I only had one semester of Sociology class, which was enough to make me wish I’d taken more, but it got me interested in the idea of the “conflict theory” of history. In that view, the story of history is the story of upper and lower classes competing against each other. I prefer to think it’s the story of power structures being born, growing up and trying to maintain themselves against dissolution and decay, because it is a bit more morally neutral and emphasizes natural selection on a grander, social, human scale. I kept thinking about this when I was reading Taxes, the Tea Party and Those Revolting Rebels: A History in Comics of the American Revolution, a new graphic history book by Stan Mack.
Stan’s book might sound like it deals primarily with the Boston Tea Party, which I initially thought, being that a good chunk of the title relates to the event. However, it’s really a far-ranging, moderately deep look at the Revolutionary period of American history in general, from the end of the French-Indian War to the signing of the Bill of Rights. It’s a very informative, fascinating and occasionally funny synopsis of a story that, for all their good intentions, finds itself reduced to caricature in past and contemporary history books.
I was a huge history nerd since middle school, and so reading this book reminded me of a lot of things I had once memorized when reading my old history textbooks. Some of those public school books go a bit deeper on some subjects than Stan’s, but that’s because Stan took a noticeably different focus in his work: Class struggle and social issues. It’s very often ignored in textbooks because of the requirements of school boards ordering them, but also (well, maybe deliberately) because it doesn’t really fit into the modern American mythos. Kids are taught something along these lines: The Americans got fed up with taxes, so they revolted; the British got angry, sent troops, the courageous Americans fight back, they hold on until the French come in during the last years of the war, then we win our independence and draft a Constitution, regrettably putting off the slavery issue for eighty years.
Stan’s book makes it perfectly clear that this isn’t the end of it, and that it was a much more complicated affair beyond “Freedom-loving Americans good, Tyrannical British bad” story we love so much. There were lots of interest groups competing against each other while the Brits were fighting us (“us” being defined as about 1/3rd of the colonial population), and really it’s a wonder we ever won in the first place. Some rich people wanted to be rulers of an autonomous nation and other rich people wanted to keep the benefits of being controlled by the crown. Some middle class people thought the war was unnecessary and others said a new order needed to be constructed. Taxes is a history of a giant mess that turned into a miracle.
More than that, though, it’s a history of the actual American people, with the big movers and shakers we know so well only appearing occasionally. When he talks about Saratoga and West Point, he pays little lip service to Washington and Benedict Arnold and more to the sharpshooters in the woods and the thieves that discovered Arnold’s plot by accident. It’s a “bottom-up” history, in other words, not “top-down”, which gives more credit to individuals rather than mass movements.
I enjoy his writing style because it’s rooted in Stan’s history as a journalist. It’s clear and concise, and he doesn’t waste time with fancy words. He’s very good at summarizing an idea or argument in a speech bubble, making it easy for a middle-schooler to follow along- though one might need to look up a couple of words to understand some concepts. That’s only natural since there were quite a few high-brow concepts motivating the upper classes to revolt.
His art style is easy on the eyes and enjoyable to look at, looking very Schoolhouse Rock while maintaining a balance between humorous and serious. His characters will be goofy when he wants to explain different opinions and show the infighting between different generals on either side of the war, for example, but he’ll illustrate characters in more serious, less iconic dimensions when he wants to highlight the violence or the hypocrisy of early America’s stance on race and gender. He doesn’t let the issues of injustice cloud over the comedy though, which is enjoyable. Stan spares nobody from at least a little criticism in this work, and he often does this by making his characters snarl or smirk with their giant noses and crooked smiles. Even the people generally regarded as sacred cows in American history are lampooned to one degree or another, though I think Ben Franklin probably got the lightest slap in the mouth thanks to his maximum swagger. In combination with the easy language, the art makes this book highly accessible and very easy for people of any age to read.
I think understanding history from many different angles is extremely important, and so I think Taxes would be a great addition to any school reading list. Heck, if I were a history teacher I’d make it required reading. It’s a good way to elaborate on basic American history and get people thinking about it in a way that we don’t often do, too often neglecting the role class plays in the development of a society.
Personally I really wish people would read more about the Articles of Confederation before they start arguing about the role of government. It would make political debates way, way more tolerable.
I got the chance to talk to Stan Mack personally, and it was a great pleasure. He’s a pretty smart guy, and while he styles himself an amateur historian he did a lot of good work to make this book happen. Check back at our site for the interview in the coming weeks. There’s a ton of stuff to get through, so I hope you’re patient.
TL;DR: Stan Mack has made a great all-ages book about the early years of America, and it stands as an excellent supplement to anybody who wants to know more about how different and similar early American life is to now.
Taxes, the Tea Party and Those Revolting Rebels: A History in Comics of the American Revolution is written and illustrated by Stan Mack and published by NBM Publishing. You can ask for it at your local comic book shop or, support Spandexless by purchasing through Amazon.