A Simple Ordinary Man - Commentary

Seventeen thousand years ago, in what is now southwestern France, a hunter/gatherer (we’ll call him Thak), had run ahead of his hunting partner anxious to be first with good news from the hunt. Thak had many stories to tell, but was unable to put his observations into words since language, as we know it today, had not been invented yet. It was a lucky thing for everyone that Thak was gifted with a talent that set himself apart from the rest of his Paleolithic clan. Thak was able to draw pictures.

By deriving oily pigments from minerals and plants and with the help of a sharp stick, Thak proceeded to scrape out images of the animals and exploits that he had seen during the hunt onto the walls of the communal cave. Watching him draw by firelight, the clan members were agape with wonder as Thak produced beautiful renderings of horses, hyenas, aurochs, and other animals from the forests that surrounded them. All were beguiled by this graphic transference of human thought, all—except for one.

Thak’s hunting partner (we’ll call him Ubi), noticed that one of the drawings had portrayed Thak as the hunter who had slain the giant elk, when in fact, it had been Ubi who killed the animal. Adding insult to injury, Thak drew another picture of himself plunging the spear into the bison’s heart, when actually it had been Ubi who performed the deed. Worse yet, when the clan elders and the young women (including Ubi’s girlfriend) saw the drawings, they proclaimed Thak as the bravest and greatest of all hunters.

Ubi became animated with outrage and anger. He expressed his displeasure by pointing excitedly at the drawings as he grunted and screamed loudly. He pounded on the cave wall with his fist until his frustration reduced him to tears. It was to no avail; Ubi could not convince the others that the stories depicted in Thak’s cave drawings were false. After all, the elders reasoned, if the pictures were on the cave wall, they must be true!

Ever the documentarian, Thak captured Ubi’s apoplectic display with another set of cave drawings that depicted him as a sort of Magdalenian version of comedian Jerry Lewis. Unable to control himself any longer, Ubi picked up his spear and chucked it through the right side of Thak’s brain—ironically, the very place where all the trouble had started. Thus, the story of Thak and Ubi became a cautionary tale for the thousands of comic book creators that followed, and an example of the power of graphic imagery and how it can be used for the purposes of good as well as evil—or at least that’s how I would write it if commissioned to produce a graphic novel about the origins of the Lescaux cave drawings in France. The dry, weighty tomes of encyclopedic history merely tell us that drawings were placed there by somebody, but the insertion of a fictional backstory that floats in the same rarefied air as the true history arguably enlightens us on a more personal level.

Take, for example, Maus, Art Spiegelman’s excellent graphic series about the Holocaust, in which Jews are depicted as mice and the Germans are depicted as cats. Is it a comic book? Is it history? Most importantly, is it faithful to the truth? When the answer comes back as "yes" to all three, what you have in your hands or on your Kindle is a riveting tool in which to present an alternative view of the past, as many history instructors are now learning. Moreover, when historical graphic novels are written by non-historians, the creators are free to present imaginative and unencumbered interpretations of the central narratives, and their choices of who and what are important to the story often feature characters and understated elements that are typically left out of the scholarly accounts.

This brings us to A Simple Ordinary Man, the graphic novel that I wrote and Gary Dumm has brilliantly illustrated. When I had decided to write a story about the Cleveland Water Tunnel Disasters of the early twentieth century, I had all the material I ever needed in the true stories of desperate and exploited immigrant men who dug miles of tunnels underneath Lake Erie to channel clean water toward the polluted shores of a growing city. As the story goes, it was on a hot July night in 1916, when tunnel diggers working below Lake Platform #5 struck a natural gas deposit, resulting in an explosion that instantly killed the entire work crew. Two waves of search and rescue teams disappeared and were presumed dead when they failed to emerge from the gas-filled tunnel. In the darkest hours of the tragedy, someone remembered a local inventor, Garrett Morgan, who had created a new type of breathing mask. Morgan was a brilliant engineer whose only deficiency was that he was a black man in Jim Crow America.

The lesser known side story of Morgan (who I renamed Benjamin Beltran for the purposes of my fiction), opened up an entirely new universe of story narratives. None were as compelling as the story of the inventor’s struggles, due to the white racism that ruled the day, to bring his inventions to market. Rather than fight what was then a losing battle, Morgan employed tactics that circumvented the barriers thrown up against him. During live demonstrations of his breathing mask, he hired a white man to portray him, then donned the disguise of a Native American, plunging into smoke-filled tents at county fairs and fireman conventions to prove his invention could work. The story of Benjamin Beltran became the heart of our graphic novel, and his struggles, juxtaposed against the visually striking images of dangerous workplace safety conditions and exploitation of workers by depraved and greedy industrialists, resulted in a bold retelling of the same history that is currently gathering dust on the textbook shelves of libraries all over the world, in part because it is boring in its non-visual form.

The world today is populated by audio/visual generations who grew up with cinema, television, and video, and who are now reaping the benefits and pitfalls of a digital age where instant gratifications are just a click away on smart phones and in video games. There is no doubt that the combination of words and pictures can accelerate the viewer’s understanding of complex subjects. The woven works of Art Spiegelman are a good example of the graphic novel’s potential to enhance one’s understanding of social injustices within the contexts of world history. Antithetically, the graphic format has equal potential to do harm, as evidenced by Nazi propaganda comics.

The ultimate responsibility for accurate interpretation belongs to the viewer, who must be willing to recognize any false gods or seductions that pop up in the visuals and seek out the underlying truths of what he or she is ingesting. In conclusion (and intentionally channeling Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell speech), we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the things we see on television, the internet, in graphic novels, or on cave walls. The potential for words and pictures to perform good and evil among ourselves depends upon each individual's level of devotion to the truth.

About the Author

Scott MacGregor

Scott MacGregor is a recognized and published photographer and writer. He has been writing and publishing graphic stories for over thirty years in collaboration with Gary Dumm and other artists. MacGregor is the principal writer and publisher of the comic book, Dip Stories. In 2012, he was awarded a Creative Workforce Fellowship by the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture as the result of his presentation of A Simple Ordinary Man, his first graphic novel.