[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’sMaus, Marjane Satrapi’sPersepolis, and Alison Bechdel’sFun Home), government documents (such asThe 9/11 ReportandReport of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy), and journalistic reporting in war zones (such as Joe Sacco’sPalestineorSafe 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 Readby Jim Trombetta is a good anthology of horror comics, as isFour Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950sby 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 likeSusan and the Devil, a parable about the relationship between government and the labor force likeCorpses . . . Coast to Coast, a perverse tale about domesticity and hospitality likeThe Corpse That Came to Dinner, a parody of the twisted value systems of the art world likeArt for Death’s Sake, a psychedelic exploration of visual cognition likeColorama, or stories about contemporary domestic violence or child neglect likeThe Strange Case of Henpecked HarryorChef’s Delight.
With a little online research, students can find the text of the testimony before the Senate Subcommittee of both notorious EC comics publisherWilliam Gainesand the psychologist and anti-comics crusaderFredric 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 classicUnderstanding Comicsso 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.