Starting today, I am celebrating the birthdays of two iconic figures who are among the most well-known and loved men in their respective fields—social justice and comic art storytelling. Even though these two sons of working class Jewish immigrants were born only five years and about six miles apart in early 20th century New York City, to my knowledge they never met or even had any awareness of each others’ existence. In contrast, not only was I aware of both of them (and eventually met and frequently corresponded with one of them), but they have been instrumental in shaping the two great passions of my life. That makes them largely responsible for the existence of this blog, which makes it fitting that I remember them as the superheroes they were, and are, to me.
Howard Zinn was born August 24, 1922, in Brooklyn, where he grew up during the Great Depression. Both his immigrant parents were factory workers with limited education when they met and married, and there were no books or magazines in the series of apartments where they raised their children. Zinn’s love of reading started when he picked up a discarded copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar that someone had tossed in the street. His parents further encouraged his interest in literature by sending 10 cents plus a coupon to the New York Post for each of the 20 volumes of Charles Dickens’ collected works (which provided his first introduction to the long history of class struggle). He also studied creative writing in a special program at Thomas Jefferson High School.
At 18 he became a shipyard worker and then flew bomber missions during World War II. These experiences helped shape his opposition to war and passion for history. In 1944 he married Roslyn Shechter, with whom he would raise two children. After attending college under the GI Bill and earning a Ph.D. in history from Columbia, he taught at Spelman College, where he became active in the civil rights movement (one of his students, Alice Walker, would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Color Purple). After being fired by Spelman for his support for student protesters, Zinn became a professor of Political Science at Boston University, where he taught until his retirement, as a Professor Emeritus, in 1988 (his young neighbors in Boston, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, became Zinn’s lifelong admirers).
I first became aware of Howard Zinn in 1990, when an anarchist coworker introduced me to his most famous book, A People’s History of the United States, which has sold more than two million copies since it was first published in 1980, and been featured on The Sopranos and The Simpsons, and in the film Good Will Hunting (written by and starring his since grown protégés, Matt and Ben). Reading that book gave me a new appreciation for U.S. history, which at a mere 200-plus years, I had always considered too short to be of much interest. It also demonstrated to me that “history isn’t what happened, but a story of what happened,” and that with very few exceptions, the story of our nation’s history has been told by rich, white men of privilege. A Peoples’ History (along with the several others of Zinn’s more than 20 books I later read) taught me that the great leaders of history, usually credited with directing our country’s sometimes agonizingly slow journey toward the pledged goal of “liberty and justice for all,” seldom really led so much as they were dragged—sometimes kicking and screaming—by outraged masses of common people. The most valuable lesson I learned from Professor Zinn was that true patriotism requires an honest examination, and sometimes criticism of those leaders’ past actions and motivations, because if you believe your country has done no wrong, it’s easy to believe it can do no wrong—which inevitably results in it committing truly terribly wrongs.
I met Howard Zinn for the first time at a 1995 book signing at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., which coincided with the release of a revised and updated edition of A Peoples’ History. Shortly after that meeting I began corresponding with him, eventually sending him my proposal for an as-yet-unrealized book on the history of social justice issues portrayed in superhero comic books.
Howard wrote to me that, although he had been a fan of pulp magazine heroes such as Doc Savage (also one of my favorites), he “never followed the superheroes in comics, though of course I was aware of Superman and Batman and the others.” (He was about 16 when the Golden Age of Comics started in 1938, which was probably just old enough to avoid getting caught up in the comic book craze that was enthralling young readers across the nation.)
Despite his lack of personal experience with comic books, he appreciated their potential for conveying important ideas. He wrote this endorsement for Joel Andreas’ 1991 graphic exposé, Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism:
“Addicted to War is a witty and devastating portrait of U.S. military policy, a fine example of art serving society.”
One of the proudest moments of my life was reading the endorsement Howard emailed me for my own work: “I think your book proposal is ingenious, unique, important — could be a real contribution to our cultural history.”
Of my opinion that superheroes should be champions of social justice, Howard said:
Sure the dogmatic view of the socially conscious superhero would say: aha, more dependence on individual saviors — not really democratic. On the other hand, kids need heroes, and better an anti-war, anti-Establishment hero — as a transition to a more sophisticated view of [how] social change occurs.
Although comic books had never much influenced Howard, his work did eventually have an influence on comic books. It was a major source of inspiration and information for Uncle Sam, a two-issue miniseries by writer Steve Darnall and artist Alex Ross, originally published in 1998 by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. In it, a homeless man dressed as the title character stumbles through an unnamed American city struggling to remember who he is, while experiencing vivid flashbacks of being present at various moments throughout our nation’s past.
In the second issue, a triptych shows three historic scenes of government violence witnessed by Uncle Sam: Shays’ Rebellion, the Haymarket massacre and the Kent State shootings. Due to my own education from Professor Zinn, I noticed the middle panel mistakenly indicated that the Haymarket incident took place in 1893, rather than the correct year of 1886. I had met Steve Darnall at the Small Press Expo prior to Uncle Sam‘s release, so I emailed him to let him know about the error. The date was corrected in the hardback edition collecting the original two issues that came out the following year. Later, I arranged for Steve and Alex to send an autographed copy of the hardback Uncle Sam to Howard.
I had once suggested to Howard that a graphic adaptation of A People’s History would be a great way to reach a whole new audience of readers. I don’t know if he remembered my suggestion or not, but in 2008 that graphic adaptation became a reality. Actually, A People’s History of American Empire adapts both the original A People’s History and Howard’s 2002 autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (which was later made into an award-winning documentary narrated by Matt Damon). Edited by Paul Bruhle, scripted by Dave Wagner and illustrated by Mike Konopacki, Empire primarily focuses on the history of U.S. military expansionism, but also shares important incidents in U.S. labor history, such as the 1894 Pullman Strike involving 250,000 railway workers across the country and the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, in which Colorado National Guardsmen opened fire on a tent-colony of 1,200 striking coal miners, killing 19 men, women, and children.
Here’s an eight and a half minute video preview of the book, narrated by Viggo Mortensen.
Sadly, Howard Zinn died on January 27, 2010 (he would have been 90 years old today). Despite this, his presence continues to be felt in the world of comic art, thanks to the works of cartoonists who were among his unofficial students. He was eulogized shortly after his death by Keith Knight, creator of the syndicated newspaper strip, The K Chronicles. Nearly a year later, Howard payed a visit from beyond the grave to political cartoonist Angelo Lopez‘s character, Jasper the Cat, to lift his spirits about the possibilities for meaningful social change and to remind him that President Barack Obama, like all politicians throughout history, must be held accountable to the people (be sure to visit Angelo’s Web site for the second page of this cartoon).
Although the world is greatly diminished by the absence of Howard Zinn from it, I take comfort in knowing that the many people inspired by his work and educated by his writing continue to carry on his struggle for social justice.
Tuesday I will share a post commemorating Jack Kirby, the other half of my Dynamic Duo.
Following that, I will continue my Comic Book Justice series (which is based on the proposal I sent Howard).