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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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Comics and Historical Conflicts

History books discuss two basic types of conflict:

  • The arguments and disputes of the period, such as whether Parliament had the right to levy taxes on colonists or whether Ebenezer Richardson deserved to be convicted of murder for shooting Christopher Seider.
  • The arguments and unanswered questions of historiography. These can be factual: Who shot first at Lexington? Who leaked Thomas Hutchinson’s letters to Benjamin Franklin? Were tea prices rising or falling? Or they can be matters of method and interpretation: Does it make more sense to study the elite or the populace? How important were the immediate political issues compared to deeper economic or cultural divisions? What’s the best way to interpret John Adams’s memoirs?
After looking at Michael Burgan’s two Boston Massacre books for Capstone Press and other recent history comics, I think the comics form can do a good job conveying the first type of dispute—perhaps even better than traditional prose books. But comics creators have a much harder time introducing readers to the knottier questions that historians address.

In writing a prose history for young readers, an author usually feels a lot of pressure to tell “what actually happened.” That can mean coming down on one side or other of the disputes of the period, implying that one side was clearly right.

Take the question of smuggling in Boston. There was a lot of it, to be sure, but how much? Which merchants were involved? How many Customs officials looked the other way, or tilted their prosecutions for political reasons? In his traditional school-library book, Burgan simply assumes that the Customs service’s case against John Hancock for smuggling in 1768 was solid. The text says that Hancock “had ignored the duties he was supposed to pay on cargo that his ship [Liberty] carried.”

I don’t think the situation was that clear. That case was hotly contested, and the Crown eventually dropped its prosecution. This book’s bald description of Hancock’s activity implies that he and his fellow Patriots were self-interested, deceptive hypocrites when they protested Customs enforcement. They were definitely self-interested, and some were definitely smugglers, but the evidence on Hancock himself is vague.

Burgan’s Graphic Library comic, in contrast, sums up the dispute over smuggling and duties by showing a merchant and a Customs official arguing the case. That reflects how comics, like drama, work best when characters act out a conflict in front of us. It also results in a better picture of how the situation in Boston looked at the time.

As I discussed yesterday, both of Burgan’s volumes misstate how violence began on King Street on 5 Mar 1770. But both books also state that a particular soldier fired the first shot of the ensuing Massacre and shouted “Fire!” to his fellow soldiers. The comics volume even names him—he was Pvt. Edward Montgomery. Most short accounts of the Massacre, for either adults or children, omit that important detail.

As for question of historical research and debate, comics have a problem in depicting that. They’re like historical fiction, showing us one version of the past. They can show characters voicing different perspectives, but they still carry the message that the events in the panels are based on what actually happened. But what if we don’t really know?

One example of how this works shows up in Xavier Niz’s Paul Revere’s Ride. He has apparently accepted David H. Fischer’s suggestion (in another book titled Paul Revere’s Ride) that Lexington militiamen emptied their muskets before entering Buckman’s Tavern and thus produced the shots that caused British officers to release Revere after capturing him. Fischer made clear that was an educated guess, a theory. But once the comics artists portray that moment, it looks as definite as the two lights in Old North Church.

I can imagine a comic using a Rashomon approach to a historical controversy, showing different characters’ perspectives on, say, the first shots on Lexington green. But even Rashomon eventually gave us strong hints about “what actually happened.” Similarly, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance may end with the rule, “Print the legend,” but it had shown us the facts behind the legend—i.e., “what actually happened.” We like stories to be definite.

Actual history writing has a lot more ambiguities. One example of the difficulty of conveying such uncertainty in the comics format is the Graphic Library’s Molly Pitcher book. It tells the story of a woman named Mary who helped her husband on the battlefield and eventually helped to work one the Continental artillery’s guns.

Only in the afterword does writer Jason Glaser discuss how people have identified multiple women as the source of the Molly Pitcher legend, producing conflicting stories. And that afterword doesn’t mention, as a regular Boston 1775 reader did in comments on this posting, that most historians think the legend is more significant in showing how we want to remember the Revolutionary War than in showing how it actually happened.

In essence, the comics Molly Pitcher tells readers a dramatic story of a young woman on the battlefield, showing her actions and words. And then it tells them that that story may never have happened that way. It could have gone even further and said that story may never have happened at all. But haven’t the kids just seen those events play out before their own eyes?

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