White Collar by Giacomo Patri

Title: White Collar
Author: Giacomo Patri
Genre: Graphic novel / art

Rating: 3.75 / 5

Goodreads | Powell’s

I had never heard of Giacomo Patri–and no wonder, when his Wikipedia page consists of just seven paltry sentences. But based on the short biography given in the introduction of this book, I would expect him to be better known, at least in leftist circles. He and his first wife, also an artist (paper & bookbinding), were “progressive radical humanism” activists from the 1920s on, and supported the labor movement, including unions and unionizing, anti-lynching campaigns, and accessible art–after the school he taught for was placed on the “Subversive List” during the run up to the McCarthy era, he opened his own school, which ran affordable art classes in the evening so that workers could more easily attend. Anyway he sounds neat and they should make a movie about him. And this book?

As you might guess from the author’s biography, the book is political in nature. Besides the short introduction and an even shorter afterword, the book is just linocuts–over 100 of them. There are no words besides what is written in shop windows or sparingly spelled out for us–“BANK” is spelled backwards in one window; later, pieces of paper say “rent,” “milk,” “taxes.” There is no “narrator,” which sets it apart from many graphic novels and makes it seem more like a book of art. But even though there is no narrator, there is a narrative. The illustrations are mostly dark, and it is a mostly dark story. It follows an illustrator who, during the Great Depression, loses his job at an advertising agency and has to struggle to find a new one. One of the things I loved about this book is that it frames the problem as a sociological one–despite the main character’s determination to pull himself up by his bootstraps and his above-average ingenuity (taking out loans to open his own store), it’s not enough. The problem is a social one, and too widespread for any individual to stand much of a chance against.

When I first looked at the image on the cover of this book, I thought, “Hmm, that white collar kind of looks like a prison.” And it is–Patri argues that white collar workers’ desire to see themselves as separate from and above “mere” laborers isn’t doing them any favors. They are blinded to a common cause. I see a lot of parallels here with the vanishing middle class. Patri seems more leftist than many liberals today, but I guess that shouldn’t surprise me; we often think of the past as being more conservative, but it really depends on the issue being talked about and what time period it’s being compared to. For instance, reading about the enclosure of the commons in Silvia Federici’s book Caliban and the Witch, I was surprised to learn that tens of thousands of people fought and fought hard–thousands losing their lives–against the encroachment of capitalism. In the 1300s, 26,000 people died in a single battle after a decades-long movement for “a ‘workers’ democracy’ based on the suppression of all authorities…Their goal, according to Peter Boissonnaide, was ‘to raise journeymen against masters, wage earners against great entrepreneurs, peasants against lord and clergy…'” (Federici, 2004). I can’t imagine anything a fraction so leftist happening in my country today. Another way that Patri’s story mirrors our own is through reproductive rights: the main character’s wife was not able to get a safe and legal abortion in 1929, and while today in the US we have de jure legal abortion, in reality there are often many barriers to securing one. So while it was originally published over 76 years ago, about events of almost 90 years ago, it is still sadly relevant. I would recommend it for that reason and for its short and well-told story. Also, I liked the art a lot. The classic linocut style appeals to me, and even if it’s not 100% your favorite style, it is effective and evocative when telling its story.

Thank you to NetGalley & Dover Publications for providing me with a free review copy of this title.

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