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Review: On The Books: A Graphic Tale of Working Woes at NYC’s Strand Bookstore

on the booksA David and goliath story, On The Books is the first-hand comic strip account of the labor struggle at NYC’s legendary Strand bookstore in the summer of 2012. Told by Greg Farrell—an employee of the store who interviewed numerous other members of the staff—the book examines the motives and actions of those involved, including the store, the staff, the union local, and the people of New York City, as understood by the author. Through interstitial comic portraits, Farrell gives voice to his comrades, who often share a nuance of the story that would have otherwise gone overlooked, and provide a depth of opinion and fairness to accompany Farrell’s often very personal interpretation of events. In it’s ten short chapters the book explores at once the inner workings of our national retail environment, the inner struggle to exist within it as a young working person, the current state of the book trade, and what happens when that no longer seems possible.

I know this’ll come as a shock, but I’m a political nut, so getting to see a graphic novel about this labor struggle was like finding gold. I came across it at this year’s Small Press Expo, and finally got a chance to read it, ironically reading it while on a work retreat. I’ve worked with many Unions in my political career, and have belonged to one too, I felt I should put that out there too, though you’ll see in the rest of the review, that’s not a big deal.

What’s fantastic about this graphic novel is that it really presents an honest opinion. It covers the store and its troubles. It examines the difficult decisions and no win scenario of the employees. It also criticizes the union these employees belong to. It allows us the reader to explore all sides and come to our own opinion. For Farrell, it wouldn’t be unexpected that the story presented, and his experience depicted, to be very one sided. Instead though, he looks at all sides, especially his fellow employees, and does so with the views and opinions of his coworkers. Those views too are diverse.

The very complicated situation is presented in a comic book style which takes a very serious, and complicated subject, and gives it a more lighthearted tone. The art doesn’t blow me away, but reminds me a lot of what you might see with many political cartoonists. It doesn’t hurt the graphic novel at all, but it isn’t the art that’s the draw, or really the point at all. The point is the labor struggle that’s depicted within. That alone will get you thinking about your own situation.

Farrell brilliantly lays out a fair assessment of the situation and a quandary faced by modern day Unions. Anyone who works, whether you’re part of a Union or not, should read this graphic novel. It sets up many questions, and dilemmas that face today’s worker. It’s a graphic novel that entertains, and makes you think. It’s up there as one of my favorite reads of the year.

Story and Art: Greg Farrell
Story: 10 Art: 8 Overall: 9.5 Recommendation: Buy