Sunday, 13 January 2008

Pekar's 'Students for a Democratic Society' looks at youth and the power to change the world

Sunday, January 13, 2008
The Plain Dealer
Carlo Wolff

In a refreshing sense, this is a book proudly in the comics tradition: It speaks to youth.

It also is, in art-comic form, a history of the Students for a Democratic Society in its first incarnation, 1960-1969, with a few pages at the end about its contemporary revival two generations later.

The issues that the SDS raised -- and this book raises again -- certainly haven't died. Poverty, racism, the alienation of labor, police brutality, the violation of personal freedom and an unpopular war make headlines today.

"Students for a Democratic Society" is a lively work of words, pictures and passion. It examines the leftist student organization from various vantage points, blending personal anecdotes, conventional history and what one might call field reports.

"Written mostly" by Cleveland man-about-the-media Harvey Pekar, illustrated "mostly" by his long-time associate Gary Dumm, and edited by Paul Buhle, founding editor of the SDS journal "Radical America," the book is engrossing and unexpectedly effective.

This trio follows the chronological story of the SDS, then rounds out the picture with separate cameos of radical activity in Chicago; Cleveland; Madison, Wis.; and elsewhere. Pekar has become an acute pop sociologist, and Dumm's dense, neutral art underlines the electricity of the times. Among the notable voices are: Wes Modes, who recounts the fatal shooting of four Kent State University students on May 4, 1970, in a grainy poignancy that recalls the Zapruder film of President Kennedy's assassination; David Roheim, who gives a text-heavy, brilliant "Iowa SDS Story" that sums up the intoxicating highs and crashes of the late 1960s; and Bruce Rubenstein, who writes a thoughtful end piece.

This prismatic and personal approach resonates. A decade dominated by the Vietnam War and the shift from folk to rock music is caught on these pages, as John Pietaro's "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" caught the spirited, tragically short career of Phil Ochs, an Ohio boy who spent quite a bit of time in Cleveland and made an indelible mark as a protest singer.

It is comforting, although perhaps naive, to imagine an enlightened professor of contemporary history including "Students for a Democratic Society" in his or her syllabus.

The frankness of SDS veterans on their successes and, more importantly, their failures makes a potential handbook for contemporary activists wanting to organize without repeating the mistakes of their predecessors.

"The Weathermen are gone but SDS is back, now as strong as it was in 1966, among students and others in a world that needs it more than ever," Rubenstein reports.

"However different the nation has become in forty years, creativity still arguably blossoms best among youth, those who have the least stake in the existing rules of society," Buhle and Pekar say in the introduction.

Creativity also thrives among '60s survivors like Pekar, Dumm and Buhle, still trying to change the world for the better and still hoping youth takes up the cause.

Wolff is a critic and writer in South Euclid.

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