Action and the occasional fact: historical comics

One of the great things about comic books is their ability to take readers anywhere. Comic characters can go to distant planets, the depths of dreams or alternate dimensions as easily as they can go to the supermarket — all it takes is a few strokes of the pen. You’d think, then (or perhaps I would think, given what a huge history buff I am), that historical comics would be big — after all, it’s not like historical novels and films aren’t hugely successful. But there haven’t been as many as you might imagine. Fortunately, that small number contains a lot of great comics.

Some readers may remember well-intentioned attempts to serve up wholesome education to kids disguised as comics — these attempts seldom end well, and can put people off historical comics. But Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe is the comic history lesson your teachers didn’t want you to read. Funny, irreverent and informative, this black-and-white tour of world history covers everything from the Big Bang to the Renaissance. Gonick’s also done charming comic guides to American history and other topics. The series concludes in another two-volume opus, The Cartoon History of the Modern World. These are all still in print, which is nice.

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Historical adventure stories were the stuff of newspaper comics and pulp magazines in the interwar period, leaving a legacy that influenced comics creators for decades. One little-known attempt to revive this tradition was Black Swan’s Bloodthirsty Pirate Tales, an independent black-and-white anthology comic that collected not only swashbuckling pirate adventure tales but historical stories about famous characters of the golden age of piracy. It even featured paper dolls, games and other activities for kids, although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for young readers. The comic is sadly no longer being produced, but it’s not hard to find in back-issue form.

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Scurvy swabs!
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… and paper dolls?

Another historical adventure comic is Brian Wood and Massimo Carnevale’s Northlanders, which offers a gritty, cynical and violent take on the early medieval period. It’s beautifully-drawn (with lovely colors by Dave McCaig) and well-written, but a history lesson it ain’t; its Vikings are very modern in their outlook — at one point we see Vikings in early medieval Ireland talking to each other like modern cops, which is a little jarring. Although it’s been cancelled, this series is still easy to find in trade paperback; its arcs are relatively self-contained, so it’s no trouble to jump in with any volume.

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But perhaps the most ambitious historical adventure comic is Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze. This intermittent series aims to tell the story of the Trojan war — all ten bloody years of it, with every character from the Iliad and later spinoffs included. Even more boldly, Shanower decided to base his adaptation on actual Bronze Age archaeology, going so far as to publish a special issue outlining the research he’d done on the topic. With the series’ glacial publication schedule, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to the Trojan Horse, but the four collections already on bookstore shelves are splendid by themselves.

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Shanower’s meticulous research gives Age of Bronze its authentic feel.

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Special honorable mention goes to Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s Action Philosophers!, which isn’t about history as such but includes a lot of historical background and is still, hands down, the most enjoyable way to learn about philosophy.

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