Graphic novels can accelerate critical thinking, capture the nuances and complexity of story
World history isn’t just important events on a timeline, it’s also the ordinary, mundane times that people experience in between. Graphic novels can capture this multidimensionality in ways that are difficult, if not impossible, in more traditional media formats, says Stanford history professor Tom Mullaney.
Mullaney has incorporated graphic novels into some of his Stanford courses since 2017; in 2020 he taught a course dedicated to the study of world history through comic book formats.
Although graphic novels are no substitute for academic literature, he said he finds them a useful teaching and research tool. They not only describe the impact of historical events on everyday life, but because they can be read in one or two sittings, they get there much faster than a 10,000-word essay or autobiography.
“It speeds up the process of getting to the subtlety,” said Mullaney, a history professor at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences. “There are so many things you can do, and so many questions you can ask, and so many perspective shifts you can make – just like that! You can just do it – you show them something, they read it and BOOM! It’s like an accelerator. It’s awesome.
For example, in Thi Bui’s graphic novel The best we can do, themes of displacement and diaspora emerge as she talks about her family’s flight from war-torn Vietnam to the United States. The pictorial memoirs show Bui’s upbringing in suburban California and the complicated memories her parents take with them as they move through their new life in America. In other chapters, she portrays her mother and father in Vietnam and what their own childhood was like amid the country’s upheaval.
Graphic novels like The best we can do and also MausArt Spiegelman’s seminal portrait of his Jewish family’s experience during the Holocaust, illustrate the challenges and intricacies of memory – especially family memory – and the entanglements that arise when telling history, Mullaney said.
Graphic novels draw readers to the complexity of doing and reading historical research and the fact that there is no simplistic story arc. “When I read a graphic novel, I feel ready to ask questions that get me into the hard core, peer-reviewed material,” Mullaney said.
The everyday moments that graphic novels are exceptionally good at capturing also raise questions in the reader’s mind, Mullaney said. Readers sit in the family living room and at the kitchen table with Spiegelman and Bui and follow their characters trying to understand what their parents’ generation went through and discovering that it’s not always easy to grasp. “Everything mom and dad say doesn’t make sense,” Mullaney said.
These seemingly mundane moments also present powerful investigative opportunities. “The ordinary is where the explanation lives and where you can start asking questions,” Mullaney added.
Graphic novels can also describe how, in times of war and conflict, violence can be part of daily existence and survival. The simplicity of the format allows heavy and painful experiences to emerge from a panel unattached and unweighted from lengthy descriptions or dramatizations.
“They are ordinary. They are not dramatic. There are no conditions attached. In a work of non-fiction, in an article or a book, it would be almost impossible to do this. There would have to be so much explanatory writing and so much description that you would lose the horror of it,” Mullaney said.
A “fundamental misunderstanding”
Graphic novels like Maus and The best we can do were included in Mullaney’s 2020 Stanford class, World history through graphic novels.
In the course, Mullaney combined graphic novels with archival material and historical essays to examine modern world history from the 18th to the 21st century.
The course program also included graphic novels ShowaShigeru Mizuki’s manga series about growing up in Japan before World War II, and Such a beautiful little war, about Marcelino Truong’s childhood experience in Saigon during the Vietnam War.
More recently, Mullaney offered to teach a variation of the Stanford course to the public, free to high school and college students, this summer.
Registration for the online course opened shortly after the information was published and made international headlines. Maus was banned by a Tennessee school board for its depiction of nudity and use of profanity.
Within two days of registration opening for Mullaney’s courses, more than 200 students from around the world signed up.
Mullaney thinks there is a “fundamental misunderstanding” about what young people can deal with when it comes to negotiating complex themes and topics – whether it’s structural racism or the Holocaust. They just need guidance, which he hopes, as a teacher, can provide.
“I think high school students or even younger, if they have the scaffolding they need – it’s the job of educators to give them – they can handle the structural inequalities, the darkness and the horrors of the life,” he said.
Mullaney noted that many teens are already exposed to many of these difficult issues through popular media. “But they do it on their own and find out for themselves – it’s not a good idea,” he said.
Mullaney said he hopes he can teach World history through graphic novels to Stanford students this fall.
For Stanford scholars interested in learning more about the intersection of graphic novels and scholarship, there is a newly created task force through the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, Comics, more than words.