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Comics as a Gateway to “Serious” History

When I was in high school, comics were not cool. The MCU hadn’t happened yet. Joel Schumacher was ruining Batman. Zack Snyder was still directing ZZ Top videos. Kids made fun of you for reading comics – they were for little kids and signaled that you were either immature or too stupid for real books (and likely too weak for football).

It’s bad enough when kids make fun of you in school, but when the adults get on you, too, things become trying. This was the case with comic books in the 1990s. Well-meaning adults would recommend reading “real books” and to “stop reading that crap.” The medium may have been evolving, but it was doing so mostly out of the public eye. While storytelling in comics had matured dramatically since the post-war Bam-Pow era, the perception of the stories was still pretty much in the toilet. Some of this was justified – I still love X-Men from the 1990s, but it was absolutely a soap opera. But what about what Alan Moore had done? Grant Morrison? Neil Gaiman? Surely nobody could argue that Frank Miller was writing kid stuff.

It was that latter writer who is central to my work in history museums. Frank Miller may have showed me mature (and sometimes brutal) stories in the pages of Batman and Sin City, but it was how he used history that really changed me as a young person. In 1998, when I was 16 years old, Frank Miller released 300.

I cannot emphasize enough that 300 is not historically accurate. A dramatized reinterpretation of an already questionable source [Greek historian Herodotus does not follow the citation standards of the 21st century], 300 tells the history-legend of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, who took on the Persian King Xerxes’ army to save Greece in the battle of Thermopylae. They failed, but their efforts led to an alliance of Greek city-states that eventually beat back the Persians. You know this, because you definitely saw the post-ZZ Top video Zack Snyder movie.

As I’ve said, it wasn’t a spot-on retelling of the history. Lots of liberties were taken, but I was riveted. So riveted that I started reading Greek histories. In college, I majored in history with a classics minor and I dove further into Greco-Roman history. Eventually, it brought me to colonial America and 18th century Enlightenment’s relationship to classical thinking and, long story short, now I make my living in historical interpretation and experience design.

That happened, unequivocally, because I read comic books. Comic books taught me to love reading, and then taught me to love history. They prompted me to want to learn more about my own world and to think about it differently.

In 2008, I was an adult working for a history organization, and had friends teaching middle- and high school. Suddenly, these friends were going on about kids reading Howard Zinn (that he is controversial in some circles is not important here. What is significant is that children were reading him). Zinn’s most famous work, a revisionist look at American history from a bottom-up point-of-view called A People’s History of the United States, is very long and not an easy read for any but the most interested high school and college students. Recognizing this problem, Zinn and some associates recreated the landmark history in comic book form called A People’s History of American Empire.

Suddenly, I was seeing high school kids on the subway reading a radical history that deeply influenced me as a young historian, and also reading comics at the same time! They weren’t embarrassed to be reading comics in public, and the adults were actually encouraging them to do so! It seemed educators were catching on to the power of the medium to teach history and resonate with young people in a way that a textbook or a history channel documentary never could. And unlike 300, this was done by a widely respected scholar!

Zinn’s American Empire certainly wasn’t the first graphic novel history, but it was certainly one of the first to start popping up regularly in school curriculum. Soon, history graphic novels with solid educational value were all over the place. Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner graphic novel was a standout, and John Lewis’ March Trilogy became a touchstone in civil rights curriculum nationwide.

This promising trend of comics that are equal parts educational and gripping continues today, and I am excited to have assembled a panel discussion on using comics to talk about history, which is being sponsored by the museum I work at, Revolutionary Spaces. “RevSpaces” operates two of Boston’s historic “Freedom Trail” sites, Old State House and Old South Meeting House. These sites until recently were not known as “inclusive” or “innovative,” and are certainly not known for being welcoming of “low brow” material like comic books. But like comics, historical sites and museums are changing, working to tell stories in new and engaging ways, equal parts educational and gripping.

Our panel, “Interpreting the Past Through Comics” features three comics creators making a real impact on using the sequential art medium to talk about history through new and fresh eyes.

Justin Eisinger is the editorial director for graphic novels & collections at IDW, and co-wrote They Called Us Enemy with Star Trek’s George Takei, recounting Takei’s very personal and tragic history in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II.

David Walker, known for his work with Marvel, DC and the breakout indie hit Bitter Root, took a look at black power in the civil rights era in his new Black Panther Party Graphic Novel History, a fantastic follow-up to his previous historical graphic novel biography of Frederick Douglass.

Brian Hawkins is the newest voice on the panel. A rising star in the indie comics scene, Hawkins co-writes Black Cotton with Patrick Foreman, taking on a very current history of police violence in America through an alternate history lens and asking the question “what if the ruling class was black and the oppressed were white?”

All three creators offer unique perspectives and engaging stories that could very well send a young kid (or several) on a journey into deeper historical analysis and civic awareness. They offer a gateway to better understanding the history of the world we live in if we just open to the cover page.

May 11, 2021, 6:30pm EST

Panelists: David F. Walker (Black Panther Party Graphic Novel History, Bitter Root, Luke Cage, Occupy Avengers), Justin Eisinger (They Called Us Enemy), and Brian Hawkins (Black Cotton, Devil’s Dominion).

Moderated by Matthew Wilding


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