From word balloons to historic sites: What heritage can learn from graphic historical fiction

Comic books and history are not strangers. Next time you are in your local bookstore, find the (nowadays guaranteed) graphic novel section -stroll past the men in tights and teen manga- and you may find some of these interesting works of historical fiction. As museum and heritage people, there’s a lot we can learn. 

1.      Northwest Passage  by Scott Chantler, published by Oni Press, 2007

BE DYNAMIC

Chantler sets this exhilarating adventure in the wilds of North America, pitting fur trading companies against one another in remote Rupert’s Land, circa 1755. Don’t be fooled by the cartoonish art; the book feels cinematic from cover to cover and reads like great historical fiction. Although the rich, action-packed story will appeal to many readers, a few will notice that women are practically non-existent, Indigenous characters remain on the sidelines, and the French are cast, however unabashedly, as the villains. Still, this remains a more mature narrative than many a superhero book or Hollywood film, and Chantler has obviously done his research. This emphasis on the thrills and drama of the past reminds us that a diorama seems to stand still next to the right program.

2. Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series, by Nathan Hale, published by Amulet Books, 2012-present

BE A STORYTELLER

This one’s a bit of a cheat because the Hazardous Tales are really non-fiction. From the early tales of the author’s ancestor (Nathan Hale the Revolutionary spy) to the First World War (with funny animals as the combatants) to the Harriet Tubman’s amazing life, Hale tells stories of American history in a compelling, clean, and often devastatingly funny way. One of the secrets to his success – besides the incredible art, which manages to be both simple and complex at the same time – is his masterful storytelling…and storytellers. Each book uses Nathan Hale (the spy), his immature Hangman, and the upright British Provost as the hosts, as the spy tells them tales from American history to delay his execution. Heritage sites and interpreters can often confuse their role with that of Professors or textbook authors. We would be better to think of ourselves as talespinners, aiming to inspire interest and provoke curiosity in the way the best stories can. 

From Donner Dinner Party, 2013

3.      Age of Bronze, Vols. I-III by Eric Shanower, published by Image Comics, 2001, 2004, 2008.

CITE YOUR WORK

Shanower has done a tremendous amount of research and synthesized nearly all fictional and non-fictional works on the Trojan War in order to create his own Hellenic epic (he has actually released another companion comic book detailing the research and making of The Age of Bronze). Having completed three out of a planned ten volumes you can be sure his pace is well-measured, but there is enough sex, intrigue, and glorious battle to keep a reader thoroughly entranced. His style is more realistic than the other works in this list, which may intimidate younger readers. But, his skillful work ensures each character remains distinct and, unlike many other Greeks in contemporary film, actually look Greek! This award winning comic reminds us that every heritage site must understand where their stories are coming from – and strive to incorporate multiple sources.

4.      Berlin by Jason Lutes, published by Black Eye Books and Drawn & Quarterly, 2001

GIVE YOUR VISITORS A FEEL FOR THE TIME

Jason Lutes came to comics late in his artistic career and brings a unique vision to his works which manages to stay free of many North American tropes. He has outdone himself in portraying the thick atmosphere of the late 1920s Weimar Republic and its myriad ideologies clashing and connecting in the lives of intensely real characters. Deceptively simple at first glance, Lutes’ characters possess a full measure of stunningly simple emotions. This is a lovely work of historical fiction, and adult readers will gain valuable insights into a turbulent and significant time period without ever feeling like they’re learning. The series is available in three volumes or one collection. Heritage sites or outdoor museums can rarely be fully accurate, but they can present an intoxicating atmosphere. History in three dimensions!

5.      Hark, A Vagrant!  by Kate Beaton, published by Drawn & Quarterly, 2011 or visit www.harkavagrant.com

RELEVANCE CAN BE DRIVEN HOME BY HUMOUR

One would be remiss not to acknowledge the growing field of webcomics. Kate Beaton is a former museum worker whose work has been featured in the National Post. Her strip, available online or in published collections, is a riot for the history enthusiast. Beaton’s historical background gives her a clear respect for all the topics and characters she handles, but it is her breezy drawing style and hip Canadian sense of humour that completes the appeal. If you ever wanted to see Edwardian women throwing their pantaloons at sexy Nikola Tesla, or Laura Secord and Paul Revere get into a fight, this is the strip for you. If you find none of these ideas amusing, then maybe you need a shot of saucy wit and a reminder that history is as much a source of humour as it is a font of national character or Very Important Lessons. 

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