Pop Cultured: Comic Books: A revealing story about society, culture and history

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Nelvana was the first female hero of Canada created by Adrian Dingle and Franz Johnston, based on tribal folklore. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Through strips of illustration, text and story, comic books have served as a way to pass time for generations. Before comic books were fully developed in the 20th century, political cartoons were often printed in newspapers, according to Illustration History in an article titled, “Comics: Comic Books.” The platinum age of comics was the first age of comics. It occurred during the mid-19th to 20th centuries. A popular comic during the Platinum Age was the “Yellow Kid,” a character based on sensational journalism.  

The late 1930s to mid-1950s were termed as the Golden Age for comics because the demand for comics was the highest. With the creation of superheroes, DC and Marvel comics became famous, according to Illustration History in an article titled, “Comics: Comic Books.” Popularity for the supernatural genre rose in the Silver Age from the mid-1950s to the 1970s. The Bronze Age, the 1970s to 1980s, were characterized by more realistic styles of comics. Anti-heroes were popular during the Dark Ages of the mid-1980s to late 1990s. From 1996 to now, the popularity of superheroes and anti-heroes rises again, but with more complicated plotlines and details, according to the site. 

As Americans adored Superman and Wonder Woman during mid-20th century, in Canada, there was Nelvana of the Northern lights. Nelvana was the first female hero of Canada created by Adrian Dingle and Franz Johnston, according to Hey Kids Comic Fandom in an article titled, “Nelvana of the Northern Lights.” Dingle based Nelvana’s story on tribal folklore. Nelvana was an Inuit superheroine designed to protect Canada. She became an outlet for the youth in Canada as a way to find escapism from war. Nelvana became a symbol for Canadians and was even on the Canadian postage stamp in 1995, according to the site.  

““Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 11: Nelvana of the Northern Lights.” “Canadians finally had a hero to call their own in an American-dominated comic book industry.” 

Derek Newman-Stille

“Nelvana of the North fulfilled the lack of Canadian comic book heroes and had an impact on Canadian national identity as a whole,” Derek Newman-Stille said in a podcast titled, “Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 11: Nelvana of the Northern Lights.” “Canadians finally had a hero to call their own in an American-dominated comic book industry.” 

However, Nelvana’s character became a sort of government propaganda further into the war, according to Newman-Stille. Instead of her protecting Canada and the environment, the comics evolved to her fighting the Axis powers (Japan, Germany and Italy) according to the podcast. Overall, Newman-Stille said Nelvana is crucial to representing Canadianness because identity insecurity is something that Canadians, who are not known to express strong patriotism, struggle with. 

“She represented some very Canadian ideas, she’s emblematic of nature in the northern landscape,” Newman-Stille said. “She’s a personification of the Northern Lights and Canadians; when talking about distinctly important Canadian things often we’ll refer to the beauty of the northern landscape and the beauty of our environment in general and the comic does a great job associating Nelvana with those things.” 

““She’s a personification of the Northern Lights and Canadians; when talking about distinctly important Canadian things often we’ll refer to the beauty of the northern landscape and the beauty of our environment in general and the comic does a great job associating Nelvana with those things.” 

Derek Newman-Stille
“Persepolis” is an autobiographical story based on Satrapi’s childhood growing up in a changing Iran. The comic is black and white and details life during the Islamic Revolution and Iran-Iraq war. Photo courtesy of Beyond Social.

Moving away from superheroes, the comic “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi shows a different way where comics can be used to document history. “Persepolis” is an autobiographical story based on Satrapi’s childhood growing up in a changing Iran. The comic is black and white and details life during the Islamic Revolution and Iran-Iraq war, according to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in an article titled, “Using Graphic Novels in Education: Persepolis.” 

The comic tells Satrapi’s coming of age story where she grew up in Tehran. She starts out in the story being unaware of social class divisions. While growing up, her family also strongly advocated for Marxism, according to the New York Times in an article titled, “God Looked Like Marx.” She went from living in a high social class to one where friends and family were killed by revolutionaries for being Marxist. “Persepolis” not only showed the different lifestyles during that time period, but also showed Americans that Iran is not a country full of radicals, Fernanda Eberstadt, the author of the article, said. 

Brazilian illustrators Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba also changed the genre of comics by creating a comic book that talks about death with “Daytripper.” “Daytripper” takes place in Brazil and tells the story of a man who writes obituaries for a living, according to an NPR article titled “‘Daytripper’ Explores The Quiet Moments That Shape A Man’s Life. And His Death(s).” The main character Brás de Oliva Domingos is trying to establish himself as a writer but struggles. 

Bras lives in fear of dying because he finds it scary that a person’s whole existence is just summed up into a short narrative after they die. Throughout the story, different moments of Bras’s life are illustrated and in the end, he realizes death is not something to be afraid of, but rather a process of life. Instead of being about history or culture, “Daytripper” presents us with a mature topic in the form of a comic book that can influence way people think.  

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