The 1960s were all about consciousness raising: middle class white kids discovering the poverty and discrimination suffered by people of color, apolitical guys getting drafted and sent to the war in Asia, young women running up against the patriarchal system and nearly everybody expanding—or blowing—their minds on drugs. This lifting of cultural and political awareness is chronicled in Students For A Democratic Society: A Graphic History. A collection of cartoon vignettes that trace the brief and unruly history of the organization, the book follows the political enlightenment of the decade’s youth from rude awakening and reactionary idealism straight on to disillusionment and escape, all with enough sex, drugs and street demonstrations to keep it entertaining.
Founded in 1960 on the bones of the civil rights movement and the old left, the SDS grew to become the largest and most visible of campus radical groups before splintering into a million disaffected pieces some 10 years later. The group was so democratic, so broadly focused, so decentralized, locally controlled and even anarchic that it really wasn’t much of an organization at all but an umbrella sponsor for strikes, teach-ins, community support projects and acts of resistance. In this, it was truly American.
Most of Students For a Democratic Society was written by Harvey Pekar with illustrations by Gary Dumm—both known for Pekar’s American Splendor series—and is broken into two parts. The first is a history of the national SDS and the ideological tugs that eventually tore it apart. The second is a collection of geographically-based accounts of chapters in Chicago, Madison, Wisconsin, Austin, Texas, Los Angeles and other locales, providing a look at the varieties of the experience. These accounts are largely personal memoirs of political and cultural awakening in which the narrators discover the joys of jazz and marijuana as frequently as they do the evils of the military industrial complex.
Take David Rosheim’s history of the SDS in Iowa City, Iowa in the last years of the decade. Not only does Rosheim tell of ideological struggles within the movement but how knowing a few chords on guitar leads him to a sexually-liberated woman who turns him on to some “quality weed from California” thus radicalizing him in ways he never dreamed possible. Or “My Life At Stake,” Paul Buhle’s story of his own military induction physical in which he holds up a sign urging his fellow draftees to join him in resistance, an act so crazy it wins him a deferment.
There are lessons here for our own times and our resistance to the illicit and costly war that wages on in Iraq. As protests grew in the ‘60s, so did America’s involvement in Vietnam and the radical community began to question its tactics—namely street demonstrations—and lack of success. The frustrations led to violence and disillusionment, best characterized by the SDS splinter group The Weathermen and their call to “bring the war home” with window smashing, police attacks and bombings. That the war in Vietnam outlived the SDS by some five years is a sobering comment on establishment power.
The role of drugs as part of the disillusionment is portrayed here in uncertain terms, beginning with the use of marijuana at meetings (as one of “the left’s great young intellectuals” declares at a meeting “enough talk…let’s smoke some dope!”) and proceeding to disorienting hallucinogens and debilitating needle drugs. In one panel, a former Weatherman declares that he has gone underground as he passes a joint to a friend. The bong, the couch, cats and bimbo in the background imply that the “underground” declaration is, in the parlance of the day, a cop-out.
That’s one of the best attributes of Students For a Democratic Society. It doesn’t glamorize the movement, overstate its accomplishments or ignore the patronization shown on issues of race. The book underscores the pettiness of some of the ideological struggles as well as the second-class status of women within the movement. Still, it can’t help but make exciting times look attractive. The story of a wedding held during the occupation of Columbia University and an innocently-drawn section on the Children’s Strike For Peace highlights the naive atmosphere.
Principal illustrator Gary Dumm’s drawings are straight-ahead, minimally stylized depictions that occasionally exaggerate the zeal of pot-bellied police wielding their batons. His best work is set in the margins of the “Iowa SDS Story,” providing a collage of representative images that march smoothly alongside Buhle’s engaging text. Other illustrators provide contrasting styles, most notably Wes Mode’s cross-hatched, unfocused panels of the police riot against 10,000 demonstrators at the Justice Department in Washington, DC in November of 1969. The jagged depictions genuinely convey the chaos of the event. We know. We were there. –Cabbage Rabbit
Students For A Democratic Society: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar, Gary Dumm and others; Hill and Wang, hardback, 214 pages, $22
A version of this review first appeared in the OC Weekly