Using Comics as Historical Primary Sources

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[This post originally published on February 28, 2012.]

Teaching history with comics is becoming increasingly common—the graphic novel’s richly illustrated form accommodates many important genres for traditional historians, including memoirs (such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home), government documents (such as The 9/11 Report and Report of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy), and journalistic reporting in war zones (such as Joe Sacco’s Palestine or Safe Area Goražde).

In my own course for first-year students, Media Seductions: Influence Theory from Plato to Battlefield 2, I use Cold War-era comics as a way to understand the larger history of moral panics about new media. Specifically, I want students to think about how new knowledge systems such as clinical psychology became recognized as academic disciplines in the twentieth century and how psychologists began to be considered authorities on the societal risks of media such as comics, television programs, and video games.

In a unit about gory and macabre horror comics of the 1950s, students focus on how visual representations put specific assumptions about conformity, delinquency, violence, sexual deviance, imitation, and representation on display. Mangled bodies, decaying corpses, and bloody internal organs grace almost every lurid page. And there is certainly plenty to shock contemporary sensibilities when it comes to picturing race, gender, sexuality, ability, and class, although politically subversive sentiments that support other kinds of stories are often depicted in these comics as well. (The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read by Jim Trombetta is a good anthology of horror comics, as is Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s by Greg Sadowski and John Benson.)

In an exercise in historical empathy, the prompt for the related writing assignment reads as follows:

In this assignment you will travel back in time to 1954 and write a letter to the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to discuss the merits of a particular comic book story. Rather than make a broad argument against censorship, you are expected to defend your story by emphasizing the sophistication and the subtleties of your comic book’s visual and verbal logic.

Students might choose a moral fable about the sexual power of women like Susan and the Devil, a parable about the relationship between government and the labor force like Corpses . . . Coast to Coast, a perverse tale about domesticity and hospitality like The Corpse That Came to Dinner, a parody of the twisted value systems of the art world like Art for Death’s Sake, a psychedelic exploration of visual cognition like Colorama, or stories about contemporary domestic violence or child neglect like The Strange Case of Henpecked Harry or Chef’s Delight.

With a little online research, students can find the text of the testimony before the Senate Subcommittee of both notorious EC comics publisher William Gaines and the psychologist and anti-comics crusader Fredric Wertham. Exposés about the dangers of comic books from television specials and glossy magazines give further opportunities to explore the verbal and visual rhetoric of discourses about parenting from the 1950s.

Students more accustomed to citing textual quotations than visual details as evidence to support an argument may find this a challenging assignment. To help with close reading skills, the syllabus also includes Scott McCloud’s classic Understanding Comics so students can work with specific features and techniques of the genre that enhance the characters’ psychology, the structure of the narrative, the reader’s experience of the time of the story, or the depiction of the world of the comic book as a spatial environment.

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About the Author
Elizabeth Losh is a Director of Academic Programs at Sixth College of the University of California, San Diego. Elizabeth is collaborating with Jonathan Alexander, Professor of English and the Campus Writing Coordinator at the University of California, Irvine, are collaborating with artists Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon of Big Time Attic on Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing, a forthcoming comic-style text for first-year composition students.