Learning History Through Graphic Novels

By Chris Auman

Graphic novels are great entertainment, of course, but the titles on this list teach us about history as well.

  • Maus : A Survivor's Tale

    1991 by Art Spiegelman

    Maus was my introduction to graphic novels. It is perhaps the book most responsible for earning the format its place as a respected art form. Maus is a biographical account of author's father's experience during the Holocaust. It is a harrowing account, but also demonstrates the will to survive. Ironically, by telling the story through animal characters, Spiegelman makes them seem even more human than they might otherwise. There are many works of film and literature that document this horrific event in our collective history and this is one of the best. It's not easy to put down or to forget.

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  • Footnotes in Gaza

    2009 by Joe Sacco

    The young Palestinians who graphic journalist Joe Sacco meets as he investigates a mass killing that occurred in November 1956, wonder why he is interested in a massacre that happened so long ago when there are many current atrocities to contend with. Sacco believe no victim should be forgotten and the stories of what happened in the past, historical footnote as they may be today, must be told. The cyclical nature of the conflict does not leave one much hope for peace, but Sacco's instincts as a journalist and talents as an artist make for compelling reading.

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  • Boxers

    2013 by Gene Luen Yang

    Gene Luen Yang created this fictionalized account to tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion which occurred in China at the turn of the 20th century. It was a tumultuous period in Chinese history when the countryside rose up to fight back against colonialism and the presence of European missionaries. Boxers is a bloody story to be sure, and in the end the question remains of whether the ends justified the means. Yang imposes no moral judgement here, he simply presents an historical accounting of one group's experiences during the conflict. His companion book, Saints, tells the story from a different point of view.

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  • Persepolis

    2003 by Marjane Satrapi

    This graphic novel relates Marjane Satrapi's experiences growing up in 1970s pre-Revolutionary Iran. During this time, religious hardliners have made music, drinking, and dancing illegal thus criminalizing once normal behaviors. Persia has become a police state, and a frightening place for anyone, much less a curious, young girl like Marjane. Satrapi worked closely on the animated film version which is a must-see in addition to this must-read book. It was an important part of that country's history which is forever linked to ours.

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  • Hip Hop Family Tree. 1, 1970s-1981

    2014 by Ed Piskor

    History isn't just about heavy subjects like war and bloody rebellion. A cultural movement is just as interesting and valid a subject for the historical graphic novel treatment. A case in point is this colorful, oversized book on the birth of hip hop in New York City in the 1970s. Ed Piskor introduces all the key players who helped this new musical art form rise out of the rubble of the Bronx. Rap music came from a community with not much hope and little to do except destroy or create. What they created there has affected music and culture throughout the world.

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  • A Contract With God And Other Tenement Stories: Will Eisner Centennial Edition

    2017 by Will Eisner

    While not the first graphic novel ever published, as is sometimes claimed, Will Eisner's 1978 book certainly introduced the format and the term to a wider audience. Through four short stories that take place in a NYC tenement building, Eisner recounts the history and changing demographics of an immigrant neighborhood. New ethnic populations move in much to the dismay of current inhabitants who once received the same treatment from the previous residents. While not a factual account, the book does capture the cycle that a neighborhood, and one building in particular, go through over time as populations shift and subsequent generations move on in search of a better life.

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  • I See the Promised Land : A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

    2013 by A. R. Flowers

    "This stunning graphic novel biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. describes the apartheid South of his time, which in many ways was not very different from the early days of slavery. Included are descriptions of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the formation of civil rights groups, mass movements against segregation, such as the Albany Movement and the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, and the influence on King of Gandhi, with his nonviolent approach to resistance. Flowers’ text smoothly incorporates excerpts from many of King’s most moving speeches and concludes with a brief look at his legacy. Flowers tells a masterful story in musical prose, while Manu Chitrakar carries the tale into the vivid idiom of Patua art, turning King’s historic journey into a truly universal legacy."--Amazon

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  • The Great War : July 1, 1916

    2013 by Joe Sacco

    Okay, this isn't technically a graphic novel, but it does contain similar elements. It's a detailed panoramic drawing of the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916—nearly 20,000 British soldiers where killed in a single day! Sacco's intricately-detailed drawing is printed on 16 pages of accordion-folded paper and stretches 24 feet (you do not have to read it that way, of course). It also includes a booklet with annotations of the scene he depicts. It's a fascinating glimpse of the soldiers and machines it took to engage in the trench warfare that would result in one of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare.

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