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Book: Bohemians : A Graphic Anthology

MICHAL BONCZA recommends a book on the radical bohemian impulse

Bohemians : A Graphic Anthology

Edited by Paul Buhle
and David Berger

(Verso, £9.99)

In the latter half of the 19th century capitalism was disrupted, first in 1848 when the "Spring of Nations" swept Europe and later in 1871 when it truly browned its trousers during the Paris Commune, the precursor of all modern revolutions.

Although ultimately defeated, those efforts became the stuff of legend and inspiration for less conventional assaults - on both sides of the Atlantic - by a wide and disparate array of malcontents, free thinkers, libertarians and propagators of free love, erroneously called the Bohemians.

The name originated in a misunderstanding by French journalists who at the time associated the new phenomenon with the carefree, nomadic and artistic lives of the Gypsies who they mistakenly believed to be natives of the region of Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic.

The Bohemians, a loosely knit fraternity of artists of all hues, social creed, gender and race or sexual preference, challenged the dominant bourgeois status quo in art, custom and behaviour.

Although never allied to any political movements their libertarian attitudes and non-conformism bore a revolutionary influence in the field of aesthetics, with the Dada movement its most articulated expression.

As representatives of "bohemianism" Paul Buhle and David Berger's selection includes such hardcore individualists as Arturo Giovannitti, Claude McKay, Josephine Baker, Woody Guthrie, Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie, all of whom are deeply - and with good reason - embedded in the US left's psyche.

The riveting snippets of their output in this anthology amply illustrate the significance of that heritage and its potential for challenging the all-pervasive conformism and opportunism.

The graphic novel format makes for exciting, visuals-driven narratives that are in themselves democratising and liberating particularly in the context of the US, where nearly a third of the population has only basic reading skills.

It is impossible not to respond to the verve and swagger of Milton Knight's drawing of Howard "Stretch" Johnson, the immaculate and engrossing detail of Dan Steffan in The Frowning Prophet And Smiling Revolutionary, Lance Tooks's phenomenal brush and line strokes in Modern Dance and the elegant "classic" strip cartoon style of Steve Stiles in Arturo Giovannitti - Bohemian, Rebel, Labor Hero.

Even Dizzy Gillespie's propensity for a scrap over any old difference of opinion is hilariously rendered by Nick Thorkelson.

The Great Depression all but extinguished these fires of non-conformism in the US though the Underground Comix of the '60s and '70s raised the standard again, if only temporarily.

Bohemia has now ceded way big time to its nemesis - conformism.

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