July 20, 2014

Collaboration takes a more colorful look at U.S. history

A New England college professor and a California cartoonist collaborate on a colorful look at our storied past.

“Enough with the dead white men!”

So goes the opening salvo from a Mexican-born Jewish immigrant and a California cartoonist of Latino descent in A Most Imperfect Union. This illustrated re-examination of a continent’s “conquering” aims to turn schoolhouse narratives into academic-canon fodder. Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans and La Cucaracha comic creator Lalo Alcaraz have come to make a statement against the republic’s accepted pale-male tales by intellectually dumping all those dog-eared capital-T Textbooks into our national waters. Their new battle cry: Out with the old; in with the red, nonwhite and blue.

What the authors seek to paint is a “colorful group portrait of these United States” — in every sense of that phrase. In their view, history is written not by the winners but by the biggest sinners: the robber barons and the murderers who stooped to any infernal depth to conquer.

Stavans and Alcaraz collaborated almost 15 years ago on Latino USA: A Cartoon History, and now they want to turn up the volume on the “muted reverence” for our Founding Fathers. Stavans writes in the foreword that his “contrarianism is intimately linked to his experience as an immigrant” and that this book, by speaking for the dispossessed, has “a single, controlling leitmotif: the idea of creative destruction.”

The authors have constructed much of this book as call-and-response, with Stavans as cartoon character functioning as the storyteller and Alcaraz’s character delivering cutting punch lines from his drafting table. Alcaraz mirrors this dynamic with his mash-up art: The historical figures are typically rendered with a certain cartoon realism, while much of the rest of the action is drawn in a simple, iconic style. This heightens the sense of play and the feeling that nothing lampoons quite like a sharp-tongued cartoon. (A telling example: When John Quincy Adams cites “divine providence” for continental domination, a modern-day character replies in an aside: “And you Gringos wonder why everyone hates you.”)

Stavans and Alcaraz have also made a conscious choice to run contrary to the textbook style and ditch chronology whenever they find a tempting tangent. This, like the Greek chorus-like one-liners, breaks up any sense of a plodding history lesson.

A Most Imperfect Union is at its best when telling those tales of the dispossessed, such as the true story of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a Muslim who was captured by fellow Africans, sold into the Atlantic slave trade and taken to Annapolis before his attempted escape led to a court case that resulted in his return to Gambia. These profiles are painted with compelling humanity.

What the book could use less of, ironically, is the retelling of all the Founding Father stories we already know so well. Why rehash all this, unless the authors’ point is to lend credence to a few of their contrarian facts? But then, part of the pure joy of plunging into history itself is debating whose version gets told and how.

Imperfect Union is truest to its own stated cartoon conquest when it plumbs lesser-known stories — and actually lives up to its battle cry of saying “Enough!” of focusing solely on those great dead white men.

Michael Cavna reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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