History Through the Graphic Novel’s Lens

by MHK Library staff

History Through the Graphic Novel’s Lens

by Rachel Cunningham, Circulation Supervisor

After several years of working at Manhattan Public Library, I have come to terms with the dilemma of too many books and not enough time. Recommendations come from patrons, co-workers, and publications, snowballing into an avalanche of unobtainable “to read” lists. However, in January of this year, I decided to work towards two neglected genres – history/memoirs and graphic novels.

To begin, I checked out the Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel, “Maus.” I had no idea that a few days later the McMinn County Schools in Tennessee would vote to remove the graphic novel from its eighth-grade curriculum. This decision sparked immediate controversy, shooting the book to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. Readers were eager to find a copy of the contested book, and I had the library’s coveted copy in my possession. Within days, I devoured the two volumes where the artist, Art Spiegelman, interviews his father about his experience during World War II, surviving Auschwitz and Dachau with Art’s mother. Spiegelman also depicts the strained relationship between himself and his father, as well as his own struggles with the publicity and success of the first volume: “My Father Bleeds History”. The series provides an intimate view into a life ravaged by war and otherness.

I had gained so much insight through “Maus,” that I decided to continue to explore graphic novel memoirs that spoke to historical events. I came across the series “March” by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. The novel opens with a scene from the 1965 march on Edmund Pettus Bridge. The novel then jumps to Lewis in his office in Washington D.C., preparing for the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama. Before departing, a mother stops by his office with her boys, and they ask about Lewis’s history. Beginning in Pike County, Alabama, Lewis details his rural upbringing in the segregated South. Spending his free time proselytizing to chickens, Lewis knew he was different from his brothers and sisters. After a summer trip to New York with his uncle, Lewis realizes that life can be different than what he’s learned to accept. As a young adult, Lewis joins Fellowship of Reconciliation (F.O.R.), which focuses on social change through non-violence and passive resistance. Lewis and others took part in the sit-ins at Woolworth lunch counter, where only whites were served. Although the group was arrested for disturbing the peace, the downtown stores served black customers for the first time on May 10, 1960. “March” provides an honest rendering of the difficulty of passive resistance paired with the victories that followed.

Another ugly period of American history is delicately discussed in “They Called Us Enemy.” My American History class quickly glossed over the reality of “internment” camps during World War II. Hoping to gain a better understanding through his experience, I began reading George Takei’s graphic novel memoir. Written with Justin Eisinger and Steven Soctt with art by Harmony Becker, “They Called Us Enemy” begins with the removal of Takei’s family from their home under Executive Order 9066. The novel pairs the disturbing reality the adults faced with the enchantment and imagination of Takei and his younger siblings. “Memory is a wiley keeper of the past…usually dependable, but at times, deceptive. Childhood memories are especially slippery. Sweet and so full of joy, they can often be a misrendering of the truth…I know that I will always be haunted by the larger, vaguely remembered reality of circumstances surrounding my childhood.” Takei details the life of his family and their determination to acclimate to their new existence in Arkansas at Camp Rohwer. Sometimes heartbreaking, other times whimsical, the novel details life inside the camp, their relocation to radicalized Camp Tule Lake in California, and life after the camp’s closure. Takei ends the graphic novel by pointing out the ongoing issues with immigration in America, closing with a quote from former President Barack Obama, “Justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. That my liberty depends on you being free, too. That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.”

Interested in getting started? There are many other graphic novels within the library’s collection to explore historical events like “Kent State” by Derf Backderf and “The Great American Dust Bowl” and “Drowned City” by Don Brown. You can check out other graphic novels on Hoopla Digital with your library card, too!

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