Mr. Block by Ernest Riebe
'Mr. Block' - 'He Don't Favor Sabotage'. 

Ernest Riebe was an early 20th-century German-American labour union activist, who worked for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He drew various left-wing cartoons and comics, published in magazines of unions which supported these causes. His best known character is 'Mr. Block' (1912). Riebe's work hold historical importance for being the earliest predecessor of underground comix. Just like the underground artists of the 1960s, he dared to draw political-social commentary against the system, while distributing his comics through independent channels rather than be part of a huge corporation. Riebe's socially conscious work covers themes that are still relevant today. 

Early life
Not much is known about Ernest Riebe's life. He was presumably born in Germany in the late 19th century, immigrating to the United States at an unknown date. It is known that he lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by the early 1910s. By 1912 he published writings and cartoons for The Industrial Worker, the official newspaper of The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Riebe remained a loyal member of this union and publication until 1922. Much like his birth date, his death date is unknown too. He presumably passed away sometime after the 1920s. Since the IWW was a non-profit organisation, Riebe was never paid for his contributions. But he could at least be as political as he wanted, without fear of censorship. No other newspaper cartoonist at the time could even dream of such creative freedom. Other cartoonists and illustrators who worked for IWW publications were Thomas J. Hagerty, Joe Hill, Joe Troy, Ralph Chaplin, Dust Wallin, Ern Hanson, Fred Jerger, Eugene Barnett, William Ekman, De Moi, OK, Pashtanika, J.A. Van Dilman, F. Vose, William Henkelman, Cliff Bennett and L. Stanford Chumley. And these are merely the ones who signed their work...

Mr. Block
On 7 November 1912 Riebe's signature comic series, 'Mr. Block', debuted in The Industrial Worker. The series was later also published in the magazine Solidarity. Mr. Block is a common worker who is literally and figure-of-speech block-headed. The naïve man works hard, in dire circumstances, and is paid far beneath the minimum wage. Still he remains intensely loyal to his bosses and never realizes he's being exploited. Mr. Block keeps hoping for better days and never loses his faith in the American Dream. 

While fellow union members all wrote serious pamphlets, Riebe's contributions were far more inviting to read, since they are presented as humorous comics. Readers could easily place themselves in Mr. Block's personality and profession and realize they too were being victimized by the system. Stylistically, Riebe's comics also stand out from most other comics produced in the 1910s and 1920s. Mainstream comics from that era are typically straightforward slapstick stories. They thrive on gentle, simple-minded, apolitical comedy. Riebe's comics, particularly 'Mr. Block', are sarcastic and rally for social change. Contrary to his colleagues, he also never made use of ethnic or sexist stereotypes. Various episodes portray Mr. Block's wife being far more intelligent and assertive than her husband. Riebe actually condemns racism and discrimination. In the 1912 'Mr. Block' episode 'He Meets Others', a businessman takes Block, his immigrant colleagues and an African-American worker apart. He each tells them individually that they need to compete with each other, to avoid being pigeonholed as lazy and incompetent. Unaware that he told the same thing to all the others, they all start slaving away, muttering racist epiphets at one another. The final panel shows the boss lying back, enjoying the sun. He laughs: "I hope the IWW will never show them how to organize." 

'Mr. Block' was compiled into a comic book in 1913, which collected 24 episodes. The Industrial Workers of the World distributed the 'Mr. Block' comic books across the country. In 1919 a follow-up was published, 'Mr. Block and the Profiteers'. At the time the character was notable enough for American folk singer Joe Hill to write a song about him, in which he complains about the way common workers are exploited. Riebe also adapted 'Mr. Block' into a stage performance. 

Crimes of the Bolsheviki: Dedicated to the Interests of the International Proletariat
'Crimes of the Bolsheviki: Dedicated to the Interests of the International Proletariat'.

Crimes of the Bolsheviki
In 1919 Riebe wrote, illustrated and published a book about the then two year old Russian Revolution, called 'Crimes of the Bolsheviki: Dedicated to the Interests of the International Proletariat' (1919). It follows the same format as a text comic, with written sentences below the images. Nevertheless some images also feature speech balloons. The title itself is misleading, since the "crimes" Riebe mentions are all sarcastic and thinly veiled praisals of Bolshevism. In the final pages Mr. Block makes a cameo and the constitution of the Soviet Union is presented in full.

Other work
Riebe drew many single-panel cartoons, such as 'Under the Stars and Stripes', published in The Industrial Worker from May to June 1913. The feature  criticized life in the United States. He also illustrated various covers for the One Big Union Monthly.

Mr. Block by Ernest Riebe
Mr. Block - 'He Was One Of The Victims'.

Death and legacy
During his lifetime, Ernest Riebe's work remained obscure. Only people who read the union magazine The Industrial Worker may have been familiar with his work. Even then, his comics were far too anti-capitalist, anti-racist and cynical to ever gain popularity with most American audiences at the time. It took until the 1960s, when old comics became subject of more thorough analysis, before Riebe's work was rediscovered. The underground comix movement hailed him as a spiritual forerunner, along with George Herriman and the anonymous Tijuana Bibles artists. Just like underground cartoonists, Riebe operated outside mainstream media, drew in black-and-white and advocated subversive, highly political viewpoints. Today he is praised for being an artist far ahead of his time. He criticized racism, sexism and exploitation of workers in an era when these were highly controversial topics. In the first half of the 20th century, U.S. society was still racially segregated. Women were expected to be housewives. Unionizing and criticizing capitalism were enough to be branded as "un-American" and "a Communist". But Riebe still dared to take a stance. The fact that he worked for free is seen as the truest example that he drew his comics out of personal idealism. 

In 1984 the Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company published 24 'Mr. Block' cartoons in book form. These comics were reprinted again in 2005 for Nicole Shulman and Paul Buhle's 'Wobblies: A Graphic History', a book which celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Industrial Workers of the World. As a tribute to Riebe's work, Nick Thorkelson drew a biographical biopic about Riebe's life for this book.

Mr. Block - He Gets Scabunionitus
'Mr. Block - 'He Gets Scabunionitus'.

Mr. Block on

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