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, December 04, 2007

Getting into Mohawk Country

Earlier this fall I discussed some nonfiction comics about the American Revolution, mostly published for the school-library market. I thought that the format has good potential to communicate the facts and processes of history, but that most of the examples I saw had flaws: poor art research, dubious sources, one-sidedness, &c.

Today I’ll highlight a nonfiction historical comic that I really liked—even though it has nothing to do with the Revolutionary War. Journey into Mohawk Country was created by artist George O’Connor and published last year by First Second. Its text is the report of a young Dutch colonist named Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert about his 1634 trip to several Mohawk communities, trying to promote trade between them and New Amsterdam.

That doesn’t seem like very dramatic fodder for a comic book: no fistfights or cannon fire. But O’Connor uses the comics form to fill out the bald details of Van den Bogaert’s words. For instance, these panels give us a more visceral understanding of the difficulties of this winter journey.
At another point, Van den Bogaert and his party are stymied by a river. O’Connor frames the scene with their faces peeking over the bottom of the frame, conveying how they imagine being up to their noses in that water.

The fourteen sample pages from the publisher show other ways that O’Connor used his visual imagination to dig into what’s essentially a bureaucratic report and bring out the possible emotions of the young man who wrote it. It’s one thing for the document to mention how Van den Bogaert cut one of his companion’s legs to relieve swelling; it’s another to see the knife.

In the panels above, O’Connor highlighted the words, “I hope that everything shall succeed,” by giving them a panel of their own. The bandaged leg in the background and Van den Bogaert’s pause before writing makes that innocuous formula more meaningful for us as readers.

By focusing his book on Van den Bogaert’s report, O’Connor replicates what historical researchers do most of the time: interpreting documents in an attempt to understand the past. In that regard, Journey into Mohawk Country has the advantage of being based on a recent translation of the Dutch report. O’Connor didn’t have to deal with the period spellings, punctuation, and word usage that make documents in English from 1634, or even a century and a half later, a challenge to read. But with careful editing, comics could give the same treatment to, say, testimony from witnesses at the Boston Massacre.

TOMORROW: Why I like this comic’s visual style.

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