Mr. Block: The Subversive Comics and Writings of Ernest Riebe

By Hank Kennedy
The Comics Journal
October 3, 2023

“Oh, Mr. Block,
you were born by mistake,
You take the cake.
You make me ache.
Tie a rock to your block
and jump in the lake.
Kindly do that for Liberty’s sake.”
-Joe Hill, “Mr. Block” (1913)

* * *

Eugene Debs, who knew a thing or two about union activism and socialism, seeing as he went to prison for both, once wrote an essay on the importance of political cartooning. The essay, “The Cartoonist and the Social Revolution” (1912) appeared in the book The Red Portfolio: Cartoons for Socialism. In it Debs proclaims “The revolution is still in its youth and yet the social cartoonist, incarnating its spirit and flashing forth its message, has arrived. Already he has won distinction, but he is still in the boyhood of his achievement. His is the social conscience, the social sense of duty, the social love and the social inspiration, and his the thrillingly joyous and self-imposed task to redeem the art of pictorial appeal from gross and sordid commercialism and consecrate it to the cause of freedom and the service of humanity.”

Since Debs wrote these words, we have been fortunate to enjoy the work of cartoonists like Carlo in Labor Action and Phil Evans in Socialist Worker. Despite Debs’ use of solely male pronouns, there have also been talented female socialist cartoonists like Laura Gray in the Militant and Lisa Lyons in Workers’ Power. Predating any of these folks was Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) cartoonist Ernest Riebe, whose work appeared in the Industrial Worker, Solidarity, the One Big Union Monthly and Industrial Solidarity. This past August, a selection of Riebe’s work, 1912-1924, was reprinted in Mr. Block: The Subversive Comics and Writings of Ernest Riebe, edited by the Graphic History Collective with Paul Buhle and Iain McIntyre, and published by PM Press.

A 1912 strip from Industrial Worker.

Riebe’s comics are different from the cartoonists mentioned above in a crucial way. While their depictions of the working class were of heroic figures, usually clad in overalls and a flat cap, Riebe turned a more critical eye towards sections of the proletariat. Mr. Block is, per Walker C. Smith in his introduction to a 1913 pamphlet of strips featuring the character, “the representative of that host of slaves who think in terms of their masters.” While Mr. Block wears the clothes of a typical worker, his ideas are strictly backwards. He puts his faith in the courts, religion, elected officials, and “bread and butter” business unionism. He skirts radicals and foreigners and considers the IWW a bunch of rabble-rousing troublemakers.

Riebe turns the IWW (or “Wobbly”) brand of scorn and derision, usually aimed at the “Starvation Army” (Salvation Army) and “American Separation of Labor” (American Federation of Labor) right on the Mr. Blocks in the labor movement. Sample plots involve Mr. Block supporting candidates for office who toss him aside while in power; Mr. Block falling for get-rich-quick schemes; and Mr. Block contracting a case of “Scabunionitis” when members of the business unionist AFL cross his picket line.

“Scabunionitis” at epidemic levels in a 1913 strip from Industrial Worker.

Those looking to learn more about Riebe’s enigmatic life are likely to be disappointed with this collection. Many details, including when and where he was born, when and where he died, or even what he looked like, remain unknown. One new piece of information presented in the Graphic History Collective’s introduction is the assertion that he lived out his last years in China, but no source is provided. Much of the book’s biographical narration regarding Mr. Block and Riebe is conjecture from historical context. For example, there are several years-long gaps in appearances of Mr. Block that are unexplained. However, it’s likely that the First Red Scare, and the repression it engendered, contributed to the scarcity of the character in the early 1920s, prior to its final appearances in 1924.

Reading the Mr. Block stories in sequence, some aspects jump out. The original design of Mr. Block was a clerk who feels union membership isn’t relevant to him. This depiction was soon changed to that of a manual laborer, an identity more familiar to IWW members who worked as lumberjacks, miners, and other similar occupations. There are several instances of continuing storylines, which suggest there were enough regular readers of IWW publications that they could follow Block’s misadventures from week to week and not be confused.

An interesting contention made is that Mr. Block appeared in the first “underground” comic book, well before the comix movement of the ’60s and ’70s. As mentioned above, a pamphlet titled Ernest Riebe’s Mr. Block: Twenty-Four Cartoons of the Mr. Block Series was published in 1913 by Minneapolis’ “Block Supply Co.” that, true to its title, contained two dozen Mr. Block strips; this would also make the pamphlet “the first comic book intended as explicitly revolutionary propaganda,” in the words of Franklin Rosemont in his introduction to a 1984 reissue.

A 1913 strip from Industrial Worker, part of a continuing storyline where Mr. Block becomes a business owner, to typically disastrous ends.

As for this book, some of the choices over what and how to present of Riebe’s comics I found puzzling. Lacking is Riebe’s 1919 pamphlet Crimes of the Bolsheviki, a satirical condemnation of the Russian Revolution. The editors claim this was omitted because only a few illustrations feature Mr. Block. Another absence is “Mr. Block in History,” a section of the 1919 pamphlet Mr. Block and the Profiteers which is absent due to the use of racial stereotypes. While the reasons for excluding the latter are understandable, it would be nice to have included Crimes of the Bolsheviki, especially since the present volume is only 130 pages. There are also two Mr. Block comics that are so damaged that some panels in each are unreadable. Unfortunately, they are reproduced at a smaller size than the other illustrations, making these already difficult-to-read comics even harder.

In addition to Riebe’s comics, there are various supplementary pieces of Mr. Block-related material included, such as Joe Hill’s lyrics to “Mr. Block,” the above-referenced introductions to the 1913 and 1984 collections of Mr. Block comics, the script for a one-act play written by Riebe, other text pieces by Riebe, and Nick Thorkelson’s comic on Riebe from Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World (Verso Books, 2005).

A 1924 strip from Industrial Solidarity, by which point Riebe had expanded the strip to nine panels with detailed narrative captions.

The real question about this material is, does it hold up? Some of these comics are over a century old; are they still relevant? Obviously the editors and PM Press feel that they are, and it’s this reviewers opinion—as a union member, political activist, and comic fan—that many of the issues raised in the collection are timeless. There still workers who vote for snake oil salesmen from the major political parties, who blame foreign workers for their troubles instead of big business and the rich, and who identify more with wealthy plutocrats than with their fellow workers. Quoting Paul Buhle’s preface: “Mr. Block is not the hero we need but the antihero we deserve to laugh at as we sharpen our wit to organize and fight the blockheads and bosses standing between us and a better world.” Amen to that.