Back when I was a nerdy teen,
Utterly nothing like I am now…
I began nurturing my love of comics like many future history majors might: I went diving into the past and found the oldest examples that I could. The release of Marvel’s black & white Essentials collection helped me greatly. Where else could a bone-broke kid read a copy of X-men #1 from 1963?
Going back to the start like that allowed me to witness the evolution of the characters into better versions of themselves (Sue Storm now has multiple doctorates,) the progressing attitudes of society over time (the mistreatment of women has transformed from a casual event into obviously villainous behavior,) and the increasing consideration for the intelligence of readers (more and more story elements became dependent on the art rather than the dialogue.) At one point and time, I probably knew more about comics history than I knew about actual history.
How lucky am I then that the two could be brought together so seamlessly? My love of comics is now being rewarded with the release of hundreds of non-fiction graphic novels that cover every historical subject under the sun. Some are perfect for teaching children the basics of important historical events. Others can help teenagers cut through the confusing language of antiquated documents.
But what about us? Comics aren’t just for kids, right? If I can rot my brain with yet another Green Lantern reboot at age 31, why can’t I use this engaging medium to engage myself as a lifelong learner, too? Maybe there are graphic novels that might be citable sources for a grad school term paper! But I’m dreaming too big. Wait, what’s that noise?
(Flip, flip, flip, flip)
There is an emerging, higher-level category of Graphic Novels that seems to be tailor-made for the secondary-education crowd! The Warren Commission Report: A Graphic Investigation into the Kennedy Assassination is one of the more encouraging examples of this.
I’ve never read the original report because a.) I’m not a conspiracy theorist about the death of Kennedy and b.) the report is almost 900 pages long and I have better things to do. Like play Dragon Age. I’m a teacher and it’s summer, dammit!
But this graphic adaptation takes a tragic, comprehensive report and distills it into about three hours of effort for a brisk reader. A LOT of ground is covered in 157 pages; a comprehensive breakdown of Kennedy’s assassination, followed by an in-depth study of Oswald as a man, finishing with a critical analysis of the report itself. It doesn’t go to any great length to be flashy, but it doesn’t need to work very hard. Dan Mishkin does a great job in summarizing what we need to know using the vivid illustrations of Ernie Colόn and Jerzy Drozd. The reading level remains undiminished from its original format, however. As a result, this is ostensibly NOT a graphic novel for high school readers. It’s for college kids to write term papers with or adults to learn from out of curiosity or enjoyment.
- Mishkin’s choices help us invest ourselves in what is a very dry document. President Kennedy’s death was a profound tragedy, and the book helps us feel that without pushing. Pages 47-54, for example, show us people’s facial reactions and panic in the moments following the assassination. They show us the confusion found in conflicting eyewitness testimonies and zoom us in until November 22nd, 1963 gains a very personal feel.
- The book paces relatively well, with only a few drags. Topics like the Zapruder Film, Oswald’s “lone-wolf” status and the Magic-Bullet Theory are handled efficiently and (seemingly) decisively.
- The analysis leaves room to question the motives of the commission by providing a backdrop to the investigation. We are given cause to doubt the truthfulness of the findings, but Mishkin never encourages us to adopt any of the far-fetched alternative explanations.
- The art is expressive, intuitive and rewarding. It accompanies the writing effectively while leaving the most gruesome details to the imagination.
What Could Be Better:
- I don’t have much room to criticize here. I did put the book down from time to time following a particularly dry section, but the internet has destroyed my attention span.
How I Would Use It:
Although the Warren Commission Report, even in this graphic format, would render most high school students comatose, a dedicated collegiate mind can find Mishkin’s work refreshing and easy to digest.
But, if you’d like to use this excellent book to teach your high school or middle school students about this 20th Century turning point, then I would advise using specific pages or sections in isolation to illustrate key elements. Highlights include:
- 14-21: Sets up the scene in Dallas, show the assassination, and take us into the hospital where Kennedy was pronounced dead.
- 59-65: Shows Oswald’s activities during the day.
- 84-90: Handles the Magic Bullet Theory with clear explanation and diagrams.
- 133-143: Explains why the Warren Commission might come to a hurried, unanimous conclusion.
- 144-152: Handles the rise of conspiracy theories and Johnson’s reaction to the report.
If you distill the work down to those pages, you have a simplified and easily followed account.
I’m looking forward to see what other post-secondary works emerge for the graphic novel enthusiast. In the meantime, I’ll bide my time by ordering a stiff drink and hunkering down with The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation.
 Nowadays, there are a variety of reprints of old comics available at reasonable prices, but none quite so affordable as those essentials. 20+ issues for under 20 bucks!?