Making people laugh is one of the more pleasant ways of making history. Eighty-four years ago, in May 1913, cartoonist Ernest Riebe's Mr. Block rolled off the presses, reproducing 24 hilarious strips from his popular series of that name. It was the U.S. labor movement's first comic book.
Not much is known about Riebe. He was born in Germany, but when and where is unknown, as is the date of his arrival in the United States. No one seems to have taken the trouble to record any reminiscences of him. One of the few things we know about him for sure is that he lived in Minneapolis.
His comics, however, reveal the most crucial fact of Riebe's biography: He was a Wobbly -- a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. Exactly when he got his red card we don't know, but his cartoons appeared in IWW publications for nearly a decade starting in 1912.
An injury to one . . .
Unlike craft unions or even early industrial unions such as the Mine Workers, the IWW's aim was to organize all workers everywhere -- and not just to get higher pay and better conditions, but to abolish the exploitative system they called wage-slavery, and to build a truly free society. Although things didn't work out as they hoped, Wobblies gave working people an unparalleled model of militant unionism, exemplified by their watchword: "An injury to one is an injury to all!"
Far more than most unions, the IWW was a way of life. Its members were active participants in a dynamic, creative counterculture, sharply opposed to prevailing values and institutions. Rooted in the practical experience of workers' solidarity and rank-and-file initiative, Wobbly culture epitomized workingclass self-expression at its brightest. IWW songs by Joe Hill, T-Bone Slim and Ralph Chaplin (author of "Solidarity Forever") are still favorites on picketlines today.
Humor was the hallmark of many of these songs, and indeed of Wobbly culture as a whole. The IWW legacy also includes the U.S. labor movement's finest and funniest cartoons.
Riebe stood in the front rank of Wobbly comic artists. Most early IWW cartoons were of the serious "editorial" type, emphasizing the horror of the profit and the ability of workers to turn things around. Riebe himself did many excellent cartoons along these lines, but his best work was truly innovative: He was the first to develop an ongoing strip featuring a recurring character. And unlike most editorial cartoons, the appeal of Mr. Block lay in its wildly slapstick humor (the 1910s were the heyday of KrazY Kat, HaPDs Hooligan and Charlie Chaplin).
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Focus on the worker
Finally, Riebe went beyond such stock figures as Fat Evil Boss and Giant Wobbly Hero. Taking a different approach, he focused on the ignorant, gullible, foolish worker -- Mr. Block himself. Riebe's comic embodies a class-conscious worker's radical critique of the antiunion worker.
Descended from a long line of blockheads, Mr. Block believes the boss is always right, politicians are honest, and you can trust what you read in the "plutocrats' press." Poor as a churchmouse himself, he remains confident that the existing social set-up is blessed with permanence. Spineless and superstitious, he is easy prey for the sleazy peddlers of hatred and of propaganda against the foreign-born.
Needless to say, Mr. Block is apoplectically anti-IWW. Instead of relying on the only strength an individual worker really has -- the strength of belonging to a fighting union of the working class -- he naively believes he can become successful and rich playing by the bosses' rules. In the course of his misadventures, not surprisingly, he gets fired, swindled, kicked downstairs, beaten up by cops, tossed in jail and otherwise treated the way unorganized workers are customarily treated. Like all great comedy, Riebe's Mr. Block is grounded in the hard facts of life.
Contrary to her hapless husband, Mrs. Block often denounces her mate's pitiable faith in the goodness of "free enterprise." Riebe's sympathy for her reflects the IWW's principle of equality of the sexes and its emphasis on the need to organize working women.
In Mr. Block, Riebe assailed everything which, from the Wobbly viewpoint, blocks the road to a better life for the workers of the world. Ads in IWW papers called the comic "just the thing to knock the scales off the eyes of would-be scabs."
The strip was one of the best-loved features in the Wobbly press, and the comic book was a hot seller for years. Riebe's friend Joe Hill wrote a "Mr. Block" song, and Riebe himself brought out two more Mr. Block comic books, a Mr. Block play, and Mr. Block postcards. Other IWW artists introduced Block into their own cartoons. With the exception of Joe Hill's "Pie in the Sky," no other creature of the Wobbly imagination has left so many traces, or endured so long.
What happened to Ernest Riebe? Who knows? His original cartoons stopped appearing in the Industrial Worker around 1922, but reprints kept running for years.
Like all labor cartoonists, Riebe is largely overlooked in the various surveys of U.S. comics issued by the big multinational publishers. Increasingly, however, scholars have recognized Riebe as an important figure in the history of labor and cartooning. In 1984 the world's oldest workingclass publishing house, Charles H. Kerr Company of Chicago, brought out a handsome reprint of the original Mr. Block comic book, which was widely reviewed. (Several reviewers proclaimed it the first "underground" comic, which in a sense it surely was.) Throughout the 1980s, Riebe's work was prominently featured in Carlos Cortez's cross-country Wobbly Art Show. Historians Joyce Kornbluh, Dave Roediger and Sal Salerno have reproduced Mr. Block cartoons in their pathbreaking studies of the Wobbly counterculture.
Riebe and his "Block Supply Co." at P. O. Box 156, Minneapolis, are long gone, but his comic art is still making people laugh -- and think.
Franklin Rosemont edited Juice is Stranger Than Friction: Selected Writings of T-Bone Slim (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1992). He is a member of the Board of the Illinois Labor History Society.
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