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For Beginners : the best of graphic non-fiction

posted on 08 Oct 2016

For Beginners : the best of graphic non-fiction

Over the past decade graphic novels and even some comics previously discounted or ignored by the literary critical establishment  have come in from the cold. Rather than being seen as marginal or aimed at a dumbed-down audience of slackers, they are being recognised as substantial works with integrity and a tradition of their own.

I am not a great reader of graphic novels although I do recognise that some of the best are really marvellous things – I am a great fan of  Art Spiegelmann’s Maus and David Beauchard’s magnificent Epileptic for example. However, I am completely in awe of the series of non-fiction graphic texts in what is known as the ‘For Beginners’ series.

I first started buying  them back in the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was looking for an easy way into, what seemed to me at the time,  impenetrable  subjects like Marxism, Freudian analysis, Trotskyism and a host of other ‘isms’ that I had no idea where to start with.  These books advertised themselves as ‘documentary comic books’ and were a great example of how progressive political ideas don’t have to be solemn and earnest – they can be funny, irreverent and self-mocking too. This is certainly something that appealed to me at the time and I went hunting for any of them I could find.

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The books were published by the Writers and Readers Co-operative which was founded by Glenn Thompson, a US high school drop-out from Harlem who found himself touring Europe and the near East until he washed up in the UK. Finding that Hackney was not unlike the community of his own childhood, Thompson trained as a social worker but didn’t last long in that profession before being overwhelmed by intractable bureaucracy. Instead he opened the first bookstore in the Hackney area called ‘Centreprise’ which was what I guess we’d now call a radical bookshop. 

Thompson went on to work briefly for Penguin books before branching out again. The For Beginners website describes it in this way:

Thompson teamed up with a number of people who agreed with his views of activist, community-driven publishing. Writers and Readers was formed in England as a publishing cooperative where everybody shared the work and the profits. Thompson had ambitious goals with his Writers and Readers project: He wanted to prove that cooperative publishing, where no one member specialized in a single area but taught themselves about every aspect of publishing, could succeed on an international level; he wanted to prove that non-readers would read if offered books that addressed their concerns; but most importantly, he wanted to “advance the needs of cultural literacy, rather than cater to an ‘advanced’ but limited readership” (From the Firm’s declaration of intent). Out of these ideologies, Writers and Readers began publishing the immensely popular Beginners series, a comic-book style, trade-paperback series of nonfiction reference titles, the first of which being Cuba, the second (and immensely more popular) being Marx. The purpose of the Beginners series was to open up a realm of knowledge that had long been “locked into the domain of academia.” The books were meant to appeal to young readers as well as those who wished to broaden their knowledge without attending a university.

This was perhaps the best of times for the For Beginners titles and for the Writers and Readers publishing co-operative. Thompson began to diversify the range of publications that the house handled but success, a growing administration and creative tensions led to conflict within the co-operative and a struggle for control ensued which saw his creative partner, Richard Appignanesi, leave in 1992 to join Icon Books and take with him titles he had edited or written himself . Appignanesi then published these under the banner of the Introducing.. series which looked similar to Beginners and even had some identical crossover titles. As I understand it, the Introducing series continues to publish today in a very similar format to Beginners.

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However, although Richard Appignenesi had left the Beginners set up Thompson’s ambitions continued to develop and he  split his time between London and Harlem in the hope that new publishing ventures would spark a new ‘Harlem Renaissance’ . The For Beginners series consisted of 40 titles by the time Thompson died of cancer in 2001 at the age of 61 and that must have seemed like the end for this popular imprint.

However, a few years after his death a new team of owners who were committed to the political and cultural value of the series -  For Beginners, LLC - resurrected both the titles and the ethos of the publishing imprint. Their website says that “we adopted Glenn Thompson’s ideals and intentions, re-releasing 20 of his Beginners titles and authorized one new title, Dada and Surrealism For Beginners, in the summer of 2007.  Newly reformed and ever expanding, Glenn Thompson’s series of influential and innovative graphic non-fiction titles lives on through us as the For Beginners series.”

I’m personally delighted that the legacy of For Beginners seems to have survived not just in one incarnation but two – clearly the Introducing series shares many of the same objectives of those early days of the original co-operative. I know nothing at all of the internal schisms that afflicted Writers and Readers but I’m not unfamiliar with this kind of infighting and struggles for control within projects. What I’m thankful for is that they were around to help steer me through some of the more arcane backroads of political theory – something I hope a new generation of readers will take advantage of.

 

Terry Potter

October 2016