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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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Suspended in History

My last two postings have been about Sons of Liberty, a Revolutionary War graphic novel illustrated by Leland Purvis. I was delighted to see that he was also the artist of another comic that tackles a knotty challenge in depicting history.

As I discussed back here, one of the big challenges of writing any sort of historical fiction, or any sort of history for kids, is conveying that there’s so much about the past that we don’t know. The narratives that historians tell are incomplete and often contested.

Saying that “this happened at the Boston Tea Party because George R. T. Hewes said so” is based on a lot of assumptions: that Hewes was truthful, accurate, and privy to everything significant; that his words were transmitted to us fully and correctly; that we can judge the crucial moments from our perspective; and so on. But when a book describes the Tea Party in a particular way, and even more so when a comic or movie shows it, those contingencies and nuances usually fall away.

But comics don’t just show what happened; unlike some other forms of illustrated storytelling, they also show the invisible, in word balloons, sound effects, motion lines, fantasy sequences, and emotional signals.

Which brings me to the following panels, from Suspended in Language: A Book about Niels Bohr, scripted by Jim Ottaviani and drawn by Purvis. I actually saw them first in The Year’s Best Graphic Novels, Comics & Manga, that year being June 2003 to December 2004. (The math will just confuse you.) These images depict a meeting between Neils Bohr and the German physicist Werner Heisenberg during World War 2, based on claims from the two men and speculation by others.
This comic uses repeated or barely changing panels, a technique discussed here, here, and here. Often such repetitive images are useful for showing the passage of time. This set shows the suspension of time at a crucial moment, letting the words lay out different paths and possibilities. Ottaviano and Purvis thus communicate how history isn’t just what happened; it’s often our best guess at what happened.

Imagine that technique applied to other historical events. An image of Lexington Common with a shot coming from the local militia in the woods, then the same image with the shot coming from the British column, then the same image with the shot coming from Buckman’s tavern yard. Which (if any) is accurate? We don’t know. And it therefore might be most accurate to show readers all three possibilities, suspended in time.

2 comments:

klkatz said...

i've been un-aggressively looking for comic books and graphic novels about history... i've even thought of creating some of my own...its strange but I've two friends who have delved in the comic book industry, which makes the endeavor a little more doable... but Son's of Liberty seems fantastic. Especially leveraging the popularity of graphic novels today into learning about US History. very cool.

J. L. Bell said...

Sons of Liberty is part of a series that also includes a volume on the Little Rock school integration conflict. The writer, Marshall Poe, specializes in twentieth-century history, so he might have a better sense of the nuances and clichés to avoid in that story than in the Revolution-in-Massachusetts tale.

I’ve noted some other Revolutionary War comics in this blog, most of them coming from school-library publishers and flawed in their research.

The best history comics that I’ve seen tell stories about other periods, but there’s no reason why people willing to do the research couldn’t create a very good Revolutionary War graphic novel.