Mr. Block by Ernest Riebe

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 which were published in magazines of unions which supported these causes. His best known character was '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.

Ernest Riebe was born in Germany in the late 19th century. Most details of his life and career are sketchy, even his exact date of birth and passing. He immigrated to the United States and settled down in Minneapolis. 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.

On 7 November 1912 he published his signature comics series, 'Mr. Block' in The Industrial Worker, later also published in Solidarity. Mr. Block is a common worker who is literally and figure-of-speech block-headed. He works hard, in dire circumstances and is paid well beneath the minimum wage. Yet despite all this he remains intensely loyal to his bosses and never realizes he's being exploited. Extremely naïve as he is, Mr. Block keeps hoping for better days and never loses his faith in the American Dream. The bitingly sharp comic was compiled into a comic book in 1913, which collected 24 episodes. IWW distributed it 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 himself also based a play on 'Mr. Block'.

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

In 1919 Riebe 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), which he illustrated too. The book 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. Near the end Mr. Block makes a cameo and the constitution of the Soviet Union is printed. Riebe furthermore drew many single-panel cartoons, such 'Under the Stars and Stripes' published in The Industrial Worker from May to June 1913 which criticized life in the United States. He also illustrated various covers for the One Big Union Monthly.

Riebe's comics are quite remarkable for their time. While his fellow union members all wrote serious pamphlets he stood out by making eye-catching cartoons and comics. Not only were these more inviting to read but they also got the message far better across. People could place themselves into Mr. Block's character and realize they too were constantly victimized by the system. Another aspect that sets Riebe apart from other comics artists at the time is his sarcasm. Most 1900s, 1910s and 1920s comics have a rather gentle, simple-minded and a-political form of humour. Gags are typically pure straightforward slapstick thriving on ethnic stereotypes and sexist portrayals of women. Riebe's comedy is far more sophisticated, cynical and actually criticizes discrimination. In the 1912 'Mr. Block' episode 'He Meets Others' a businessman sets Block and his co-workers all up against one another. He tells Block, his immigrant colleagues and an African-American worker all individually that they need to compete with the others to avoid coming across as lazy and incompetent. They all fall for it and just slave away while muttering racial epiphets at one another. In the final panel the boss just lies back and enjoys the sun: "I hope the IWW will never show them how to organize." Various episodes also portray Mr. Block's wife as being far more intelligent and assertive than him.

Mr. Block by Ernest Riebe
Mr. Block - He was one of the victims

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. Riebe died in obscurity, somewhere in the 20th century. But his work is still reprinted to this day. While the imagery may look somewhat dated the themes are as timeless today as they were back then. Riebe's cynicism about the way society mistreats the common worker also holds up far better than more idealistic comics from the same time period. When underground comix became a cultural phenomenon in the 1960s Riebe was rediscovered and re-evaluated as a prototypical forerunner of the movement, along with George Herriman and the anonymous Tijuana Bibles artists. He drew in black-and-white, published outside the mainstream media and criticized capitalism and racism in a time when American workers had very few rights and the country was still racially segregated. Since Riebe never received any financial compensation people saw this as the truest example that he drew his comics out of personal conviction and the will to change society. 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 celebrated 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.

Ernest Riebe has remained in the public consciousness, even though very little is known about him. This wasn't unusual for publications by the IWW Of all the early cartoonists who once worked for them only 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, Clif Bennett and L. Stanford Chumley are known by name.

Mr. Block - He Gets Scabunionitus

Mr. Block - He Gets Scabunionitus

Mr. Block on blunderbussmag.com

Series and books by Ernest Riebe in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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