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Reading History in Seven Graphic Novels

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on September 21, 2016

In recent years graphic novels that broach historical subjects have become increasingly popular. In graphic novel form these subjects, whether World War I or II, or biographies of historical figures, can pack a powerful punch thanks to the combination of graphics and narrative. Besides the pure pleasure of reading, more and more parents, schools and even universities are realizing the value of graphic novels as a learning tool. Below are seven top-notch graphic novels to begin with for some historical perspective:

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World Wars I and II seem to have generated more graphic novels than any other historical event. The award-winning French comic book artist Jacques Tardi has long been obsessed with the First World War. His It Was the War of the Trenches is a visceral, haunting look at what it was like to simply be a soldier—beyond politics and battles, Tardi is in the trenches with the everyman. He does address the underlying causes of the war, though, and shows how the First World War set in motion the World Wars that followed. 

Berlin City of Stones by Jason Lutes is a good inter-war novel laid out in cartoon strips, set in the later years of the Weimar Republic. It covers the lives of a journalist, an art student, and others in Berlin over a period of eight months in 1928-1929, with, as a backdrop the rise of Nazism. 

When Art Spiegelman's Maus was first published in 1986, it was was a first, for a Holocaust narrative. The story of Spiegelman's father's life in pre-war Poland, to his marriage, his imprisonment in concentration camp,  and the family's survival is intertwined with a second narrative; Spiegelman's, as the son of a Holocaust survivor. By weaving the two narratives together Spiegelman show the impossibility of understanding the horror, both for survivors and for those who did not live through it.  

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Going back to the First World War again, Kate Evans' Red Rosa, a graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg, a central figure in the early twentieth century socialist movement in Europe, shows how an independent, passionate woman stood fast for her beliefs. Luxemburg was an antimilitarist and did what she could to try to prevent World War I, she was an open critic of bourgeois-capitalist society, and although she welcomed the advent of the Russian Revolution, she remained wary of dictatorial policies within the Bolshevik party. Luxemburg was one of the rare women involved in politics in her day and Red Rosa is a lovely tribute to a fiercely independent and forward thinking woman. 

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The following three graphic novels are sadly, also about wars, but they are very different in style and offer varying perspectives. Such a Lovely Little War, by Franco-Vietnamese author Marcellino Truong, recounts Truong's childhood spent in Saigon with his French mother and his Vietnamese father who worked for the South Vietnamese government. It is a gentle introduction to the beginning of the Vietnam War seen by a child of a bi-cultural marriage. Truong describes beautifully both his mother's and father's concerns, vestiges of French colonialism, the war games he plays with his brother and sister, and the dire situations of the Vietnamese who work for the family. 

The Photographer, Into War-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders is a unique combination of beautiful black and white photography by the late photojournalist Didier Lefèvre and artwork and text by Emmanuel Guibert. It recounts the journey of a reporter through Afghanistan while accompanying Doctors Without Borders. Divided into three parts, the voyage, the medical mission, and the trip back, the book describes the courage of the medical staff in a country torn apart by a war pitting Russians against an Afghan resistance supported by the US and other countries. The gripping story tells war with heartbreak, stark reality and comic relief when needed. 

Unsurprisingly, journalist Joe Sacco, a master of graphic reportage, managed after only four weeks spent in Bosnia in 1995, to convey the nuances of politics combined with a deep understanding of what Bosnians were going through in Safe House Goražde, The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95. In his meticulously observant reportage, Sacco follows Edin, an engineering student who introduces him to other inhabitants of Goražde, and their friendship provides a foundation on which Sacco recounts the personal and political tragedies of the breakdown of former Yugoslavia.

Cover image from Vittorio Giardino's No Passarán (They Shall Not Pass) 


    Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.


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