Book review: Our Members Be Unlimited, Sam Wallman

In this new kind of graphic novel, Sam Wallman fearlessly celebrates unions and their place in our history and our lives.

If you’re not into unions then you may as well turn back out now. And you can hand back the minimum wage, equality and fairness in the workplace on your way out.

Still with us? Great, because what you get with Sam Wallman’s book is an insight both personal and historical into a collectivist alternative to capitalism that has existed as long as there have been bosses. It’s not really a graphic novel because it is more of an essay and owes more to creative non-fiction than any novelistic tradition.

The sections that work best are the personal. When Wallman takes us inside the Amazon warehouse he worked in, readers see how hard it can be to organise unions in the shadow of a corporate juggernaut. When he shows us via a coffee with a friend about how difficult it is to write about unions (with a backdrop of bad work practices) we get an easy way into a weighty topic that for a lesser storyteller would lend itself to dogma. Elsewhere the chapters can feel more educational as he sows the seeds of a unionism growing up beside capitalism. But it is an erudite zip through history drawing on sources from Karl Marx to Jeff Sparrow (who supplies a cover quote) and is most effective when Wallman keeps the history lessons punchy.

At the end of the book, Wallman’s building-block glossary reclaims language around labour. He recasts redneck, for example, with the historical context of coalminers who wore red bandanas around their necks to declare themselves pro-union as well as the more well-known meaning for farm workers’ sunburn. He concludes this by writing ‘Too complex a term to explore properly in a box this size’. But Wallman is ambitious enough to take comics to areas that are hard to explain, where the message may be complex but the stories are simple.

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To do this Wallman breaks out of the nine-panel grid of traditional comics with full-page illustrations and playful ways of looking at the page. Often his drawing style is deceptively simple, even cute with Matt Groening-esque characters shuffle through familiar panels. However he relishes full page spreads that owe more to his career as a poster maker or mural artist and could almost been torn from the book as individual posters. And it is a book that asks readers to read slowly and pay attention to the subtleties. The background of several pages is a net that frays then snaps over several pages to be rewoven later on. It is a playful metaphor for organising unions across pages that are aptly coloured predominantly in reds and oranges.

This is a comic that has an argument: organising workplaces makes them better for workers. That argument is as relevant after a Federal election win by a Labor government as it has been throughout the history. Wallman concludes as a great artists should by reflecting the reality but also by focussing us on the small points of hope that could be taken for granted (much like the minimum wage, equality or fairness) if we don’t protect and nourish them.

Our Members Be Unlimited by Sam Wallman
Publisher: Scribe Books
ISBN: 9781925713053
Pages: 256pp
Publication date: 31 May 2022
RRP: $3

George Dunford was Director of Content at ArtsHub, Screenhub and GamesHub (2019-2022). He has also written for Meanjin, The Big Issue, Lonely Planet, The Good Food Guide and others. He has worked in digital leadership roles in the cultural sector for more than 10 years including at the National Library of Australia, National Museum of Australia and the Wheeler Centre. He is currently employed by Museums Victoria and is a mentor in the CEO Digital Mentorship program working with Back to Back and Desart. You can follow him on Twitter: @Hack_packer