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Jonathan Hennessey on Graphic Novels, History and Education

The following guest post is from David Cutler’s Spin Education and is reposted with permission. You can access the original posting of David’s interview with Jonathan Hennessey at the original post at Spin Education.

Since its release in 2008, I’ve assigned Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell’s The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation to my history and government students. A dynamic and effective mixture of art and narration brings the story of the Constitution to life, engaging students with visual literacy, which few champion as passionately as these two creators.

“It always strikes me as supremely odd that high culture venerates the written word on the one hand, and the fine visual arts on the other,” Hennessey recently told me. “Yet somehow putting the two together is dismissed as juvenilia. Why is that? Why can’t these forms of art go together like music and dance?”

On that front, Hennessey and McConnell’s work represents some of the best of what comics and graphic novels can do for education. Each year, students tell me how much they enjoy their graphic adaptation, and how much more engaged they are with the history of our nation’s most precious document.  Next year, I also plan to assign Hennessey and McConnell’s new book, The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation.

For deeper insight into Hennessey’s thoughts on comics, graphic novels, history and education, I recently reached out to him for an interview. Below, he offers extremely thorough and thoughtful responses, and anybody at all interested in teaching would do well to pay close attention.

Q:  As a graduate of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communicationsas well as a professional with tremendous television and film experienceclearly, you have tremendous talent for terrific storytelling. But when did you cultivate your knowledge of and passion for American history, and how did your more formal education serve you in writing your graphic adaptations?

A: David, I’m flattered by your kind words. Thank you for noticing my work and reaching out. It’s always great to connect with people who are interested in exploring these kinds of topics in relatively new and untraditional ways!

I sometimes think of myself as a “born again” American history lover. I was born raised in Massachusetts. And American history is just in the air around there. On top of that, I come from a military family on both sides. I don’t think I quite qualify for the name “army brat,” but I spent the earliest years of my life living on a U.S. Army base, and that experience definitely shaped my family. At least in my case, army life simply brought with it a heightened awareness of and respect for history, particularly military history. Even when my father later retired from active duty and went into the reserves, he would be called up a few weeks a year. At these times—way before email and Skype, and even when long distance phone calls were expensive—my dad would draw me these little “army comics” and send them in the mail to me as a way of staying in touch. These comics would depict American tanks, planes, and infantry sparring with Nazis or other bad guys (maybe even dinosaurs). The envelopes would come postmarked from an army base in New Jersey or Texas, and I just loved that—even though my father was far more talented at drawing tanks and planes than drawing people. He could never get the noses right!

So I think becoming passionate about American History had a lot to do with how and where I grew up. It’s not like I was regularly being spirited along in a stroller down the fields of Lexington and Concord. But driving around my far less historically pivotal hometown, there are many spots where even if you idly glance out the window of a moving car—as you do when you’re young and constantly out running errands with your mother—you’re likely to find yourself staring at a Minuteman statue, a mile marker set down by Benjamin Franklin, a plaque commemorating the spot where artillery captured at Fort Ticonderoga passed through to be used against the British occupiers of Boston, or an old house where my late grandfather once whispered to me that a group called the “Praying Indians” used to meet.

When I got older, though, I have to admit that all of that became very, very dull to me. Like any proper proto-nerd of the Star Wars, early home computing, early Japanese anime, and early video gaming generation, I became far more interested in the future than the past, and in fantasy over history—or maybe even fantasy over reality.

But that started to change thanks to a conscious decision to become more engaged with the real world and the people in it—including that small number of important, formative, attitude-shaping individuals hopefully everyone has in their lives at some point. One mentor was one of “those” high school teachers many of us are lucky to encounter. In this case it was an insuperably talented English teacher named Gerard Herlihy who truly breathed life into American literature, and who even did an annual and extremely memorable performance of the Edgar Allen Poe poem “The Raven.” So I started to come at American history again not through history per se but through writing and storytelling. Even something like the Herman Melville short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” startled me with a radically different view of New York City, which to me, in the suburbs of Boston, seemed like this monstrosity over the horizon that just seemed to exist outside of history. It was provocative and baffling to me that such an enormous, bustling, forward-thinking place could ever have been just a modest outpost of civilization that barely extended north of Wall Street.

My interest in American history was again reignited in my early twenties, when I decided to make what turned out to be a three-month, 3,000-mile bicycle trip from Boston up to Montreal, Quebec, and then back down to Austin, Texas, where I then spent three years.

Our southbound route in particular brought my traveling buddy and [me] to a number of Civil War sites. One particularly spooky, dark night in what seemed to me at the time to be in the middle of absolutely nowhere, we ended up camping in a swamp on the edge of the Antietam Battlefield. And—I don’t know—it’s not like I would ever claim to have had some legitimate supernatural experience then. But spirits or something just seemed to be in the air that night. And in particular, on that and many previous nights, my friend and I just seemed to keep coming across John Brown sites. That was when the bug really bit me. A new level of appreciation for the enormity of the Civil War and American history, and specifically the greater historical forces and human themes implicit in them, really took off in me. And that became more heightened as we kept traveling, and slowly experienced the North turning into the South. Geographically, culturally, and linguistically.

At that point the most important thing that changed for me was that I started to no longer think of the past as dead. And my attitude completely shifted in another way, too. Studying history no longer seemed so backwards-looking. It seemed just the opposite. It still seems to me now to be the only way to meaningfully engage with the present and the future.

At Syracuse I studied English and Film/Television/Radio Production, the latter of which was part of the S. I. Newhouse School. I definitely learned and refined a lot of visual storytelling basics by studying film at the undergraduate level. Which is definitely not to say I left school with anything worth showing to anybody. I didn’t! But it was a safe, generally supportive arena in which to make a lot of stupid mistakes, and actually to exorcise a certain amount of pretentiousness and get several bad story ideas out of my system. It was also an irreplaceable excuse to see a ton of films and read a ton of books.

Much more important to me, though, are the hugely consequential benefits of a good old-fashioned humanities education. A really solid number of classes I signed up for took me way out of my comfort zone and exposed me to perspectives that I hadn’t appreciated or experienced before, and those classes were outside anything that had to do with writing or “screen arts.” It was studying history, philosophy, non-Western values, and the then semiotics-crazed race/class/gender-obsessed English department that gave me a new set of tools to try to apprehend the world with. I really credit that aspect of my education for ways I have tried to approach writing about American history and politics.


Q: I’m curious to learn about the creative development behind The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation. How did you and artist Aaron McConnell conceive this project, and how successful were you in accomplishing your goals?

A: Another sort of American history-based project that I tried unsuccessfully to launch throughout the 2000s—this one fictional—predated the Constitution project. And the Constitution project wouldn’t probably have come about if it hadn’t been for Sid Jacobsen and Ernie Colon’s graphic adaptation of The 9/11 Commission Report. A savvy book agent, Frank Scatoni, foresaw that Jacobsen and Colon’s very successful book might create a mini-boom of nonfiction graphic novels. This book agent saw some work that Aaron and I had done together and saw potential in it. We started having conversations, and the Constitution project arose from that.

I later learned that Aaron and I were one of several creator teams that were sort of being groomed to take a swing at the idea of adapting the Constitution. I will probably never know why exactly they chose us in the end. But the “proof of concept” pages Aaron and I collaborated on included the way we interpolated the early Constitution’s now-notorious “3/5 Compromise”—that is, by portraying African Americans literally as walking, breathing, vivisected bodies with 2/5 of their flesh and bone missing. We also included our approach to the three branches of the federal government, which created these three characters with, respectively, the Capitol Building, the White House, and the building that houses the Supreme Court as heads. These choices, I like to think, used the medium well, and solved several thorny problems of representation. They created memorable images. They proved that something as dry as the Constitution could be brought to life in an interesting and intelligent, yet still accurate and pedagogical, way in the comics medium.

Were we successful with the book? The adaptation is definitely everything I thought it could be. I didn’t want it to turn out to be a dry, 1787 costume drama of Founding Fathers debating. I also didn’t want it to completely distance itself from that with some overriding Schoolhouse Rock!-style schtickeroo either. We brought in visual gags, hopefully colorful ones that allowed us to be playful with the material without becoming facile. We paid a little homage to German expressionism here, Steampunk design there, superhero comics there. And I believe there are real, eye-opening, even provocative lessons in the book for most people: that members of the electoral college have the power to overthrow the will of the people in a presidential election; that for all our military actions since World War II the U.S. Congress hasn’t once officially declared war; and that the Civil War-era amendments actually did so little to bring African-Americans to an equal political footing after the abolishment of slavery. One piece of which I’m particularly proud is the bit on the 2nd Amendment, and how our understanding of it may hinge on the very different meanings in the Constitution of the word “people” and the word “persons.” I still think of that every time there is a mass shooting in the news, and without fail the comments section of every media outlet I read demonstrates how poorly most people understand gun rights.

Yet every once in a while I also hear that a particular sequence in the book failed to mention something substantive out or left someone confused. We were under some deadline pressure and it would have been nice to have had the time to be even more thorough and perfectionistic with it.


Q:  To what degree, if any, was the creative process different for The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation?

A:  The Gettysburg Address was different in two key ways.

Number one, in the Civil War project we weren’t necessarily going to be discussing so many completely abstract concepts. To adapt the Constitution, we had to be able to visually represent broad ideas like speech, congressional representation, liberty, privacy, property, the “idea” of states and statehood, and so on. There was a lot to work out about how to represent those notions in a drawing.

In The Gettysburg Address, on the other hand, we were getting into more concrete and specific historical events and people. There w[ere]n’t necessarily the same challenges to figuring out what to put on the page.

But number two, the U.S. Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation couldn’t, by [the] nature of the book it needed to be, have anything original to say about the Constitution. It did not have an argument to try to get across, and it was not intended to slant towards any particular political agenda. The Gettysburg Address, on the other hand, tried to go much deeper, and to actually articulate an explanation for why American politics are so fractious, and have been from the Founding Era through to the 1850s and all the way up to today. It contemplates our system in a much more deliberate fashion. So it took a lot of careful thought and drafting to work that argument out. And a consequence of that was that the book had to be structured much more carefully. We couldn’t just go in order from the Preamble to the 27th Amendment.


Q:  What do you think of teachers assigning your graphic adaptations, rather than traditional textbook readings? What feedback have you received from students and teachers, and how do you plan on utilizing this feedback for future projects?

A:  I am too much of a traditional bibliophile myself to recommend that traditional books or textbooks be neglected. And I definitely don’t think that graphic books are for everyone. Or that they’re some kind of panacea for whatever educational crisis we might be said to be facing at any given time in this country.

But I’m thrilled when I hear my books are being used in classrooms. Because I remember how exposure to comics as a school-age person propelled me to remember what I had read so much better, and prompted me to ask questions and to look to other sources for answers — more than any other kind of reading. I truly do not think that the addition of illustrations somehow depresses the higher functions of a reader’s imagination. In fact, the comics medium allows you to communicate so much more with so much less. It can also more vividly put a reader in a place—literally or figuratively—she hasn’t been before. When done well, it gives ideas a synergistic punch.

For example, in Gettysburg there’s a section where we’re contemplating why the Confederacy thought it had the right to legally secede from the Union. This brings us to the whole question of state sovereignty: what the states asserted their sovereignty amounted to in the days of the American Revolution, and later how the nature of that sovereignty may have changed when those same states ratified the U.S. Constitution. We’re asking the question, “Where did that sovereignty go?” And we depict it as a kind of literal shell game. The Constitution was, I believe, in some ways drafted to purposefully obscure the whole subject, because it was too thorny a thing to explicitly deal with in 1787 and still build the consensus needed to save the states from themselves.

I hear from a lot of teachers that these are some of the best (basic) books on the Constitution and the Civil War that are out there for anyone. And of course that is a thrilling compliment. If there was one improvement I could put on a wish list, it’s that I often hear that these softcover books don’t hold up well under rough treatment, or being passed between too many hands. It’s no fun to read on Amazon or someplace that a kid’s copy of one of our books fell apart on her!


Q: How were you drawn to producing graphic adaptations? What do you find so appealing about this medium, especially for teachers and students?

A: I loved comics from the day as a little boy I discovered a huge cardboard box of Dennis the Menace, Felix the Cat, Little Lulu, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and Hot Stuff comics under my Aunt Jane’s bed in my grandmother’s house. Later on, when a friend was reading Tintin and Asterix I began to get the sense that the medium could be a little more sophisticated. I guarantee you I never thought about what life was like in 1930s Belgium or Roman Gaul until I read those books! I later graduated to more traditional superhero books and fantasy epics.

But there were other somewhat oddball entries into my comics education. One came in the form of a mass-mailed newsprint comic book that was published in one of the years of my youth when Ted Kennedy was up for reelection as a senator from Massachusetts. Kennedy’s challenger had created an extended political cartoon-style screed against him. The document called Kennedy out on topics from Chappaquiddick to softness on communism. If I recall correctly I was home sick from school one day, found this thing, and read it cover to cover. I wasn’t much of a political animal at the time. But I definitely found it compelling. Right or wrong, it was certainly the most easy-to-digest form of political writing I had ever encountered. Its powers of persuasion made an impression on me — even though Kennedy was handily reelected in the end. There was another educational comic book that circulated around my classroom when I was in 3rd or 4th grade. It was about the oil crisis, and the importance of saving energy and being more environmentally conscious. This must have been while Carter was in office. It too made an impression on me.

So I wanted to create comics from an early age, not because I thrilled to depictions of superhero mayhem or light comedy necessarily, but because the medium really seemed capable of expressing truth — both factual truths and the truths at the heart of the best stories. And it could do so in ways that were fanciful and creative.

I think the interplay of words and pictures has a way of engaging many aspects of the human mind at once, and can create a powerful experience of interacting with emotions and ideas. Unlike movies, however, the reader can go at his own pace. He can be more involved and active in the experience. In one image or composition, the reader can linger over the potential significance of small details without having the sense that the narrative flow has been disrupted. No matter how much time you spend inside one panel, you never feel like the story has stopped or altered tempo. Not the way you would if you pressed “pause” while watching a video. So it’s ideal for students and teachers. It has the vividness of the moving image and the complexity of text.


Q:  How would you respond to criticism that comic books and graphic novels are childish, with little to no educational value? How should one dispute such thinking

A: It always strikes me as supremely odd that high culture venerates the written word on the one hand, and the fine visual arts on the other. Yet somehow putting the two together is dismissed as juvenilia. Why is that? Why can’t these forms of art go together like music and dance?

The people who makes claims that the medium has so little educational value should go argue their case with the U.S. military, which for generations has produced nonfiction comics to educate soldiers on everything from cleaning guns to interacting with a native population. The comics medium also shares essential roots with the very nature of ideogrammatical written language, which establishes the literacy of half the world.

If you’re trying to convince a real hard case, there is, I’m sure you know, an emerging body of scientific study on just this question—like one recently conducted at the University of Oklahoma. Students exposed to written material expressed in a graphic novel format show a better capacity for remembering the information than those who experienced it in text form only.


Q: What new projects are you currently working on?

A: In 2015 Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House, will publish my third collaboration with Aaron McConnell. This one is based in history too, although with more of a global perspective. And it takes the reader from prehistory to the classical age to medieval times to today. After two books about politics and war, I felt compelled to move onto a somewhat lighter subject.

So the new book is going to be The Comic Book Story of Beer. It tells the stunningly wide-ranging history of the world’s favorite alcoholic drink from thousands of years before the first written words to today’s craft brewing movement. Readers will be pleasantly surprised to see how many historical topics are caught up in beer, including Sumerian and Egyptian mythology, the Bible, the Greeks and Romans, the long history of the Christian Church, the rise of capitalism, the so-called age of exploration, and the world wars of the 20th Century. Aaron is only about halfway done with the art at this point. But it’s some of his best work yet. And even more than the other books this one is super fun and gratifying to flip through, because as you go from page to page you travel from Gilgamesh to Beowulf, from Irish 6th-Century monks to Black Plague victims, from the Pilgrims to the consequences of the Franco-Prussian War. We teamed up with a professional brewer, my co-author Mike Smith, for this one, and he brings a degree of knowledge that only a beer professional with nearly twenty years’ experience can. I also think this book stands to come out at the perfect cultural moment for its subject, since beer has seen an absolute explosion in popularity and diversity.


Q: What’s one question that you’re never asked, but would like to respond to?

A: Since I’ve written a book on the Civil War in which I argue that the Confederacy did not have the legal or moral right to secede the way it did—that is, by state-level conventions rather than through federal legislation—I’ve been surprised from time to time that no one has asked me what I think about the continued use of the Confederate flag.

There’s something admirable and thrilling in the notion of the rebel. Not every earthly authority or tradition is worthy of deference. The idea of spiritedly toppling pillars of injustice is still, for me, exciting and inspiring. So it bothers me when the Confederate flag is upheld as a “rebel” flag.

The American flag is the true rebel flag. What makes America, Americans, and the American experiment genuinely exceptional in the history of the world is our Revolution’s rejection of monarchy, inherited status, and arbitrary government power—democratic principles that may have been in their infant stage then but which set the stage for centuries of enlightened development towards racial and social equality. The rebelling colonists of 1776-1783, whether they were based in Boston, Baltimore, or Savannah, stuck out their necks for what they believed in. They audaciously took on the greatest military power in the world. And they did not do so at a time when the British Empire was weak and crumbling, but instead when it was very much in its ascendancy.

The Confederate flag is no rebel flag—not for any rebel worthy of reverence, anyway. It stands for misrule. It does not represent the righteous renunciation of a tyrannical foreign power. The Confederate flag was the standard of a movement that simply couldn’t abide the results of a single fairly- and legally-conducted presidential election. The followers of that movement went on to try to nullify a domestic government that they had helped establish and write the rules for. The rebels of 1860-1865 were rebelling against an institution that they themselves had more often than not controlled. Before the Civil War, for example, there had been more Southern presidents than Northern presidents.

Is the Confederate Flag, at some level and in some particular practices, just the sign of regionlistic pride I used to think it was? Maybe. The South has a lot to be proud of. It’s too bad there’s not a better replacement for the old Southern Cross, or if there is one, the gears of mass symbology move too slow[ly] for us to see it now. As for its relation to slavery, we should all be reminded that slavery was for many generations also the law of the land under which the Stars and Stripes, and even the Massachusetts state flag, flew.