The Communist Manifesto – Chapter One: Historical Materialism.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Edited by: George S. Rigakos,
Illustrated by: Red Viktor.
(ISBN: 978-0-9812807-2-1 Paperback, 32pp)
Just in time for the Christmas shopping season from new imprint Red Quill Books, the first volume of The Communist Manifesto (Illustrated), a four part graphic novel treatment of the little book by Karl Marx and Fredric Engels that started it all way back in 1848.
by Bryan Munn
According to the series’ author and Carleton University professor George Rigakos, the book re-imagines the Manifesto as a heroic narrative, “a story about villains, victims and heroes,” says Rigakos. “The original work of Marx and Engels focused on the bourgeoisie, the proletariat and their heroes – the Communists, which will each constitute separate comic books in the series.”
Sequential caught up with Rigakos for the low-down on the project.
Sequential: You say in the Carleton press release that the comics approach will “engage more students.” Do you think the format is more engaging than something like film, lectures, or even the text itself? The youtube preview of the book is very filmic, for instance.
George Rigakos: There is something personal and enveloping about a comic book or graphic novel that you simply cannot get in any other format. It’s true that, historically, this has been a youth oriented industry. Personally, I used to love Daredevil. My friends and I would also rush to the comic book store to pick up the latest issue of Alpha Flight. Remember them? We couldn’t wait to see crossovers with other Marvel superheroes. But I still read graphic novels now. They’re powerful. Before this project I was reading through Maus by Spiegelman and the more recent Logicomix on the life and works of the logician Bertrand Russell. These are exciting reads for me. They can be just as powerful and stirring now as when, as a kid, I read Electra being killed by Bullseye. That panel is permanently etched on my brain.
I don’t know where I’ve read it but it seems true to me that the graphic novel is the ultimate artistic expression–if you put together the world’s greatest artist with the world’s greatest writer, they’re going to make a graphic novel.
Sequential: Can you talk a bit about the artist for the project, Red Victor? What is his or her real name? How did you come to collaborate and what was that process like? Did you write a script?
George Rigakos: Okay, I can tell you now that his real name is Victor Serra. Up until yesterday both he and the studio were reticent about using anything other than a pseudonym. He is an Argentinian artist who works for the illustration studio “Enroc” in Buenos Aires. I think he’s amazing. I was specifically looking for someone that did what I would consider to be a superhero or Marvel or DC comic book art. There are, of course, a number of excellent artists who work in this genre but they are almost all inevitably working for large comic book companies and are not able to work on a project like this. it seemed to me at the time that many of the artists who were politically motivated and able to work on this project also did not operate in this more commercial style. So, I actually had quite a difficult time getting anyone to agree to do this as a collaborative effort. I think they may have been a little suspicious about the fact that I was an academic. In any case, it worked out for the best because Victor was awesome.
The process consisted of my sending him panel descriptions with the accompanying caption boxes that were directly from the text of the Manifesto. I decided to stick with the conventional comic book format and break up the manifesto into four smaller parts. The original manifesto also had four chapters so this wasn’t as difficult as it seems. Most of the time Victor exceeded my expectations by doing even better than what was in my mind’s eye. In other cases, such as when I wanted to build an iconic representation of historical materialism through a human pyramid of battling classes over history this required tremendous back and forth.The most difficult part was using my own years of engagement with Marxist literature to try to distill from the Manifesto the most salient parts because you simply cannot put the entire text into a comic book. The goal was to make the manifesto as relevant today as it was in the middle of the 19th century; to try to match up the words of Engels and Marx with contemporary images that would not only resonate with readers but rattle them.
So that was a major creative liberty on my part that some orthodox Marxists may not like. The other indulgence was to create a prologue for each of the four chapters that also told a story. For example, in chapter one called “historical materialism” we begin with the scene of an old revolutionary trudging through a downpour in modern-day Highgate Cemetery. It’s a reckoning of sorts that I think almost all revolutionaries and leftists secretly fantasize about. So, I made it happen.
Sequential: What is the structure of the book? How can you make a manifesto that is equal parts history lesson, economic analysis, and call to arms into a sequential narrative?
George Rigakos: It’s actually not that difficult. The manifesto lends itself to this type of organization. Not necessarily on a panel to panel story-line basis but definitely on a thematic or grand narrative level. The history of civilization is the history of class struggle. The bourgeoisie are only the most recent oppressors. The proletarians are cheated and immiserated. The communists will rescue us all… Of course, I am simplifying but it is such a romantic text. Anyone who reads through it will understand why it is so useful for despotic and totalitarian regimes. They legitimized themselves on the back of people’s aspirations for a better tomorrow. They co-opted the future.
Sequential: Why Marxism? How do you identify politically yourself? Marxist, communist, socialist? Are you active politically as a part of a group/how would you characterize your praxis? What aspects of the Manifesto do you think should or do resonate the most today in our lives?
George Rigakos: Well I’m a trained sociologist. As a sociologist you can’t do science without understanding Marx. It would be like a physicist disavowing Newton. So, I am as much a Marxist as I am a Foucauldian or a Baudrillardian, etc… I consider myself first a scholar which means Marx can be very wrong. He is fallible. It just turns out that when you test his analysis of capitalism he’s mostly right. His theories still explain more than contemporary economics.
But if you’re asking me how I’d identify myself politically I’d say “socialist” which means a commitment to create a space for collective resistance to power by undermining the material and cultural forces of domination. I hope that Red Quill and our work can be a vehicle for this resistance.
Sequential: What do you think you can add to the field of non-fiction comics treatments of Marxism, considering that some big names like Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Rius have dealt with aspects of marxism, Marx and his work?
George Rigakos: I think stylistically, the superhero style and the comic book format is a key difference. This manifesto uses accessible imagery and popular art — what is a clearly identifiable hegemonic comic book style — to undermine accepted sensibilities. Alternative or oppositional politics often produce alternative or oppositional art which is not as readily accessible. While this oppositional art can indeed be very powerful and rich I wanted the look of the Manifesto instead to be like a commercial Marvel or DC comic book. Can you imagine if discussions of communism were as culturally embedded as Superman or Batman?