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Reviews in American History 35.2 (2007) 315-323

History and Comics

The graphic novel, with its non-fiction variant the graphic history, has most definitely arrived.1 So has the prestigious museum exhibit of comic art history. Historians, like so many other scholarly observers, seem at once bemused and a bit puzzled at the meteoric rise and the space that this phenomenon has come to occupy in the chain book stores and the neighborhood library, not to mention the Arts and Entertainment section of an occasional New York Times.2 The full story may be alarming, if we allow ourselves to be alarmed by the replacement of scholarly prose with images and dialogue. The comic-format—so long a favorite of Americans in the (now fading) daily press, more highly regarded in Europe and Asia as a format for artistic expression in magazines and tabloids— has also begun to invade even the academic world, as it reaches the ordinary reader and most especially the young reader. The professor (and we speak of ourselves) mulls the ever-approaching deadlines of textbook assignments for next semester and asks a question unknown and perhaps unimaginable to predecessors . . . comics as history?

The problem is avoidable only at a cost. For at least a generation, students have increasingly thought about history (and other disciplines) "in pictures." Sympathetic teachers accord today's youngsters the ability to reason out familiar issues no less than previous generations, but in quite different forms. Field lists of books for graduate students are steadily pared downward, but visual knowledge grows. At the undergraduate level, the shift is still more pronounced. From early ages, young people have learned to "see" history in a different way on the Web, and the problem may well be more ours than theirs.

We can think usefully about the deployment of comic art in the classroom along a number of lines. A brief essay can only be suggestive, but the following inventory of approaches is intended to help begin the process by relating graphic history to other forms of historical understanding.

The first approach might well be oral history. Like documentary film but to a more pronounced degree, graphic history often has a way of simplifying themes; like non-documentary film, it tends, although by no means exclusively, to privilege action over dialogue. But it is to the very root of the historical saga, in oral history or storytelling, that graphic history is closest. [End Page 315]

There are some good reasons for this similarity. The rise of oral history and graphic history within the academy and outside follow remarkably parallel lines from the Depression era onward. The WPA slave narratives and southern folklore-musical recordings emerged alongside the first modern comic books. These shared, one might say, the notion of a folk and definitely ungenteel Americana. The apex of comic book sales in the middle 1940s notably found (or perhaps created) massive audiences of young adults unfamiliar with the usual literacy: GIs. The short-lived consolidation of the comic book industry, ending in the middle 1950s—shortly after the launch of the groundbreaking Oral History Research Office at Columbia—coincided with a further reframing of the popular historical narrative. History could be understood and told in a variety of ways, as television's first "quality" show—You Are There, a unique fictional "oral history"—was demonstrating with great popular success and wide use in classrooms. The best of the contemporary comic book lines, assaulted at once by Congressional hearings and by competition from television, had recently evolved toward what might be called a tragic realism, based in part upon the reports of combat veterans and the experiences of the creators themselves.3

An autobiographical style permeated a portion of the next comics generation, the so-called "underground comix" of the 1960s–70s. It may be said to have found its fullest realization in the comics written for various artists by Harvey Pekar, come to life in new ways with the lauded 2004 film under the same name: American Splendor. In the continuing...

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