A Taste of History
Ever since I was small, I’ve loved stories. The source has never really mattered, I just loved hearing about lives beyond my own. Gifted storytellers, family members, books and even TV and movies have all provided me with lovely ones. I think the greatest appeal of history is the stories it tells us about people in the past, people who have simulatneously dealt with the same problems and wildly different ones. Oftentimes they struggle just to survive and it makes me appreciate if not revere the things in my own life that allow me to have leisure enough to indulge in stories as long as I’d like. Historical fiction has long been a favorite genre of mine because it can tell stories about the past without straying into the drier tones of a history text (as someone who got her bachelor’s in history, I’m well familiar with how painful those can be). In the realm of graphic novels, this genre can create some especially wonderful stories. And has the added bonus of occasionally learning a bit about history without even realizing it! This week, I’ll be taking a look at some historical fiction graphic novels. These are specifically stories which are fictional rather than historical accounts translated into graphic novels (of which there are actually quite a few).
American Born Chinese
written and illustrated by Gene Luen Yang
I’ve previously talked about another historical fiction graphic novel by this author, Boxers & Saints, so today I’ll talk about American Born Chinese. This book is an interesting mix of contemporary and historical fiction which highlights the immigration experience in America. The book is told in three separate tales which merge together at the end to give readers the perspective of both Chinese immigrants to America and the experiences of their children. In the first tale, a young Chinese American student named Jin Wang struggles with fitting in as the only Chinese American student and deals with school, love interests and making friends when you come from a different background than those around you. The second tale is the story of the Monkey King, a monkey who rules over all of the other monkeys and is destined to be the greatest monkey on Earth. Unfortunately for him, his aspirations are much higher and his struggle to obtain them put him through all kinds of trials. And the final tale has another Chinese American student, Danny, who has grown up in the American tradition and considers himself one of the cool kids, dealing with the arrival of his cousin, Chin-Kee who is the ultimate Chinese stereotype.
American Born Chinese is a book geared towards teens and reflects all the awkwardness and pain of being a teenager and struggling to find your place in the world, made even more difficult by trying to balance heritage with the society you’re growing up in. It’s a mix of Chinese history and culture as well as American and gives those of us who don’t have that background, insight into the immigrant experience in America. The humor is well suited to teens and it tells its message without getting preachy or boring or overwhelming the story of the two teens and the Monkey King. The art style is more on the comic side of things but I was impressed with Yang’s ability to tie all three stories and the various elements together into a cohesive whole at the end. Yang has a real talent for making Chinese history feel relatable and interesting for both teens and adults.
Asterix the Gaul series
written by Rene Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo
While I’ve tended to stay more in the graphic novel realm and less in the more kid-oriented comics for Graphic Reviews, I can’t help but bring up the Asterix series when you’re talking about historical fiction in the graphic realm. The series is comprised of 33 issues and was published from 1959 to 2005. I didn’t read a lot of comics as a kid (mostly just the ones that my brother picked up), but I remember devouring any Asterix issue I could get my hands on. The stories are set in Roman occupied Gaul in 50 BC and feature two Gauls, Asterix and his friend Obelisk, who embark on all kinds of adventures (most of which involve outwitting the strong but generally not very intelligent Romans).
It’s a comic all the way and is full of silly slapstick humor and puns yet consistently remains entertaining historical adventures. It’s less learning about history than using that setting to entertain but it does that very well. As you might expect, the art is very solidly in the comic realm with little attempt at realism and stereotypical features (Roman noses, Gallic red hair, etc) emphasized. If you ever just want to have an amusing adventure though, Asterix is one I’ll always recommend.
The Black Road
written by Brian Wood and illustrated by Garry Brown and Dave McCaig
In a complete opposite vein as Asterix, there is the Black Road series published this year by Image Comics. Black Road is a bit difficult to describe, like a strange lovechild of Scandinavian historical fiction and the gritty darkness and despair of Warhammer 40k. The story is set in 1000 AD as Christians begin to convert the Viking northlands, by coercion and force where necessary. Magnus the Black is a former Viking soldier whose past is littered with bodies and broken dreams and now sells his services to whoever will pay him. When he’s hired to protect a Roman Catholic Cardinal on a journey north up the Black Road, Magnus embarks on a journey filled with vicious enemies, both human and animal, with no guarantee of survival for either traveler.
While I wasn’t a fan of the previous book that I read by Brian Wood, this one is much more interesting and filled with all kinds of characters. The northlands in the series are a brutal, unforgiving place reminiscent of a historical Westeros, only way, way colder. Magnus has led a hard life and his choices have brought him plenty of harsh consequences. The writing is gritty and I found the story interesting if not mind blowing. The art style is very well done with very dark, thick linework and excellent use of shadows to play up the darkness of the Black Road. The use of color is relatively restricted which just lends to the harsh atmosphere of the book. In some ways, the art is even better than the writing. If you want a story that draws you into a time when things were considerably more difficult than now and people are scraping by to survive, The Black Road is a good series to pick up on a cold night. A word of warning however: the view of the Church is not overly complimentary so if that bothers/offends you, you might want to skip this one.
There are many other historical fiction graphic novels out there, but hopefully this gives you a sampling of a few good ones to check out. If you have any suggestions for others to read or favorites I haven’t mentioned, let me know in the comments!