Archives of Images, Archives of Texts: Comics as Sources for Historical Research

AHA Session 284
Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Water Tower Parlor (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Joshua Kopin, University of Texas at Austin
Patrick Jagoda, University of Chicago

Session Abstract

Comics studies is a growing interdisciplinary field, largely (although not always) grounded in critical literary techniques. As comics scholarship grows, however, the potential of comics for researchers in other disciplines, history among them, is quickly becoming apparent. This panel addresses the variety of ways that scholars can use comics as sources for historical research by showcasing projects that utilize sequential narratives in this way.

Responding to the joint MLA/AHA call for papers, the presentations in this session theorize a praxis of using comics for historical research. This session builds on the work of scholars like Hillary Chute, Jared Gardner, and Ann Cvetkovich, who have conceived of comics as archives of particular places and times that can speak to aspects of experience difficult to capture with other historical documents. While many prominent comics and graphic novels have historical consciousness or are themselves works of history (Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persopolis, and John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s March, for example), the possibility of their use as historical documents is under theorized. This panel seeks to both describe current research practice and point the way forward to future research.

The papers in this panel represent a number of explorations of the use of comics as historical sources, based on both published and archival primary source research. The papers presented by Margaret Galvan and Rachel Miller represent important interventions in the feminist history of comics. Miller’s paper, “The Ephemeral Archive,” develops a methodology for using teenagers’ bedrooms as a kind of personal archive using both high circulation fiction and low circulation non-fiction comics zines. Dr. Galvan’s presentation, “Finding Feminist Comics Histories in Grassroots Periodicals” similarly uses grassroots periodicals to examine the development of feminist theory in the 1970s, finding trajectories left out of both mainstream comics histories and histories of feminism.

Dr. Elizabeth Nijdam’s paper, “Comics as Museum: Curating the Past in the German Graphic Novel,” examines the way that comics can function as “graphic historiographies,” making the past come alive in the present. In examining the graphic novels produced on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, Dr. Nijdam examines how these texts work to make history. David Carlson works along similar lines, but from the perspective of a creator, whose book The Hunting Accident takes an incident from Chicago’s history and examines it from a new perspective. His presentation on the graphic novel pairs his research with images from the final graphic novel.

Finally, Dr. Maryanne Rhett’s presentation, “Harem Peeping and the Funny Pages,” looks at comic strips to examine how Americans understood Islam in the late nineteenth century, using the strips as a historical archive to show how Muslim “otherness” was constructed in this moment. Taken together, these presentations examine a variety of ways of approaching historical questions through comics as sources, as theories, and as methodologies. They make an important argument for the expanded use of comics in historical research.

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