Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #350: A Most Imperfect Union by Stavans & Alcaraz

I'm sure I've said this a thousand times before, but it never helps to wish that a creator -- in any medium -- was someone different. It never actually accomplishes anything, and obscures what's good and specific in the actual work at hand.

But, still, I can't read this book without thinking of Larry Gonick, the 800-pound gorilla of history in comics form, and I doubt the creators could create it without him either. A Most Imperfect Union tells the story of the USA in comics from, from the first arrivals of non-locals up to the present day, and that's exactly what Gonick's The Cartoon History of the United States did more than twenty years ago. Of course, there's been more history since then, and no two historians completely agree on everything, so there's plenty of room for a new book.

Most Imperfect is written by Ilan Stavans, a professor at Amherst and author of over twenty other books -- most importantly among them several other graphic novels. So he's no newbie. Joining him here on the pen is Lalo Alcaraz,who writes for TV and cartoons both in a political vein and in the strip La Cucaracha. They're both Mexican-Americans, which influences a lot of their slant in this book: this is emphatically not a book about heroic white guys conquering an entire continent with the force of their whiteness and manliness.

On the other hand, Stavans goes out of his way to not present a single unified viewpoint; he adds in several other characters (a "director" of this story, a blonde woman who is not overly intelligent, a dog) to comment on his points and sometimes argue with him. It's all vaguely from the point of view of the left side of American politics, but only vaguely -- Stavans is not as ideologically defined as even Gonick is, and is most concerned with presenting other sides of the story, especially from groups usually outside the history books.

So your Tea Party uncle will loathe this book if he reads it. Come to think of it, I wouldn't be surprised if Fox has already done a hit piece on it -- two Mexicans; it's perfect for them -- so he may be able to loathe it without reading it, like most things in his life. For the rest of us, it's very wordy for a comic -- much in the Gonick style -- but not so much for a history book, and it's not obviously biased in any particulars. (Everyone's biased, more or less -- the point is to keep it out of the street and not scare the horses.)

Alcaraz contributes a lot of art that looks hasty or sketchy -- until you realize how many famous faces he's drawing into this book, and how you know who all of them are. And then the sketchiness starts to look more purposeful and deliberate.

Imperfect Union is a decent introduction to American history, with a modern social-history slant and a tropism for fairness, inclusion, and progress. It's probably best for teens, maybe in a school setting, but it could also be very eye-opening to folks new to the USA as adults, like Stavans himself, who moved to this country in his mid-twenties.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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