- Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History by Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clarke
Abina and the Important Men joins a prestigious, if limited, selection of works that transgress the boundary between “traditional history” and comic books. Such works, which include The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (2005), written by the father of the graphic novel himself, Will Eisner, and to some degree or another Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (volumes 1  and 2 ), Art Spiegelman’s Maus series, Joe Sacco’s Palestine (2002), and even Jim Ottaviani’s Suspended in Language: Niels Bohr’s Life, Discoveries, and the Century He Shaped (2004), add new dimensions to questions of historical interpretation and analysis. Indeed the list of graphic novels that are ideal additions to the history classroom is rather extensive, but as with the examples above, few graphic novels are intended to be histories, and even fewer are authored by trained historians. Of course historicity need not be proven, as with Suspended in Language and The Plot, by extensive notes and bibliographies nor by the author’s graduate degree, as Trevor Getz himself repeatedly notes, but Getz’s work is set aside from the likes of other graphic histories by its very format.
Abina is not only a “graphic history” but a behind-the-scenes look at the historian’s craft and the ways in which history is imagined, conceptualized, and presented. The graphic (and in this sense I mean graphical, not violent, sexually explicit, or necessarily vivid) component of the work is the majority of the book. Half of Abina and the Important Men [End Page 941] is taken up by a graphic interpretation of the history of Abina, a young woman who believes herself to be wrongfully enslaved. Getz’s interpretation is based on court documents of the case brought against those she contends are her slave masters. The remaining half of the book is divided into various components that detail the process of creating history. These sections include a look at court documents that first introduced Getz to Abina. Their inclusion gives readers the ability to see for themselves what inspired him to interpret Abina’s legacy in this way, as well as compare his narration with what the historical data offer. Additionally, these sections offer a look at the historical context of Ghana in the late 1800s and a self-reflective narrative of world historiography, Getz’s position vis-à-vis the historian’s craft, and his perception of the book’s place in the growing narratives of African history, microhistory, and graphic history. The self-reflection Getz indulges in adds complexity to the basic nature of Abina. On the Oxford University Press’s blog, Getz states: “I will not pretend that I don’t love the Abina I have constructed in my mind, even though she is only an unreal representation of the real thing.” Moving determinedly away from objectivity as part of the historian’s work, Getz lays clear the complexity of conceptualizing and reconceptualizing history. This “historian’s craft analysis” that Getz offers is both extremely worthwhile and a questionable addition, particularly in looking at who the intended audience is.
On one hand it is a significant consideration that Getz thought to do this. Few historians (and perhaps even fewer world historians) use graphic novels in the classroom (at least at the university level; in K–12 classrooms their use is quite common), and as a result a lot of people do not actually know how to “read” a graphic novel. Publishers such as Random House (Persepolis) have offered teachers’ tools on their websites that help facilitate the teaching process. However, the caution used in questioning the addition of this component is expressed because it feels a bit like the reader has received the teacher’s edition of the book. Students can certainly use the material included, but it may be more often than not seen as extra material that is never really going...