The streets of France in 1911 were a very different place, and give us a glimpse of what the current state of the working class in Western nations would look like without a history of militancy and struggle. Without labor and community protections, days in factories were grueling, long, and dangerous, with maiming and chronic illness common in the slums that were stacked in the urban core. This was before the breakout of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and with the city’s commune on 1871 seeming like a distant memory.
Well, not distant to the anarchist movement that was building out of the revolutionary discontent that was felt in the hearts of those slaving day in and out for the profits of a different class.
It is in this climate that Jules Bonnot led a cadre of thieves who began to steal back from the ruling class, knocking over banks and taking back capital. The tactics were developed after Bonnot’s trials in the French factories and being blacklisted after run-ins with cops at meetings of organizing workers. Though somewhat different than the syndicalist movements that challenged fascism in Spain a couple decades later, Bonnot was joining a revolutionary tradition that was overtaking Marxism as a working class alternative to their own oppression. Bonnot cajoled with Italian and French Individualist anarchists who saw confronting the state and capitalism directly as fundamental, as well as trying to liberate one’s self from the shackles of the dominant paradigm.
It is within this frame that Bonnot became an innovator of what would be called Illegalism, where the liberation of desire was paramount and living a life that was counter-legal was imperative. This idea has been influential in anarchist circles up until the present, where it is not just permissible to violate the law during organizing or “proper revolutionary” acts, but as a lifestyle itself. Different than the syndicalist workplace approaches that focused on radial unionism in the workplace as a step towards worker-takeover, Illegalists made up a larger ultra-left current that sought to reject the imposition of work itself and to immediately expropriate through activity socially labeled as “criminal.” Bonnot began by counterfeiting money before graduating to bank robbery, acknowledging that in an unfair capitalist system he was under no moral obligation to follow rules that were written by others for the benefit of the rich.
The story of an anarchist bank robber who avoided harming workers and gives us a snapshot of a life lived in direct opposition to systematized violence is what drew Laura Pierce and Stefan Vogel to write The Illegalists, a graphic novel treatment of the The Bonnot Gang story that centers us directly into Jules’ move towards radicalization and eventual reprisal by the state. Attila Futaki, an artist known for his work on the Scott Snyder Vertigo graphic novel Severed as well as Percy Jackson and Conan books, brings in rich detail with art that really captures the layers of the early urban design of French cities.
The book itself was a Kickstarter project that began on March 2nd of 2015, yet after a few short delays just shipped to backers in the last few weeks. For the team involved, there was something that ran deeper than the simple story of a bank robber taking an adventurist drop from society.
I first discovered ‘The illegalists’ a.k.a ‘The Bonnot Gang’ in London’s oldest radical bookstore ‘Housmans’ in 2009. What struck me most was, they weren’t just ‘criminals’, they were anarchists. They had strong anti-establishment beliefs, fighting low wages and the 12 hour work day; a lot of them were blacklisted for draft dodging and unable to work. Paris in 1911 was a city of riots, strikes and savage repression. These anarchists evolved into illegalists because they had no other choice – they stole to survive. I was reminded of the final scene from the film “I’m a fugitive from a chain gang” Where Paul Muni meets his girlfriend to tell her he’s leaving town, she asks ‘But how will you live? And as he slips into the darkness, unseen, he responds ‘I steal’.
That “steal” is part of the ideological (Or anti-ideological, perhaps?) attraction that helped to draw a unique audience to the book that may not normally be a part of the comics’ community. As the book was a successful Kickstarter project, it lists many backers towards the back of the book, past the sketches and the outline of the art process. People like Aragorn! and the publisher Little Black Cart are listed, who are both associated with the various dissident anarchist schools, such as nihilism and egoism, that embrace Bonnot’s Illegalism in some forms today. The story itself has a broad revolutionary appeal beyond these philosophical corners, telling the story of “everyday resistance” that shows how many resist the effects of their own subjugation no matter the methods needed for liberation.
While the book is simply told, there is a complexity that runs underneath because of the ideas present. The team involved are well traveled in the commercial comic world, but until the last few years a story like this could never have been told in a fully produced, 140-page graphic novel. With writers like Ales Kot and the change in publishers like Image Comics to a full creator-owned format, it is becoming easier for creators to develop books with niche audiences that challenge conventions, both of the medium and of society. Kickstarter itself offers a unique option as well, and they were able to raise almost 36,000 British Pounds in just two months with a total of 305 backers.
The book reads well, though a little “on the nose” at points, but weaves together a story that could easily have felt like a trite political treatise or as a de-politicized story of crime and pursuit. Colors by Greg Guilhaumond are incredibly rich yet subtle, not overworking the palette so as to keep with the bleak world of industrial factories and post-work meetings. When the blood comes, it is like a crimson scarf pulled out by the police, breaking up the self-organizing of the workplace.
The apparent success of The Illegalists hopefully sends the message that stories that mix radical politics into the comics medium are both necessary and attractive to audiences, and gives established comics creators the platform to create art and tell stories that are far outside the capes and muscles that normally don comic walls. Expect that this book will also extend its reach beyond comic shops, alternative and standard, and into radical press retailers like AK Press, Little Black Cart, and PM Press.