Five Graphic Novels with Social Critique
In the court of the king, only the fool was free to point out His Royal Folly. The jester who juggled and joked for the amusement of the rich and powerful could also point out their hypocrisy and sin without reprisal. At least that’s the story. Medieval graveyards surely hide more than one head adorned with jingle bells (but not with a body).
Comics, and later their grown-up selves, Graphic Novels, play the same role in American Pop culture. Four-color funny books have exploited their reputation as disposable kids’ fare to express subversive and anti-establishment ideas ever since The Yellow Kid. Today the medium may have finally gained some credibility, but the outsider perspective is too deeply ingrained and some of the best sources of thoughtful social critique can still be found between the covers of comics.
There are many great GNs that offer insight not only into the dynamics of our society, but into the art of graphic storytelling, as well as lending themselves to a detailed study. Below we have compiled a list of a few suggestions to kick off discussions of the world we live in, warts and all.
- Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegleman – This is the granddaddy of “serious” graphic novels. Spiegleman tackles The Holocaust through his father’s story of Nazi Germany from the ghettos to the concentration camps using a decidedly cartoonish style portraying Jewish people as mice, Nazis as cats and Polish people, controversially, as pigs. This simplistic overlay allows for an unflinching and deeply human look at antisemitism, the horrors of war, man’s inhumanity to man, and the fallout of attempted genocide on the survivors and their children. Modern parallels should surprise and frighten astute readers.
For a deep and thorough understanding of the origins of antisemitism, The Plot: The Secret History Of the Protocols of the Elders Of Zion is written and drawn by the father of the Graphic Novel himself, Will Eisner, and offers one of the best analyses of the “logic” of antisemitism in any medium. When you question how 6 million people could be murdered just for being Jewish, you’ll find a clear but ultimately unsatisfying answer here in this story of how a lie changed the world.
- A People’s History of American Empire by Howard Zinn and various artists – Technically a graphic adaptation of the long time bestseller, but one that lends itself well to the graphic medium, this graphic novel tells the history of The United States that wasn’t taught in most classrooms. From Manifest Destiny all the way to 9/11, the book is divided into historical periods and subdivided into individual stories focusing mainly on America’s dealings with the “outside” world as it grew from colonies to global power. A great companion to any study of American history, A People’s History reads like the counterpoint to mainstream history books, but can get a little heavy to digest all at once.
Give Me Liberty by Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons. No less dark and full of sex and violence (you were warned!) is this future history of the USA, starting with the birth of Martha Washington in the Cabrini Green projects of 1995, as envisioned in 1990 by problematic legend Frank Miller and the artist of Watchmen, Dave Gibbons. No social topic escapes their extrapolation of America at the end of the Cold War. Race, religion, poverty, power and gender all play important parts in this adult near-future, sci-fi redemption tale.
- Our Lady of Birth Control: A Cartoonist’s Encounter with Margaret Sanger by Sabrina Jones – Modern Feminism may have reached the masses with The Pill and the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s, but the suffragists and progressives at the turn of the previous century were the matriarchs of the movement. Chief among them was Margaret Sanger, known today mainly as the founder of Planned Parenthood.In Our Lady, Sanger’s life gets tied up in the author’s coming of age to offer two views of the lives of American women in the 1920s and 70s, their place in society, and their right and ability to control their bodies. Sanger today is lionized by the left and demonized by the right, and the real person presented here is as complicated and problematic as any modern activist. Frank discussions of sex, abortion and racism challenge readers holding a variety of viewpoints.
Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Various Artists. Science fiction is a great genre for commentary on modern life, and DeConnick doesn’t hold back on her views of women in the 21st century. In the not-too-distant future, the patriarchy’s hold on power has only strengthened, and women who don’t play their gender role nicely are labeled “NC” (non-compliant) and sent to Bitch Planet, a prison world where dangerous ideas and ill-behaved women are kept locked away. If woman exploitation films crossed over into The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, Bitch Planet would be the result.
Y – The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra. This long-form series of 10 graphic novels tells the story of what would happen if one day all the men in the world died, save one. While written by a man and about a man, the story is dominated by women and their power and relationships in a world where the glass ceiling is not smashed, but removed. The lack of men does not decrease the amount of sex and violence in the story, however. Be warned.
- Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings – Another excellent adaptation of a seminal work, Kindred is fiction that makes the reality of slavery viscerally real. A modern black woman in the 1970s is transported back to the antebellum south and back again through these parallel stories, illustrating not only the horror and brutality of slavery, but the gender and power divides that had to come along with it. The protagonist’s sense of decency is tested, as she is forced to deal with a world where even basic decency could get her killed. An emotionally wrought portrait of everyday life under slavery (for both black and white), and how much violence and hate were needed to deny their common humanity.
Incognegro by Mat Johnson. A black reporter in the south, in the early 20th century, goes undercover as a white man to save his brother from lynching. Based on true stories of “passable” black men and women going “incognegro” to expose the horrifying nature and frequency of lynching to northern readers, the story raises questions of class, classification and the shades of grey where we live.
- March by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. March is now a complete three volume story by Congressman and Civil Rights legend John Lewis. Book One tells the story of his upbringing in rural Alabama and early preaching days, from meeting his inspiration in Dr. Martin Luther King, to his organization of the sit-ins of Nashville’s lunch counters in 1960. Book Two focuses on The Freedom Rides, and Book Three culminates with the now-iconic march on Selma, Alabama.These stories may or may not be familiar to readers, but the street level view Lewis provides emphasizes the small human details that only someone who had been there could provide. Lewis’ life bridges the divide between today’s familiar world and that of the south in the 1960, and proves that we are both at once miles away from and also precipitously close to the nation we were. Younger readers should note how old Lewis and his SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) contemporaries were during these historical moments, and how much of our society was changed by young people who were brave and principled enough to put their nation’s highest ideals to the test.
Heroes to Super-heroes:
X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson; & Black Panther by Christopher Priest. Even as graphic novels have gained respect, most of the world still views the medium as defined by the one genre: Superheroes. Thankfully, there is no need to eschew the elephant in the room when so many great superhero stories are great commentaries on the real world.
The X-Men began as a allegory for the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s, with fantastic mutations substituted for race. Over the years, it came to symbolize “otherness” in all its forms, and that theme is central to God Loves, Man Kills. A familiar pulpit-pounding preacher condemns mutants as an affront to the Lord, and more directly, as not being human. All that follows should spark conversation about not only social justice, but the traditional specific appeal of superheroes to young people.
Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection. The current run by Ta-Nehisi Coates aside, this was the definitive take on T’Challa, long before his cinematic debut. Priest was a trailblazer in the industry, and an outspoken social critic, when he was given what could have been an insulting task: “Make Black Panther cool”.
Superheroic and serious, the Black Panther had languished before Priest made the book funny, without avoiding the character’s racial overtones. And if all comics can be subversive because they don’t get taken seriously, imagine what the comics that make you laugh can do. If the Black Panther movie left you wanting more, start here.
Let us know if you use any of these titles to discuss social critique with your students. We want to provide you with as many resources as possible for using comics in the classroom!
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