As a kid, one of my favorite books was a collection of short biographies of famous women from the American Revolutionary period. Each story was accompanied by a beautifully painted illustration; it was my first introduction to the importance of women in shaping this country’s story. Colonial Comics New England 1620-1750 aims to shine that same light on the overlooked and forgotten of America’s early period.
Colonial history is complex, and rife with moral ambiguity. Further complicating the narrative is the litany of players and places populating it.
So, it’s really no surprise that when we broach the subject in schools, we filter a lot of it out. We simplify. We reduce complications. Yes, we’d like to give a more nuanced view, but finding material out there to support it is a challenge — especially for learners who are not yet ready to engage with dense, academic writing, or who struggle to grasp the importance of narratives that feel ‘over and done with’.
Colonial Comics New England 1620-1750, edited by Jason Rodriguez, is an attempt to create a classroom-ready resource on the period that refuses to infantilize the story without overcomplicating it. Rather than focus on the broader narrative of the period, Rodriguez instead chooses to focus on smaller stories that add color and context to our existing understanding. In his introduction, Rodriguez writes:
“John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, and Tisquantum were not the only people living in America […] There were also women, lots of them. There were kids. Free thinkers and philosophers. Teachers. Doctors and business owners. People with good intentions, along with people who wanted everything, even if it meant taking it from people who didn’t have the means to fight back. I want to tell those stories — the god and the bad.”
It’s an ambitious goal to say the least, but one the book largely succeeds at.
The stories told in Colonial Comics aren’t the ones you’ve heard before. This is a book far less concerned with history’s main players than those denied the spotlight, including women, Native Americans, and the earliest permanent Jewish settlement in what would become the United States. Even as an American history aficionado, there was lots of new material for me in this collection — a pleasant surprise.
Each story in the collection features a different creation team, meaning writing and art styles vary wildly. Likewise, you’ll find material for a variety of grade level needs. Some stories, such as the opener “Harried Out of The Land,” would make a great introduction to the Puritans for students as young as nine or ten, whereas other tales, such “Thomas Morton, Merry Mount’s Lord of Misrule,” told concurrently through multiple perspectives, or “Glooscap and the New Men,” with its potent ties to the ongoing fights for environmental protection faced by members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, offer rich and thought-provoking lesson material for students as old as twelve to fourteen.
Colonial Comics is at its most compelling when it allows for complexity to take to the forefront. The contrasting views on display in “Thomas Morton” underscore the difficulty of ascertaining “truth” in history. “The Indian Work” highlights the questionable methods used by those who believed they were doing God’s work. In “Captives: The Stories of John and Eunice Williams,” the savagery of an attack on settlers is contrasted with the kindness shown to one of their captives, who eventually rejects her European-influenced upbringing and, instead, adopts the indigenous culture as her own.
While never grotesque or gruesome, the text does include some upsetting imagery. Whales are harpooned, combat rages, a man waits to die at the gallows, and a mother and child are murdered (mostly off-panel, save for a brief, spot of blood). However, for me, the most affecting image was a two panels spread in “Maverick Island” by J.L. Bell and Joel Christian Gill. The story focuses on Englishman John Josselyn’s passing encounter with an enslaved African woman, whose final panels are eerily reminiscent of the story of Igbo Landing.
As with any history-centric text, it’s important to validate the information contained within. Colonial Comics breaks its sources down story by story, ensuring that the information provided is as factually accurate as possible. Each story begins with a textual introduction providing big picture historical context, and Rodriguez breaks up the separate comic ‘chapters’ with additional textual features.
Colonial Comics New England 1620-1750 is the first in a planned trilogy, with the second book released in January 2017. Based on what’s presented here, I’m excited for what’s to come. For those looking to add marginalized voices back into their class curriculum, or even a fresh take on an old story, the book is a valuable addition.