When an Antifa activist punched Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer on camera in 2017, the world had to ask itself: “Is it OK to punch a Nazi?” Some claimed it was senseless violence that repressed freedom of speech and set a bad precedent, while others argued that it is our civic duty to punch Nazis. As Mark Bray points out in his introduction to The Antifa Comic Book, after briefly explaining comic books’ longstanding history as a political tool (Captain America is seen punching Hitler on the cover of Captain America issue No. 1), “Comic books were made for Nazi punching.”
The Antifa Comic Book, written by British Columbian Kwakwaka’wakw author Gord Hill (The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book, The Anti-Capitalist Resistance Comic Book), reads more like a meticulously researched history textbook than a collection of comics. It opens with two short pieces explaining the pillars of Antifa philosophy (“What is Fascism?” and “What is Antifa?”) before delving into twenty-six comic strips recounting important and often overlooked historical occasions of fascism and anti-fascist resistance. Hill takes us from Mussolini’s rise, the establishment of a fascist state, to World War II era Germany, the Spanish civil war, and all the way to 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia. Hill’s visual depictions of each era transform the somewhat tedious task of reading dry and violent histories into something enjoyable.
Hill’s drawings are minimal, yet action packed, sitting somewhere between cartoon and courtroom sketch. The visuals don’t exaggerate. Violence is seen throughout the book with plenty of explosions, gunshots, and stabbings. Yet between the panels of armies, riot police, white cloaks, and black hoods, Hill doesn’t neglect to show the administrative aspects of these movements. He portrays heroes, not superheroes, villains, not supervillains. Fascism rises from a podium and sits behind a mahogany desk, anti-fascist movements begin as five people around a kitchen table.
The book’s scope is impressive: Hill crams twenty-six different political movements into one hundred and twenty-seven pages of a comic book. While mostly effective, the histories can sometimes come off as visual powerpoint presentations, brief summaries that end too soon and leave one wishing that a little more explanation had taken place. The pieces are loaded with information detailing different factions and eras but contain little analysis of the information given. There is not much of a through-line from chapter to chapter and the stories themselves can feel disjointed, occasionally jumping significant chunks of time from one panel to the next. Although it is forgivable given the sheer mass of information covered, it leaves the reader feeling disoriented. Each page requires one to pause and reflect if they want to begin to appreciate the gravity of what Hill lays out. The book works best when consumed one chapter at a time, letting Hill’s summaries serve as beginning points for further research that the reader must do on their own.
Although the book can feel muddled, its message becomes clear in the last few pages, as Hill details more recent events. Revisiting Charlottesville through comic form and seeing a comic book Trump with a speech bubble saying “…And we’re gonna build a wall! A BIG wall… And we’re gonna deport all the immigrants! Every single one of ‘em!” were the first times the book provoked real emotion in me (proximity is powerful that way) . While watching Trump’s speech on the news unfortunately feels par for the course, seeing it laid out beside one hundred years of fascism cut through my desensitization to a type of speech that has effectively become the norm.
In his brief conclusion, Hill points out the ebb and flow of fascist movements, how they swell and wane as socioeconomic and world political climates change. While we are in the midst of a swell (with another far-right mass murder happening this fall in Pittsburgh), it is worth appreciating and understanding the history of anti-fascist response to these threats. As Dr. Cornel West said about his experience in Charlottesville, “If it hadn’t been for the antifascists protecting us from the neo-fascists, we would have been crushed like cockroaches.” With their dark uniforms, masked faces, and penchant for vigilantism, antifa activists are reminiscent of the most celebrated superheroes in our history. Gord Hill’s The Antifa Comic Book puts these activists in their rightful place beside Captain America, Wonder Woman, and all the other comic book heroes who have a longstanding, proud tradition of Nazi punching.