Sometimes I think reluctance to read about history or historical fiction is that it takes a bit more effort to get into the world (same with sci-fi). Comics that deal with historical events do a lot of the work for you, adding in the dress and buildings of the time. Which leaves you to drink it in and emotionally connect. Since I had a backlog of titles to talk about, I’ve been able to separate them into genres for these posts, and this is a post about comics wtih historical themes.
Loïc Dauvillier, writer
Marc Lizano, artist
Greg Salsedo, artist
Anticipation/expectation level: None. I’d skimmed some positive reviews. I liked the cover design.
My Reality: Hidden is a deftly done look at the Holocaust for younger readers. A small girl learns about what happened via her grandmother, Dounia, who was so young herself during the War that at first her parents don’t even tell her what the Star of David is meant to signify when the Jews are forced to wear it – she thinks she’s a tiny Sherriff. If that sounds too cutesy, don’t worry. Hidden walks the line between gentle and real. Dounia goes through a heartwrenching separation from her parents, and the stakes are high for her throughout the war, but she doesn’t have to survive the concentration camps, and she does get a happy ending. The fact that she’s telling her story for the first time to her granddaughter adds an extra emotional layer. The art has that Bande Dessinee feel to it (I will get better at describing this but not today) in its detailed backgrounds and muted color pallette, but the characters are simply designed, which may lead to confusion in younger readers who can’t tell all the adults apart .
Will teens like it?: I think this is geared much younger. Readers are meant to identify with the granddaughter and Dounia, and they can’t be more than almost tweenage. Teens can definitely enjoy it, but I wouldn’t say it’s for them.
Is it “great” for teens?: It’s great, but teens are ready for a harder look at this time period.
Don Brown, writer and illustrator
Anticipation/expectation level: Again, great cover design.
My Reality: This book is great! It’s small (but tall) and retains the air of a picture book, in the deceptive way that Raymond Briggs’ books can. Brown uses the page to emphasize the immensity of the environment in western America, the small person constantly in comparison with the huge sky, the stretching dirt vistas, and the towering clouds of grit that would more and more frequently come to destroy homes and lives, or at least make them a daily struggle. Brown takes us through the facts of the situation, including quotes from people who lived through it, inserted into text bubbles from his drawn characters. I find it hard to imagine reading this book and not wanting to know more.
Will Teens like it?: If someone pushes them to read it.
Is it “great” for teens?: Oh yes.
Anticipation/expectation level: HIGH. I have read and cherished the reading experience of each book in this series: One Dead Spy (American Revolution), Big Bad Ironclad (Monitor and Merrimack (why isn’t that a rap duo yet)), and Donner Dinner Party (cannibalism frontier tragedy).
My Reality: I dunno, this might be the best one yet. I have read about World War I in the context of history, art history, English Literature, and War Movies, I knew that it basically shocked Western Civilization to the core, but I have never encountered a book that got through to me exactly how and why it was so shocking and stupid and a waste of life.
If you haven’t read a Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales book before, the premise is that Nathan Hale, Revolutionary patriot/spy is on the gallows. He utters his famous last words: “I only regret that I have one life to lose for my country,” and they are so historic that the gallows become a history book, snap him up, give him knowledge of the future, and spit him out. He then drags out the time before his execution explaining historical events to the dumb, always hungry executioner and the arrogant British soldier.
The books are packed with small panels, done in 2 or 3 colors, very factual but also very funny.
World War I is a huge subject, and much bigger of a focus than any of the other books in the series, but Hale makes it work by casting countries as representative animals (like Maus, but with less psychological weight to the animals) and making good use of maps. Each section of the book opens with a representation of the war as a hungry mechanical Ares, that gets increasingly scary and full of bloodlust as the book goes along:
It’s very effective.
Will teens like it?: I think so. I should foist some on some teens.
Is it “great” for teens?: Yes. It’s great for adults, too. And I think it’s marketed to younger ones.
Art Taste: see above for my stunning cell phone pics.
Peter Bagge, writer and illustrator
Drawn & Quarterly
Anticipation/expectation level: Low. In my time during grad school I somehow managed to pick up the ONE BOOK in Pitt’s library about birth control/obscenity laws that was not pro-Sanger or directly about Sanger (for some light reading? I can’t remember). It’s called The Sex Side of Life: Mary Ware Dennett’s Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education by Constance M. Chen, and I’m pretty sure it’s the only book of its kind because I spent a lot of time tracking it down by finding the correct subject headings and doing many searches in Pitt’s library catalog. This was before I had Goodreads aka the Dark Ages. ANYWAY. Mary Ware Dennett did some pretty rad things for women and birth control information dissemination, and Margaret Sanger was threatened and made jealous by it, according to Chen, who sees Sanger as more focused on the press than reform. Sanger doesn’t come off too well in the book — here’s one choice description: “Like other unthinking people, whether liberal or conservative, Sanger was myopic and intolerant.” (162). Chen’s low opinion was convincing, so much so that that is almost the only thing I remember about the book lo these years later, even though the book is about a whole other person. (Seems like Margaret Sanger had that effect on people for most of her life.)
On the other hand, that is one side of the story. A side with research to back it up: Sanger was intolerant. For instance, a reader of the NY Times wrote the paper in response to a review of Sanger’s life to note that in”her 1926 Vassar College graduation address, entitled “The Function of Sterilization.” Sanger praised the infamous anti-Semitic and anti-Italian Immigration Act of 1924, which she said had “taken . . . steps to control the quality of our population. . . . While we close the gates to the so-called ‘undesirables’ from other countries, we make no attempt to cut down the rapid multiplication of the unfit and undesirable at home.”
But she also had a really interesting life, one that was recently touched upon in an excerpt of Jill Lepore’s new book on Wonder Woman, published in the New Yorker. In it, Sanger’s unusual marriage situation is discussed – it was an open arrangement. So I was interested to read a book about her and get a better view of her.
My Reality: I wish that this book had provided a better view of Margaret Sanger. I realize that Peter Bagge deals in hyperbole and grotesque figures, and this could work with Sanger, who was a sensationalized figure and used it to her advantage in pushing her agenda forward. I don’t think his drawing style worked to the advantage of the book. When it comes to real people in a comic book, they can be drawn without a slavish devotion to realism, but the way Sanger and her contemporaries are drawn leaves little to their characters but big gestural emotions – either bug eyed and gape mouthed or glaring and growling, with a pace that sets Sanger continually clomping from one place to another, one bed to another, and one year to another with no time for the reader to catch their breath or find their place in the story.
Bagge works in roughly chronological order, stringing together important scenes from Sanger’s life. We see some of her personal experiences that he uses to show her opinions being crystallized, and we see more public moments in her life, where Sanger is speaking and fighting entrenched ideas about women, and we see personal anecdotes that show her as a woman with radical sexual ideas. I didn’t get a great sense of context, of who else worked in the movement and helped Sanger, or even of personal growth. Sanger as a character here comes pretty much intact, only gaining the confidence she needs to speak out and make her voice be heard. The way she is drawn and written makes her one-sided. And that’s fine. History needs people willing to be assholes sometimes, especially when the culture is an asshole to you. But I wouldn’t call this a nuanced portrait of an asshole. It’s very frenetic, bombastic, and jumpy, leaving me with a mish-mash of impressions of Sanger giving eye-daggers to one and all. I’d probably gain more respect for Sanger from other sources and learn more about the movements she helped start or continue.
Will Teens like it?: It’s attention catching enough that teens into social justice or social movements could be attracted to it.
Is it “great” for teens?: I don’t think that this covers the bases that I want to be covered with a historical biography, so no.
And, the real Margaret Sanger: