It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s the Labor Movement!

Want to teach younger people about organizing? Try comic books.

Paul Buhle October 10, 2013

The cover of Wage Theft by Kevin C. Pyle

For the most part, the labor move­ment has yet to take advan­tage of com­ic art as a medi­um for social com­men­tary. With the excep­tion of one box” syn­di­cat­ed polit­i­cal car­toons and occa­sion­al one-shot efforts — like WOB­BLIES!, which I coedit­ed for the 2005 cen­te­nary of the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World—the avail­abil­i­ty of long-form comics about the labor move­ment has been severe­ly lack­ing. Comics have the pow­er to reach beyond polit­i­cal argu­ments and slo­gans, reveal­ing true-to-life hero­ic sto­ries or show­ing how gains have been made in the past and can be made again. Per­haps now, as orga­nized labor threat­ens to fade away entire­ly, the strug­gle to reach younger audi­ences may press home the urgency of using comics as a medi­um to spread labor’s message.

Between Korgen’s clear, non-didactic script and Pyle’s beautifully minimalist art, Wage Theft is an ideal model for a labor comic: It’s engaging without resorting to sensationalism, informative without being condescending.

In recent months, two graph­ic novel­las have sur­faced that may sig­nal a bur­geon­ing trend of show­cas­ing the labor move­ment in com­ic form. The first, Wage Theft, script­ed by writer-the­olo­gian Jef­fry Kor­gen and illus­trat­ed by Kevin C. Pyle, was spon­sored by the US Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bish­ops and the Arch­dio­cese of Galve­ston-Hus­ton, among oth­er agen­cies. It begins with the sto­ry of Lupi­ta, a Mex­i­can-born undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grant who cleans McMan­sions in the Texas sub­urbs to make a liv­ing. As Lupi­ta strug­gles to scrape by, the own­er of the house­clean­ing agency accus­es her of not work­ing hard enough, then docks her pay thanks to arbi­trary deduc­tions” of increas­ing­ly ridicu­lous vari­eties. Final­ly, she’s giv­en infor­ma­tion and legal assis­tance by the Hous­ton Faith and Jus­tice Center.

But Wage Theft, like the rep­re­hen­si­ble busi­ness prac­tice it’s named after, where boss­es hire employ­ees under false pre­tens­es and stiff them of their pay, isn’t lim­it­ed to just one worker’s sit­u­a­tion. Through­out the novel­la, work­ers of vary­ing demo­graph­ics face wage theft’s pres­ence in a num­ber of occu­pa­tions: restau­rants, con­struc­tion, dry clean­ing and meat­pack­ing, to name just a few. The com­ic con­cludes with reminders that demon­stra­tions, legal aid and faith can renew a sense of dig­ni­ty for work­ers who feel dehu­man­ized by their employer’s abuse. Real-life con­tact infor­ma­tion is even offered for any­one read­ing the com­ic and seek­ing help. 

Between Korgen’s clear, non-didac­tic script and Pyle’s beau­ti­ful­ly min­i­mal­ist art, Wage Theft is an ide­al mod­el for a labor com­ic: It’s engag­ing with­out resort­ing to sen­sa­tion­al­ism, infor­ma­tive with­out being condescending. 

And First Day is no less remark­able. At the behest of their local union, live-wire busi­ness man­ag­er Tom Dalzell and self-taught union his­to­ri­an Eric Wolfe col­lab­o­rat­ed with a team of artists to cre­ate a graph­ic nov­el about the roots of the orga­nized labor move­ment. First Day looks like a main­stream com­ic in every artis­tic detail, down to the con­struc­tion of its pan­els and char­ac­ter designs, but its plot doesn’t rely on super­heroes or alien inva­sions. Instead, the sto­ry opens with an elec­tri­cal-work­er dad explain­ing the neces­si­ty of unions to his son and tran­si­tions to a brief his­to­ry of union­ism in the indus­try, focus­ing on the clash between the AFL and CIO over the Amer­i­can workforce.

This nasty and poten­tial­ly destruc­tive juris­dic­tion­al fight final­ly end­ed in the 1950s with a sin­gle, uni­fied body, the nar­ra­tor informs us. The elec­tion of Pat Brown as California’s gov­er­nor in 1958 inau­gu­rat­ed an era of union accep­tance — until the present. Now, as the read­er learns, unions are being threat­ened once again by pri­vate and pub­lic aus­ter­i­ty plans, paired with reduc­tions in jobs and benefits.

First Days art style, includ­ing the facial com­po­si­tion and body pos­tures, is strong­ly rem­i­nis­cent of 1950s action comics to a degree that can be ini­tial­ly unset­tling. The detailed and expan­sive script, how­ev­er, more than com­pen­sates for any dis­com­fort. In First Day, read­ers can learn about the move­ments of the past, includ­ing the strug­gle for union­iza­tion and the effects of the Red Scare in threat­en­ing any labor advance. This is his­to­ry made visu­al and com­pelling, par­tic­u­lar­ly for young read­ers. Ulti­mate­ly, like Wage Theft, First Day is a mod­el com­bi­na­tion of instruc­tive con­tent and evoca­tive design for union edu­ca­tors and polit­i­cal­ly mind­ed artists alike.

Though Wage Theft and First Day are great starts, there is far more mate­r­i­al in the labor move­ment than could be encom­passed in just a few graph­ic novel­las. And in this case, more is def­i­nite­ly bet­ter: Let the exper­i­ments — and excel­lent comics — continue!

Paul Buh­le is co-author with Dave Wag­n­er of Hide in Plain Sight: The Hol­ly­wood Black­lis­tees in Film and Tele­vi­sion, 1950 – 2002 (Paul Graves/​St. Martin’s, 2003) and Black­list­ed: The Film Lover’s Guide to the Hol­ly­wood Black­list (Paul Graves/​St. Martin’s). Before retir­ing, he was a senior lec­tur­er at Brown University.
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