I’m on three panels at MICE this year. The Teaching With Comics panel I’ve done three times already, so I think I’m ready for it. I’m also prepared for the Letters From the Editor panel, as I’ve been teaching a publishing class for the past five years and part of that class is telling people how to work with an editor. The History in Comics panel, however…this is my first time giving a talk like this and it’s an important one. Essentially, it’s the justification behind why we’re doing these books, so I’m taking a bit of time to prepare some talking points and the one main point I keep coming back to as to why these books are important is that they put history into context.
I think it’s safe to say that the majority of us went to some history museum as kids. We might have went as part of a school trip, with our parents, or an older sibling and when we first got there we probably walked through the halls and read a placard or two about some artifact (or, if we were really young, we got the abridged version of the placard from our chaperone) and it was all well and good but the displays that really excited us were the dioramas. The dioramas were our entryways into learning about history - we would see an exhibit that had a handful of cavemen going up against a Wooly Mammoth and we would appreciate the size difference, the danger of the hunt, and the methods these early humans used to trap and kill their prey. Once we had that context, we became interested in the details - the evolution of the spear and the cleaning and cooking of the meat. How we eventually moved towards a more sustainable model that including farming and building communities.
In other words, once we saw the big picture, our minds were ready to learn about the minutia.
You get that same experience with comic books. In Colonial Comics, we don’t have a story about cavemen hunting Wooly Mammoths, but we do have a story about whalers going up against a sperm whale. And you see the small boat with a handful of crew going up against a massive whale and you appreciate the scope of it, and from there you focus on the minutia. You start to learn that the whaling crews were much more ethnically diverse than other populations at the time. That they operated autonomously from big-picture politics and revolutions. Extending beyond the one hunt in the book, you go out on your own and start to learn about how the whale population was substantially reduced by the desire for sperm whale oil. The comic book is the hook, a little taste of something to get you interested, but it scales up . A story about a troublesome pig that keeps eating Native American crops scales up to a larger discussion on free-range animal husbandry, the perception of farming vs. hunting in colonist and Native American cultures, and the eventual wars over the shrinking plots of Native American lands.
Comics, by themselves, don’t have to be text books. They have to be fun and tell interesting stories and make people want to learn the details.
You may not realize this, but you’ve been reading non-fiction comics your entire life and you probably loved them. I know I did. When I was first learning about American History, my social studies teacher would talk to us about the Revolutionary War and use our text books as a guide. We’d turn to a particular page and there would be a map. And on this map would be a bunch of dashed lines showing troop movements and battle sites for a particular campaign.
That would be the point where I stopped listening to my teacher for a moment so that I could study the map. I’d follow the dashed line to one battle site by a bridge and then the two forces would move to some river bank and then one force would move to take control of a ridge where the final battle was fought. And after studying the map, I would have the context I need for the continuing discussion.
Those battle maps were rudimentary comic strips. There was an inherent narrative in the map, a sequence of events that told a story. The story, as presented, had subtext to it - this bridge was important. One army really needed to take this bridge. The ridge gave this other army the high ground necessary to finish the battle.
The map gave an overview of the story, and once I had that overview I was ready for the details.
Comics are a great way to get people interested in the whole story, just like dioramas at museums and maps in history books. They don’t have to tell the whole story, but you can section off the beginning and the end of a particular piece of a bigger story, structure a narrative around those two points, and then build panels, tiny illustrated dioramas, that show you who was involved, what their environment looked like, what they wore, what they said, and why it mattered to this one moment of this one story which is part of a bigger story.
If Colonial Comics simply entertains a bunch of people, it did its job as a piece of pop culture. If it gets people interested in some particular facet of history, it did its job as history book. If it does both, however, it did its job as a comic book.
We’re making comics, here - and good comics serve as entertainment and escapism. A lot of readers escape to a world of superheroes and space operas and want to know more about those worlds. We hope our comics inspire readers to escape to the past and that they’re inspired to know more about that world.
Colonial Comics: New England, 1620-1750 will be released in October from Fulcrum Books. You can pre-order it on Amazon now.