Marx is a breezy bio of Karl Marx one of the most influential, complex and misunderstood men of the 19th century. Marx was a free-thinker, persecuted for battling for equality among the classes while he struggled financially and lived a bourgeois life of occasional means and occasional poverty. As Corinne Maier and Anne Simon make clear in this charming book, Marx was a revolutionary who lived in the real world.
Marx treads several fine lines in its 60 pages: a line between biography of the man and a history of his ideas; between a light comedic touch and a more dramatic cadence that discusses Karl Marx’s many setbacks; between his prosaic, everyday pursuits and his complex life of thought and theory; and, most importantly of all, this book deliberately doesn’t draw conclusions about Marxism and communism – at least until its last few pages.
Marx was often castigated as the Devil for his beliefs, but what emerges from this slim book is the complicated story of a complicated man whose experiences shaped his life in major ways. Early in the book we learn that Karl Marx’s family is descended from a long line of rabbis, but that in order for the his father to keep a job as a lawyer, he had to renounce his Judaism. So from an early age, young Marx was radicalized; as one panel has it, a very young Karl screams “I don’t care about religion! And I don’t want anyone telling me what I have to be.”
In a conventional biography a scene like that would take several pages and explain cross-currents; with the approach that Maier and Simon take to the book – as much figurative history as real history – the scene is a perfect shortcut to establish the approach that Marx would follow all his life.
Similarly, the book navigates between Marx’s daily life and his life of theories in an adroit manner that uses comics’ visual and verbal shorthand to convey events in ways that would feel comfortable only in comics. In the page above, you can see Karl beaten down by his life, lying prone and beaten in his comfortable chair, looking away from his parents until he makes the decision to marry his beloved Jenny and see her off with a kiss that makes her head spin.
Scenes like this give the book a grounding and show Karl Marx as a man in the real world, demonstrating the way he interacts with his loved ones in ways that both imply and articulate his thoughts.
Those pages offer a nice contrast for pages like the ones above, which explain Marx’s theories in simple and easy-to-understand graphics that allow readers to grok his beliefs without asking readers to trudge through too much complicated terminology. In the hands of a more insecure writer, or one with an agenda to tout, a book like this might become a long journey through Marx’s belief systems. In fact, a book like that would be an ideal sort of work to produce in comics form, like Margreet de Heer’s equally light and wonderful Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics. But too much economic theory would take away from the core biography of Marx here while too much biography would trivialize his importance to the world.
In fact, one of the minor criticisms I have of this book is that at times it’s too lightweight and moves through facts too quickly. Two of Marx’s children die at young ages, but their effect on Karl and Jenny Marx is barely shown – it may be that the deaths brought the rest of the family closer (that connection is implied later in the book) but they feel trivialized in context.
Also trivialized a bit is the way that Marx was persecuted for his political and social beliefs. There are wonderful, though too short, scenes of the Paris Communes and the European Revolutions of 1867, but they move across the page so quickly that they barely register on a reader.
But any book that contains a lovely page like the one above can’t be criticized too much for what it does and doesn’t have. This slim, wonderful, charming book is a bit like an illustrated Wikipedia entry about one of the most important and influential men of the last two centuries. It floats on the surface, teases facts, and provides ideas for further reading. It intrigued me to learn more about Karl Marx as a man and to explore his original ideas, divorced from the way that they changed (and often damaged) the world.
The book concludes with a short reminder that Marx’s ideas are still important even today, some three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In a world where capitalism seems frequently to run unchecked, and when the wheels of government are frequently in the hands of oligarchs and their toadies (hello Koch Brothers!), we’re not too far from the world that Marx condemned in the 19th century.
Marx made me smile and taught me a lot about a man who seems as far from being the Devil as you and me. Ordinary men make extraordinary history. This book reminds readers of that fact.
Images courtesy of Nobrow Press