Power of solidarity echoes in ‘1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike’

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As any Berkeleyan knows, it’s essential to remember our city’s history of activism, not least because of the three-day American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 strike that was held last fall. With the new comic book “1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike,” the Graphic History Collective and artist David Lester undertake such an enterprise, using the retrospective lens of history to inform our present.

In the aftermath of World War I, unemployment and inflation resulted in economic anxiety for Winnipeg’s working class. Such tensions were compounded when employers encroached upon the collective bargaining rights of the city’s metal and building tradespeople. The Winnipeg General Strike, which took root within these conditions, saw a number of unions and veterans join ranks to organize a sympathy strike, in which more than 30,000 workers participated.

Solidarity is the most salient theme presented by “1919,” which is dramatized by Lester’s art. The comic opens with crowds of vaguely sketched people, their faces lost in the throng — it’s an image that sets the tone for the comic as a whole, which prioritizes grander narratives, emphasizing the macro over the micro.

Where most comic book artists might draw with an ethos of specificity, Lester’s work in “1919” foregrounds rough black and white sketches, with watercolors that lend the images texture rather than detail.

The same is true of the rest of “1919” — the story of the Winnipeg General Strike isn’t grounded in characters, although key players are named throughout the comic. Instead, the Graphic History Collective narrates the broad strokes of history itself, eschewing a conventional plot altogether.

This style of storytelling is effective in its instructiveness — “1919” succeeds in explaining the events that led to the Winnipeg General Strike, as well as its aftermath. But given the lack of both characters and plot, “1919” tells most of its story in captions, which results in an at-times overly didactic tone. And for a comic that relies heavily on prose, “1919” is written in such a way that’s accessible at best and dry at worst. The comic’s speech bubbles don’t do it any favors either, as some of the dialogue comes across as unnecessary and simplistic.

But then again, the old adage rings true — “1919” is at its most evocative when it shows rather than tells. The Winnipeg General Strike culminated in Bloody Saturday, when police violently charged strikers, immediately killing one and injuring scores more. Such scenes are largely textless, and Lester illustrates them with a grit and scrappiness that proves to be impressively profound. Where most comic book violence is sanitized and rendered for the sake of spectacle, Lester’s depictions have a tactility that gives each page weight and meaning. There’s a cinematic quality to Lester’s illustrations of Bloody Saturday, and he achieves a montage-like effect by leveraging the sequentiality of each successive image.

“1919” ends by taking us to the present day, with images of contemporary protest culture and the words “We are stronger together” emblazoned in large lettering at the foot of the page. It’s a message that “1919” conveys effectively. Increasingly, true solidarity seems to be a thing of the past, but “1919” argues that it shouldn’t be. And for that reason, it’s a comic worth reading.

Harrison Tunggal covers comic books. Contact him at [email protected].