While comic books and graphic novels may be synonymous with superheroes and fantastical events in the minds of many, in reality this approach to storytelling can be applied to any genre. One particularly effective use of comic books and graphic novels is to bring history alive through their signature combination of text and artwork. Whether this is done through historical fiction, biographies, or historical texts, authors and artists are able to draw their readers into a historical period by both telling them and showing them what it was like at that time, so it is no surprise that many in the comics field work in this genre.
This month’s post will introduce you to some of the great women who are writing and illustrating comic books and graphic novels that incorporate real historical periods. Some are writing personal stories and some are crafting fictional tales that happen to have a historical setting, but all of them draw readers into the past through their storytelling and artwork.
Moving Pictures by Kathryn & Stuart Immonen – World War II is a popular subject for historical fiction of all types, so it is no surprise that there are many great graphic novels about the time period. Moving Pictures definitely belongs on any list of these works. This tightly focused World War II story centers around Ila, a museum curator who has stays in France to protect artwork in her museum as the Nazis move into the country. This story does an excellent job of hinting at the larger horrors of the war while maintaining its narrow viewpoint and the spare black and white art complements the story perfectly.
The Kitchen by Ollie Masters with art by Ming Doyle and cover art by Becky Cloonan – Issue #1 of this new series introduces readers to Kath, Raven, and Angie, three Irish-American women who are married to mobsters in 1970s era Hell’s Kitchen. When their husbands end up in jail, they must take on the mantle of their husbands’ mob activities to maintain control of the area and to keep money coming in. Though this story is little more than an introduction to the premise of the series, it nevertheless grabs readers from the start, in no small part due to the gritty and evocative artwork by Doyle. She brings the 1970s to life on the page through a series of small details that come together to make it immediately apparent when the story is set even without words. Beyond this setting, she also captures the subtle emotions of the characters as they face their husbands’ incarcerations and take on new roles in the world of organized crime.
Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot – This unique combination of biography and autobiography simultaneously tells the story of Lucia, James Joyce’s daughter, and that of the author, Mary Talbot, whose father was an important scholar focused on Joyce’s works. Because of this dual focus, the book offers readers a peek into both Mary’s childhood starting in England in the mid-1950’s and Lucia’s childhood in the early 1900s starting in Trieste, Italy. The book makes use of different color schemes to separate the different time periods, which gives them each a distinct look. It offers a great introduction into Lucia Joyce and also the events of Mary Talbot’s own childhood. It is a fascinating choice for fans of both history and memoirs.
Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani with art by Maris Wicks – This book not only includes Maris Wicks’ wonderful art, but also tells the story of three important women who have conducted famous research on primates. Told in Jim Ottaviani’s always compelling style, the book draws readers into each of the women’s experiences as students of Louis Leakey, tracing not only what first interested them about primatology, but also the hard work that they did while working and researching in the field. The combination of adorable artwork and inspiring stories will be sure to spark an interest in primates amongst many readers.
Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez – Told through short stories that are really short vignettes from Na Liu’s childhood in China in the 1970’s, this book is written to be approachable to readers of all ages. The stories incorporate elements of traditional folktales, art in the style of Chinese propaganda posters, and the author’s own memories from childhood to offer a window into life in China during this period. Though they are personal stories, they offer insights into some key historical events from the time period as well. The book also includes additional contextual material, such as a timeline of Chinese history, a map of the locations, and translations of the Chinese words that are included throughout the stories.
Under The Apple Tree by Sarah Winifred Searle – This graphic novel, which is available for online download, is set in a small town in Maine during World War II. It focuses on Rosie, a teen whose family has moved from Boston to Maine during the war. In their new home, Rosie encounters the ghost of a Civil War soldier. She must help him to discover the truth about a mystery from his time so that he may find peace. The distinctive artwork, which is characterized by very rich colors, draws readers into Rosie’s world. The story itself will keep you turning pages and by its end you will be wishing you could spend more time with Rosie and her family and friends.
Marzi: A Memoir by Marzena Sowa with art by Sylvain Savoia – Structured, and originally published, as a series of comic strips about the author’s life, this collection offers a view into the history of Poland in the 1980s at the end of the Cold War. While readers will learn plenty about the history, politics, and daily reality of Poland at this time, the book is also full of humorous and relatable stories of the author’s childhood playing and causing mischief in an apartment block in a city behind the Iron Curtain. Readers will be struck by both the similarities and differences from their own childhood. But even more than that, they will be engaged and entertained by Marzi’s stories.
We Are On Our Own by Miriam Katin – In this memoir, Katin brings her experience as a Jewish child in Budapest during World War II to vivid life. The book focuses primarily on the period of time early in Katin’s childhood when she and her mother were continually on the run and in hiding from the Nazis. She balances her own experience of the war through a child’s eyes with her mother’s desperation as she struggled to protect her daughter and eventually reunite with her husband. Color is used particularly effectively, with scenes from Katin’s later life in the U.S. depicted in color and scenes from the war almost devoid of color other than the Nazi and U.S.S.R. flags. The overall effect of this choice in combination with the artistic style is to convey the sense that Katin’s memories of the war beyond these vivid flags are sketchy and less defined, though still traumatic and powerful. By including snippets of her later life in the U.S., readers also see how the war continued to influence her life long after the war’s end. This is a powerful and moving glimpse into one person’s experience of the Holocaust and World War II.
Dogs of War by Sheila Keenan with art by Nathan Fox (2014 Great Graphic Novels for Young Adults)- This one is still on my own to-read list, but it promises to be a great look into the impact that dogs have had on the military across three wars. Told through the stories of three separate pairs of humans and dogs, the book shows the work that dogs did in World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War. This is a great option for those with an interest in war history or dog lovers.
Do you have any favorite historical graphic novels by women that I have missed? Any time periods that you wish someone would write about? Let me know in the comments!
– Carli Spina, currently reading The Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple and Let It Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle