and the collaborationist Vichy regime. Then, there is the tragically human story of one of the greatest folksingers to ever walk the highways, Woody Guthrie His life story advances panel by panel, exquisitely drawn by artist and musician Jeffrey Lewis in a style that borrows from underground comix artist Gilbert Shelton (Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers) among others. Long time cartoonist Sharon Rudahl’s simultaneous biography of Billie Holiday and song lyricist Abe Meeropol (Strange Fruit) features a particularly horrific page of drawings to illustrate the lyrics to that song about the rash of racist lynchings so closely identified with the history of racism in the United States. Together with the late Spain Rodriguez and Trina Robbins, Rudahl is one of the artists who began her career as an underground cartoonist in the Sixties counterculture. This is a fascinating collection of personalities, their lives drawn and told in a manner equal to the stories they tell. In today’s world, where it seems like every bohemian idea or trend is bought and sold to the highest bidder, it is refreshing to read of times when this was not always the case. In the same vein, this history edited by Paul Buhle (whose post academic gig seems to be editing graphic books) and bohemian Dave Berger, provides a context for much of what we understand to be culture nowadays. Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
July 31-33, 2015
Jeffrey St. Clair
Bernie and the Sandernistas
John Pilger
Julian Assange: the Untold Story of an Epic Struggle for Justice
Roberto J. González – David Price
Remaking the Human Terrain: The US Military’s Continuing Quest to Commandeer Culture
Lawrence Ware
Bernie Sanders’ Race Problem
Andrew Levine
The Logic of Illlogic: Narrow Self-Interest Keeps Israel’s “Existential Threats” Alive
ANDRE VLTCHEK
Kos, Bodrum, Desperate Refugees and a Dying Child
Paul Street
“That’s Politics”: the Sandernistas on the Master’s Schedule
Ted Rall
How the LAPD Conspired to Get Me Fired from the LA Times
Mike Whitney
Power-Mad Erdogan Launches War in Attempt to Become Turkey’s Supreme Leader
Ellen Brown
The Greek Coup: Liquidity as a Weapon of Coercion
Stephen Lendman
Russia Challenges America’s Orwellian NED
Will Parrish
The Politics of California’s Water System
John Wight
The Murder of Ali Saad Dawabsha, a Palestinian Infant Burned Alive by Israeli Terrorists
Jeffrey Blankfort
Leading Bibi’s Army in the War for Washington
Geoffrey McDonald
Obama’s Overtime Tweak: What is the Fair Price of a Missed Life?
Brian Cloughley
Hypocrisy, Obama-Style
Robert Fantina
Israeli Missteps Take a Toll
Pete Dolack
Speculators Circling Puerto Rico Latest Mode of Colonialism
Ron Jacobs
Spying on Black Writers: the FB Eye Blues
Paul Buhle
The Leftwing Seventies?
Binoy Kampmark
The TPP Trade Deal: of Sovereignty and Secrecy
David Swanson
Vietnam, Fifty Years After Defeating the US
Robert Hunziker
Human-Made Evolution
Shamus Cooke
Why Obama’s “Safe Zone” in Syria Will Inflame the War Zone
David Rosen
Hillary Clinton: Learn From Your Sisters
Sam Husseini
How #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter Can Devalue Life
Shepherd Bliss
Why I Support Bernie Sanders for President
Louis Proyect
Manufacturing Denial
Howard Lisnoff
The Wrong Argument
Tracey Harris
Living Tiny: a Richer and More Sustainable Future
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
A Day of Tears: Report from the “sHell No!” Action in Portland
Tom Clifford
Guns of August: the Gulf War Revisited
Renee Lovelace
I Dream of Ghana
Colin Todhunter
GMOs: Where Does Science Begin and Lobbying End?
Ben Debney
Modern Newspeak Dictionary, pt. II
Christopher Brauchli
Guns Don’t Kill People, Immigrants Do and Other Congressional Words of Wisdom
S. Mubashir Noor
India’s UNSC Endgame
Ellen Taylor
The Voyage of the Golden Rule
Norman Ball
Ten Questions for Lee Drutman: Author of “The Business of America is Lobbying”
Franklin Lamb
Return to Ma’loula, Syria
Masturah Alatas
Six Critics in Search of an Author
Mark Hand
Cinéma Engagé: Filmmaker Chronicles Texas Fracking Wars
Mary Lou Singleton
Gender, Patriarchy, and All That Jazz
Patrick Hiller
The Icebreaker and #ShellNo: How Activists Determine the Course
Charles Larson
Tango Bends Its Gender: Carolina De Robertis’s “The Gods of Tango”