Graphic Art, Comics, and History

coloured pencils on left hand side of a grey background.

Some days it is really obvious why I love my job.  This week as part of doing lecture and class prep I spent some time revisiting my favourite history themed web-comics, graphic novels, and graphic arts projects.

My drawing skills are pretty much nil. But I love the idea of using graphic arts as a way to interpret history, communicate history beyond the academy, and challenge historical narratives.  Historians who can draw and decide to disseminate their work via comics amaze me.  I also love historian/artist partnerships that show a shared appreciation for historical narratives and art making.

Graphic novels have been shown to encourage reluctant readers while building vocabulary and a they have a lot of power as educational tools for both young and mature audiences.  Graphic arts informed by history are a great example of creative public history, outreach, and finding ways to reach audiences where they are.

I have written about a few of the below elsewhere, but they are still so good that I couldn’t resist sharing again. In no particular order here are some of my favourite graphic representations of history:

    • Hark! A Vagrant and essentially anything created by Kate Beaton.  Beaton’s humorous approach to Canadian and international history tickles my funny bone.  I particularly love her Prime Minister focused comics, French Revolution series, and anything she does relating to the Bronte sisters.  Bonus – if you have kids Beaton’s The Princess and the Pony book is adorable.  It includes a strong female character and a farting pony that kids love.
    • Remember | Resist | Redraw: A Radical Poster Project by the Graphic History Collective.  This project provides alternative narratives relating to well known events and highlights the experiences of Indigenous people, women, and under represented groups.  The posters and their accompanying essays are fantastic educational resources that show how graphic history can be used to challenge mainstream narratives.
    • Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography by Chester Brown. Originally created as a serialized comic (1999-2003) and later published as a graphic novel Brown’s work focuses on Riel’s relationship with the Canadian government, the Red River Resistance, and Riel’s death.  Brown’s work includes a foreword, index, and end notes and is a great example of comics being used as a form of biography and historical scholarship.  The novel reached best-seller status in Canada and saw general success in the mainstream publishing market.
    • Maus by Art Spiegelman. This Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel depicts Spiegelman interviewing his father about his experience during the Holocaust.  All of the humans in the story are depicted as animals. The Jewish race is drawn as mice and the Germans as cats. The comic is a graphic representation of the oral history that Spiegelman’s father shared with him.
    • Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss.  Another biography style graphic novel.  I’ve added this one to the list not only because of its historical context but because of how beautiful the book is.  It was a delight to read and I could spend ages just looking at the images.

Photo credit: Photo by Kelli Tungay on Unsplash

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4 thoughts on “Graphic Art, Comics, and History

  1. Hi Allison,
    Thanks for your suggestions! I’ve read “Drawn to Change” and I agree it’s a fantastic read. I’ll have to look up Kate Evan’s work.
    Best,
    Krista

  2. Oh, can I add A Cartoon History of the Modern World, by Larry Gonick? It’s getting a little old (1990s?) but the humanistic outlook Gonick applies to each age, and multiple points of view keeps it a fun and very easy read.

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