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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Sunday, November 11, 2007

What Comics Can Convey about History

There are several American Revolution titles covered in the Graphic Library from Capstone Press, a large series of nonfiction comics created for the late elementary-school grades. These books are often marketed to schools and libraries with the argument that reluctant readers will stick with them longer than traditional prose books. And that may well be so.

I would go beyond that and say that comics, executed well, can convey some information more quickly or forcefully than prose. They can immerse readers in a historical moment, helping us think about the past as an experience rather than as a set of facts.

For example, in this panel from Paul Revere’s Ride (script by Xavier Niz and art by Brian Bascle) the art quickly portrays the rush of Revere’s gallop away from British scouts in Cambridge.
The blurred background as a way to convey speed is, I understand, a technique developed in Japanese comics.

This pair of panels from The Boston Tea Party (script by Matt Doeden, art by Charles Barnett III and Dave Hoover) conveys the need for quiet as men boarded the tea ships by offering a panel with no words at all:
A traditional book would have to say something like, “The men boarded the ships quietly,” but as soon as you’re using words to describe not saying anything you’re already behind.

Finally, here are a couple of panels from The Boston Massacre (script by Michael Burgan, art by Charles Barnett III and Bob Wiacek).
That most cliché aspect of American comics, the rock-’em-sock-’em fight scene complete with sound effects, does quite nicely at depicting the brawls that led up to the Massacre. That said, when I was writing my article on Ebenezer Richardson, I never imagined him looking like Steve Ditko’s Peter Parker.

Unfortunately, in the Graphic Library titles that I’ve looked at, the examples of poor execution outnumber the moments of potential. Some of the problems are faults with the comics themselves, such as a mismatch between art and text. Is this Richardson really calm enough to say, “They shouldn’t have joined such a lawless mob”?

But there’s a bigger problem that extends across this whole series.

TOMORROW: What else? The bigger problem.

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