Lester and the Graphic History Collective
the Winnipeg General Strike as a Graphic Novel
1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike
By The Graphic History Collective and David Lester
Between The Lines Toronto 2019
$20.00 111 pp.
Review by Tom Sandborn - Sept 2020We’ve all been robbed of significant parts of our history. Because, as the bitter epigram reminds us, history is written by the victors, (or , we could add, by those in power struggling to retain the fruits of their past victories) workers, poor people, women, black, brown, queer, disabled and Indigenous communities all have to fight hard to retrieve and honor the stories behind our struggles for justice, swimming upstream against waves of toxic propaganda and punishing silence.
The Graphic History Collective (https://graphichistorycollective.com/ ) is a group of artist/ activists ( Sean Carlton, Robin Folvik, Kara Sievewright, Julia Smith, Sam Bradd, Mark Leier, Trevor McKilligan and David Lester) who are trying to end the imposed public silence and distortions imposed on radical attempts to undermine and defeat the structures of power and oppression that underly the Canadian experience.
1919 is the collective’s history of the general strike (Canada’s largest and longest) that brought business as usual in Winnipeg to a halt for six long weeks that year. The example set in Winnipeg inspired strikes across Canada, from Victoria to Montreal and Amherst in 1919 and has inspired activists ever since. Although the events portrayed took place more than a century ago, there are lessons for today’s campaigners for justice, peace and environmental sanity in these powerfully rendered visuals and spare, informative texts.
David Lester is the lead artist in group that produced 1919. Vancouver based, Lester is a graphic designer, illustrator, musician, and graphic novelist. He plays guitar with the group Mecca Normal and has been an activist for decades. His aesthetic choice to model the visuals in this book on the work of battlefield artists in WWI gives the book its distinctive dark, ragged and propulsive visual tone. ( For a look at the artist at work, check out this recent CBC TV coverage at (https://www.cbc.ca/arts/david-lester-captures-the-repression-of-1919-s-winnipeg-general-strike-in-the-style-of-a-war-artist-1.5674168)
The centre of the book lies in Lester’s vivid depiction of Bloody Saturday, June 21, when Mounties and hired strike breakers attacked strikers with horses, clubs and live ammunition. These are hellish images of power being deployed to crush human flesh and social hope, evocative of Goya’s Disasters of War prints and of today’s cable news images from Portland, Hong Kong and Minsk. This section alone is worth the price of admission, but it is not the graphic novel’s only virtue. Taken together with its scholarly apparatus, which includes an informative essay by Brandon University history prof James Naylor, this volume represents a valuable crash course in working class history and a useful reminder that many of the issues the preoccupy us today have been contested for centuries. When we take to the streets to shout for justice, we are not alone. Generations of freedom fighters came before us, and if we listen, we can hear them singing as we march. One of the many virtues of this project is that it helps us hear the songs and shouts that echo down the centuries.
One of the lessons of 1919 that is particularly telling today is the way that ruling class circles succeeded in portraying the Winnipeg strikers as “other,” as dirty, dangerous foreigners. This is a favorite trope of beleaguered elites, and we see it being deployed currently to whip up anti-immigrant and refugee rancor and to suggest that all our troubles are caused by Others- refugees, people of colour, terrorists and antifa. This is only one of the classic “divide and conquer” tactics used to keep people separate, afraid and passive. This divisiveness is the illness and real, active solidarity is the cure, the kind of solidarity that the Winnipeg strikers so heroically lived.
One of the most toxic lies used to divide us when we fight for justice is sexism, and this book properly credits the role of women workers in 1919. Women telephone operators were the first workers to leave work on the morning the strike began, and women were crucial in the weeks of strike activity that followed. Too often in the past even well-intentioned attempts to retrieve working class history have been corrupted by sexism, producing stories that leave out half the human race. Lester and his collective are careful to credit the role women played in leading and sustaining the strike.
This book is a remarkable achievement, visually inventive and historically accurate. It returns to us some of our stolen past as workers and activists. I urge you to buy several copies if you can and lobby your local libraries and schools to add it to their collections. If you, like me, have young family members who are in the streets with Black Lives Matter demos or homelessness camps, this would be an ideal gift for them. And if pandemic lock down has left you discouraged about the future, this heroic story from our past will be a useful tonic.
Tom Sandborn lives, writes and organizes on unceded Indigenous territory in Vancouver. He welcomes feedback and story tips at firstname.lastname@example.org