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Historian Zinn disappoints with comic-strip book

Rick Carroll
Aspen Times Weekly

There are some authors whose writings, no matter what they put out, we expect to enjoy and appreciate.

Howard Zinn is one of those authors. When I read the landmark “People’s History of the United States” for the first time some 15 years ago, my naivete about American history was shattered. Last year I tackled Zinn’s “A Power Governments Cannot Suppress,” and again left impressed with what he’d written and, for better or worse, more cynical about the country I live in. The book also left me inspired because Zinn, who offered a downright dim view of America’s past and future, also emphasized that small steps of activism go a long way toward making this country a better place to live.

So when “A People’s History of the American Empire” landed on my desk, I was intrigued.



First, thanks to the illustration, it’s unlike anything Zinn has ever done.

Second, it would feed my disdain about the direction this country has been heading.




And third, I like comic books.

I really, really wanted to like “A People’s History of the American Empire.” But I didn’t.

I know, I know. Comic-strip books should be taken with a grain of salt; they certainly shouldn’t be considered an authoritative piece on whatever subject they cover. Still, there have been some decent comic-strip books out there of late ” “Ronald Reagan: A Graphic Biography” comes to mind.

Perhaps Zinn is a victim of his own success. He’s a compelling writer, so it’s almost a setup for failure for him to attempt a comic-strip formula. Think Bob Dylan doing disco.

In “A People’s History of the American Empire,” Mike Konopacki’s illustrations portray Zinn as a lecturer, perched behind his typewriter and cranking out a passionate tirade about the loss of innocent lives and America’s history of terrorizing other countries. Paul Buhle wrote the foreword and helped provide the historical backdrop. The book starts with the 9/11 attacks but then jumps back in time and rambles forward in illustrated form, grimly depicting America’s wars, conflicts, invasions and the like, as seen by a son of poor Jewish immigrants reared in the slums of Brooklyn.

Along the journey, Zinn makes comparisons between the Bush administration and previous ones, in a scatterbrained fashion that makes it even more painful to read.

Zinn doesn’t help with his sanctimonious, preachy tone. One thing readers don’t like is when a writer talks down to them. This is one of those times.

One day Zinn’s body of writing, if it hasn’t been already, will be heralded by liberal America. But “A People’s History of the American Empire” won’t be remembered as one of the defining works.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com