It’s a wonderfully eye-catching cover, with only three words, writ huge: “Bernie,” the book’s title and Ted Rall, its author and illustrator. On a luscious moss-green background is a drawing of Sanders with snowy white hair, a cross-hatched nose, professorial glasses, and a Simpsons-esque overbite. The book, a graphic biography of presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, is hand-sized, but with lovely, thick, heavy, full-color pages.
Rall, the brains behind this snazzy volume, is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He’s also a firebrand. He wrote a piece for the Village Voice in 1999 accusing Maus cartoonist Art Spiegelman of being a talentless hack who keeps getting work because he’s a schmoozer married to a New Yorker editor. In 2004, he made a cartoon in which Condoleeza Rice called herself a “house nigga.” Also in 2004, the New York Times severed its association with him and scrubbed all his past work from its website after Rall created several cartoons the paper deemed offensive, including one depicting money-grubbing, media-hungry widows of 9/11 victims saying things like, “The $3.2 million I collected from the Red Cross keeps me warm at night.” Rall has also called for Barack Obama to resign, saying that “the gap between the soaring expectations that accompanied Barack Obama’s inauguration and his wretched performance is the broadest such chasm in recent historical memory.”
So let’s just say that Rall’s cartoon bio of Sanders is unlikely to win over anyone who isn’t already pretty dang radicalized. Which is a shame, because there’s a lot to like about the book. The retelling of Bernie’s life—heavy on quotations that drive home his Brooklyn Jewishness—is delightful. I didn’t know young Bernie was a huge jock, a stickball/punchball/football/baseball obsessive who was once one of the fastest long-distance runners in the borough. His competitiveness comes through loud and clear in the quotes Rall deploys dandily throughout the book: “I made the junior varsity [basketball team] and halfway through I was cut, which was very traumatic for me. The uniform, I was number 10. That was 60 years ago. Think I’ve forgotten? Doesn’t mean a thing to me. The son of a bitch cut me!” Rall also shares Bernie’s stories of his congenitally dissatisfied, striver mother and hardworking semi-schlemiel of a father (who Bernie compares to Willy Loman). The book also addresses the ways in which Bernie’s Jewishness has had an impact on his quest for social justice.
But Bernie’s compelling personal story constitutes less than half the book. The first big chunk is about the Democratic party’s hard swerve to the right since the 1970s. The charts and graphs and static quotes and illustrations aren’t very kinetic (Rall is a better editorial cartoonist than graphic novelist), and Rall’s radical-fanboy-ism can be grating. He approvingly quotes Ralph Nader calling Bush and Gore “Tweedledum and Tweedledee—they look and act the same so it doesn’t matter which you get.” (Some of us think it mattered very much.) Rall depicts Obama as an evil, war-mongering Republican-manque, largely responsible for the global financial meltdown and the failure to provide the true socialized medicine he’d once promised voters. There’s a full-page illustration of Obama throwing his arms in the air, cheering as he watches a functionary execute a drone-strike assassination.
Other chunks of the book deal with the history of American populist movements (Rall is super-duper into Occupy Wall Street) and Bernie’s current populist surge. In Rall’s telling, Bernie decided to run for President only after no one else was willing to step up and fight the inevitable candidate of the militant centrist rich. “Hillary Clinton wasn’t offering anything new beyond the symbolism of a woman president,” Rall writes dismissively.
Look, I am a Sanders fan. I want it known that way back in the early ‘90s, in Sassy magazine, I sang the praises of Bernie, a long-time Representative from Vermont. But right now I’m on the fence. As a feminist, progressive pragmatist, I was hoping for a book that didn’t demonize Hillary. Name-calling may delight Trump voters, but I don’t think it wins over a lot of us on the left. Hyperbole is lame, but Bernie’s story is fascinating.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.