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

Graphic Novels and History Education

What to superheros, anime, and history education have in common? They can all be found in graphic comic format.   Recently a number of publishers, historians, and education professionals have attempted to make lessons of history more tangible.  This has contributed to a variety of history based graphic novels being produced.

This month Renegade Arts and Entertainment released The Loxelys and the War of 1812.  This hardcover graphic novel chronicles the experience of Canadian family living in the Niagara region during the war of 1812.  The family’s experience and the colourful accompanying graphics are framed by actual historical events.  The graphic novel covers bits of perspectives from the American, Canadian, and Indigenous sides.  The target audience is children over the age of ten, making this a more kid friendly than adult oriented publication.  However, The Loxelys have the potential to provide an introduction of the War of 1812 to a wide range of school aged children.

There are graphic novels covering a surprisingly wide range of historical topics. Some of the more interesting novels I’ve come across include:

  • A number of works by Rick Geary focus on history in the 19th and early 20th century.  Geary’s works cover topics such as the assassination of Lincoln, a biography of Trotsky, the Lindbergh kidnapping and number of other topics. 
  • The Age of Bronze series by Eric Shanower.  This series explores the Trojan War via graphic novel at a level that would appeal to youth and with a surprising amount of historical detail.
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman.  This graphic novel does a good job of broaching a difficult historical topic, Maus focuses on the experience of Art’s father in concentration camps during the Holocaust.  The comic addresses the Holocaust in a way which is educational, powerful, and appropriate for youth to adults.