Radical Review

By | Tuesday, July 26, 2022 Leave a Comment
Radical: My Year with a Socialist Senator
Sofia Warren's debut graphic novel, Radical: My Year with a Socialist Senator, is a rare breed of graphic novels. Not only is it non-fiction, but it's journalism. Warren spent a year more-or-less embedded with Julia Salazar, the New York State Senator for District 18. Warren contacted Salazar shortly after she won her primary and followed her first year in office, from having essentially no team at all to an office full of experienced staffers. There are elements of memoir here and elements of biography, but it's journalism in pretty much exactly the same way Joe Sacco's work is.

While Salazar and many of her initial staff were socialists, she ran on a Democratic ticket. While that wasn't unheard of even for New York state senate races, it had been some time since it had happened. Her primary campaign focus was on rent control, and that became much of the focus of her first year. One of the big challenges, though, was trying to both learn the ropes as a senator, figure out how those could be used in a socialist context, and still push through as much of her agenda as possible within that framework. My first thought at her approach was, "She's either going to be completely blocked from doing anything by those with more experience, or she'll get absorbed by the system and realize that you can't change the system at all." I could not picture any scenario that didn't end with a depressing narrative.

As Warren states early on, she opted to write this book more as an exercise in showing how the state legislature works and not so much a biography of Salazar herself. Her being a subject is essentially just a narrative hook to show the process in action; the reader learns about how everything works right along with Salazar. It's a practical, functional look at how things operate, not the idealized Schoolhouse Rock version you may have learned as a kid. What Warren does, though, with what so many people think of as a very dry subject is still put her emphasis on Salazar and several of her key staff, so readers aren't left with a cold version of events. We see the individual challenges and struggles these people have in learning how things work, how to work together cooperatively, how different approaches to the same problem can yield different results. It's in fact a very engaging narrative and that you happen to learn how legislation happens almost feels incidental, which is the best way to get someone to understand and remember something! As I said, Salazar's main platform centered on rent control. The basic ideas surrounding it are covered well -- both from the standpoints of tenants and of landlords, although as Salazar is the book's subject, sympathies are very much towards tenants. (It says she's a "socialist senator" literally in the title, so that should come as no surprise.) If you have any base knowledge of, well... anything political, I don't think it would be a spoiler to say that not every piece of legislation that Salazar wants to pass does so. Much of it does, however, and Salazar and her team are able to do some well-deserved celebrating towards the end.

Maybe it's me. Maybe it's four years of Trump, followed by an attempted insurrection, followed by the absolute barest minimum of repercussions and, even then, only for the people on the lowest rungs of the ladder. Maybe it's three years of a pandemic that the government has done far too little to combat, favoring the economy over the health and safety of the citizens it's supposed to represent. Maybe it's because I'm going to a memorial service later today for a friend who tried making a difference in local politics for years, saw it from the inside, discovered how mind-boggingly corrupt and insurmountable it is, and committed suicide because of it. Maybe I'm just too tired as I'm writing this. Maybe it's some combination of all of that. But despite Warren's attempt to end the story positively with a sense of both accomplishment and hope, I couldn't help but come away thinking, "We're fucked." Here we have someone who really wants positive change to benefit the people, who has the scruples to reject donations from large corporate interests, who had a massive groundswell of support both for her personally as well as her agenda... She had nearly everything in her favor and, in the end, she wasn't able to defeat the system. She got some important legislation passed and I don't doubt that it has helped many, many people. But she couldn't behead the minotaur; at best, she stabbed it.

And while, within the context of the story, that's certainly a win for Salazar personally and her team more broadly, I keep thinking about it in context of a larger scope. That the system is too large and ingrained to do anything more than slow down a little. It's still coming; it's still going to run you over; the most anyone can do is delay things a bit. And I don't mean for that to sound defeatist and that certainly isn't Warren's intent, but I can't walk away from this story feeling uplifted or empowered. No fault of Warren, no fault of Salazar... but I see it as much an indictment of US politican disfunction as the story of a good-hearted senator who wants to change the system from the inside.

Warren's craft is really solid. Particularly for as many characters as the book has. In fact, she has a "Who's Who Character Guide" before the story begins showcasing many of the main characters, but it's not needed. She's talented enough to make everyone distinct and defined within the context of the narrative. It's an excellent book if you want to learn about how state legislature -- particular New York's state legislature -- works, and it acts pretty darn well as a biogrpahy of Salazar as well. Warren even notes that she didn't intend this to be a biography of Salazar, but she wouldn't change much if she did want to refocus it. Any complaints or negativity I have written here today is with the system itself, not how Warren presented it.

Radical: My Year with a Socialist Senator came out last month from Top Shelf, and should be available at all major bookstores now. It retails for $24.99 US.
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