Not Just for Kids: The Graphic Novel and Historical Fiction


It was back in the later 1980s that the literary world first got excited about the graphic novel. All of a sudden, important and powerful stories were being told through words, images, speech bubbles, grids and panels. Historical writing was right at the forefront of the revolution with Art Spiegelman’s Maus (Penguin, 1987), recounting the memories of his family’s experience of the Holocaust and winning a special category of the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. The new works were so different from what we all expected from a comic book, with many of us growing up on titles such as the Asterix and Tintin series from France and Belgium (after all, they had been children’s literature staples in the 1970s and 1980s). Fairly quickly, the media excitement about the graphic novel faded. The graphic novel did not replace the novel, as some journalists at the time had suggested would be the pattern (thankfully). What did occur over a much longer period of time was a growing acceptance that comics were not just for kids and that the new works were very capable of adding to our appreciation of historical fiction. In fact, this proved to be a significant thematic area of investigation for the emerging medium. Since then, there have been very significant contributions from the graphic novel. Some forty or so years on, today, one can discern that three major directions have developed where graphic novels and historical fiction combine with each other. Let me introduce each in turn.

First, there have been very powerful new autobiographical graphic novels that achieve unique encounters with history that are told through first-person diary or memoir format. These works provide moving personal voices where the ‘sound’ of the text is combined with the unique hand of the artist. Often these are small, intimate accounts of where individual experience encounters a major historical event or dramatic episode. For example, Art Spiegelman’s second major work, In the Shadow of No Towers (Pantheon, 2004), unpacked his experiences of living in New York during the 9/11 terror attacks and the subsequent war on terror. There have been bestsellers such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (Jonathan Cape, 2003) as well as unique testimonies of other international historical crises. For example, Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do (Harry Abrams, 2017) is another amazing demonstration of where history, memoir and graphic novel merge together. Thi Bui’s contribution is to use the work to help us better understand the meaning of the Vietnam war from her new perspective, a viewpoint that runs counter to years of macho Hollywood cinema. However, the field of memoir and auto-historical fiction-faction is not only about individuals under the sway of powerful political historical forces. A clearly important new area is the extended world of ‘graphic medicine’ with many graphic novelists narrating life-changing experiences (the best example I know is to be found in the continuing work of the brilliant Zara Slattery).

Second, comic strip material in the superhero mode has increasingly woven together the stories of action and adventure with important and real historical backdrops. Neil Gaiman invented an entire universe wherein famous super-heroes are re-deployed into seventeenth-century England and colonial America. Today, war comics don’t only narrate tales of derring-do, but are just as likely to incorporate serious historical backdrops (e.g., Joe Kubert taking his ‘Sgt Rock’ to Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe in Sgt Rock The Prophecy, DC Comics, 2007). British writer Alan Moore is a hugely influential figure. His work runs the spectrum from witty satire (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) to the grim realism of his take on the Jack the Ripper mythos, From Hell (Moore and Campbell, Campbell Comics, 1999). Moore attracts a fan readership in huge numbers, and I have attended academic conferences in the United States where his work is treated with as much reverence as if he were the Shakespeare of our times. One scholar I admire who works on these aspects is Laurike in’t Veld. Her work on kitsch and comics very carefully discusses the representational stakes when popular culture addresses historical trauma. In different ways, she picks up where Susan Sontag left off in her ‘Fascinating fascism’ essay of 1974.

Third, and finally, the world of the traditional historical novel (no pictures; no thought balloons) is exploring and talking about the comic book. We know of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Random House, 2000) but important to also recall are many other comparable developments of novelists writing about the history of comics. Tom De Haven’s ‘Derby Duggan’ trilogy narrates twentieth-century American history through the life of a comic strip artist (an original frame that results in a beautiful set of themes).1 Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (Little Brown, 1994) remains remarkably insightful on the 1970s vibe and how comics are a vital part of growing up. A late work from Umberto Eco fits this new emerging tradition as well (back in the 1960s Eco was one of the first to take comics seriously in his academic and journalistic writings, long before The Name of the Rose). All of this terrain is very different from the time when it was the novel that was adapted into the comic book in the ‘Classics Illustrated’ line. For what it’s worth, readers may be interested that re-novelization into text and image continues: the artist-writer Simon Grennan delivering a nuanced Trollope for our times (Dispossession, Jonathan Cape) in 2015.

The original invention of the term ‘graphic novel’ came towards the end of the 1970s, and once again the links to historical fiction jump out. It was Will Eisner who coined the label for his own collection of historical short stories set in Depression-era New York, A Contract With God (Baronet, 1978). His collection remains an important work that has been too often glossed over in favour of the slew of new titles on the bookshelves. Eisner is especially good at capturing the trials and tribulations of everyday life among the poor and deprived, as well as sometimes finding the humour in life’s challenges. His work no doubt influenced the other great social realist of the form, Harvey Pekar. It was Pekar who collaborated with a variety of artists to create the series of ‘everyday’ life stories from Cleveland, Ohio, American Splendor (collected edition, Running Press, 1993). These diary treatments focus on the daily life of the author and his endeavours working as an administrative clerk in a hospital. A famous independent film adaptation returned them to some popularity in the mid-2000s. Whether or not Pekar is a historical graphic novelist or not is surely a moot point. Nonetheless, he provided an eyewitness account of a part of society that had hitherto been overlooked in a lot of quarters.

More recently, national commemorative periods have increased supply and demand for historically-themed graphic novels, a case in point being the centenary of the First World War when graphic novelists were instrumental in providing popular imagery of the conflict. In France and Belgium, on the Western front itself, the work of one figure is predominant: Jacques Tardi. The theme of the war is central to his entire oeuvre with his art playing an important graphic design role in the French First World War museums. While less familiar to English readers, a great deal of his work is now available in translation. This includes the key It was the war of the trenches (trans. Kim Thompson, Fantagraphics, 2010) and the amusing but poignant satire (now also film) on Jules Verne and others, The Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec. I introduce my own students to Tardi’s work early on in a course dedicated to ‘History and the Graphic Novel’ here at University of Chichester. It is always a unique experience to see students unfamiliar with graphic novels realise their power to address the past. Tardi is also the author of a number of important adaptations of the French crime novelist of the 1940s and 1950s, Leo Malet. Tardi’s re-imagining of the Malet universe offers a unique historical painting of the Paris city landscape and has loads of ‘period charm’ and the odd brutal murder.

There are one or two figures whose works merit an additional note here. In particular I am thinking of two Canadian artist-writers who use the form in very different ways. Artist George Walker works in the tradition of the wordless book, pioneered in Europe in the 1930s by Frans Masereel. His collection of historical pieces, Written in Wood (Firefly, 2014) is a powerful exposition, including again a unique treatment on the 9/11 terror attack. In a different mode entirely, where words matter greatly, Chester Brown has authored the meticulously researched biography of frontier revolutionary, Louis Riel (Drawn and Quarterly, 2003). Graphic novels are very good at providing metadata, and Brown is a stickler for detail. Each page of Louis Riel is footnoted to guide where there is historical dispute or uncertainty. Brown’s endnotes are frankly Germanic in length and detail.

It’s possible I became a French historian (in the traditional mode) because of the influence of the Tintin and Asterix books. Tintin remains a fascination because of the extended and protracted debates on the political context to his work and the clichéd nature of his caricatures. Hergé and Tintin are a living history that has far from ended. It is also true that without the work of Art Spiegelman I am sure I would have ‘grown out’ of comics long ago. Today it is the vast range and international variety of historical fiction in graphic novels that impresses this historian. These graphic novels are windows on place, as well as time, and they continue to shape how we all interpret both the distant and more recent past.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: HUGO FREY, Director of Arts and Humanities (University of Chichester), co-edited The Cambridge History of the Graphic Novel (2018) a ‘book of the year’, The Spectator. With novelist Suzanne Joinson, he published Beautiful and Real (2019) on Vietnamese Cai Luong.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 92 (May 2020)

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