It's been an odd couple of weeks for freebie books here at Casa Comics Bulletin, as a series of graphic novels have showed up that all kind of coalesce around a theme: educational comics. And they've been a fascinating collection of material. Each book is didactic and provides a survey on the topic that it explores, whether that topic is economics, philosophy, a specific historical event… or the topic of today's book, the American Revolutionary War.
Stan Mack's Taxes, the Tea Party and those Revolting Rebels isn't a look at the Conservative movement that took back the House of Representatives and Senate in 2010. Instead, Mack takes an insightful and often irreverent look at America's Founding Fathers. He celebrates their greatness, looks at England's inept management of the Colonies, and tells readers about the lucky sequence of events and accidents that helped to bring about a successful revolution in America.
This book isn't a narrative graphic novel, with characters and plotlines flowing in and out of each other in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s more of an illustrated history, in which historical events are depicted in blobs of text while the images shown beneath the next emphasize and often comment on the text, usually in a humorous way.
It's an interesting approach because it allows for a large scope of story to be told — and is therefore maybe the only effective way to approach a story with this enormous range of material to be presented. It's hard to imagine a story like this being presented objectively while presenting its characters as more than two-dimensional people — if you tried to do that, you would get something like Ethan Van Sciver's The Hypo, which Danny Djeljesovic, Daniel Elkin and I will be reviewing later this week. But the objective approach also distances the reader from the people whose stories are being told. I know there's a terrific graphic novel from Archiaia about Paul Revere, but Taxes shows that there's an enormous untapped set of great graphic stories to be told about several of the Founding Fathers.
Mack's book begins in 1761, as the British are dealing with large war debts, poor financial management, and the never-ending need to create new colonial outposts to continue their financial expansion. At the same time, the Enlightenment is sweeping through the intellectuals of both Europe and America, and the American Colonists' sense of independence is vividly shown. Mack is very effective of putting those years in perspective, giving readers a feel both for the intellectual currents that ended up being the underpinnings for the Revolution (and, to a great extent, our "American way of life") and the very personal grievances that the early Colonists had with taxes.
The book tells our American story up to 1789 and the establishment of the Bill of Rights. The scenes that present the Constitutional Convention are especially vivid, bringing the complex and quirky personalities of our Founders away from mythology and into a two-dimensional sort of light.
Mack continually uses the two-dimensional space of the comics page to help tell his story effectively. There are some wonderful scenes at the beginning of this book that smartly use maps and graphs to make interesting points. Later in the book he takes famous paintings and etchings as starting points for his illustrations and the undercuts their grandeur with irreverent or interesting word balloons — an effective way to convey an interesting idea in a subtly subversive way.
A lot of what makes this book so effective is Stan Mack's wonderfully loose and energetic art. Mack's style is loose and spontaneous, open and seemingly almost improvised — there are times when you can see his under-drawing lines — but that style of approach is tremendously effective at giving the story its sense of urgency and excitement, a feeling of events hurtling one upon the other as the American Revolution becomes more and more inevitable.
He makes the Revolution seem fun and exciting, as well as making it feel surprisingly relevant to conversations that are happening as our Presidential election is ongoing. It's easy to see Mitt Romney as one of the oligarchs who strongly pushed for independence from England, or to see where the small government/low taxes Conservatives get their ideas from our country's early history.
This is an effective and quick survey of the American Revolution, probably best targeted at an older middle school or early high school crowd. Mack tells his story crisply, with just the right tough of irreverence, to be able to strike a chord with kids who have short attention spans — or with adults like me who want to brush up on our memories of Jefferson, Hamilton and Washington.