Writing a graphic history: Mendoza the Jew
By Ronald Schechter
Let me begin with a confession. I used to be a snob when it came to comics. I learned to read circa 1970 and even though my first books were illustrated, there was something about the comic format – the words confined to speech and thought bubbles and the scenes subdivided into frames – that felt less than serious. The only time I remember being allowed to buy comic books was when I had just been to the doctor’s office. Comics were a reward and a comfort for putting up with a cold or the flu or an injection. They were to literature what ice cream was to cuisine. I know I wasn’t alone, and that there are cultural-historical reasons why the adults of my childhood were suspicious of comics. The form itself represented an independent youth culture with its hints of rebelliousness, idleness, sexuality and delinquency, even if I was only reading Richie Rich (an establishment comic if ever there was one) or Caspar the Friendly Ghost.
I would like to say that I came to appreciate the graphic form when I was living in Paris in the early 1990s and when imaginative, beautiful, and thought-provoking bandes-dessinées graced the shelves of serious bookstores on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. That would make me sound sophisticated and open-minded. Unfortunately it wouldn’t be true. I stayed away from that section of the bookstore and concentrated on imageless books, preferably thick in-octavo volumes with pages no larger than six by eight inches.
In the late 90s I was given Art Spiegelman’s Maus as a gift, but I left it on a shelf until my teenage son read it about a decade later and recommended it to me. I then read it and was moved, as many readers have been, but I had misgivings about a book that represented the Holocaust as a kind of fable with animals playing the roles. In retrospect I believe it was the form of the comic book itself that troubled me most. How could the memory of Holocaust victims be honored with something as profane as a comic book? Again, I was still in the thrall of a culture that had an irrational prejudice against illustrated stories divided into (usually) six frames per page and with text contained in speech and thought bubbles. A comic book was profane because, well, it was a comic book.
So when a representative at Oxford University Press for Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. gave me a copy of a “graphic history” called Abina and the Important Men, written by Trevor Getz and illustrated by Liz Clarke, I wasn’t necessarily the best candidate for adopting the book. I flipped through it and couldn’t help being gripped by the images of a young woman from the Gold Coast who had taken her employer to court in 1876 for illegally enslaving her, but I placed it on my shelf along with the many other books I had received from publishers. I would think about it, I told myself, but then stopped thinking about it. It wasn’t until I ran into my learned friend Mack Lundy that I thought about the book again. Mack said, “Have you seen a book called Abina and the Important Men? I just picked it up at the College bookstore yesterday and it’s amazing.” Mack is an IT specialist at my College library and is not required to read college history textbooks as part of his job, and he even wrote about the book on his Africa-themed blog. This made his endorsement of the book all the more persuasive.
It happened to be the time of year when I had to choose books to adopt for my courses the following semester, so I read Abina. “My students will love this,” I thought. (Imagine a college professor with this thought written out in a “thought bubble.”) There was something condescending in that thought. I could have chosen a real book to assign, the sort of book I would love, but as a favor to my students I would give them a break and assign a comic book.
As it turned out, Abina was quite challenging, even more challenging than many of the convential-form books I otherwise assign. This was not only because of the complex subject matter, involving such themes as global trade, imperialism, diplomacy, and human rights, but because it thematized the interpretive work historians do when making sense of historical evidence. In other words, it provided a lesson in historical methodology, something few undergraduate course books do. It accomplished this in two ways. First, it included the court transcript of Abina’s case. This gave students the opportunity to compare the primary source with the secondary source (in this case the graphic history). But the second way was inherent to the graphic form itself. The color pictures, the expressions on the faces, the gestures, the dialogue and the thoughts imputed to the characters made it very clear that the history being told was a work of the imagination.
Historians are sometimes reluctant to discuss the role of the imagination in the production of their work, especially when speaking to students who (it might be feared) could mistake imagination for wholesale invention. But students benefit from the knowledge that historians do not simply report what they find in the archives. They give it a form, choose some elements and leave others out, and tell a story. They do this even when they choose an analytical approach to exposition. The narrative aspect of history-writing is graphically clear in the graphic form.
Ronald Schechter is Associate Professor of History at the College of William and Mary. He is the author of Obstinate Hebrews: Representations of Jews in France, 1715-1815 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) and translator of Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing with Related Documents (Boston and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004). He is author of the graphic history Mendoza the Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism, illustrated by Liz Clarke. His research interests include Jewish, French, British, and German history with a focus on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.