In 2010 Canadian publisher Red Quill Books published “Historical Materialism”, the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto illustrated; a graphic novel based on the Manifesto of the Communist Party written by Marx and Engels in 1848. After “The Bourgeoisie” and “The Proletariat”, in 2015 they published the fourth and final chapter “The Communists”.
In New York I interviewed George S. Rigakos (Professor of the Political Economy of Policing at the Carleton University in Ottawa), creator of the comic story and founder of the publisher.
Who had the idea to re-imagine the Communist Manifesto as a graphic novel?
It came to me while I was trying to explain the concept of class war to a friend. It occurred to me that some of the themes in the Manifesto would easily lend themselves to a comic book format. You have a villainous group. You have a backstory about how the two adversaries – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – came into being. You have exploitation, violence and then, of course, liberation and the champions for a better world – the communists.
The pamphlet, to me, was ripe for a comic book adaptation. And, of course, the goal was to communicate the basic ideas in order to get students interested in the work of Marx.
Is it the first experiment of this nature?
No. There is a history of comic books being adapted from radical works or biographies. For example, there are now a number of comic book biographies on Che Guevara, there was a Spanish comic book adaptation of Das Capital. Red Quill now has a Manga version of Capital.
Why a graphic edition? Who is the audience of this work?
Students mainly. But also those who simply enjoy the comic book format for communicating ideas. Many people pick up the comic book and say “this is cool” and the next thing you know they’re reading Marx. Remember, we did not alter the text. We simply edited and moved bits around. So, it’s an introduction. In the combined edition we also have the full text of the Manifesto included.
How many copies did you sell until this moment?
It’s our best seller for sure. Of course, we get orders from all over the world. Sometimes comrades and labour organizations who simply want to give their friends or members a cool gift call us around Christmas. I recently found out that Black Lives Matter activists in Brooklyn were using the comic book to introduce people to to the work of Marx. That’s an amazing feeling. I was so happy to hear that.
I think that there is a political necessity underlying your work; what is it? Which themes did you emphasize?
The necessity is the nature of the current crisis and the real lack of a vision for an alternative future. The Bolshevik application of Marx has been widely discredited for good reason but are we to completely give up on discussions of programmatic change? There is a resurgence of interest in alternative politics. Marx has to be part of that discussion. Thematically, therefore, revolution plays an important role in the imagery of the illustrated manifesto because it does so in the original and because it is prescient now.
The Communist Manifesto is one of the most popular books in the History. The text is as explosive as it is simple and pragmatic. Was it difficult to transfer its essence in a graphic novel?
Creatively, I don’t think it was all that difficult for me. As I said the book easily lends itself to this adaptation. It was actually fun. The tension was more political. What do you emphasize, de-emphasize? How do you introduce ideas and what do you leave out for the Appendix which will come at the end? There are many people around the world that would make different decisions.
You modernized the text. What method of work did you use to write the script? What was the more difficult Manifesto‘s passage that you had to convert into a graphic novel?
The process was straightforward. I lifted text that I thought was emblematic of the message and that lent itself to graphic representation. I then set about thinking through the ordering to construct a narrative without re-writing the text. In the end, I went with four parts: Historical materialism; the Bourgeoisie; the Proletariat; and The Communists.
It was difficult, however, to convey through a single image the centuries of capitalist and pre-capitalist exploitation that led to communistic emancipation. There was much back and forth with Victor Serra, the illustrator, but I’m proud of the finished product.
At the beginning Marx is complaining in front of his own tomb reading about supposed crimes committed in the name of Communism. Do you think that they can’t save anything of the socialist experiences? I’m thinking of Fidel Castro, for example.
Yes, he is thoughtful but offers no answer for our old revolutionary who is losing faith and comes to visit him. This is because the revolutionary’s path is his own to reconcile. I think there is much to be learned from the failings of whatever you call what took place under the guise of so-called communism and we cannot ignore the oppression of the state and the new class dimensions that emerged.
But yes, I agree with most today that these failures must be learned from and a new application considered. What happens after Castro? How do you transition out of a system that has important merits but that nonetheless muzzles its people? Without engaging with Marx, I believe you will be left to corporate vultures and economic hit-men who will descend on Cuba once again to pick it apart and immiserate the people.
There is no answer outside of Marx.
What can you tell us about the illustrator Red Victor / Victor Serra? Why did you choose him?
He’s amazing. He originally worked at an Argentinian agency and we have had a great working relationship. I like his style and his attention to detail. When I sent him image ideas he would sometimes reject them because they lacked authenticity. “That model of car was not widely used in Russian until ten years later” – that type of thing that nobody else might notice. This gave me great confidence. He took pride in his work and it showed. The more we worked together I became far less prescriptive and was happy allowing him to make creative choices.
Red Quill Book is an editorial collective, how does it work? What are you working on in this period?
We are always looking for new proposals. They have to be right for us. There are lots of places to publish. We continue to publish critical academic books and radical comics. This is what we are known for and I don’t see that changing. We do not put out a ton of books. We don’t want to. We are selective so that we can guide the book through the process. New digital platforms have allowed creative persons to focus more on the process, on collaboration across the globe. Our little press would not exist without this. I can see us moving further to re-animate long-ignored or forgotten radical texts that could see new life as comic books. That continues to be our mission.
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