Comic Review: Radical: My Year with a Socialist Senator (IDW Publishers)

Radical: My Year With A Socialist Senator embarks on an ambitious mission: to document, as the title suggests, a year with an American senatorial candidate. How does it fare, is […]

Radical: My Year With A Socialist Senator embarks on an ambitious mission: to document, as the title suggests, a year with an American senatorial candidate. How does it fare, is it fair to ask? Let’s have a look inside!

Radical, described by creator Sofia Warren (published New Yorker cartoonist, and illustrator of comics for MoMA magazine, Narrative magazine, Catapult, etc) as a memoir, takes us behind the curtain, inside the cone of silence, to walk along the halls of power in New York State. It documents Warren’s time with Julia Salazar, a democratic socialist candidate running for State Senate, from her Brooklyn base.

Salazar’s campaign ambition is to modify existing regulations surrounding rent controls for housing tenants. Landlords in New York city have been successfully dismantling existing rent controls, little by little, with the assistance of powerful lobby groups and cooperative legislators.

So, in Radical, we accompany Warren the writer and artist, who follows Salazar, the political candidate, through the stages of her pre-election canvassing, and during the early months of Salazar’s senatorship.

Warren’s gift for journalistic accuracy and her ability to grasp the significance of pivotal moments are real strong points in this book, which runs long, at 328 pages. Full disclosure: as a reviewer based in Canada, the mysteries of American politics are especially baffling (and obviously ‘foreign’) to me, but Warren takes pains to explain a lot of the structure of the US political process, and the dogma behind the political game. As the Radical story moves from Brooklyn to Albany New York, the state capital, we see gigantic power structures revealed, the vast amounts of money being allocated, and meet the players at the table. There is a ton of concentrated influential power at work here, and the enormity becomes awesomely evident very fast.

Warren’s drawings are really fun; the solid smooth cartoon lines, the grey halftones, the upper and lowercase hand lettering. This ‘hand hewn’ aspect of the book gives us the feeling that there is a ‘human hand and heart’ at the tiller, even when the party politicking gets tiresome.

And frankly, the going does get tiresome. The reader is given glimpses of the incessant horse-trading, the influence-peddling, the marathon strategy meetings, and endless wheeling and dealing that goes on behind closed doors. But that IS the game, isn’t it? The elected representatives making their job and career decisions, betting on bills that will make or break crucial stakeholders in their districts. But it still appears to be an ‘old boys network’ to us outside.

Where the book is strong in the sense of demonstrating the realities behind the ideal ‘democratic process’, it does not really get close to its purported subject, Senator Julia Salazar. Unfortunately, Salazar comes across as idealistic and hardworking, indeed, yet somehow plastic and two-dimensional. With a ’seldom is heard a discouraging word’ presence and little ‘off the record’ personal flavour. In my opinion, a careful balance is being played out here, that of ‘open access to the Senator’, and the limited amount of actual substance gleaned about Salazer herself. But it’s too narrow and it feels managed. And that’s a pity, as we are reading a 300-page book about her. We want to get to know the Senator, not just how she takes her coffee, or that she can handle long meetings with little sleep.

As a memoir, then, perhaps it really ‘ain’t’. Rather, it mostly concentrates on the rivets and bridgework of how big decisions are built in Albany. The navigation route, the internal politics, the setbacks, and victories. Radical: My Year With A Socialist Senator is a textbook analysis on US politics, but not so much a personal memoir of either the Senator nor the Artist. It will appeal strongly to those with a deep curiosity about how decisions are made in the real world, where reality lobbies hard against idealism in a working democratic society.

IDW, Top Shelf, “Radical: My Year With A Socialist Senator”, softcover graphic novel, $24.99 for 328 pages of content

Alan Spinney

About Alan Spinney

After a career of graphic design, art direction and copywriting, I still have a passion for words and pictures. I love it when a comic book comes together; the story is tight, and the drawings lead me forward. Art with words... the toughest storytelling technique to get right. Was this comic book worth your money? Let's see!!