David Lester’s graphic novels

A brief history of David Lester’s recent graphic novels with an eye for how they form a body of political art.

“The Listener, a Graphic Novel” (Arbeiter Ring, 2011) Set in both present day and during the rise of Hitler, the story pivots around an artist taking a trip to Germany to grapple with ethical and political concerns related to her work. After the book was published, David Lester and Jean Smith (aka the rock duo Mecca Normal) created a classroom event based on the book, which they presented in both Canada and the US.

“The Battle of Ballantyne Pier”(Between the Lines, 2016) included in the compendium “Drawn To Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle” The intensity of the illustrative work energizes the story of a union’s run-in with police on Vancouver’s waterfront in 1935. Created in an astoundingly short amount of time, David’s account is based on his grandfather’s experiences as a longshoreman.
“Lester’s account of the battle is also important because he humanizes the activists involved, and reminds us that people just like us overcame these challenges in the past.” – Dale McCartney, the Tyee, 2016

“1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg Strike (Between the Lines, 2019) The speed, content and beauty of “Ballantyne lead to an offer for David to illustrate a book written by The Graphic History Collective, who produce alternative histories—people’s histories—in an accessible format to help people understand the historical roots of contemporary social issues. Nominated for the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature in 2020, and co-winner of the 2020 CAWLS Book Prize for the best book on labour history.

In the new 10-minute CBC video by filmmaker Rami Katz, “you’ll see David Lester take you through his intricate process of illustrating this notable protest [Winnipeg General Strike, 1919] and the challenge of depicting historic figures and events with contemporary urgency.” – from a CBC article by Lucius Dechausay

Don Jail cell, 1940 (Ontario) for David Lester’s graphic novel about Emma Goldman.

Emma Goldman (graphic novel in progress) The story of the revolutionary’s final years in Toronto (1869 – 1940).

“Prophet Against Slavery: Benjamin Lay, a Graphic Novel” (Beacon Press, 2021) The story of abolitionist Benjamin Lay, whose life as a radical was important to anti-slavery and activist movements that followed. This is the first of three projects to date with author Marcus Rediker and editor Paul Buhle.

“Under the Banner Of King Death, Pirates of the Atlantic, a Graphic Novel” (Beacon Press, 2023) A tale of the social revolution that erupts when an itinerant community of outsiders is sold into servitude on a merchant ship. The second of three projects to date with author Marcus Rediker and editor Paul Buhle.

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Even after reading a random article about the various kinds of Spotify playlists, I’m still not sure which type this is. Editor produced or auto-generated just for me. Regardless, it exists (as of 2 days ago) and so, I’m plunking it here.


cover: Bodies

Unwound and Mecca Normal cover Sex Pistols “Bodies” in Atlanta, 2001.

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Hey, I’m in this movie about The Indigo Girls! Perhaps I only utter a few words (on the tour bus, evidently) but I had to sign off on it.

SUNDANCE 2023 world premier – “It’s Only Life After All” 40 years of home movies, raw film archive, and intimate present-day vérité.

How’d I get on their tour bus? Well… in 1998, I went on tour with them, not as a separate “act”, but as part of an experiment 🙂 called the Suffragette Sessions Tour. We played about 12 dates in large venues. Some very large… like arenas.

It’s the only touring I’ve done by proper tour bus. It left me feeling utterly gleeful that Mecca Normal has toured almost exclusively by car. We take so many side trips, stop at restaurants, go to museums etc.

The participants included Gail Ann Dorsey (bass for David Bowie), Lisa Germano, Lourdes Pérez, Kate Schellenbach (Luscious Jackson, the Beastie Boys), Jane Siberry, Jean Smith, Josephine Wiggs (the Breeders) and Thalia Zedek (Come).

Amy Ray / Indigo Girls: “The Suffragette Sessions Tour is a socialist experiment in rock and roll. Gather a bunch of musicians from different musical genres who are relatively unfamiliar with each other…throw them on a tour bus together…drop them off at a rock club, and see what happens. No hierarchy, no boundaries.”

The YouTube poster calls me guesting on one of Emily’s songs a highlight of the show! Wow! Oh, actually, I just sing parts of Mecca Normal songs in the middle of her song. The nerve!

“Soon be to Nothing” / “Her Ambition” “The Dogs”

I opened the show with “Everwilling” in Minneapolis at the First Ave (1550 capacity). I’m very sure this is not what these Indigo Girls fans came to see. Oh well. Nice reaction from the audience though. Part of this must be as the others came on stage. Likely Thalia backing me up, although I was playing guitar on this tour, so maybe the accents are mine.

“Everwilling” is a 2 Foot Flame song from our second album “Ultra Drowning” (1997, Matador)

We did a few days of rehearsal at SIR in NYC before we hit the road. I’d just done a 2 Foot Flame tour in New Zealand and Australia on which I played electric guitar on every song (as the only guitar), so I was keen to play guitar. I think the Indigo Girls thought they were getting a spoken word artist.

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Artifacts: fan-made shirt

Ryan Reynolds wearing the shirt Ticia Downie hand painted.


You’d be surprised
where you could be held
pinned in an up draft
back against the cloud
holding siren’s rage
on a tangle pain
you didn’t know was there
you didn’t know it was there

(the remainder of the song… not visible)

Grid work set up
for your wing on rise
to a place
where you will be held
back against the light
hammer on
towards never getting back

“Follow Down” review by Franklin Bruno

In 2020, Pitchfork talked to artists about the music they loved at five-year interval points in their lives. Esteemed music critic Franklin Bruno included Mecca Normal’s Follow Down, which was on the Jarred Up LP (a singles collection) after the original 7″ (also pictured) with It’s Important.

Franklin Bruno: This five-year-interval conceit skips over my most single-minded period of devotion, both as practitioner and audience, to the “indie rock” cause. By 1995, I had moved out of the Claremont post-college boho house where, among other things, John [Darnielle] and I recorded our early compilation tracks and first single, and headed out to L.A. proper to start grad school; my record collection was expanding in heterodox directions as well.

All that said, Vancouver’s Mecca Normal has been a big deal to me before, during, and after this period. I knew their first album and K singles in college radio days, kept a respectful, admiring distance from them at the International Pop Underground festival in 1990, and their most recent full-length, The Observer, was one of my favorites of 2006. Besides being one of those too-rare bands for whom “independence” is more than a subcultural marketing tool, they’re a real case of more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts magic. David Lester is a stellar punk rock guitarist whose playing, however muscular, never comes off as macho, and Jean Smith has remained a confrontational feminist voice and presence even as her words have moved from agit-prop (“Strong White Male”) to an allusive approach I’ll lazily call “poetic”, to the heart-rending narratives of their last two records. I’m picking an early-ish single. Nod to Virginia Woolf aside, the lyrics leave maximum room for interpretation, while the charging riff renders comprehension — and the need for a rhythm section — moot. I swear I’ll cover this someday.

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