The Seen and Unseen: Teaching 20th-Century European History through Historical Graphic Novels

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:40 AM
Williford A (Hilton Chicago)
Laura Brade, Albion College
Between the panels of comics, the space known as “the gutter,” mysterious and unknown events, actions, conversations, travel, and shifts frequently occur. In that supposedly empty space, the hero’s world can change dramatically, requiring readers imagine what happened in those silences as they move to the next panel. Artists make use of that space, occasionally even allowing the gutter to consume the page. That visual absence demands readers throw themselves into into the emotion of the text, such as in the experiences of Auschwitz portrayed in Magneto: Origins and Maus. Drawing on experiences teaching a first year seminar on 20th Century European History to non-majors, this paper shows how comics with their “gutters,” offer opportunities to teach students about historical imagination and the use of diverse sources to interpret the past. I use graphic novels to help students to unlock historical thinking skills: sourcing, corroboration, contextualization, complexity, causality, and change over time. Following that chain in the paper, I first demonstrate how “the gutter” serves as a visual representation of the gaps in archival sources. I then turn to an explanation of how connecting historical graphic novels with more traditional sources gives students insight into the roles that historians play in creating an historical narrative. I conclude by exploring the ways in which my students have demonstrated improvement in the areas of historical imagination and reading primary sources through their concluding projects as historical consultants for a graphic novel (or by writing graphic novels themselves).