FDR and the New Deal For Beginners: Comics That Educate / by David Anderson


Depending on who you ask, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is either a fantastic president or a menace. Typically the focus on whether to call him good or bad hinges on your opinion of his New Deal economic program. Advocates say it was a helping hand in a time of need, especially after President Hoover exacerbated the troubles of the Great Depression. Opponents say that the New Deal was ineffective and that therefore it should be dismantled.

There are some who go farther, like when Father Coughlin called him "Franklin Double-Crossing Roosevelt" and others compared him to a dictator. One thing you can't deny, though, is that being president during the Great Depression, World War II and pulling a country through both events successfully while paraplegic is pretty hardcore.

FDR and the New Deal For Beginners is a book aimed at teaching the unfamiliar and the amateur about just exactly what FDR was all about, and what the New Deal consisted of. If you've never heard of this man, this book will give you a great overview of his presidency, from his early life all the way through his last term.

For Beginners Books is actually a very cool idea, and this title is just one of many books written on a variety of subjects, from Dadaism to Kierkegaard to the Holocaust to Astronomy. They even have Dante and Jung For Beginners both releasing this December. I bought another book from them as well, Arabs and Israel for Beginners.

This book, written by Paul Buhle and with illustrations by Sabrina Jones, is very much designed for beginners in a subject in every way imaginable. It's more graphic book than traditional comic, but with so much source material, the format works very well. It even has an afterword by Harvey Pekar.

What we have here is a 146 page history lesson that goes over the life of FDR (or as I like to call him, "FiDdeR"(not really)) with about the same level of detail as your average middle or high school history text. Unfortunately because of time constraints I had to avoid linearity and jump throughout the chapters to try to cobble together as accurate a picture of its quality as I could. I'm kind of a slow reader.

Each chapter begins with a comic that essentially summarizes the chapter in picture form, then leaves the words to fill in the details and elaborate. Every now and again a comic will interrupt a chapter to preface a new sub-section, and I find this to be an interesting format for exposition. The comics are like bullet points which eventually morph into waypoints throughout the text--"Oh yeah, I remember the panel about Upton Sinclair running for office in California" you might say as you read the paragraph that talk about Sinclair's criticism of FDR.  Some of the comics are dedicated to a single subject, like the stock market crash of 1929, while others are broad in their subject. Interspersed throughout the text are other images, frequently political cartoons from the era.

What was that theater technique that was popular in Shakespeare's day? The thing where you put on a 30 second mini-play for the poor people to watch, full of silent pantomime to summarize the entire play real quick before initiating the full play for the "smarter" rich folk? It's kind of like that. Without the whole "poor people are too dumb to understand this" cultural subtext.

The font is large and easy to read, and you won't see a lot of big words, which is good. This isn't a professor's dissertation on average GDP growth before and after the New Deal, after all, so don't worry about getting lost in $12 words or developing eye strain. The tone of the writing is generally friendly, but Buhle is committed to factual accuracy so he doesn't avoid any of the nastier details of FDR's life, and he doesn't try to justify them or put them in a lighter context. Yes, Roosevelt was a womanizer and felt that keeping Dixiecrats calm was more important than civil rights for blacks. Buhle will even tell you that the first incarnation of the New Deal was a flounder. Still, if this book was being judged by the political media, it would probably get lambasted as a "liberal rag" for the generally positive tone, the criticism of J. Edgar Hoover and other political leaders, and the language of class inequality permeating the text--a pretty important issue recently. If you're worried about historical accuracy, he has a bibliography of about 20 sources, so feel free to pore through those at your leisure. I know I ain't got the time. Don't worry, you will learn plenty of things about FDR in this book that your history texts omitted.

The art is reminiscent of political cartoons and the art styles of some of the posters used to promote the New Deal. It's more of a blend of a couple different styles--it has the anatomical proportions and the thick black linework reminiscent of some styles that I've seen in wartime politicals, but uses poses and details that make it a bit more friendly and kind of goofy. Like political cartoons, a lot of information is dispensed through labels and icons in conjunction, and this interplay seesaws the importance of both tools; what I mean by that is, sometimes the words convey more information to the reader than the image it's attached to; other times the words are almost completely redundant and serve simply to identify the icon; and still further instances show a balance between the two, resulting in face-melting metaphors and... I don't know where I was going with that.

Anyway, if you don't like President Obama then you probably won't like that this book was inspired by it according to the writers in their foreword. Still, from what I've read, I think that these guys do a good job writing accurately about a subject without producing a hagiography. So go get educated, even if you hate Franky. Do LeVar Burton a favor and expand your mind n' stuff.

TL;DR FDR and the New Deal For Beginners is a very well done graphic book that is both interesting and educational. With a strong bend towards hold-no-punches honesty, you will likely learn a lot from this book that you might not learn in your history book. Written at a middle school reading level, this (or any of the For Beginners series) would make a great addition to any classroom.

FDR and the New Deal For Beginners is written by Paul Buhle and with illustrations by Sabrina Jones. It is one of the many titles available from For Beginners Books. The company is based in CT (like us!) so if you are in the state, there are a few local stores where you can find their titles. You can also support Spandexless by buying your copy, either in paperback or Kindle edition, on Amazon.