By Jason Nisavic (@Teaching_Humans)
My fifth year as a teacher almost began with a strike. As the contract negotiation process between our union leaders and the administration stalled out, whispers of greed and corruption began to poison the community on both sides.
For the first time, the day-to-day joy evaporated and I saw this career that I love as it really is: a sterile business arrangement forged in conflict. Thankfully, a compromise was reached, and classes began normally. I relate this story because, during my reading of On The Ropes (2013) by James Vance and Dan E. Burr, I realized how tame our contract negotiations really were.
REVIEW OF ON THE ROPES
Set in American in 1937, On The Ropes, the long-awaited sequel to the award-winning Kings in Disguise (1988) comic series, follows a undercover labor organizer named Fred Bloch, weaving in and out between his present and past. Over 250 gripping pages of art and story, we follow Fred’s perilous journey of survival and liberation through a violent world of unrest and upheaval during The Great Depression.
The graphic novel begins as Fred joins a unionized circus that was formed by the Works Progress Administration, one of the most influential New Deal Programs. In his time there, Fred assists stuntman Gordon Corey, a broken alcoholic with a death wish. Their side show attraction is simple: Gordon is handcuffed and a noose is tied to his neck. On the count of three, Fred triggers the trap door. Gordon has until the count of three to loosen the cuffs and save himself.
This acts as a perfect metaphor for both the personal anguish that our protagonists have found themselves in, as well as the larger struggle of the working class in this time period. Vance and Burr work well together to convey the desperation of the times as a backdrop to the story.
During the course of the book, we are reminded of exactly how bloody and painful the fight to form unions in the 20th Century actually was. On The Ropes holds nothing back, showing the barbaric tactics of union-busting business owners at the time.
We see organizers being dragged from their beds by hired goons. We see murder. And we are not-so-subtly lead to believe that multiple women are raped and killed.
Many other characters inhabit and expand the plot. A female reporter and a precocious love interest highlight the plight of women in the 30’s working world, while the long-suffering manager of the circus gives us a manager’s agony over how to keep money flowing in tight times.
Perhaps the only drawback of the story are the two hired “goons” characters that serve as the main antagonists and come off as a little too ghoulishly superhuman. For most of the story, they pursue Fred with a terminator-like determination and relentlessness that undermine the book’s otherwise reliable authenticity, and it’s not until nearly the very end of the story that one of them gets a humanizing, semi-relatable backstory.
Throughout it all, there is rarely a moment of safety found in this book, and that’s the way it should be. It’s obvious that the authors have meticulously researched each element of the book, and their passion and dedicated consistently shines through. Readers will come away with an engaging and humanizing impression of the depression, the rise of labor, and the lengths that those in power did and can go in the pursuit of maintaining the status quo.
IN THE CLASSROOM
Most importantly, due to the book’s language and intense violence, the content of this book means it’s most appropriate to high school students, though it can be adapted to lower grades at a teacher’s discretion. Yet, despite the mature themes, the book’s characters communicate at a relatively easy reading level, making it accessible for a variety of students.
History and Social Studies: At its core, On The Ropes is a period piece. Characters make references and wear clothing that are appropriate and intuitive for the 1930’s, but might present a challenge a modern history or social studies student (e.g., characters referring to each other as “Trotsky”). With the right support and by using these references and the period-specific art as a guide, a teacher could build into the reading experience a research project on everything from the Labor Movement to The Great Depression, or simply spur discussions about these time periods from diverse perspectives. *
*For any fellow Illinois educators reading, I’ve included a list of Illinois state standards below that the book addresses specifically using the context of The Great Depression.
Literature: In a more general setting, educators might use this book as part of a spring break or summer reading assignment for honors+ level students. Teachers might craft a project that will encourage them to use inductive thinking and use Fred’s experiences to draw conclusions about the lives of 1930’s Americans.
Diversity: Part of the beauty of On The Ropes is that it feels timeless and contemporary despite its Depression-era roots. With the graphic novel’s focus on labor unions and its message of perseverance in the face of tremendous odds, this book offers numerous opportunities for discussions on issues of equality, fairness, free expression, fighting for what’s right, and The American Dream, to name a few. In addition, because of its ties into ideas of social justice and representation, the book can inspire great community-driven projects and collaborations in any subject area.
Overall, On The Ropes is a great casual read for a teacher to connect with those challenging times before diving into a Depression unit. A story of transformation and teamwork against tremendous odds, this no-frills graphic novel will engage your students in this time period in new ways and hopefully inspire them to seek change in their own communities.
P.S. – I do recommend playing some Pete Seeger in the background while reading this book…it sets the tone well.
Jason Nisavic has taught social studies on the south side of Chicago for 12 years and is enthusiastic about making the classroom a more engaging place. He has experimented with incorporating games, graphic novels, and online projects into his curriculum to great. Reach out to him on Twitter @Teaching_humans to keep the conversation going!
All images © Dan E. Burr / James Vance / W.W. Norton
Illinois State Standards addressed through On The Ropes:
- SS.CV.8.9-12: Analyze how individuals use and challenge laws to address a variety of public issues.
- SS.CV.9.9-12: Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes and related consequences.
- SS.H.3.9-12: Evaluate the methods utilized by people and institutions to promote change.
- SS.H.5.9-12: Analyze the factors and historical context that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.
- SS.H.6.9-12: Analyze the concept and pursuit of the American Dream.
- SS.H.7.9-12: Identify the role of individuals, groups, and institutions in people’s struggle for safety, freedom, equality and justice.
- SS.H.12.9-12: Analyze the geographic and cultural forces that have resulted in conflict and cooperation.
Note: If you live in a different state, your standards likely overlap with just about all of these. In addition, the book directly references the Republic Steel Massacre of 1937 which occurred just outside of Chicago. This oft overlooked real-life tragedy creates a turning point in Fred’s life and would make for a great discussion anchor.