The ever-bend­ing story

A Most Im­per­fect Union

Pasatiempo - - News - Bill Kohlhaase I For The New Mex­i­can

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.

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