My favorite history comic books, by Max Brooks, author of the Zombie Survival Guide

[Max Brooks, author of the Zombie Survival Guide, has a new historical comic book out, called The Harlem Hellfighters, about the historic black 369th infantry regiment from WWI. Here's an exclusive essay that Max wrote for Boing Boing about his favorite history comic books. It's a terrific reading list! -- Mark]

History is boring, and I say that as a former history major. In high school, history was the only subject I was any good at. It kept me focused, it kept me engaged. It probably kept me off drugs. To this day, the “life story of the human race,” to quote one of my college professors, is nothing short of a lifelong passion. However, it’s a passion I share with very few people. And why? Because history is boring. Or, to be more accurate, it’s too often presented in a boring way.

Too often teachers do nothing more than preach fact regurgitation, while using uninspired texts. They numb the brain and extinguish the heart with a flood of intricate details without ever taking the time to tie those details together. I’ve been lucky enough to have some great history teachers, and what made them great is that they always started with the BIG PICTURE. They introduced their subjects in the broadest, simplest, most easily digestible manner before diving into the specifics. That big picture thinking kept me as focused as the finished image on the box of a jigsaw puzzle, and it’s a method I continue to use whenever I tackle a new subject.

Before cracking a one ton tome by David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin, I always try to find a big picture primer for their subject, and through the years, I’ve found no better primer than comic books. The visual aspect of illustrated work has always made history come alive for me. To see the clothing, hairstyles, architecture and technology in vibrant color (or even black and white) serves as an instant time machine.

Sometimes I’ve found all the information I’ve needed on a subject within a comic book’s pages. Sometimes those pages have served to stoke my interest. Sometimes they’ve even taught me something the prose volumes have missed.

Here are few examples of the illustrated books that have taught me about what once was. They are:

The works of Larry Gonick. This man is essentially a one stop shop for knowledge. Whether it’s U.S. history, world history, physics, string theory, even sex, this guy delivers. His artwork is simple -- black and white drawings mixed in with quick, witty bullet points. His facts are imparted either through narrative captions, or through historical characters themselves, such as a George Washington lamenting that his egalitarian, racially integrated army was “against the sacred law of the plantation.” Gonick’s blending of art and words transmits a shocking amount of information. In just one page (ONE!) of his American History comic, he discusses drugs, AIDS, cults, mass murders, political assassinations and something called the “Perception Gap” (as personified by JFK with his head sticking up through a TV set while his pants drop to his ankles.) If you want to learn a lot of history in a little bit of time, there’s really nobody better.

Malcolm X: a Graphic Biography was written by Andrew Helfer, and illustrated by Randy DuBurke. Breaking my own rule, I discovered this work after reading Malcolm X’s autobiography. I thought I was in for a quick, illustrated repeat of the original work but was pleasantly surprised at the impact it had on me. Helfer’s language is stark and dramatic with phrases like, “Now his enemies were black men he had once called his brothers… and they wanted him dead.” DuBurke’s imagery is nothing short of iconic. On one page, a black man stoops to drink from a child sized drinking fountain marked “colored” next to an adult sized drinking fountain marked “white.” Their choice to continually jump from past to present also illustrates the epic journey and many transformations of, in the words of Helfer, “one of the most (America’s) most original and outspoken leaders.”

Helfer and Duburke’s work might not be suitable for younger readers, but I’ve found Capstone Press’ “Graphic Library Series” to be a virtual clearinghouse of education for all ages. Unlike Gonick’s voluminous omnibuses, these short, simple booklets focus on one specific subject and or individual. As a parent, they’ve been instrumental in jumpstarting my son’s love of reading. I don’t mean to sound like a commercial, but before we discovered these books, reading was a chore for my son. Now, he devours at least one a day -- and night, as he is finally reading himself to sleep! In just one month he’s learned about Harriet Tubman, Franklin Roosevelt, Cesar Chavez, Patrick Henry, Fredrick Douglass, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington (who he’s actually been teaching me about), the Boston Tea Party, the Moon Landing, and the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yesterday he told me “I get to read about Mother Jones next!” Thanks, Graphic Library.

If my son continues his love affair with political history, I might soon be introducing him to a recent personal favorite of mine: 08: A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail by Michael Crowley and Dan Goldman. The title is pretty self-explanatory. It takes us back through the roller coaster ride of the Obama’s first term victory over John McCain. Quotes make up the majority of the text, from everyone from the candidates, to the pundits, to comedians like David Letterman who joked that “someone’s putting something in (McCain’s) Metamucil.” The artwork is a stark black and white representation of the historical figures involved. They are pretty much realistic with the exception of a few artistic liberties. Personalities are sometimes drawn with exaggerated expressions, like when a somewhat psychotic looking Ann Coulter tells Sean Hannity that she would campaign for Hillary against McCain. Other pictures show character mash-ups, such as Obama drawn alongside Paris Hilton to illustrate how the Republicans tried to portray him as a "celebrity." My personal favorites are two of the last images that seem to crystalize the cultural conflict beneath the campaign. The first panel shows a crying Jesse Jackson set against a repeating background of “Yes we can” with the caption, “For some, it was the swan song for the civil right movement.” The panel beneath it shows a generic, old, bearded, extremely depressed looking white man set against a confederate flag with the caption, “For others, proof that history had left them behind.”

While 08 might have questionable political neutrality, there is no question whatsoever, about the stance taken by Cole Dixon’s False Witness: The Michelle Bachmann Story. Issue #1 of this comic was thrust into my hand at a convention, and after reading it, I went right over to their booth and bought the other two. As I said, the folks at Cole Dixon LLC are right out there with their views about Mrs. Bachmann (The banner on Issue #2 reads “Right Wing Nuts RULE”.) Unlike 08, the artwork is cartoonish, with images like Mrs. Bachman (with cross in one hand and assault rifle in the other) accepting a crown from a blonde Jesus. Others show her standing on a surfboard above a crowd of right wing protestors, bursting through an American flag with an AK47, and anxiously reading a book entitled History for Extremist Kooks. Regardless of what someone might think of the series’ political views, no one can dispute that its authors have done their homework. Each claim is backed up by citations at the back of each issue, and they chronicle Bachmann’s public statements. Some of her statements are rooted in ignorance, like when she accused the U.S. government of working with Iran to turn part of northern Iraq into a new terrorist state. Some are rooted in paranoia, evident when she demanded an investigation into the loyalty and patriotism of members of congress. And, of course, many of her words and deeds are simply rooted in hatred, such as equating the homosexual lifestyle to bondage, child abuse, and Satan.

Not all American graphic history has to come from America. Jean-Pier Filiu and David B. have collaborated on Best of Enemies, which traces the course of growing entanglement in the Persian Gulf and North Africa. Chapter 1 retells the epic of Gilgamesh and Enkidu with their original dialog replaced by the modern speeches of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. Chapter 2 goes on to describe how, at the dawn of the 19th century, the mighty Barbary pirates pick a fight with a scrappy, little, previously unknown former British colony called “The United States of America.” Subsequent chapters weave a tale of politics and oil: Britain and France’s contradictory post-Ottoman colonial policy, FDR’s meeting with Ibn Saud (where the latter’s entourage demanded a screening of American pornography), and the rise and fall of Iran’s promise for moderate modernization, Mohamad Mussadegh. The black and white art falls somewhere between the stark reality of O8 and the surreal cartoons of False Witness. Images vary from the humorous, such as Australian Oil Baron, William Knox Darcy, dipping his pipe-shaped nose in a pool of oil, to the tragically haunting, such as the deposed, house-arrested Mussadegh, now a living skeleton, surrounded by blackness as he quietly cooks his dinner.

And when it comes to haunting imagery, there is no darker hole in the universe than Goddamn This War! by Jacques Tardi and Jean-Pierre Verney. These Frenchmen can rightly take their place along Erich Remarque (All Quiet On The Western Front) as some of the greatest World War I storytellers of all time. Verney’s illustrations begin with vibrant color; blue skies, green grass, bright red trousers on enthusiastic French soldiers. Slowly, as the war drags on, the color fades into grey. This is not a comic book for children, and is only for adults with a strong stomach. Two pages have nothing but a collection of 18 human faces that have been horribly disfigured by combat. Tardi’s damnation of humanity knows no borders; he slams both the U.S. and France in one sentence when he describes Black American soldiers as “the slaves we’d sold them a while back.” The story is told from the point of view of one French “Poilu” who begins his war in 1914 on the fields of Northern France, and ends it, in 1919 sitting alone in a Paris Café. He’s only got one arm now. “The other one stayed in Argonne.”

I could go on and on about the growing value of historical comic books, praising numerous other works like Will Eisner’s Last Day In Vietnam, Margane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and, of course, Art Speigleman’s Maus. However, I must cut this short as my son just turned 9 and he’s eager to read to me from his birthday present: World War II and the Cold War. Thanks Saddleback Educational Publishing.