Graphic Novels and History

Cohn and Rabkin’s discussion of temporality in graphic novels was interesting. I’m used to being meta-cognitive when it comes to reading straight text or print, but I never thought about how I naturally read from left to right or top to bottom. I was also struck by the comments on the capacity or tendency of a graphic novel to depict the past or present. While Rabkin said portraying variations of past tense is particularly problematic, I thought of my own (limited) experiences reading graphic novels, all of which have been about the past. I’m thinking of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (which is mentioned in the readings) and a memoir Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.

Nat Turner too is a narrative of the past and like Maus, chronicles human suffering. What’s interesting to me is the seeming contrast between the visual style and the content of each work. A few days ago, a student of mine picked up Nat Turner off my desk and quickly paged through (I’d been reading it with my students while they did their independent reading). He started laughing and held up the image of the baby being fed to a shark to show everyone “what Miss Davidow had been reading.”

I was so immersed in the harrowing story up to that point that I hadn’t considered how the style of Kyle Baker’s work is cartoonish – even carrying traces of whimsy. I wonder if there is something to this. Baker takes Spiegelman’s approach of illustrating human atrocities in a relatively benign style compared to other ways these stories have been told. I think that a graphic novel like this about historical events that may, at this point, be too familiar helps us to bear witness in a new way. Rather than muting the reality of the situation, the unexpected format makes it new again.

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