World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        

The Graphic Novel and the World History Classroom

Maryanne Rhett

Washington State University

     When someone says 'Graphic Novel,' one of three ideas comes to mind. The first of these is the 'comic book.' While indeed comic books—"gaudy escapism, whether superheroic, fantasy-based, science fictional," or fluff-driven comedy with "little depth or humanity"1 —fit within the genre of 'graphic novel,' they do not themselves define the field. Batman, Maus, and the Archie Comics series all fall within the realm of graphic novels and thus the term is far more flexible than 'comic book' may suggest. Secondly, 'graphic' does not necessarily denote 'pornographic.' As Paul Gravett in his 2005 work Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life points out, some graphic novels do fall within the realm of erotica, but this does not hold true for all. 'Graphic' is, for our purposes, simply a designation of the artistic style with which the story is written. The illustrations in a graphic novel should be considered part of the literature itself, read in conjunction with the text. This sets a graphic novel apart from picture books where illustrations are not necessarily part of the storyline. The images in a graphic novel lend to the visual rhetoric of the story and are thus a part of the whole of the work. Finally, for those who may have already had some experience with the 'scholarly graphic novel,' the term immediately brings to mind Art Spiegleman's Maus series. Maus and Persepolis are indeed good examples of scholastic graphic novels, but the genre should not end with these well situated biographical accounts of Holocaust survivors and witnesses to the Iranian revolution, respectively. Less obviously educational novels, like Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or Alan Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta, also lend themselves to analytical reasoning appropriate for the university. 1
   This essay asserts that graphic novels such as League or V—in addition to those like Maus and Persepolis—can provide engaging material for undergraduate courses. Specifically, I argue that using a blend of traditional and non-traditional graphic novels—League and Maus for instance—in the classroom offers greater flexibility for the teacher to delve deeply into the themes of world history. The brevity of the texts and the engaging composition of the graphic novel allows the professor to tailor the class to themes, both expansive and focused, while encouraging the student to go beyond the written word and use the full nuance of the graphic work. 2
    At the college level, recent years have seen an increased use of graphic novels in the classroom. At major conferences, works like Persepolis and Maus have already made an impression in the bookselling market. Persepolis, for instance, was promoted at the 2005 Middle East Studies Association Conference in Washington, D.C. Moreover, a quick glance through H-Net postings suggests that further dialogues on the topic of the graphic novel, both in research and pedagogical terms, are beginning to filter into the field. In the summer of 2006, H-Net had a call for papers for an interdisciplinary collection on the "growing subgenre of Jewish literary and graphic culture [which] contains a number of significantly innovative aesthetic works that are increasingly recognized by literary critics as an exciting form[s] of alternative narrative[s] that may also represent the inception of a new visual literacy."2 Indeed, in terms of Jewish history, the genre of graphic novels has certainly been ground-breaking. This same call for papers listed (in addition to Spiegleman's works) some of the following Jewish-centric pieces: Will Eisner's A Contract With God: and Other Tenement Stories, Fagin the Jew, The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; Vittorio Giardino's A Jew in Communist Prague: Loss of Innocence, A Jew in Communist Prague: Adolescence, and A Jew in Communist Prague: Rebellion; Ben Katchor's The Jew of New York; Miriam Katin's memoir, We Are On Our Own; Etgar Keret's Jetlag: Five Graphic Novellas; Joe Kubert's Yossel: April 14, 1943; and Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat. What is more, in June 2006, at the World History Association's conference in Long Beach, California, Linda Alkana presented a paper entitled "Teaching World History with Comix," advocating the use of the graphic novel in the world history classroom.
    Moreover, on October 11 2006 the National Book Award nominations were announced and for the first time ever a graphic novel was nominated: Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese. Although American Born Chinese is meant for younger readers, the fact that such a prestigious book award committee has recognized the contributions of the graphic novel genre should be cause enough for academics to take note. Sadly, as has already been mentioned, the term 'graphic novel' has become "distorted with prejudices and preconceptions," and some of the genre's authors have even gone so far as to reject the label outright.3 Yet I believe that despite such distortions, the graphic novel provides a new, innovative way to express multiple layers of narrative. 4
    Although this essay examines only a handful of graphic novels that may be useful in the world history classroom, the reality is that the field is continually growing. There are pitfalls, however, as with any classroom tool. A teacher who chooses to use a graphic novel in the classroom should always be aware of the unique style and format of the genre. Further, the graphic novel should not mark the end of the classroom discussion, but rather should prove an aid in reaching beyond the traditional learning tools by helping students to think on many levels and in more dimensions than simply through lectures and textbooks. The end of this essay includes a short list of graphic novels that may be of interest to teachers. Each title, or set of titles, is annotated to help the novice get started in the right direction. The essay itself breaks down some of the graphic novel titles into sub-genres, thus grouping together similar formats and works.
Biography and Journalistic Writing Turned Graphic   
    A great number of graphic novels take the form of traditional literature. Persepolis, Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde, Berlin, Contract with God, Barefoot Gen, and War's End, to name a few, all tell a particular story from an autobiographical, semi-autobiographical, or journalistic perspective. What is useful about using or telling a traditional storyline in the guise of a graphic novel is that the graphic novel allows for more creative expressions of content and context. The illustrations and visual rhetoric are just as crucial to understanding the narrative as is the storyline. 6
    In her 2003 work Persepolis, Satrapi uses a simple black and white graphic background to highlight her childhood and the world in which she lived, Revolutionary Iran. The 'rudimentary' black and white drawings reflect her childhood memories of the era and serve as an ironic twist underscoring the idea that the revolution was anything but a black and white issue. The simplicity of the text and graphics allows the reader to delve into the culture and politics of a nation that, in Western societies in particular, is greatly misunderstood. Likewise, Joe Sacco's Palestine examines the chaos, disorder, and disunity of life in Israel and the Occupied Territories during the first Intafada. Sacco uses the caption placement to set life on the street in juxtaposition with the crisp, unified, and ordered structure of scenes depicting detention and interrogation. Unlike Satrapi's work, Sacco writes from the perspective of an adult journalist. This distinction itself is useful in terms of examining how, and by whom, history is written. 7
    As with any novel, autobiography, or other form of literature, we must be careful not to assume too much capacity on the part of our students to read and understand the imagery and symbolism used. Just as certain groundwork must be laid when assigning Victorian literature or the works of Chinese communists (underscoring the use of unfamiliar imagery and metaphor), the graphic novel too needs explanation. An example is Barefoot Gen, a distinctly Japanese-style graphic novel. Although a recent interest in Manga and Japanese animation more broadly has brought American audiences into closer contact with Japanese imagery and symbolism, it is best to offer a small introduction to the themes before fully introducing the works. 8
     Keiji Nakazawa's 1988 work Barefoot Gen is the semi-autobiographical depiction of life in Japan before and after the bombing of Hiroshima. This is in no way an easily digested commentary on war and the effects of war, but like Maus it is an important component of our global heritage. In the introduction to Barefoot Gen Art Spiegelman (author of the Maus series) points out that it is "odd that, until the development of underground comics in the late 1960s, overtly autobiographical comics have not comprised an important 'genre.' Rarer still are works that overtly grapple with the intersection between personal history and world history."4 Barefoot Gen is a more fictionalized account of the bombing of Hiroshima than Nakazawa's 1972 autobiographical children's comic weekly "I Saw It." Nevertheless it breaks barriers between what is perceived as 'useful academic literature' and literature written for 'enjoyment.' Additionally, "In Japan there is no stigma attached to reading comics; they're consumed," Spiegelman tells us, "in truly astonishing numbers."5 The power of the simple graphics and the emotionally charged story line is exactly the kind of useful work a world history class strives to exploit. 9
The Graphic Novel as History  
    For those historians who may still hesitate to accept the graphic novel as a legitimate form of literature, particularly in the history classroom, consider next Will Eisner's 2005 work The Plot: the Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Eisner is widely accepted as the father of the graphic novel: in fact the most prestigious award in the field is named for him. His first work, Contract with God, explores life in the New York tenements. However, although it was written in the 1940s and 1950s, it was not published until the late 1970s, a further testament to the very modern quality of the graphic novel genre. 10
    In The Plot, Eisner explores how the "Protocols" were first developed, were eventually determined to be fraudulent, and how they have remained surprisingly resilient despite their complete illegitimacy. Eisner incorporates primary source material (e.g. Winston Churchill's 1920 article "Zionism versus Bolshevism," underscoring the worldwide Jewish conspiracy as proclaimed in the 'Protocols,' which Churchill later recanted) intermixed with graphic expression. Although the subject matter of The Plot is not easily explained, Eisner argues in the preface that it "marks an effort to employ this powerful medium to address a matter of immense personal concern."6 The thread that runs throughout the work is the abhorrence that such a clearly fabricated piece of propaganda could not only survive, but indeed gain in credibility over time. It is this utter disbelief with which Eisner ends the book. The intention of The Plot is to help educate people, albeit slowly, to beat back the demon of scapegoatism and to understand that the Protocols are something wholly false. 11
Fictionalized Fiction and Fictionalized History  
    The last genre of graphic novels which I will discuss here are fictionalized fiction and fictionalized history. Few history teachers think twice about using works of literary fiction in their classrooms, but they stop short of using fiction when packaged in this form. However, fiction in graphic novel form can be useful in developing the historical themes that are frequently pursued in the world history classroom. 12
    Alan Moore's graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen offers examples from such literary classics as: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, King Solomon's Mines, The Invisible Man, the Sherlock Holmes series, and Moby Dick, as well as references to Victorian erotica, the leaders of the scientific community like Thomas Edison, and the political climate of fin de siècle Europe. It is not likely that one would ever be lucky enough to have a class full of students who have either read all of these works, or who would be willing do so. Thus not only does this one graphic novel allow us to discuss the advent and diffusion of Victorian literature, it also allows us to investigate the development, transmission, and change over time of Western European imperialism, industrialization, racial theory, gender studies, and so on. 13
    In another fictionalized series, Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese places the title character within the world history of the early twentieth century. As someone akin to the likes of Indiana Jones, Maltese is a seafarer whose adventures lead him to events across the world in the early twentieth century. These adventures include involvement in the Boxer rebellion, participation in the Russo-Japanese War (where he meets Jack London and Rasputin), fighting alongside the Irish Republican Army in the Easter Uprising, etc. 14
    If there is one significant gap in the genre of the graphic novel it is in material related to Africa and South America, but even here we can read against the grain in other graphic novels. For instance, Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat offers us a glimpse into 1930s Algerian life, and J. P. Stassen's Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda, which has just been translated into English, offers an African compliment to Barefoot Gen, Maus, and Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992 1995. The field only continues to grow and, if publishers, authors, and academics begin to converse with one another, the graphic novel may not long be considered an inappropriate tool for the world history classroom.
    Although the graphic novel really gathered steam in the 1960s and 1970s among comic book fans and underground literary communities, the last decade and a half has seen a significant expansion of the field in more mainstream reading circles. This is due in part to the success of Hollywood versions of graphic novels like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta, but it is also due to the accessibility of the graphic novel itself. This accessibility is what makes the graphic novel such a compelling tool for the classroom. 16
    My own use of graphic novels in the classroom has met with overwhelming success. In the fall of 2005 I first chose to use League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in my Modern European History class. While the class was itself focused on European history from the French Revolution to the present, League offered a lens through which students could situate Europe in the larger context of world history. In the summer of 2006 I used Persepolis in my Middle East cultures class and this semester I am using League alongside Maus, The Plot, and Safe Area Gorazde. 17
    I have chosen a unique form of assignment specifically tailored to the graphic novel genre, in which I have asked my students to annotate the readings, identifying or further defining terms, people, places, and objects in the text and illustrations. For League and Persepolis both this has worked extremely well. Students are required to choose ten items within the novel to examine, writing out a concise paragraph for each. As an example, in League one of the side characters is a woman by the name of Rosa Coote. Coote first appeared in a Victorian era erotica magazine. Students not only discuss where Coote comes from, but they then examine what she means to the era, why or in what ways she is (is not) representative of the time. Similarly, students reading Persepolis find it necessary to understand why Che Guevara (mentioned by Satrapi) is at all related to the events of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Just as a student might go to a dictionary to define a new word, this assignment asks the students to read beyond the text and to fully develop a sense of why various terms, objects, and people are used in the storyline. Although this assignment format is generally very new to the students, I have found that allowing them the freedom to focus on the things that most intrigue them encourages a deeper appreciation of history.   18
     Graphic novels work on a number of levels. On the one hand students who learn best under traditional structures have the story, plot, and dialogue upon which they can rely. On the other hand, students who learn by deciphering and dissecting symbols, metaphors, and images can look beyond the storyline in decoding the depth of the narrative. A graphic novel, although it can be read in terms of the dialogue alone, is most useful as a product of all of its parts. Finally, like a movie, a graphic novel is, typically, serialized or substantially shorter than traditional novels. The constraints of space force graphic novel authors to cover topics in a mixture of ways thus allowing them to incorporate a great number of learning styles. This brevity of graphic novels allows us, as teachers, to cover more themes, events, places, and people, a typical concern for general requirement classes.   19
A Selection of Graphic Novels  

Eisner, Will. The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

This is a historical examination of the "protocols of the elders of Zion." Eisner includes an extensive (although not exhaustive) bibliography of primary and secondary sources on the matter.

Gravett, Paul. Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Gravett's work is useful as a textbook for understanding the field of graphic novel literature. His breakdown of graphic novels is useful for someone with little background in the field.

Moore, Alan, and David Lloyd. V for Vendetta. New York: DC Comics, 1990.

The storyline is a thinly veiled attempt to understand issues like the control of Northern Ireland, AIDS, racial tension (e.g. the Brixton Riots), and others that defined Thatcherite Britain, all the while cloaked in a superhero narrative.

Moore, Alan, and Kevin O'Neill. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. La Jolla, CA: America's Best Comics, 2000.

The League offers another superhero storyline, but one intermediately connected to Victorian era literature and politics. Some of the works' characters are borrowed from literary classics: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, King Solomon's Mines, The Invisible Man, Sherlock Holmes, and Moby Dick.

Nakazawa, Keiji. Barefoot Gen: The Day after a Cartoon Story of Hiroshima. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1988.

Barefoot Gen is a multi-volume series, semi-autobiographical account of Keiji Nakazawa's life growing up in Hiroshima, Japan during and after WWII.

Pratt, Hugo. Corto Maltese in Africa Corto Maltese, 5. New York: Nantier-Beall-Minoustchine Publishing Company, 1987.

All of the Corto Maltese works are in the same vein as League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or even the Indiana Jones films. Maltese finds himself a part of, or at least witness to, some of the most crucial turning points in early twentieth century history: the Boxer Rebellion, the Russian Revolution, the Easter Uprising, etc.

________. Ballad of the Salt Sea. Translated by Ian Monk. London: Harvill, 1996.

________. The Celts. Translated by Ian Monk. London: Harvill, 1996.

Sacco, Joe. Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992 - 1995. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphic Books, 2000.

Safe Area Gorazde examines life in war torn Bosnia during the early 1990s and the 'Balkanization' of the region. Sacco, an American journalist, writes in a readable, no nonsense manner that, when coupled with the imagery of the graphic novel genre offers a great deal of insight into daily existence during a horrible era in modern European history.

________. Palestine. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphic Books, 2001.

Like Safe Area Gorazde, Palestine examines the events in Israel and the Occupied Territories during the first Intifada. As an American journalist, Sacco first arrived in Israel/Palestine with little prior knowledge of the history of the region. The readers are then allowed to learn as he does about life in this part of the world.

________. War's End: Profiles from Bosnia, 1995-96. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly 2005.

War's End picks up were Safe Area Gorazde leaves off, further examining life in the former Yugoslavia and the strange juxtaposition of war and everyday life.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003.

Persepolis is the autobiographical account of the Iranian Revolution from the viewpoint of a child living in the country. Satrapi's perspective is distinctly different from the militant 'jihadist' portrayed on the evening news.

________. Persepolis 2. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004.

Persepolis 2 picks up were the first volume leaves off, with Satrapi's arrival in Europe in the 1980s. Satrapi went to Europe to continue her education and as a means of protection, her family fearing that she would suffer intellectually in Ayatollah Khomeini led Iran.

________. Embroideries. London: Pantheon, 2005.

Embroideries is, like the Persepolis books, autobiographical, but instead of focusing solely on her own life, Satrapi examines the lives of women in Iran through the women in her family.

Sfar, Joann. The Rabbi's Cat. London: Pantheon, 2005.

The Rabbi's Cat takes place in 1930s Algeria and examines, through the narration of a cat, life in the colonial world, in the Algerian Jewish community, and the everyday world of Algeria more broadly.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I: A Survivor's Tale My Father Bleeds History. Rev. ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.

Based on a series of interviews Spiegelman had with his father, Vladek, Maus and Maus II offer an easily accessible, monumental narrative of the life of a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust through the eyes of the next generation.

________. Maus II: A Survivor's Tale and Here My Troubles Began. London: Penguin, 1992.

Stassen, J. P. Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda: First Second, 2006.

Set in Rwanda in 1994, Deogratias, explores of the horrors of war through the eyes of a young boy coming of age in a time of chaos. Reviews of this work note that Stassen spares readers none of the realities of the everyday cruelties of life just as he does not ignore the cruelties of genocide.  

Biographical Note: Maryanne Rhett is a graduate student and History department instructor in World History at Washington State University. She is beginning work on her PhD dissertation, entitled "One Document, Many Outcomes: The Balfour Declaration in Light of World Events." Her research interests focus on the Middle East, Zionist history, and the development and implementation of British policy in view of global events, in particular the First World War.   


1 Paul Gravett, Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life (New York, 2005), 8.

2, July 8, 2006.

3 Gravett, 8.

4 Keiji Nakazawa, Barefoot Gen: the day after a cartoon story of Hiroshima (Philadelphia, 1988), iii.

5 Ibid, iv.

6 Will Eisner, The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (New York, 2005), 1.



Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use