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History, Comics, and Representation: An Interview with Jason Rodriguez

Jason Rodriguez, Eisner and Harvey Award-nominated creator behind the Colonial Comics series, sits down with Comics in the Classroom to talk curation, creation, and shining a light on little known tales. The latest volume, Colonial Comics New England 1750-1775, is available now from Fulcrum Publishing. Order today from Amazon or pick it up at your local bookseller!

First off, these books are fantastic! They work to add depth and nuance to our understanding of American history without being overwhelming, and actively seek out marginalized voices. What initially gave you the idea to create a series like this?

Honestly, the idea was brought to me. My friend, Matt Dembicki, who had already published two books with Fulcrum, told me that they were interested in an anthology about New England history. Since I love the time period, I decided to send a pitch. I came to Fulcrum with a fully-assembled team and ideas to fill three books; and they signed on.

What was the solicitation process like? Did you have a list of stories you wanted to create, or did creative teams pitch them to you?

It was a little bit of both. Some people came to me with stories, or at least found stories on their own when I gave them the parameters of the book. Some people, however, were people I had wanted to work with, so I gave them some suggestions. An Example: for Erika Swyler’s Elizabeth Glover story, I only knew two things: 1) Elizabeth Glover brought the first printing press to America, and 2) Erika Swyler is a great writer. She did all of the research and came back to us with a story. Same thing happened with Christina Rice’s Ezekiel Cheever story – I asked her if she could do something on the public-school system in Massachusetts, and she came back with a great story about a long-serving headmaster of the first public school.

In addition to the diversity of stories being told, it seems like you also sought out diverse creators. I counted eleven female creators for volume two, and another seven for volume one. Was including more diverse voices part of your goal?

Sort of. I’ve been editing comic book anthologies since 2003, and when I was putting together Colonial Comics I had a bit of a revelation: my curation style tended to cater to white, male creators. It was who I knew, so it was who I approached. So, I did actively try and meet and recruit more women and people of color for this series, kind of course correcting my own past failures. If my goal was to tell stories about historically marginalized communities, it would be ridiculous to have a bunch of white males tell them. That’s what mainstream comics and Hollywood tend to do – faux inclusivity. The book is so much better because of it, too. People should tell stories with which they can personally resonate. It makes the work better.

I love the other interludes, addendums, and ephemera you’ve included in the books, especially the design elements from the colonial era newspapers (and the word of warning on just focusing on one primary source!). What inspired you to include those?

I believe in the whole experience of books. The book should feel like the subject matter that it’s presenting, and if you’re making educational books, every square centimeter should be used to tell the story you’re trying to tell. What you get is more of an overall experience, with each design element and longer-form interstitial piece contributing to a larger narrative. Including these interludes also helps to give the book cohesion, and it helps piece together a series of otherwise disconnected stories. The first book was designed to look like a Colonial-Era religious text/book of maps. And the second book, as you mentioned, was designed to look like a Colonial-Era newspaper. Books were a huge facet of the early Colonial period. And newspapers played a huge role in pre-Revolutionary America, Paying tribute to that makes the comic books, themselves, feel like they’re part of the history.

The stories featured in both books display a surprising level of complexity. You and the creative teams have clearly put a tremendous amount of effort into portraying these historical figures, good and bad, as real people, rather than just dried out caricatures. By introducing this kind of nuance in a book for middle grade readers, was it your goal to inspire critical engagement with history at a younger age?

Yes, absolutely. When I first started working on this project I decided to have a month-long, intensive reading period. I wanted to see how other creators captured the nuances of the period. When I read Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates, I knew I had found my framework. Sarah is Cherokee, and she wrote about her struggle to balance her identity — threatened hundreds of years ago by European colonists– with her admiration for the Pilgrim’s overall appreciation of and adherence to the written word and education. It’s that level of critical thinking that I wanted to introduce to younger readers – that there were some absolute villains back then, and there were some absolute heroes, but, mostly, there were people who fell somewhere in between.

One of the things that stuck out to me about both volumes was the willingness to play with the comics medium. Volume One features “Thomas Morton, Merry Mount’s Lord of Misrule,” which plays out simultaneously across multiple, conflicting perspectives. Volume two has “Join or Die,” which does away with formal panel structure. Both books prominently feature wordless narratives, as well. These are bold choices for an educational comic. Were you ever worried about “losing” readers who may not be comics savvy?

Hah. Editors are ALWAYS worried about losing readers who aren’t comics savvy so, yes I was. But here’s the thing, or at least here’s my philosophy: If you get people to think critically about the presentation, they’re forced to think critically about the material. The EJ Barnes’ Thomas Morton story is color-coded, so that the switching between narratives is easier to track. But the story about the Puritans meeting with the Quakers in the second volume (by A. David Lewis, Carla Speed McNeil and Jenn Manley) has multiple accounts from different time periods, all packed into seven pages. You need to really work to digest that story, and in doing so you pick up the actual story. At least that’s the hope.

With one of the silent stories, I approached Dr. Virginia DeJohn Anderson because I loved her book Creatures of Empire. It covered free-range animal husbandry, which is one of the most important topics concerning the early Colonial period. When I wrote her and asked if she was interested in adapting her research into comics, we talked for quite a while about how to compress such a complicated topic into just five pages. And we decided that the best approach was to simplify it – to show the story, instead of telling it. Everyone can understand the story about troublesome sows encroaching on native crops, and we had visual cues to guide the reader through the story. First the native population received compensation, and then they were taught to build fences – finally, they were forced to move. A young reader can understand the story, and an older reader can understand the story BEHIND the story. I think it was a pretty novel approach to tackling a very difficult subject matter.

There’s something visceral about seeing something, as opposed to reading it — a fact drive home by comics highlighting brutal treatment of both Native American and Black populations. Given the struggles still faced by both groups today, do you think these comics might inspire greater understanding of the history underneath it all? And, dare I suggest it, even some empathy?

I hope so. It’s one thing to read about the terrible treatment of certain people, it’s another thing entirely to see it on a page. It’s a difficult balance, however. A great example is in the story about the New England triangle trade in the second book. There was quite a bit of back-and-forth on that one, beginning when my publisher suggested that we add clothing to the images of the slaves being transported. I was against that, and after explaining [that, historically, slaves were stripped before transport], they were as well. It took compromise; we knew we needed to be honest about the absolute horrors that these men, women, and children went through while also keeping the material visually appropriate for schools and libraries. In the end, it took some clever repositioning of the images to meet both goals. And to complicate the story even further, we had to properly show the juxtaposition of the complete dehumanizing of slaves against the slave traders’ complete lack of empathy. That is a difficult thing to pull off, but if it’s effective it drives home a very important point: the lives of these men, women, and children were completely meaningless to the people who were killing and torturing them. And you really see that in the final piece. And that’s something you’ll sometimes miss in a prose book.

Balancing age appropriate imagery with hard truths


What’s made clear in both books is that history is never really over — its effects ripple out from the colonial period to today. What is the one lesson you’d like to see readers take away from the book along those lines?

There was one story we never got to do, and I consider it one of the two major misses of the first book. (For the record: my second major miss was failing to include the Pequot Massacre in the first volume.) Cotton Mather was largely positioned as a villain in the first volume. He showed up in three stories, and in two of them (Anne Hutchinson and the Salem Witch Trials), he was the primary antagonist. But, getting back to the nuances of both the time period and the people who lived through it, Cotton Mather was also a visionary leader who strongly pushed for an innovative (to Western civilization) medical technique to combat a devastating smallpox outbreak in 1721 Boston: inoculations.

The negative response to his proposal was, at times, violent. Mather was only able to get one doctor to agree to inoculate people. The reasons for the resistance to inoculations were two-fold: 1) the religious community believed that injecting a live virus into a person was counter to God’s will and 2) doctors believed that inoculations qualified more as folklore than real medicine. But Mather studied the results of his inoculation program, and he made a convincing case that the procedure could save lives. Eventually, by the method of inoculation, Boston managed to dramatically reduce the severity and frequency of smallpox outbreaks.

(And now here we are, almost 300 years later, still fighting over the efficacy and safety of vaccines.)

Our more obscure history is largely forgotten. We win a fight and move on, opting only to tell larger-than-life stories of the people whose faces are on our money. My hope, with these books, is to show that we’ve been fighting some of the same-ole-fights for hundreds of years, that our history and present are nuanced and complicated, and that there are certain things that we should have already learned and moved on from.

Connect with Jason via his website, www.jasonrodriguez.com, or on Twitter @JayRodriguez

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