By Sofia Warren
IDW/Top Shelf, 320pp, $29.95, 2022
Here is the comic to put in front of young folks who are interested in becoming socialists but realistic enough to know that the road ahead is full of unknowns and pitfalls. It is brilliantly written from the narrative standpoint of New Yorker freelancer and admitted political neophyte Sofia Warren, who effectively personalizes her own perspective as an unpaid cartoonist embedded in the then-recently elected New York State Senator Julia Salazar’s staff.
Small-circulation comics about AOC and Bernie have focused on the political icons without providing personal perspective used so well here. The huge-selling John Lewis comics trilogy gets around the narrative problem by making the civil rights movement into the real subject. For a socialist state legislator, this approach would not have worked. Warren makes it work by weaving her own story into this tale of a North Brooklyn community struggle around surging rents and displacement, helped not at all by the elected Democrats in the pockets of the landlords.
At the outset of the comic, Salazar is keenly self-aware of telling her own story via Warren. She turns socialist after joining a Jacobin reading group. She joins Debbie Medina’s insurgent campaign for the State Senate in 2016 against Martin Malavé Dilan, the long-time incumbent who had championed the rapid gentrification of his largely Hispanic, working-class district. Medina’s campaign can be seen as a successful failure, garnering 40% of the vote for an avowed democratic socialist. Joining DSA, Salazar is recruited to challenge Dilan two years later.
Threats to repeal New York’s decades-old rent control laws offer Salazar a potential winning issue. She pulls off an upset, winning 59% of the 36,000 votes cast, about four times the turnout of two years earlier. Can she make a difference in office? This is the question Warren wrestles with for many pages of the comic including some of the most revealing, because Salazar’s young staff, a multi-lingual, multi-racial gang of dedicated activists-cum-socialists, needs to tackle lots of big, difficult questions for themselves and for her. We wish we could multiply this crew exponentially and have them working in every district of the country.
In a nice historical look back, Warren relates that New York once sent five socialist representatives to the state legislature….but that was 1920, and they all were expelled for their antiwar views. After a century marked with inside deals, staggering corruption, and a few high notes (during the New Deal years, near-communists served as legislative aides for notable progressives), socialists have returned to Albany. Still, it is Senate majority leader (and non-socialist) Andrea Stewart-Cousins who is the ally that Salazar needs on a score of crucial issues.
Exhaustion, political and personal, turns out to be a crucial obstacle for the new socialist senator (and for our artist, as well). Also, a little tedium. While recent elections have shaken things up, with victories by other progressives giving Democrats control of the Senate, the solons seem to spend their time congratulating the progressive lobbyists instead of debating the bills that the progressives had been seeking to pass for years.
Senate staffers, and not just those on Salazar’s team, come into view as hard workers who are often far more progressive than their employers (an old story). Warren shows that it’s the staffers who actually meet and work with constituents. Sometimes, they push leaders, too, doubtless moving Salazar herself.
Warren offers sophisticated explanations of what sometimes makes organizing successful and even what “success” means. By the time we reach pp.184-85, we are not surprised to see a key staffer interpret why the famed (Saul) Alinsky method of organizing falls short: it produces professional organizers with their headquarters in DC and city capitals. By contrast, labor strategist Jane McAlevey offers an organizing model by which people “gain the tools for their own liberation.”
The book picks up speed near its close, as if there is too much to say in the last few pages. It climaxes with a wallop. The maneuvering to pass Salazar’s “Good Cause Eviction” bill falls short of enough votes, but the effort accomplishes something important through compromise legislation that extends New York’s rent laws and places new limits on landlords’ freedom to evict tenants, including mandatory court supervision of all evictions. Governor Andrew Cuomo tries, but fails, to rally conservative Dems to block the compromise. There is no easy way to tell the mobilized constituents about a partial victory, but Salazar manages.
Let the celebration begin! That could be the closing note, but Warren takes the saga a bit further. After the legislative session ends and summer break flies by, the team reassembles for another campaign. Readers of DL know that she won re-election decisively, joined by five more DSAers: Jabari Brisport in the Senate, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Marcela Mitaynes, Zohran Mamdani, and Emily Gallagher in the Assembly. All five are sketched with loving care (p.318). On the very last page, Warren suggests, in her own voice, that “maybe I’m done with just watching.”
Sofia Warren is a talented, self-trained artist and just as important, a careful listener. Rather than a strong personal style or “signature” in the visual atmosphere of the drawn page, she emphasizes the vivid narrative. This is an intriguing choice in itself, and raises good questions.
In a field with many tersely drawn 100-page books, Warren offers us a 320- page whopper. She evidently works fast, as a comics journalist who wants to get the points across without demanding— or perhaps even seeking—the art critic’s nod. She is closer to the comics of Joe Sacco, which she says have helped to inspire her own work.
Warren herself is, nevertheless, very much in the comic, seen on many pages and the unseen narrator on many more. She is also, along the way, asking how she can best contribute to the work. We learn, at the outset, that Salazar has agreed to let her write the story of her year with the team but apparently offered little or no advice and not even much facetime. There is so much to do, pretty much all of it more pressing.