The first time I proposed teaching a comics class, someone asked me what I wanted to call it. “Um … Comics? Comic Books? Something like that,” I said, thinking it should’ve been pretty obvious. The next day, when the course was listed on the university computer system, I was surprised to learn that I was teaching “Graphic Fiction.”
I’m usually not too fussy when it comes to names and labels. The English language doesn’t really have any rules — just conventions that we all agree to follow (sometimes), and those conventions all change organically over time. That’s why when someone says something about The Avengers being based on a graphic novel, I just smile and move on.
But when it comes to the academic world, I’m a little less tolerant. The course title made it sound like our class would be reading Fifty Shades of Grey. But “Graphic Fiction” has become an increasingly popular term, especially in the academy, even though it strikes me as a genuinely stupid term for comics; it’s broad where it should be specific and specific where it should be broad. “Graphic” is needlessly ambiguous, and “fiction” is just plain wrong. Is Maus fiction? Is Persepolis? American Splendor? What about Joe Sacco’s Palestine? Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics?
It’s ironic that many in the academic community would embrace “graphic fiction” because there’s probably as much non-fiction being taught in comics classes as there is fiction. Perhaps even more. So if my fellow academics are so intellectually insecure that we’re afraid to write “comics” on a course listing, then we should at least come up with some other pretentious substitute that avoids being both misleading and inaccurate.
Perhaps this issue is nagging me because this week’s column focuses on a cartoonist who clearly does not create “graphic fiction.” Instead, Larry Gonick, who has been publishing comics for almost 40 years now, has devoted his career almost entirely to producing non-fiction. His most famous work is the multi-volume The Cartoon History of the Universe, which begins with the Big Bang and marches gleefully to the present day. I would say that it’s one of the most impressive accomplishments in the history of comics, but that makes it sound too much like arugula. Better to stick with the truth — it’s as smart and funny as anything you’re likely to read.
But Gonick has also published similar “Cartoon Guides” to various other subjects including science and math. And since this is Fourth of July week here in the United States, for today’s column I thought I’d take a look at the first volume of Gonick’s The Cartoon Guide to U.S. History, 1585-1865.
Now for anyone who had the misfortune to see that amateur-looking video last week where Dick Cheney shared his “expertise” on Iraq while wearing a cowboy hat and standing next to his daughter like they were recreating “American Gothic” for a cable access channel, the idea of a “Cartoon” guide to American history might seem a bit superfluous. In the post-shame era of American politics, it feels like we’re living out a “cartoon history” every day.
But make no mistake. Larry Gonick’s Cartoon Guide to U.S. History is anything but superfluous. If you’ve never read any of his books, you should change that today.
They are like master classes in compressed storytelling. He manages to present sweeping events in clear, coherent ways that are both illuminating and very funny. Typically, his captions tell the story, his word balloons make the jokes, and his illustrations fall somewhere in between. It’s a formula that never gets old.
The first volume of his guide to American history is one of Gonick’s older books. First published in 1987, it quickly dispenses with the land-bridge migration, the Vikings, and the voyages of Christopher Columbus — all in a five-page prologue. That’s because the book is not about “America” the continent but rather the specific history of the United States, so the more focused story begins with the early settlements like Roanoke, Jamestown, and New Plymouth.
Because of the impending holiday, I thought I’d focus, in particular, on his depiction of the American Revolution. I must confess, the stories of the founders — Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and company — have long fascinated me. Those larger-than-life personalities, often multi-faceted and contradictory, have always seemed like the rock stars of American history.
Based on the steady string of bestselling and award-winning biographies that have rolled off the presses in recent years, I’m clearly not alone in my interest. In addition to their historical significance, part of what makes them complex comes from the fact that they were all living in a time of transition, during the final years of the Age of Enlightenment just before the birth of Romanticism. These were people who were still putting powder on their wigs, but their children would soon be reading Lord Byron.
For those of us who are attracted to the era, things have become… tainted lately. The Tea Party movement, in particular, has been systematically co-opting the legacy of the American Revolution by appropriating many of its slogans, icons, and characters. In fact, given the attempts to re-brand so much of that era, it would be easy for someone to get the impression that Thomas Jefferson — the free-thinking, progressive-minded, quasi-Deist — was really just an 18th century evangelical conservative who was ahead of his time.
Part of the problem stems from the attempt to reconcile the political ideologies of people separated by over 200 years. Today, the conservative faction that is most committed to private business and corporate power has targeted publicly controlled institutions as their enemy. As a result, they’ve created a political movement dedicated to reducing the size of government. And since one part of Jefferson’s philosophy was skepticism of a strong central government, they’ve claimed him as their patron saint.
While it’s true that Jefferson advocated for less government, the context and motivation for his beliefs were wildly different than those with similar ideologies today. That’s why attempting to draw direct lines between the general political philosophies of people from long distant eras is a pretty silly thing to do. Besides, people often affiliate with one political side for very different reasons. For some, it’s a simple issue — a war, abortion, or health care policy — that determines their side. For others, it’s an over-arching ideology. But for many, it’s more of a cultural association.
As Gonick reminds us, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, conservatives tended to favor a strong, centralized government while liberals favored more local government (if any at all). So Jefferson was a liberal in his time. If he were alive today, would he base his affiliation on ideology because maintaining a small government trumps everything? Or would he associate with progressives because he would see them as “his people?” It’s all rather absurd. Besides, Jefferson was so full of contradictions that you can look at him and find almost anything you want.
That’s why it’s refreshing to read through Gonick’s history. He’s committed to finding the complexity that gets lost in most partisan accounts of history. Gonick takes the simple and the mythic and adds additional layers of motivation and context. As a result, his work actually dovetails quite nicely with the revisionist comics of other ‘80s creators like Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Gonick gives us de-mythologized versions of the defining events and characters in American history, often placing greater emphasis on the social, economic, and technological movements than on the individuals themselves.
And in the case of Jefferson, Gonick makes sure that no one can easily reduce him with a simple label. While Gonick clearly admires him and celebrates Jefferson’s Presidency for being visionary, wise, and peaceful, he also devotes a two-page spread (which is a lot of real estate for Gonick’s compressed storytelling) to debating Jefferson’s many paradoxes. Jefferson, perhaps more than anyone else from the era, was a child of both Enlightenment and Romantic thought. No wonder he now seems like he’s all things to all people.
But I fear I’ve made reading Gonick’s work sound like a chore when nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, that would be a fiction. Just not “graphic fiction.”
 For a more detailed analysis, check out Colin Smith’s excellent piece here.