Zinn amp; co. get graphic

by Beacon Staff • April 23, 2008

Cartoons are history. Well, at least they are in the new graphic novel adapted from historian Howard Zinn's bestselling book, A People's History of the United States. Zinn and cartoonist Mike Konopacki will present their collaborative effort tonight at 6 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square.

Zinn was breaking boundaries when he published the book in 1980. It attempts to present American history from the the perspective of American Indians, women, blacks and workers, all of whose experiences are often hidden in the tall shadows of dead presidents.

The book reiterates that the standard view of American history is ultimately self-serving. Within each period, Zinn reexamines events conveniently forgotten and downplayed by the traditional interpretations of history. For instance, classrooms across the country frequently decry the genocidal aspects of Adolf Hitler's Germany and praise our valiant attempt to overthrow him. Meanwhile they gloss over our own country's evisceration of the American Indians-an ethnic cleansing campaign that has come much nearer to fruition than the Nazis' "Final Solution."

Although some critics in the field say that Zinn only gives voice to the victims and rebels rather than the truly average American, the perspective is only part of his progressive strategy. Zinn emphasizes that these records should not only be made by the people, but for the people as well. He makes this most apparent in his attempts to adapt his work into more accessible forms. Before the graphic novel, Zinn wrote a play incorporating the history. He has also performed dramatic readings of primary-sources with well-know actors, including Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei, Josh Brolin and several others.

Zinn's explorations bring a light to the darker side of America's past, but the accessibility of his work is most admirable. He actively engages the audience more than most historians would even consider.

"More young people are attracted to [the comic] format," Zinn said in a interview with The Boston Globe on March 27. "Maybe we can reach a broader audience than would otherwise read the book."

Zinn also said he was surprised at how smart he looked with help from a little ink and a pen.

The most impressive transformation, however, is likely to be that of Zinn's prose into Konopacki's speech bubbles. Though the graphic novel only covers a chapter of the original text, which begins with the fall of the Twin Towers on September 11 and jumps back to events as early as the battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, which one general openly acknowledged as a massacre.

The event is hosted by the Harvard Book Store, which is currently selling tickets for $5. The tickets can be redeemed for a $5 discount at the bookstore for a month after the event or at the event. For a preview of what's in store, go to howardzinn.org to watch a short animated video of the derived graphic novel with a voiceover by Mortensen.