One of the last projects that activist and academic Howard Zinn completed before his death in 2010 was a comic book.1 With the help of historian Paul Buhle and cartoonist Mike Konopacki, Zinn released A People’s History of American Empire in 2008 as an illustrated adaptation of material from his bestselling book, A People’s History of The United States.2 The comic book is narrated by Zinn, and it depicts him at a teach-in during the height of the Iraq [End Page 151] War, delivering a lecture on America’s sordid history of imperialism (Figure 1). Zinn’s talk is aided by a mixture of historical narrative, photographs, and comics art that trace the roots of American expansionism from the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
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Zinn’s goal, however, is not simply to illustrate the events of the past. Instead, he utilizes the popular comics medium to offer an alternative history of US [End Page 152] foreign policy intended to combat the pro-war propaganda of the early 2000s and inspire a new generation’s resistance to imperialism. And in the current neoliberal age where, as Marxist geographer David Harvey suggests, people are told there are no alternatives to the capitalist status quo, critical comics such as A People’s History of American Empire can be invaluable resources for renewing people’s hope and energy to change the world.3 Moreover, Zinn’s comic book has sold over 50,000 copies and has been praised by comics specialists like Joe Sacco, applauded in The New York Times, and endorsed by a wide range of celebrities.4 A People’s History of American Empire is significant, then, because it is a successful popular history and a politically progressive work; it is a comic book that challenges academics to think of comics as valuable tools for promoting critical thinking and informed activism.
This article contributes to the growing conversation about academia’s engagement with comics.5 I begin by contextualizing the medium’s recent mainstream resurgence and academia’s response to give the necessary background for such a discussion, and then I suggest certain theoretical and analytical insights to help scholars better evaluate the potential of comics. Yet like Zinn, I am particularly interested in how comics, especially those with politically progressive content, can be used to promote activist learning. Thus, I will explore the potential of comics in relation to Brazilian critical pedagogue Paulo Freire’s theory of conscientização, which in English translates as “conscientization” and is popularly known as “critical consciousness.”6 Conscientization does not refer to one’s mere attainment of an alternative or “critical” consciousness; it is also a pedagogical method. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire defines conscientization as an active process whereby people learn to “perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against oppressive elements of reality.”7 This transformational pedagogy inspires learners to see themselves as empowered “Subjects”8 of history, [End Page 153] capable of acting to improve their own lives and working with others to change the world for the better.9 By blending Freire’s ideas with comics theory, notably the concept of “closure” as the way in which readers establish meaning in comics and can thus become empowered Subjects of the storytelling process, I argue that comics hold potential for conscientization.10
As examples of the potential of comics for conscientization, I will analyze two recent Canadian works with politically progressive subject matter: Gord Hill’s The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book, and Siobhan Louden, Samantha Pike, L.A.A. Barlott-Cardenas, Lydia Butts, Rob Butts, and Kyla Johnson’s Shift-in-Progress: A Not-So-Comic Book.11 These comics powerfully document peoples’ struggles against colonialism and capitalism respectively. By examining these two comic books from a perspective informed by critical pedagogy and comics theory, I will show how comics can create spaces for conscientization, and thus can be used by academics to encourage...