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The challenges of representing history in comic book form

When I wrote my first graphic history, based on the 1876 court transcript of a West African woman who was wrongfully enslaved and took her case to court, in 2012, I received a diverse and gratifying range of feedback from my fellow historians. Their response was overwhelmingly but not universally positive. One colleague in particular tried to explain to me why she regretted the emergence of comic book style histories.  “It’s too bad students just don’t read any more”, she sighed, implying that comic books shouldn’t be taken seriously. I was tempted to respond that opening the pages of a comic book was every bit as much an act of reading as turning the pages of a textbook or a monograph, but I couldn’t muster an argument in the moment, and actually just responded with a stunned silence.

By now, many readers are familiar with graphic histories, the expression of the history genre within the comic book medium. Graphic histories are a growing segment of comic book publications, with new titles coming out every day and many on display at conferences such as the American Historical Association’s annual meeting.  Yet even as recently as 2012, graphic histories were relatively few, and most historians didn’t really think about them.

In the years since, my colleague’s comment has given me a great deal to contemplate. It’s not that I agree with her any more now than I did eight years ago.  Rather, I have subsequently come to understand that both historians and creators of graphic histories have a lot of work to do to mutually develop a genre.

Many graphic histories suffer from a deficiency either as comics or as histories. Historians, unfamiliar with graphic novels, often create graphic histories with cramped, text-crowded panels and pages because we lack the skills to let the images do the work. Many comic artists and writers haven’t developed the tools and techniques historians have developed to reflect on the past. Narrative histories created by cartoonists (particularly those common in K-12 education) often lack historical interpretation.

My experience working taught me just how difficult it is to create a graphic history that is both a meaningful interpretation of the past and a masterful employment of the comic form. Despite the fact that I was co-writing my 2012 book with an experienced illustrator, I had a hard time understanding art’s potential to communicate experience as well as to be an explanatory medium.

In time, other historians and teams have since figured out how to make the genre work effectively. The excellent collaboration The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt is a great example of using a comic to create opportunities for readers to do their own interpretive work. This text is particularly significant in its attention to the connection between the graphic narrative and the sources and evidence that informs it. The authors of this book do a masterful job in this volume of making evidence available to the reader in ways that engage the narrative. (Citation is one of the issues that bedevils the graphic history, as there is no convention yet for citing sources in comic form.)

Battlelines: A Graphic History of the Civil War, the result of a collaboration between historian Ari Kelman and artist Jonathan Fetter-Vorm is another brilliant example of the genre. I particularly love the attention this text gives to artifacts of the war – letters, other documents, and objects.  These receive loving artistic attention and connection to lived experiences that demonstrates, I think, a real command of the medium, and a minie ball as easily as a letter or newspaper article, each of which then forms the basis for a longer investigation into the human experiences of the conflict.

There are many other graphic histories that remain to be reviewed. Kate Evans’ graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg, Red Rosa, and Li Kunwu’s autobiographical A Chinese Life are two that I’m itching to put before experts in relevant fields.

Not all graphic histories are great historical interpretations, but some are very good indeed, and can potentially produce an enormous societal impact.  A few, like John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s March, or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, have such a wide audience that to ignore them would be a major mistake for a profession striving to stay in touch with a society that needs our intervention more than ever.  Their popular appeal may not be enough of a justification for historians to take graphic histories seriously, but combined with their potential as analytical and expressive tools, they demand our attention.

Featured image credit: Comic by Mahdiar Mahmoodi. Public Domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. richard rathbone

    A clear, perceptive and extremely useful survey, commentary and persuasive argument.

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