by Ricardo Serrano Denis
Truth might edge out fiction in the ‘strange’ department, but it doesn’t always go the same way with entertainment. People are creatures of entertainment. They aspire to it, they thrive in it, and they inherently gravitate towards it. When I was kid, my preferred form of education was movies. JFK, Saving Private Ryan, and Gangs of New York were my first history teachers, and part of the reason I became a history teacher myself.
Then came comics. Persepolis, Barefoot Gen, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, V for Vendetta (for a heavy dose of Thatcherism), and Incognegro became my second wave of history teachers. In essence, my education came through entertainment. I was a very happy learner. A very eager learner. Images plus text backed up by historical research was, and is still is, a combination that often made me prefer comics and movies over actual history books.
This shouldn’t always be the case, though. There is a fine line between entertainment and necessary information. Not everything has to be digested through fun. Nonetheless, history as a genre, as non-fiction, has some amazing writers leading the way towards making reading about the past a compelling experience (Erik Larson, Adam Hochschild, and Colin Dickey amongst them). And yet, comics continue to offer tough competition in this area given their ability to amaze through the juxtaposition of image and text. This was well argued in the panel “Graphic Novels that Make History,” moderated by Abraham Reisman from New York Magazine, in conversation with panelists Peter Tomasi (The Bridge), Nathan Hale (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #8: Lafayette!) Ted Fox and James Otis Smith (Showtime at the Apollo), Mikaël (Giant), and Matt Fitch and Chris Baker (Apollo). The panel was part of the Saturday schedule of events at New York Comic Con and it attracted a larger than expected crowd.
The panelists started by answering a big question: Why did they choose to make a history as comics project? Most of the panel expressed a love of research and a general feeling of jadedness with topics centered around more contemporary problems.
James Otis Smith, whose Showtime at the Apollo saw him interviewing Sammy Davis Jr. and Dionne Warwick for a definitive history of Harlem’s world-renown showplace and music mecca, referred to a very “selfish love of learning” as the motor for his inspiration. Nathan Hale, on the other hand, declared that historical context and background research yields more interesting visuals than more modern settings.
Fitch and Baker found inspiration in Neal Armstrong’s biography for their book Apollo, stating that non-fiction is still largely underused as a topic for comics creation. They touched upon the weirdness of true stories and how they can stand their ground against the fantastical in mainstream fiction. Tomasi, who focused on the Roebling family’s construction of the Brooklyn Bridge with an emphasis on underwater architecture and engineering, referred to the compelling nature of real stories. Reality is often reason enough to explore stories, in that they need little to no embellishment to capture the grand designs of human expression, which come just as filled with moments of awe, action, tension, romance and horror as any other work of fiction.
The research aspect of these books was a central part of the discussion. French-Canadian comics creator Mikaël set his historical fiction story Giant in 1930s New York to focus on an Irish immigrant that replaces a worker who died on the construction site of the Rockefeller Center. Mikaël resorted to an old picture of an immigrant working on a high beam at the Center to set the tone and framework for the story. Giant was the result of archival research at the Rockefeller Center and at the New York Public Library.
Microfilms, journals, interviews, old newspaper ads, and urban exploration all seem to be contained in a kind of hidden historical loot box that’s waiting to be opened. That is what historical comics do. They offer, as Hale put it, “different flavors” of story. According to Hale, this particularity has made non-fiction have its moment, one that is still riding out.
Keeping with the “flavors” metaphor, Tomasi doubled down on the non-fiction comics as an alternative to the overwhelming fixation on darker stories that revolve around drug cartels or serial killers. Stories of renaissance men, like that of the Roeblings for instance, of a kind of men that don’t exist anymore according to Tomasi, struggle to find a place in a market dominated by superheroes fighting homicidal maniacs. Tomasi said that true stories contain their own superheroes, and that they are real people. They can inspire just as much if not more than the supermen and superwomen of mainstream comics.
With images, comics can also offer additional insight into the historical context of their stories. Apollo captures the claustrophobia of being inside a rocket ship while also serving a metaphor for ambition as being capable of enclosing people in an intense desire to be great, isolating them from others. Showtime at the Apollo turns Harlem into an explosion of culture and sound that made gods out of musicians. It captures the larger than life aspect of music in a part of New York City that has had to struggle against the social ills of the Twentieth Century, namely racism, poverty, drugs, and crime. It’s a very honest celebration that breaks stereotypes and turns history into sobering experience that tears down uninformed assumptions about Harlem.
Lafayette! is an interesting case in that it almost become Hamilton! thanks to the massive popularity of the Broadway play of the same name (minus the exclamation point). Hale stuck to his original idea by trusting in the fact that “kids like history.” James W. Loewen, in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me, argues the same thing. He says that people in general love history but loathe history books. Hale seems to have a very good handle on reader interests by turning old-school historical narratives into accurate but fun history comics books that rely on cartoony art to keep the reader engaged. Hale expanded on the benefits of the cartoon style, especially on how it helps creators get away with violence while still keeping things PG. So long as it serves the story, creators can find ways to include the rougher parts of the real story in their version of it. Gratuitous violence, or gratuitous anything really, can lessen the impact of the story unless the point is to be gratuitous.
This panel basically spoke to how comics creators can become historians by being good students of history. But being a good student of history is not always enough. At the end of the day, you still have to be able tell a good story. Prose history books don’t always accomplish this, and they have a reputation for being dry and unexciting reads (although that is not always the case).
Comics creators know that people like history. They also know that they invest in it if it entertains them in the process. You almost have to trick readers into learning, or at least have the process blend in seamlessly with entertainment. It’s as if comics were Trojan horses concealing important information inside panels of art. Turning Holocaust victims into mice and Nazis into cats is one of the best examples of this, as Art Spiegelman did with his book Maus. Turning Hitler into a caricature of himself, as is the case in Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler, makes a hard to read story more accessible. Exploring Victorian London while searching for the true identity of Jack the Ripper, as is the case in Alan Moore’s From Hell, transforms history into a more intricate and intense storytelling experience. People want to know more about the past, and they will so long as they are entertained by it. This makes the comics creators that participated in this panel excellent historians.