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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Monday, November 12, 2007

Historical Comics' Anachronistic Art

Yesterday I wrote about some of the potential of comics to make historical experiences come alive for young readers. Today’s topic is how to screw up that process through lazy research.

Just as artwork can convey meaning more quickly and powerfully than prose, pictures of historical events can produce wrong impressions. Furthermore, while prose can say, “This is what happened, as best as we can tell from our sources,” realistically rendered art carries the implication that events did happen this way. In comics the visual elements usually provide at least half the meaning, particularly at the emotional level, so it’s especially important to make the artwork as historically accurate as possible. That means the same level of research should go into the art as into the words.

It doesn’t look like the teams behind Capstone’s Graphic Library of historical books has worked that way. During the pre-Revolutionary turmoil covered by the series’s Boston Massacre volume, British settlers had been living and building in Boston for more than a century and a third. We have pictures of what the center of town looked like, where men met to discuss business and politics. It did not look like a frontier village with small, unpainted houses.
(I also wonder if the guy with his Kirbyish mouth wide open is supposed to be shouting, “Down with the Stamp Act!” and the calm gentleman on the right is supposed to be saying, “I can’t believe Parliament taxes our newspapers...” This book has a number of panels that look slapped together.)

The artist for Graphic Library’s Paul Revere’s Ride seems to have looked up the Paul Revere House in the North End before drawing it in this panel. But that house was never this close to the waterfront. Even after global warming it won’t be this close to the waterfront.

Using good historical art references can also avoid anachronistic styles of clothing and hair. Contrary to what Rachel on Friends believed, not everything from the past falls into “the colonial period.” (To be fair, Rachel also acknowledged “yore.”) This set of protesters from the Graphic Library Boston Tea Party look like they walked out of Little House on the Prairie.

From the same book, here’s the man accused of trying to make off with tea during the protest. His name was Charles Conner. Contrary to what we might assume from this portrayal, he lived in the 1770s, not the 1970s.

And lest we think the books’ visual errors are no more consequential than facial hair in a time when British men were almost universally clean-shaven, loading a cannon alone as shown below (from the Molly Pitcher volume) is a good way to get your arms blown off.


Anonymous said...

All right, everybody down tools and rush out to get a copy of _Founding Myths_ by Ray Raphael. I don't think we have to worry about Molly Pitcher's safety, she is an intellectual construct -- she didn't exist, so we had to invent her. Raphael tells the story of the story.

Larry Cebula said...

What a delightful set of posts! Going even further back, wasn't there a set of 19th-century dime novels set in the Revolution?

Ooops, never mind. I went to Dr. Google to find out more and was reminded of where I had learned of Revolutionary dime novels--its was right here!


J. L. Bell said...

The afterword in the Graphic Library’s Molly Pitcher volume discusses how there are multiple women identified with the Molly Pitcher legend and disagreements among historians about the details of the story it has presented.

That afterword doesn’t go as far as Ray Raphael in suggesting the whole story is a legend. Even so, it’s an odd way to end the book.

Dave M! said...

This is a terrific post. Ultimately this points to the much larger problem of history being taught so horribly in the majority of our public schools. Just think of an alternative reality where the errors you cited would be fall under the "common sense" category instead of "grumpy elitist academic" or "joe college".

Your post also exposes the double-whammy of comics, a medium every seems to think it's okay to use sloppily. Like Hollywood, fact-checking is a low priority. Since no one story can save the world, my best hope is that it can influence enough artists to simply work better.

Hoping to at least not contribute to the problem, I'm writing and drawing a story for Inbound, a Boston-area comics anthology. Tssue 4 is currently being developed, and has a Boston History theme. My contribution is "Lucky Seven: The Dee Brown Incident". If you've the time or interest, you are more than welcome to review my script for accuracy.

Thanks again for this post.

David Marshall
Comic Book Author and Artist

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Dave, for the thoughts. I was impressed by your diligence about the setting for Dee Brown’s difficult experience, as well as your drawing skills.

One of my reasons for studying historical comics is that I’m scripting a couple myself. Finding art references for the eighteenth century is a challenge! But if I’m going to be this snippy about hairstyles and buildings, I figure I owe it to an artist to provide the right raw material.

I’m checking out your site, and look forward to spotting your work here and about.