Friday, May 9, 2008

Comic Books

A few days back, I wrote about video games. If anyone is reading these posts, I'd bet there are some who would question the intellectual worth of these endeavors and just might question my intellectual worth as well. I'm about to lower myself in these people's estimation a bit more when I talk about my next topic: comic books. They're also known as "Graphic Novels", but to me that's like using the term "Action Figure" for dolls -- a euphemism for the same thing. I'm more familiar with the term comic books and I'll use that term.

I once held a fairly dim view of comics myself. Images of Archie and Jughead and Superman come to mind in a rather unappetizing panoply of mediocrity. And yet if one scratches beneath the surface, there is some incredibly profound work being done in the comic book world. Most people are familiar with the Art Spiegelman series Maus, but there's a lot more in this genre than that. Here are a few examples:

1) Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is for me the best example of this genre. It is the story of a young woman growing up in revolutionary Iran. The piece works on a number of levels, but for me the merging of the text and the images is profound. There is one passage where the author confronts her religious beliefs that is beautiful and profound. If you know me, you also know that I don't throw that particular combination of words around lightly.

2) Deogratias by J.P. Stassen is the story of a young man's experiences during the Rwandan massacres in the 1990s. It's a tough book to categorize, and it is not for the faint of heart -- there are some pretty vicious scenes. For a visceral and haunting account of Rwanda, however, I cannot recommend a better book.

3) Action Philosophers! by Fred van Lente and Ryan Dunleavy is a series of comics that [obviously] deals with brief discussions of the lives of prominent philosophers. What interest me here is that aside from the typical litany, the authors deal with lesser known people like Derrida, Wittgenstein, and even Foucault. The series is lighthearted and often very funny. The section on John Stuart Mill, for instance, depicts Mill as a Charlie Brown like character. The Foucault section is done in the style of Family Circus.

4) The Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick is an amazing work. As a history teacher, I have a bias here, but this is a really exceptional work. The book is a work in progress. The series that starts from the origins of the universe and is supposed to go till the present day (they're at the American Revolution right now). There's some surprisingly good history here and it's very well researched and interesting.

I don't know that these works are for younger kids -- there are some pretty adult themes in each of these books -- but they could be great with older kids ready to discuss some serious themes.

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