J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Comparing Comics and Standard Treatment

school-library textCapstone Publishing, the publisher of the Graphic Library comics-style treatment of the Boston Massacre I’ve mentioned the last two days, is also the publisher of a traditional school-library book on the same topic, through its Compass Point imprint. In fact, the two volumes have the same generic title, the same price, and the same author, Michael Burgan. That makes it possible to directly compare their two approaches to explaining history to elementary-school students.

The traditional book is said to be for grades 4-6; the comics treatment has a “Reading Level” of grades 3-4, but an “Interest Level” of 3-9. Both volumes include a glossary, resource list, and index.

Both books list historical advisors from the Boston area. The content advisor for the Compass Point title was Prof. Alan Rogers of Boston College. The consultant for Graphic Library was Susan Goganian, until recently director of the Old State House Museum, which looks down on the site of the Massacre. Interestingly, each contains material not in the other, meaning that Burgan didn’t simply adapt his prose book to create the script for the comic—he went back to his research.

The Compass Point volume is a standard school-library title, telling history in prose with supplemental art. Its illustrations include period documents, old prints, stock photographs, and a few images touched up by the production staff. This art tends to reinforce the text, sometimes adding a little new information but just as often raising unanswered questions. For example, the book shows the signatures of attorneys from the Boston Massacre trials but doesn’t give their names, and the text (like many popular accounts) mentions only John Adams. No child on Earth could decipher Josiah Quincy, Jr.’s signature.

The Compass Point book includes a new map of colonial Boston and Britain’s Atlantic territories from XNR Productions, and an overhead view of the Massacre site adapted from a picture in E. H. Goss’s biography of Paul Revere. In contrast, the Graphic Library volume has no maps. This graphic ingredient isn’t necessary in The Boston Massacre, but it’s sorely missed in the same series’s Paul Revere’s Ride.

Choosing illustrations from existing documents and images, as is standard in school-library books, brings some pitfalls because the available material might not be entirely appropriate. For example, page 16 of the Compass Point book says, “In 1765, [Boston] patriot leaders had formed the Sons of Liberty.” Opposite that is a printed broadside from the Sons of Liberty—but from New York in 1769. I don’t think the “Sons of Liberty” in Boston were ever as formally organized as groups in New York.

Old prints are often handsome and dramatic but decades younger than the events they depict. Such illustrations, such as the late-1800s painting on the cover above, are artistic recreations based on the same documentary sources that we have (or fewer). However, since those pictures look historic, they can seem to carry more authority than they really deserve when they appear in a school book.

graphic novelIn contrast, all the illustrations in the Graphic Library series are in modern comics style. (The Massacre title’s inking style reminds me of Jack Kirby’s comics, meaning that almost all the men come out looking like Jack Lord.) Readers will easily understand that these panels represent illustrators’ interpretations of events.

Similarly, as a comics scripter Burgan had to make up most of the book’s dialogue. The Graphic Library series follows a rule that all speeches taken directly from historical sources appear in pale yellow balloons instead of white. I like that way of alerting readers about what is documented, letting them consider what isn’t.

Of course, some language has to be compromised. Page 16 of the Massacre volume shows Pvt. Patrick Walker asking for work and being told, “The only work I’d have for a lobster is cleaning my boots.” The actual response that soldier received was too rude for a classroom. In his prose history, Burgan could finesse that problem: “Walker traded insults with the owner” (actually with a ropewalk worker, not the owner). But a comics panel needs to put words into the man’s mouth, and the result is a watered-down exchange with no yellow balloons.

In scripting the comic, Burgan apparently sought out visually dramatic detail, and that led him into some errors. Page 10 says, “Samuel Adams trained his dog to snap and snarl at the British troops.” I quoted all that we know about Adams’s dog Queue back here. His descendants said that dog became conditioned to snap at soldiers after they attacked him, not after Adams trained him to do so.

In both books, Burgan simplifies the start of the argument on King Street that led up to the Massacre. The Compass Point volume says, “a few young men approached [Pvt. Hugh] White and began to taunt him.” The Graphic Library title says, “a barber named Edward Garrick taunted British private Hugh White.” Actually, White called Garrick over and hit him upside the head because he disliked what the young fellow had said about a passing officer.
The comics art compounds that inaccuracy by portraying Garrick as an aggressive adult. Similarly, the artists show the protesters outside Theophilus Lillie’s store eleven days earlier as rock-throwing men, not (as they really were) rude boys. Showing teenagers in the middle of those historic events would not only have been accurate, but would offer more interest for the book’s young readers.

Such errors aren’t inherent in a comics treatment, of course. Better advice or research could have pointed the artists in the right direction early on. (Such pointers would have had to come before the drawings were completed; a manuscript is much easier to correct than finished art.) But this situation is a good reminder of how in comics the art is far more than supplemental and carries much more weight, good or bad.

TOMORROW: How these two books address controversies.

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