With the election cycle in full spin—accompanied by the inevitable call-outs to the principles of our country and its Founding Fathers — it behooves the politically minded comics fan to take a look at the recently reissued and revised Taxes, the Tea Party, and Those Revolting Rebels (NBM). Subtitled “A History in Comics of the American Revolution,” Stan Mack’s graphic chronicle depicts both the high and low points of the War for Independence, the heroic and flawed colonists who took such a big risk in challenging Mother England in the first place.
Mack, best known to this reader for his witty long running Village Voice strip, “Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies,” takes his story back to the roots of the revolution, looking first at the economic incentives (the Writs of Assistance, for instance, that levied heavy taxes on rum and slave traffickers) and the philosophical underpinnings (Puritanism, Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke and Rousseau) that would-be revolutionaries would use to bolster their arguments for independence. He proves clear-sighted in depicting the era’s class distinctions—noting on more than one occasion that though the idea men behind the revolution were privileged and often moneyed, it was the common folk who most often had to lay down their lives for the cause.
Mack’s intent here is not to tear down the Founding Fathers, but to acknowledge their contradictions: that for all the talk about liberty, our early nation’s leaders still balked at offering full rights of citizenship to slaves, women, white males without property, and Amerindians. Even a voluble critic of slavery like Thomas Jefferson maintained his own plantation slaves to stave off debt. Still, the promise of freedom for all was imbedded in the country. As Mack writes in the aftermath of the Constitutional Convention: “Though those in power have continuously reinterpreted the constitution, in principle, anyone in this society is as good any anyone else.”
In between, the cartoonist does a bang-up job documenting the political in-fights and full-blown battles of the Revolutionary War, clearly delineating the tactical victories and flubs of both sides. The colonists’ armies were a famously ragtag bunch, whose skills at guerrilla fighting frequently worked to their advantage against the more formally trained redcoats, but as Mack also points out, these same fighting men’s independence would also prove frustrating for their own leaders. He quotes General Washington’s assertion after a disastrous defeat in Manhattan that “A guerrilla army is a disobedient army.”
Mack’s loose cartoony art captures its loudly contentious cast without either mythologizing or condescending to them. He does away with formal panel structures on his pages, visually paralleling the messy and chaotic process of revolution. To be sure, there are plenty of off-the-cuff jokes in this book. Mack is too innate a cartoonist to let either excess pomposity or hypocrisy go unskewered: in one panel, for instance, he shows a shoemaker working the war economy by marking up the price of his wares. “Tom Paine says people are basically good,” the would-be profiteer says to himself, “so whatever I do is okay.” Looking at the American Scene today, you can’t help spying the ancestors of that rationalizing little colonist.
Recommended reading for those of us who only hazily remember our public school history classes.