Stan is a veteran journalist and amateur historian who just finished work on Taxes, the Tea Party and Those Revolting Rebels, a graphic history of the Boston Tea Party and the circumstances that led to it. It was an attempt, in his words, at a “bottom-up” narrative, focusing less on the famous movers and shakers like Sam Adams and Ben Franklin and more on the regular Joes that nobody reads about. I got the opportunity to chat with him about it, along with a few other subjects like the subjectivity of historical narrative, the art style and other subjects. He was a great person to talk to and very knowledgeable on subjects I happen to be interested in.
Spandexless: This is Dave Anderson with Spandexless, and I’m with:
Stan Mack: Stan Mack.
S: Stan Mack, who has made a couple of books, including:
SM: Taxes, the Tea Party and Those Revolting Rebels.
S: A narrative about the events behind the Boston Tea Party, going back to the end of the French-Indian War, correct?
SM: Exactly. It starts at the end of the French-Indian War, the philosophy behind what drove the colonists to protest the taxes that England was imposing on the colonies, and it goes forward from there all the way to the Bill of Rights.
S: So the context of this book might be considered very loaded, what with a new Tea Party in Congress claiming its heritage came from the one that occurred in 1776. What do you want to say about that?
SM: It’s tricky to try to relate today to those days. There’s some basics: the meaning of the Constitution then versus what it means today, how closely we’ve followed its original meaning, that sort of thing. But when it comes to questions of medical insurance and various stuff like that, you can’t draw direct parallels. In essential ways, the economy, the direction of the country, the size of the government, there are parallels.
S: And obviously, some things are lost in translation, and possibly skewed- we tend to alter our understanding of events to fit a narrative.
SM: Well yes. One thing to keep in mind with all books like this is that history is written looking backwards. So trying to imagine what we would be like sitting here, with knickers, those funny hats, and thinking the way they did then, having an English background, being colonists, it’s hard to put yourself exactly into those shoes. So what we try to do is look back with some kind of sensibility of the reader, and interpreting the old days in a way that’s understandable today that doesn’t veer too far from the way it originally was.
S: What I liked about reading through it–I haven’t gotten very far through it yet, but what I like so far about it is how basic and broken down it is–you’ve managed to condense a lot of information to simple ideas and I think they still encapsulate the original ideas well–like you can take bits and pieces, put them together and have the context.
SM: One of the main skills I developed was that for twenty years I worked on a weekly comic strip for the Village Voice, and another one for Adweek magazine. You had to learn how to tell a story fast and clear. And somehow, even when it came to doing a big book, the idea that I had to boil down what people were saying–or what I was reading that they were saying–and make it succinct and zero in on it–helped in keeping this book, as you say, understandable and succinct I have boxes of research material that led to it though. A couple of reviews online have said that I really did my research. I did do my research, but when it came to the book, I knew there was no point in doing another ten volumes. So how to zero in–and get some depth–one of the other things the review said was that he didn’t stick to the general history, the glossy version you get in high school, and that’s true. I really did try to do that without being one-sided. I’m not trying to sell a point of view.
S: Try to be as accurate as possible.
SM: Accuracy. But accuracy is tricky! What does accuracy mean when you have Republicans and Democrats?
S: What can you do when it’s been 300 years since an event? One of the things I learned from my World War II history class was that stuff that comes out right after an event- even if it’s a reputable source like SLA Marshall- will often be less accurate than a piece of research written decades later thanks to conflicting perspectives of more recent witnesses.
SM: There’s a difference between being a reporter and a historian. I’m mainly a cartoonist-reporter…if also an amateur historian. I tried to hold on to that sense of immediacy you get in a reported story, and still tell good history. My approach was similar to my comic strips—a street look. A bottom-up history. I call it the chickens in the road approach. I put us, not George Washington, in the center of the story. We’re looking up at the Founding Fathers…who are in my pages, but without their pedestals.
S: …But we’re talking about the colonists.
SM: That’s right. The colonists, and how were they responding to this? What made them angry? How did they get together, what did they do about it? Who were the ones painting the protest signs, that sort of thing?
S: Basically figuring out how the motives of those people factor in.
SM: They were the heroes. They are the heroes in that book. Well, it’s not super obvious, they don’t have a tag coming off them like a political cartoon, saying “I’m the hero.” But the idea was to do what Howard Zinn called a “bottom-up” history, because we can all relate to it.
S: I mean, we like the idea of history being pushed forward by individuals. You hear people talk about the Revolution, they’ll talk about Ben Franklin, Sam Adams. We talk about George Washington winning Saratoga rather than what his army was doing.
SM: I do try to address that. How much of leadership comes from above. How much comes from the better educated? John Adams was a lawyer. Sam Adams went to Harvard. Patrick Henry was a lawyer. And how much came from the working class guys who were in the middle of the original mob action, and how much came from the subtle leadership of people with a broader view?
S: I learned in a class on government that when you want a revolution, the most successful ones are cross-class. You have elites and middle class and lower classes figuring out an equitable solution. The French Revolution turned into anarchy because of a breakdown in the dialogue between them versus what happened in the American Revolution.
SM: In my book, it wasn’t until the alliance between labor and the merchant class that they had that forward motion to really bring the protests out.
S: To actually beat out the loyalists?
SM: Well, there’s always the Tories. Those are the guys who are very happy the way things were, because they were making money from the English system. But there were a lot of people that began to suffer–because of the taxation, because they couldn’t smuggle, stuff like that, so the voices kind of came together. So what you said is exactly what I found out.
S: Thanks. So, what else can we talk about?
SM: Well there’s the cartoon aspect too, of course.
S: Yeah, I mean the art style kind of reminds me of Schoolhouse Rock, but it still feels like the tone is more serious.
SM: Well, I didn’t play for jokes. I do think there’s a lot of humor in the book, but the humor–I would like to believe–comes out of the events. I didn’t make cracks.
S: Satirizing the events?
SM: No, I tried not to take a position. As comic as it is, and humorous and–I hope–entertaining, to read, it doesn’t say “these guys were bad, these guys were good”, it doesn’t take an ideological position.
S: More of a sociological position?
SM: I laughed at everybody.
S: Heh. Looking at events both internal and external, not really saying–putting blame on anyone.
SM: That’s right. It’s true that Parliament was blind in a lot of ways. It’s true the colonists fought as much among themselves as they did against the English–well, they were both English. So they both carried a lot of the blame and during the fighting they both screwed up equally. And Washington hated the guerrilla army, which is what gave him the advantage in the first place, he wanted an orderly army like the English had.
S: Yeah, that’s why he had Prussians come in and train them.
SM: Heh, yeah.
S: So, anything else you want to say?
SM: One thing I’m interested in is, where is this book going to be placed in the library? Some say the graphic novel section is a type of ghetto. They throw in everything together, and yet for graphic novel fans, that’s where they go. But a book like this–which isn’t fantasy, isn’t superhero, is solid history–also ought to be in the category of other history books. It should be with American history. And in fact it is, at [Barnes and Noble], this season. They’re putting it there. But that’s kind of innovative, and so, what’s better? How do you make the choice? I mean if you’re looking for a graphic American history would you go to the history section or the graphic novel section? I hope, actually, that you go to the history section.
S: It kind of goes back to the view where there’s a dichotomy between print words and image books. These guys go here, these guys go over here. Once you’re in a graphic novel section it doesn’t really matter what the subject is. You might have kids’ books next to adult fiction or whatever.
SM: Maus is in Judaica, because that’s where its audience is. And I hope that my book and others like it will be found in history, but you’re right. Is it an image book or a book?
S: Even if it’s got words they still say “no, it’s a comic book.”
SM: Well your site is looking at image books.
S: Something like that. We’re still figuring out our own definition…We had a podcast earlier in the week asking what our site really was about. What is a non-superhero comic? It’s actually kind of difficult to figure out.
SM: And getting more complicated all the time. Because more and more nonfiction books are coming out that are serious looks at various sides of one viewpoint or philosophy. It’s a personal, entertaining narrative but it takes on a serious topic. Where did that go?
S: All right, twelve minutes now, sounds good. We’re looking forward to reviewing your book.
S: This is Dave, signing off.