MSU Comics Forum Presentation- 2012

Hey Kids!  Learn History with Comics!

Warren Ellis’s Crecy and Trevor R. Getz’s Abina and the Important Men as Classroom Resources

For the first few years of my history teaching career, I actively shied away from even thinking about using graphic novels in the classroom. The closest I came was assigning some chapters of Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent  in my class on America in the 1950s or showing some panels of Captain American punching Hitler as an example of wartime pop culture. I certainly never thought about using historical works as secondary sources. Two books, in very different ways, have begun to change my mind.   Warren Ellis’s Crecy and Trevor Getz’s  Abina and the Important Men are not the first historical graphic novels. They may not even be the best historical graphic novels.  They are, however, inspiring, albeit in different ways

To begin, I’ll briefly describe the works. Crecy is the story of the eponymous battle between the French and the English during the Hundred Years War. Abina  is the graphic novelization of a court transcript involving an enslaved West African woman suing for her freedom in the Gold Coast region of 1876. That they are both graphic novels dealing with the past is, perhaps, their only similarity. I first learned of Ellis’s 2007 Crecy on his BAD SIGNAL email list and, as an Ellis fanboy, was was instantly enthralled  by what might appear.  I learned of the 2011 Abina and the Important Men from the Oxford University Press textbook catalog.  Crecy was aimed at comic fans while  Abina‘s publishers targeted educators.  It’s easy (too easy, as I found while writing this) to get caught up in the many, many superficial differences between the two–color vs black and white; comics publisher vs. academic publisher–and lose sight of what I have come to see as differences which are more significant and, in a way, illustrate two of the potential approaches for teaching a history survey class.  These two books treat history in a subtly different way.         

Since not everyone in the room (maybe nobody in the room) is a historian, I want to take a minute or two and talk about teaching history and how that can be done.  Broadly, we can describe two types of resources that are essential to teaching history survey classes. These resources, of course, are not mutually exclusive and can co-exist quite comfortably.  The first is the primary source—artifacts, documents, or other items direct from the past.  Often, college survey classrooms are the first place students have experiences with primary sources.  More often, students in their high school history careers are much more familiar with secondary sources—syntheses of primary sources into a (usually) clear narrative.  Things such as textbooks, documentaries, and monographs are examples of secondary stories.  Primary sources are snippets and need context.  Secondary sources, on the other hand, are brought to life by the raw material provided by primary sources.

Crecy is narrated by an English everyman-type archer who describes the weapons, tactics, and geopolitics of the Hundred Years War in a way that provides a broad overview.  It is very much a secondary source; an attempt to synthesize historical sources.  It is not a historical source in itself.  Abina is based, largely, on a primary source—in this case, a court transcript.  The process of translating the court record into a graphic novel, however, required the writer and artist to interpret the source, and provide context to the court proceedings in a manner which places the work in a middle ground between primary and secondary source.

A second key difference between Crecy and Abina is their sense of scale.  Crecy, while narrated by one soldier, is the story of two armies—and two nations—at war.  The scope of Crecy is necessarily massive, for Ellis is telling a story that illustrates changes in warfare at the end of the Middle Ages.  The battle, which forms the climax of Crecy, highlights the importance of England’s masses of commoner longbowmen who defeated France’s armored, mounted, aristocratic cavalry.  Ellis’s treatment of the battle highlights the class differences present and, in doing so is ill-suited for engaging distinct individual characters.  His generic Englishman provides an ideal window into the development of war and society in the fourteenth century.

Abina and the Important Men also deals with a massive landscape and topic—British imperialism in Africa and, by extension, the nature of 19th century colonialism in general.  Unlike Ellis’s generic narrator, Trevor Getz uses the personal experiences of an historical figure.  In a “Letter to the Reader”, Getz and artist Liz Clarke introduce the central figure, Abina Mansa as “representative of the largest group of our human ancestors: those who left little but physical evidence behind to help us remember them” [1]  Abina’s voice comes down to the authors, and from them to us and our students through court proceedings.  Through Abina’s story, we catch a glimpse of the larger world of the 19th century Gold Coast and how the machinery of colonialism affected the colonized differently depending on such factors as class and gender.

Beyond the two books’ methodology and approach to the histories they tell, Abina and Crecy educators have to examine the utterly prosaic question of how well t