There are a few things comics do well that they are rarely asked to do. Depicting history is one of the biggest.
Somebody once said the past is a foreign country. I don’t think that goes quite far enough, sometimes the past might as well be another planet. Historical texts are excellent for getting across the facts, and maybe some of the feel. But they don’t do it as well as even movies can.
It’s one thing to hear that ancient Mayans cut out the hearts of their human sacrifices, it’s another thing entirely to see it in Mel Gibson’s latest movie Apocalypto. But comics enjoy an advantage over both movies and books.
A comic book image is static, which means that a reader can pore over the details with as much or as little detail as they wish. An artist can create densely packed images, with the kind of attention that might be lost in the frames of a movie.
Perhaps even more significantly, a comic is limited by imagination, not budget, something that they share with books. There’s no limit to what can be shown in a comics book, and a blank page and the most intricate depiction of ancient Rome cost exactly the same.
But, by and large, comics don’t do history. There are the superheroes, of course, and quite a large and ever more popular selection of autobiographical comics, but not many that are diving into the far reaches of human history.
There are some notable exceptions to this. One of the first graphic novels to really break through into the mainstream and change public perception on what comics could be was Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which depicted Spiegelman’s father’s experience as a Jew in the Holocaust Germany.
Maus depicts the Jews as mice and the Germans as cats, a cartoonish stylization that serves to intensify the horror of the situation rather than diminish it. We’re used to seeing cartoon animals as a part of American culture, we’re not used to seeing Tom and Jerry committing atrocities.
Spiegelman manages to capture the horror of the situation in a remarkable way, and the mild art allows the horror to sneak up on you and worm it’s way in. It’s own way, it’s as effective a piece of history as can be imagined.
On the more pleasant side of things, Jim Ottaviani has been publishing books about science through GT Labs. Yes, science. No, they’re not boring, in part because Ottaviani is a good writer and partly because of the comics form.
His last book was called Bonesharps, Cowboys and Dinosaurs, about what could be considered a ‘bone rush’ in the late nineteenth century when scientists were in a race to identify new specimens. It’s a story enhanced by being told in comics form, and is nearly ideally suited for it.
It’s worth exploring the advantages comics can bring to explaining history and furthering education, tapping that potential that is still largely sleeping beneath the surface.
(Article originally appeared in the Graphic Language column in the Public Opinion.)