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History According to the Comic Book

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There are vast literatures on the authoritarian crackdown in Tiananmen Square; the American invasion of Afghanistan; Black life in America; and recent Gay history. There are any books, journalistic accounts, and films available to explicate and contextualize the major events of these important narratives. 

What insight or detail, you may ask as you approach the four titles discussed below, could the distinctive format of the graphic novel and the comic book add? 

Comics were invented around 1900, to serve newspaper readers whose literacy was limited. They immediately attracted moralizing critics, who called comics a bastard art, offering neither pure text nor just pictures, but an awkwardly in-between subversion of both. 

In the 1970s, adult passengers riding Italian trains would read comic versions of novels. And today sophisticated graphic works are published in Japan. Until recently, however, in the US, comics, which were typically targeted at adolescent boys, were mostly sold in specialized stores, while graphic literature was displayed in bookstores in a section by itself. 

And, notwithstanding such gifted artists as Art Spiegelman (of Maus) and Chris Ware (of Jimmy Corrigan), graphic literature remains a special taste. A few years ago, it’s true, R. Crumb was taken up by the art world. But few other graphic novelists have attracted such attention. It used to be that The New York Times was too serious to print comics. Now, however, on the last Sunday of every month it publishes a complete section filled with wonderful writing and images called The New York Times for Kids.

Tiananmen 1989: Our Shattered Hopes by Lun Zhang, Adrien Gombeaud and Ameziane (Idea and Design Works, 2020)

Three of these new books — Tiananmen 1989: Our Shattered Hopes; Black Heroes of the Wild West; and The Gay Agenda; A Modern Queer History & Handbook — are graphic histories, while Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli is a graphic novel about recent history. How, then, do these combinations of words and text function? Scholars interested in comics and graphic histories owe a real debt to cartoonist and theorist Scott McCloud, who has laid out the theory and practice of this medium. In Reinventing Comics (Paradox Press: New York, 2000), he writes:

The medium we call comics is based on a simple idea: The idea of placing one picture after another to show the passage of time. The potential of that idea is limitless, but perpetually obscured by its limited application in popular culture.

Lun Zhang was a student in Beijing in 1989, and so his Tiananmen 1989: Our Shattered Hopes (translated by Edward Gauvin; Idea and Design Works, 2020), written with the French journalist Adrien Gombeaud and illustrated by the single-named artist Ameziane, provides a first-person perspective. We see the various Chinese political manifestoes accompanied by English-language translations. Thanks to the thought balloons, we understand the mindsets of the students as well as some of the Chinese leaders. 

Flashbacks, done in gray-and-white, present the prior political history. When the students climb up a Tiananmen Square monument, we get a close-up view. When we read that the ruler Deng Xiaoping was physically incompetent, unable to grip his chopsticks during a state dinner, we glimpse television images of his hands. Finally, when the army attacks, we are confronted with graphic depictions of the chaos as the students are murdered or arrested. 

Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli by Maximilian Uriarte (Little, Brown and Company, 2020)

Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli by Maximilian Uriarte (Little, Brown and Company, 2020), a more narrowly focused fictional history, presents one company of Marines and their relationship with the villagers of Southern Afghanistan. (Lapis lazuli stones, abundant in the region, are a source of wealth, which draws the interest of the Taliban.) Maximilian Uriarte, who did two tours of duty with the Marines in Iraq, focuses on the contentious troops, like one who wears a Confederate badge. 

When he introduces the Taliban, the word balloons appear in their languages (Afghanistan is multilingual) without translation, while the villagers sometimes speak via English-language balloons. Uriarte draws brutal close ups of the shootouts. And in flashbacks we learn about the traumatic childhood of the principal American figure, a Black sergeant named King. The book ends with a visually stunning narrative, as terrifying as the famous “shower scene” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), of the murder of a Taliban prisoner. 

Black Heroes of the Wild West by James Otis Smith (Toon Books, 2020) tells of three 19th-century African Americans: Mary Fields, who became a folk hero in her adopted Montana for running a stagecoach and a restaurant; Bass Reeves, an inventive, pioneering sheriff; and Bob Lemmons, a very successful mustang rancher who died in 1947 at the age of 99. In just 60 pages, with frequent movements from close-up details to telescopic-distant images, it effectively conveys a feeling for the vast dimensions of the West. These three heroes command their narratives. Fields, the book rightly declares, was “whoever she wanted to be!”

And, finally, Ashley Molesso and Chess Needham’s The Gay Agenda: A Modern Queer History & Handbook (HarperCollins, 2020) tells its history decade by decade, with profuse illustrations. Less inventive than these other books purely in terms of a narrative, it provides an instructive harvest of information about the gay community and its advocates, political moments, and artifacts. There is a list of 11 Black trans women murdered in the first six months of 2019; various versions of the Pride flag; and accounts of such varied historical figures as Emma Goldman, Baynard Rustin, and Audre Lorde. This frequently somber history demonstrates that we have many heroes who deserve to be celebrated. Typically gallery art is elliptical and elusive in its reference to political issues, which this book engages very directly. 

The Gay Agenda: A Modern Queer History & Handbook by Ashley Molesso and Chess Needham (HarperCollins 2020)

In visual art, style and content are immediately connected. Sue Coe’s political art demands a radically different look from, say, Mary Cassatt’s domestic scenes. And with writing, too, in more understated ways, typography is not a neutral medium. The typeface of a Virginia Woolf novel would never be used in a computer manual, and vice versa, which is why some publishers of fine literature convey suggestions for typefaces to their book designers. 

What happens, then, when images and words are conjoined, as they are in comic books and graphic novels? The same story can in principle be laid out in any number of typefaces, but in these four books, because they synthesize words and images, the effect is to draw attention not only to the pictures but also to the style of the words accompanying them, whether it’s in a handwritten font, as in Tiananmen 1989, or sounds writ large — “POP! POP! POP!” Or “SHOOOOOOOOM” — as in Battle Born. The effect is visceral, turning history into something that is both understood and felt.

In-between forms of representation, neither solely text nor only images, but the two working together in conjunction, are fascinating challenges to the theoretician. Roger Fry, the famous English critic and aesthetician, argued that the problem inherent in opera was that it combined storytelling, music, and visual materials. Comics would not have been his cup of tea. 

What, however, fascinates me is the enchanting ways in which images and words cohabit each panel on the page, influencing our interpretation of what comes before and after — manipulating memory and anticipation. Whatever the subject of these books, including the highly stylized violence found in most of them, the images fix a visual conception indelibly in our minds eye, while their words spark our imaginations into flights of ambiguity. That is to say, they are marvelously operatic performances. Are they just for kids? I don’t think so, for I love to read or should I say, look at them. 

Tiananmen 1989: Our Shattered Hopes (2020) by Lun Zhang, Adrien Gombeaud and Ameziane, translated by Edward Gauvin, is published by Idea and Design Works.

Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli (2020) by Maximilian Uriarte is published by Little, Brown and Company.

Black Heroes of the Wild West (2020) by James Otis Smith is published by Toon Books.

The Gay Agenda: A Modern Queer History & Handbook (2020) by Ashley Molesso and Chess Needham is published by HarperCollins.

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