Sam Wallman on ‘Our Members Be Unlimited’ and the enduring power of unions

Currently working out of the Victorian Trades Hall, which, incidentally, happens to be the oldest union building in the world, Sam Wallman believes in the power of the worker. 

Right at home in the social and political landscape, Sam Wallman has a purpose and he is here to educate. Like any commentary that comes in the form of a sociopolitical comic strip, there are things to be said, and in his first book-length comic, Our Members Be Unlimited: A Comic about Workers and Their Unions (Scribe), Wallman shines a light on the collective voice of workers. In particular, how it arose, where it’s flourished, and its challenges in the 21st century. 

Taking inspiration from his early days at an Amazon warehouse in Melbourne, Wallman uses his distinctive style to explore unionism and to speak to the issues that matter. It’s not just as an entry point for a new generation, but for everyone that just wants a better world.

To date, three of his long-form comics have been nominated for a Walkley, including Winding Up The Window: The End of the Australian Auto Industry and A Guard’s Story: At Work in our Detention Centres, which won the 2014 human rights award in the media category.

Illustrated in rich earthy tones, and colours imbued with the kind of strength and purpose that speak to its message, Our Members Be Unlimited follows the history of the movement, leading us to the current climate of unionism within Australia and the world. Read on for our conversation. 

Credit: Scribe

HAPPY: Hey Sam, what are you up to today?

SAM: Drawing! At the moment I’m working on a comic essay about the Pinkerton Detective Agency, an organisation that has smashed workers and their unions since the 1850s. They used to literally carry out massacres of workers who were on strike; these days their tactics are more sneaky and covert. For example, Amazon employs them to spy on workers and keep them from unionising, or democratising their warehouses.

HAPPY: Okay, the Pinkertons! Can’t wait to read that! Tell us about your suburb, what do you love or not love about where you live?

SAM: I live in the city of Narrm/Melbourne. I like knowing there is life happening all around, even if I’m just sitting at home being lazy, you can kind of feel it. I also really like living close to Trades Hall, the oldest union building in the world, that’s where my friends and I have our little art studio.

HAPPY: Describe your average workday.

SAM: If the weather is nice, I will usually go somewhere outdoors to get a coffee and do some work. I kind of bribe myself with a nice coffee and do the parts of my practice that I dislike the most, to get them out of the way and to do them while my brain is kind of sharp. Then I’ll either go for a big cycle, usually by the river, or to the gym because my job drawing involves way too much sitting (laughs). Then I’ll either go to my art studio to keep plodding along or work from a library. I’m grateful that my work is so mobile and I can do it pretty much anywhere.

HAPPY: What about your ultimate day?

SAM: Probably not that different to the above, to be honest. But it would also involve ending the day with friends either at a pub or some restaurant.

HAPPY: If we paid you $500,000 for this interview what would you do with the money?

SAM: Donate a chunk to the Amazon Labor Union in New York, for sure, they are kicking so much ass on the smell of an oily rag. I would probably use some of it to buy a small apartment too, a treehouse or something.

HAPPY: What did you read growing up that fuelled your passion for comics?

SAM: Ren and Stimpy comics. And the opening credits to any cartoon I could access.

sam wallman
Credit: Sam Wallman

HAPPY: Your work, for us anyway, embodies the spirit of Samurai Jack and Futurama, which we love, do you happen to have a favourite cartoon?

SAM: Thank you, I will take that! My favourite animation is Akira. I like old cartoons by the Fleischer brothers too, they’re these creepy surreal old 1930s cartoons that were made in the U.S., with lots of ghosts singing the blues and shape-shifting, things like that. I like cartoons that make the most of the medium and do really fantastical stuff. Lots of Disney movies seem like they almost want to be live-action, real-life movies: what’s the point in drawing it if you’re not gonna stretch things out, make things a bit trippy or cracked?!

HAPPY: What are you currently reading?

SAM: I recently read Safdar Ahmed’s Still Alive, which is about refugees and the ways they resist. It is easily the most punchy and accomplished graphic novel I’ve seen come out of this country.

HAPPY: Top three books?

SAM: The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, There’s No Place Like Home by Mary Leunig, and Crimes Against Nature by Jeff Sparrow.

HAPPY: Which book did you last read that opened your eyes and mind to a new perspective?

SAM: Owen Jones’ Chavs, which is about the demonisation of the working class and the creation of the villain of the ‘redneck’ or the ‘bogan’ or whatever you wanna call it.

HAPPY: Is there a book that you consider a must-read that imparts valuable life lessons? 

SAM: Radical Melbourne by Jeff and Jill Sparrow. It helped me see our city with entirely new eyeballs, and made a lot more feel possible here.

HAPPY: If you had a first date book list, what would it be? 

SAM: I would have an inverted book list. Like, if a guy I was on a date with read Jordan Peterson, then I would run straight into the wall and smash a hole in it with my body like in an old Looney Tunes cartoon (laughs)!

Published by Scribe Our Members Be Unlimited: A Comic about Workers and Their Unions by Sam Wallman is out now.