The ever-bending story
A Most Imperfect Union
THE latest graphic novel from Ilan Stavans and illustrator Lalo Alcaraz — A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the United States — is their take on the story of America. It starts with Columbus’ landing in the Caribbean in 1492 and is presented in nested media — a lecture inside a film inside a comic. It’s something of a hand-drawn TED talk delivered by a bespectacled professor whose PowerPoint presentation takes the form of cartoonish portraits and event depictions. Stavans and Alcaraz play themselves in the production: Stavans is the opinionated narrator, and Alcaraz sits at his drawing board, popping up in the bottom corner of a panel here and there to express an often contrary, sometimes radical, position. Stavans and Alcaraz signal seriousness with serious drawing; otherwise, comedy, or an attempt at it, rules. Sacagawea, for example, points out a great spot for a Wal-Mart. And a celebrant at the completion of the transcontinental railroad says of workers laying track from the other direction, “Hey, don’t give ’em our last whisky.”
A graphic novel reworks American history
Stavans and Alcaraz did something similar in 2000 with their Latino USA: A Cartoon History, presenting biographical sketches of great Latinos and Latinas. Their subjects ranged from César Chávez and Father Junípero Serra to charitable bandit Joaquin Murrieta and the Mexican comic actor Cantinflas, a Golden Globe winner in 1956 for Michael Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days. That book takes little seriously, which results in a lot of serious fun, and this new book succeeds in the same manner. Alcaraz’s loose, playful black-and-white drawings and their comic asides and absurdist circumstances contrast with Stavans’ how-to-view-history polemic. It’s equally informative and entertaining. But its tone, both high-minded and irreverent, can be frustrating.
The setup of Imperfect Union recalls Howard Zinn’s graphic A People’s History of American Empire, adapted from his groundbreaking A People’s History of the United States. In his own graphic history, Zinn isn’t drawn as cartoonishly as Stavans is, but A People’s History often depicts Zinn lecturing from a podium in front of an audience. A Most Imperfect Union shows Stavans lecturing in front of a camera, which creates a place for a film-director character, who mirrors America’s appetite for action and drama. The director’s ongoing complaint is that Stavans isn’t mythologizing enough, so he exclaims, beneath an image of George Washington’s deathbed scene, “What a melodrama! You should add music in the background.” Like Zinn, Stavans embraces a peoplecentric perspective and decries the Great Man theory of
history from the beginning: “In the United States, many of our myths revolve around Famous Men (and to a lesser extent women) ... portrayed as glamorous superheroes, swooping in at the last minute to save the day.” He goes on to say, “History should be of the people, by the people, and for the people. What do people eat? What do they dream about?” Yet there’s little of day-to-day life in A Most Imperfect Union, and there are dozens of great men — more, if you count Michael Jackson, vampireeyed as in his “Thriller” video. And only a few great women appear, most of them — Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem — presented in discussions of women’s issues.
Stavans makes excuses for his not-so-contrary start in 1492. The professor appears on a full-page panel that shows the names of various tribes scattered across a map of the United States. “Beginning any earlier would be difficult,” he writes. “The Native peoples of what became the United States left no written records of their history.” The last panel before the epilogue shows the 2012 landing of the NASA rover Curiosity on Mars, with Stavans nar- rating the scene in a spacesuit as an alien pokes its cylindrical head over the horizon. The coverage touches on everything from the Vikings’ arrival in North America to the 2012 killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. It moves at a furious pace. The 1680 Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico gets half a page. So does James Dean. Alfred Kinsey and his research on sexual behavior get two full pages. Stavans mixes cultural and social history together, and his personal biases are apparent in the events he chose to include from 500 years of history. The book follows only a rough chronology. Poet Robert Frost stumbles into the filming just as Columbus, with a flag declaring “Spain Inc.,” arrives onshore. Coca-Cola and Bazooka Bubble Gum are introduced ahead of the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s, and John Adams and H.L. Mencken appear on facing pages that discuss codifying English as the official American language.
But is the book’s history contrary enough? This question is asked by a woman in a sleeveless dress in the book’s first panel. The question begets another: What is contrary history contrary to? Contrary history isn’t what it used to be, certainly since Zinn’s 1980 book. Our traditionally Anglocentric view of history has expanded, and most Americans today have a sense of our nation’s cruelty toward Native Americans and slaves, our exploitation of immigrant labor, and the lies and true motivations behind our wars of expansion. Much of what Stavans gets into isn’t contrary in the first place; what’s critical here is Stavans’ view of how to understand history, expressed in asides and a song-and-dance epilogue. “Facts are important!” he tells the film director. “The only way to delve into history is responsibly, with precision, paying attention to what happened, not what we wish happened.” All that irreverence serves a purpose. History, as the past has shown, is something of a fiction, depending on who’s exploiting it. Stavans’ agenda is to make us see that. “I don’t see the point of treating America with muted reverence. To help our country live up to its full potential, we must sometimes call our love of that country into question,” he writes in his introduction. Not so long ago, those were fighting words. “A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the United States,” by Ilan Stavans and illustrated by Lalo Alcaraz, was published in July 2014 by Basic Books.