Political cartoonist and activist Sam Wallman’s love of drawing was instilled in him from an early age. “My mum was an art teacher and she always encouraged me,” he says. “That obsession was a big part of the way that I would interpret the world and try to get understood as a weird, queer kid in a pretty rough public school in Geelong. It was an outlet, a pressure valve, and a very peaceful habit that has always centred me.”
The writer and artist behind the new graphic novel Our Members Be Unlimited, which celebrates the history of unionism, got switched on politically during the Howard years. He joined a union-led rally against the punitive WorkChoices policy. “This was my first union rally and just seeing how big it was and how full of regular people who looked like they could be from my parents’ street was a real ‘wow’ moment,” he recalls. “This is how you reach millions of everyday people and activate them to push back a bit. It was an eye-opening experience.”
And what an eye he has. Sam’s deceptively simple but intricately detailed style offers an easily approachable way to dive deep into the grand sweep of union history. Beginning in the stars and delving into mythology, it crystalises around the emergence of what we now recognise as trade unions during the 1700s. It also dips into Sam’s time served as one of the many harried workers in a local warehouse outpost of gazillionaire Jeff Bezos’ Amazon empire.
“Drawing made that experience much more tolerable,” he says. “I was always doing little sketches at lunch and writing notes in the toilet so I’d get the quotes right.”
His talents have always been in demand wherever he has worked. “As I got involved in activism and organising, there would always be a need for graphics,” Sam says. “Whether it’s for a flyer or a poster, I’d always put my hand up.”
“If we want to change stuff, we need to bring everyone along with us, and unions are a really good way to do that.”
He reckons that the snappy, succinct form of graphic novels is an accessible way to communicate clearly. “And it helps people laugh at their rulers, which I think is very healthy,” he chuckles. “It’s empowering because it’s quite an engaged act, to decode a political cartoon or comic… and it’s usually punching up, thankfully.”
The comic form is a powerful one, too, for conveying the incredible achievements of unionism. “If we want to change stuff, we need to bring everyone along with us, and I think unions are a really good way to do that,” Sam says.
That’s why he spent five years working on Our Members Be Unlimited, his first long-form work. “There’s not much in the way of resources about the history of unions,” he says. “So, this is a celebration of this special society that has changed every country for the better. It’s a huge crisscrossing web of forces that could just as easily not exist at all, and that we may well lose.”
You’ll spot Melbourne’s hallowed Trades Hall lovingly recreated on the page in Our Members Be Unlimited. He counts himself lucky to have a studio space within the historic edifice. “It’s the oldest union building on the planet, and they’ve had artist studios here for well over 100 years, running classes for workers well before everyday people were encouraged to express themselves in that sort of way,” he says. “I feel like I have a connection to this really special place and all this machinery of collectivism.”
An artist’s work can be a bit of a lonesome trade, after all. “Being here does make you feel a little bit less alone and part of a lineage,” Sam adds. It’s partly why he’s considering returning to disability support work alongside his political art. “I miss having co-workers.”
His goal was for Our Members Be Unlimited to become a handy tool for unions across Australia. “I hope it’s the kind of resource you can use if you’re a union delegate or an activist. You might buy it for a co-worker who has one eye on their union but isn’t really involved yet, or maybe for little siblings about to start their first job.”
There’s one place, in particular, he’d love to see it. “My art teacher actually emailed me and said he’s trying to get a copy in the school library. That was really heartening. I’ve asked him to send me a photo of it in that beautiful space that I remember.”
Our Members be Unlimited is available now from Scribe: scribepublications.com.au