As part of the Graphic History Collective’s efforts to inspire people to make their own activist art, we asked the contributors of most recent project, Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle, to explain and reflect on their creative process.
David Lester is an artist, writer, illustrator, author of the graphic novel The Listener, guitarist for Mecca Normal, as well as the creator of many other politically-engaged art projects. He created the comic “The Battle of Ballantyne Pier” in Drawn to Change.
GHC: Tell us a bit about your process in creating your comic for Drawn to Change.
In art, the telling of history might best be approached with a single human as the focus even though most social progress is made by a collective mass of people. Unfortunately that “collective mass of people” is not always engaging as a way to approach narrative and visuals.
With that in mind, I wrote “The Battle of Ballantyne Pier” from a personal perspective. My grandfather Frederick Bruno Lester was a longshoreman on that day in 1935. He was at the battle, so this is the perspective with which I approached telling history. My grandfather became the thread that held the tale together.
When my grandfather was still alive, I was too young to question him about his life as a unionist. But my much older brother did have that information and he was invaluable about filling me in on grandpa’s history. A history that included being a member of the radical Industrial Workers of the World.
Research included much time cranking the wheels on the ancient microfilm viewers at the Vancouver Public Library. I printed out all the articles and photos from Vancouver newspapers that related to the battle. I also consulted books on the history of longshore workers on the west coast.
“The Battle of Ballantyne Pier,” covered just one day, but required a lot of historical explanation in order to understand the significance of that one day.
I wrote a script, and revised, and revised. The final drawing took place in a frenzy of pen, brush, pencil, and watercolour, over the course of five days. I wanted the art to be rough and raw and reflect that history is not all neat and tidy. The style of a drawing can be a metaphor that goes beyond merely depicting action.
Once the drawing and text were finished, I had literary-minded friends read it over. They found typos and made excellent suggestions on changes to drawings and text.
Telling political history in the short form is tricky because so often there is only room for “the facts.” Much more difficult is to make a comic not only about politics but that is political in itself, in its very form.
I hope that comics can be useful as an artistic tool in the life of social progress. The stories we write and draw should reach out to those who do not see history as we do. That conflict is politics in action. Of course, at the very least, comics can bear witness to the world we live in, and that is no small feat.
Making art is one thing, but promoting it is another. I consider promotion to be essential and part of the work of an activist artist. I did an interview on CBC radio about my contribution to Drawn To Change, and one listener wrote an eloquent email to the show:
Interesting story. A reminder that union history and the history of activists for basic rights is not spoken of or part of our national discourse. Lots of info on wars fought for democracy, but no support for discussion of important domestic conflicts that are indeed; “class warfare;” In our democracy, there is always a group of people who attempt to take away the rights of others. A strong labour movement is essential to protect workers and a strong social contract including all. Solidarity!
Also, as a means of promotion, I created a short film of my chapter in the book. I also did the cover art for BC History Magazine which featured an article that takes up where “The Battle of Ballantyne Pier” left off.
Listen to David Lester on CBC talk about “The Battle of Ballantyne Pier”:
GHC: What are you working on now?
A graphic novel on the last year in the life of anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman. She died in Toronto in 1940. Of course, this book is requiring much more research than “The Battle of Ballantyne Pier.”
I visited Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. There I found a typed letter to a rabbi in Montreal that has Emma’s actual signature on the bottom. Upon a closer look I could see she’d started to write her name but stopped because the fountain pen was empty. Yes, a small moment in a monumental life, but it reveals the endless details that must be taken care of when fighting for a better world. Details such as the fountain pen needs filling.
I also found police documents marked “SECRET” that show the authorities actively kept surveillance on Emma Goldman even after she suffered a stroke that she never recovered from. The documents are very fragile yet gloves were not required.
In Toronto I was able to visit the private house Emma lived in the last year of her life. An incredible experience to be standing in the very room where one of history’s greatest orators died. The house has no marker outside to indicate it’s historical importance.
See David Lesters’s Emma Goldman graphic novel in progess:
As well, I continue to make music. Recently my feminist punk duo Mecca Normal opened for The Julie Ruin on their Pacific Northwest tour. Mecca Normal are attributed with influencing the social movement known as Riot Grrrl in the early 1990s. Members of The Julie Ruin were part of that movement. So playing these shows together was having history come full circle, from the past to a present where the issues of feminism have not gone away, they are more urgent than ever.
This recent article in the Portland Mercury by Emma Burke also sums up the significance of that history.
When I was 15, I would listen to Mecca Normal’s “I Walk Alone” every day as I maneuvered the desolate and lonely 10 blocks between the bus stop and my house. This was the year I began to learn the intricacies of girlhood, soundtracked by riot grrrl bands, fresh to my previously pop-occupied ears. Jean Smith’s politicized lyrics and occasionally grating singing style created alluring discomfort—Mecca Normal empowered girls to be angry and critical. Their refusal to assimilate or soften their message makes them a truly foundational feminist punk group, and one whose voice is still desperately needed.
See Mecca Normal in concert in Portland: https://youtu.be/PcYA-sJSj7I
As I wrote in Drawn To Change, “In retrospect, The Battle of Ballantyne Pier was not a defeat, it was a victory of workers engaged in the fight for a better world. The struggle for social justice is not always a linear narrative, it is far messier, it is far more abstract, and what appears to be defeat is simply part of the long process on the road to victory.”
What I’ve learned so far in life is that both art and music can change the world we live in. Social change may not always be visible, or quantifiable, but I know from my own experience that art can have a profound effect on individuals which can lead to mass action and change in all our lives.