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Since I reviewed Manifest Destiny, it got me thinking about comic books that use historical eras and figures as settings and main characters respectively. Looking to the past can be a great source for relating present day issues to days gone by, but it’s also a fun excuse for true escapist literature. I mean, do you want to read a comic about Abraham Lincoln as he truly lived or would you rather see his steampunk equivalent traveling through time? Yeah, you heard me. That’s a thing and it exists. The point is that history can be as fun and off-kilter as it is relevant and heartfelt. So, with that in mind, let’s look at some history comics I’d recommend to history buffs and people looking for a good comic to read.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of this is lifted from a previous post I did on a former website. I make no excuses for the fact that I’m a lazy self-plagiarist.
I told you it was a thing! Yes, Time Lincoln, a fantastical journey into The Void where some of history’s most beloved and loathed figures are engaged in an epic war of epicness! At the moment of his assassination, Abe finds that it’s not John Wilkes Booth but Joseph Stalin about to pull the trigger! Stalin, having learned all of his secrets from Rasputin, has seen and taken power from “The Void” and knows that, in the future, Lincoln will be his most formidable foe. And before the deadly bullet ends his life, Abe is thrown through The Void, tearing through time and space, to begin his epic journey. This comic is just pure fun! Not only is Abe decked out in all his steampunky goodness, but he’s joined by Benjamin Franklin, George Washington Carver, Albert Einstein, and a boombox wielding Isaac Newton! And, I kid you not, Lincoln fights Hitler atop Mount Rushmore! Yeah, you heard me!
Can we just take a moment to thank the Pantheon that Neil Gaiman exists? Anyway, say what you want about Marvel and their penchant for holding on to continuity in the face of abject confusion, when something like this graphic novel exists, I’m glad they keep everything! Set during the tumultuous transition between the houses of Tudor and Stuart, Gaimen skillfully weaves a plot of mystery and intrigue as a great and dangerous power threatens the world, both Old and New. Ascending to the throne upon Elizabeth’s death, James I actively persecutes the “witchbreed” – those magically gifted as opposed to genetically evolved – who may be the only ones capable of saving the world. Aside from the superb writing and art, how Gaiman establishes each Marvel character within the Elizabethean era is just as delightful. Elizabeth consults with Sir Nicholas Fury, Peter Parquagh is apprenticed to Doctor Stephen Strange, and Carlos Javier’s students consist of Scotius Summerisle, Roberto Trefusis, Hal McCoy, Werner, and “John” Grey. Familiar, yet different. It was so popular that Marvel based stories on The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man in the same universe.
Anyone familiar with the Tesla vs Edison battle that flares up from time to time will love this comic! Basically, Tesla and his best pal Mark Twain are engaged in a great battle for world peace against Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, J.P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie. The plot involves giant robots, the dark arts, and Tesla being…Tesla. Plus, it has my all time favorite line from any comic book: “Quickly, to New Jersey!” And according to Matt Fraction himself, artist Steven Sanders likes to add his own sound effects while he draws, so you can only imagine how much fun he had with this comic! It’s fun times for all as history comes alive to deliver a swift fist of SCIENCE! to your gut.
Grant Morrison is one of many polarizing figures in the comic book community, but whether you love him or hate him he has a way of telling a good story. In this case, we have Bruce Wayne hurtling through time after supposedly dying at the hands of Darkseid during Final Crisis. Finding himself at humanity’s beginning, Bruce moves forward in time (Cavemen, Puritans, Pirates, The Old West, anywhere from the 1940s-1960s, and beyond) in order to solve the ultimate mystery, that of his own identity and his mysterious connection to all things bat-related. Morrison, by this time, had already planted the seeds of Bruce’s time travelling journey long before his supposed death. This book served to fill in the blanks, elevating Batman as a legendary figure, an archetype, always present and necessary. Even if you’re not all that into the mythos of Batman, at the very least you get to see Bruce head butt Blackbeard!
Yet another polarizing figure, Frank Miller has joined Alan Moore in the “Cranky Old Man” club, though for far different reasons. But before senility set in, Miller was respected for his groundbreaking interpretations of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, as well as his run on Daredevil. Outside of the mainstream heroes, Miller has been just as influential with works like Ronin, Sin City, and 300. Influenced himself by the 1962 film The 300 Spartans, the graphic novel is Miller’s interpretation of the Battle of Thermopylae. King Leonidas, along with 300 of his best warriors, hold off the Persian forces under Xerxes as he tries to conquer the city-states of Greece. It is their sacrifice that rallies all the people of Greece as a united front against the Persian army. Though made more popular by the movie, the comic itself is still a fun read. It’s wildly inaccurate, way over the top, and kinda racist, but at least Miller has the decency to include a recommended reading list for those interested in what actually happened.
I’ll be honest, this one is on my radar, I just haven’t had the chance to pick it up. But I’ll be damned if I don’t want to read it! You can have all the Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunters you want but of all the historical figure meets the supernatural stories out there I would’ve thought Paul Revere versus anything would have been first on the list! I mean, come on, the guy was a silversmith for crying out loud! A silversmith!!! The story practically writes itself. The graphic novel is definitely making use of the premise, casting Revere as a renowned monster hunter tasked with hunting down a supernatural killer in the midst of the revolution. Though Sleepy Hollow recently debunked all the myths of Paul Revere, it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy what would have made for an awesome spinoff.
I absolutely adore and love Kate Beaton’s work. Her webcomic is one of my favorites and I was lucky enough to meet her at Emerald City Comicon a few years ago before she really started blowing up all over the place. In a few short panels, she’s capable of reducing an historical event, person, or piece of literature to its bare essesntials while making you laugh the whole way. She’s a history lover’s dream and I most definitely had a number of her comics taped to my desk in the history office in college for the enjoyment of all! If I had to pick a favorite, it would be a strip consisting of a fan letter written by Jules Verne to Edgar Allen Poe. The look on Poe’s face at the end is priceless!
A passion project of Richardson, 47 Ronin is a book that tells a fairly faithful version of Japan’s most defining stories. It’s as historically significant as it is culturally. What Western society knows of Japan, and how the people of Japan view themselves, comes from this story of 47 warriors who avenged the death of their daimyo (lord), after he was forced to commit seppuku, and committed seppuku themselves in order to uphold their code of honor. This isn’t a book that takes the premise and runs in a different direction. Richardson wanted to tell the story through the medium of sequential art and he does so without the need to embellish what’s already fraught with plenty of drama. Stan Sakai’s art creates a book that reminds you of Japanese woodblock paintings, lending an authentic look combined with the cartoonish style that made Usagi Yojimbo so fun. It’s obvious that both Sakai and Richardson wanted to do right by the story and it shows in every page and every panel.
These are just scratching the surface of what’s out there in the realm of historically inclined comic books. If you’re interested in alternative versions of DC Comics characters, check out the Elseworlds books where you get to see a Victorian era Batman in Gotham by Gaslight, Green Lantern stories ala Shaherazade in Green Lantern: 1001 Emerald Nights, and the Justice League as inhabitants of the Old West in Justice Riders. A personal favorite of mine, however, is Superman: Red Son where writer Mark Millar imagines what would happen if baby Kal-El had landed in 1950s Ukraine and grew up under Stalinist rule. Outside of the Elseworlds, my favorite book is Darwyn Cooke’s Justice League: The New Frontier where Cooke depicts the transition of Golden Age heroes to the Silver Age through the mirror of post-WWII idealism, the Red Scare, and Cold War politics. Of course if Marvel is more your style it’s not uncommon for their characters to travel through time on occasion. Though if you’d like a nice standalone story, pick up Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight to get some badass female fighter pilots during World War II.
There are also numerous books through Dynamite Entertainment that continue the stories of pulp and Golden Age heroes like Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, etc. during their appropriate time periods and one of my favorite historically set comics is Peter Panzerfaust by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Tyler Jenkins that reimagines the characters and story of Peter Pan during World War II. Beginning to sense a common era of interest?
But those are my recommendations. Feel free to recommend some of your own and happy reading!