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‘American Dread’ Offers Gallows Humor, Biting Wit for Hard Times

Roger Bybee

The cover of American Dread: Labor Cartoons Vol. 6.

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American Dread, the sixth volume of artwork from labor cartoonists Gary Huck and Mike Konopacki, makes the classic Dickens’ quote It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” all too contemporary.

Huck and Konopacki take us through America with a stunning blend of skillful and imaginative artistry, biting wit, gallows humor, profound political understanding, and most remarkably, an enduring faith in the ability of working people to survive and ultimately prevail.

For the richest 1%, who now vacuum up more income than the bottom half of Americans, it is the best of times. The Second Great Bank Depression has not even dented the lifestyles of the rich and infamous. Their assets are always well covered. In contrast to the Pillage People, it is the worst period for workers since the Great Depression, which was also precipitated by unmuzzled greed and government collaboration with the financiers.

So thank God for Huck and Konopacki!

While lampooning faith-based conventional wisdom” — such as the major media myth that free trade” produces affluence on both ends of globalization — the two artists possess the ability to imprint searing, lasting images of incredible power in the minds of their readers.

It is the forceful vision of artists like Gary and Mike that animate the most lively parts of the labor movement, like the UE members who occupied the Republic Doors and Windows plant in Chicago last December. To visit an archive of their cartoons, go here.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should reveal my long-standing ties to each of the authors. Gary and I were both shaped by the unique working-class cauldron of Racine, Wisconsin which has had an unusually progressive labor history. Both of our fathers were union leaders.

He and I also attended the same public elementary school on Racine’s rough blue-collar south side. Our lives later intertwined at Racine Labor, the nation’s most radical official” AFL-CIO paper, where I served as editor and Gary as the supremely talented but vastly under-paid (in the low two figures weekly) cartoonist.

Gary’s special talents were immediately apparent, although he was a perpetually disruptive force in the office (eg., starting indoor snowball fights). We eventually lost him to the United Electrical Workers, where he replaced the late Fred Wright, the nation’s finest labor cartoonist for decades.

Mike, who I worked with for three years at the consulting business Labor Strategies, is somewhat more house-broken than Gary (faint praise indeed!). He displayed his own devilish sense of humor with office pranks and his work, and was a never-ending fount of leaflets, newsletters, slogans, buttons, and other materials to fuel local unions willing to put up a battle against plant closings, utterly unjustified demands for concessions, and a host of other corporate abuses.

During our time together, I came to appreciate Mike’s distinctive style of employing unusual angles, apparently derived either from a childhood misspent on comic books or absorbing the jarring perspectives of film noir.

Ultimately, Labor Strategies had two great years of success standing up for workers facing impossible odds. However, in our third year, our willingness to work with fighting-mad union locals, without regard to the stance of those above them in labor’s hierarchies, doomed a wonderful experiment.

But such setbacks — as is evident from this wonderful volume—have never discouraged Gary or Mike for more than a moment. They pull their pens out of their holsters, and continue blazing away at America’s plutocrats and their pet poodles in public office.

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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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