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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Graphic Novel biography of Trotsky doesn't quite work

Geary, Rick (2009) Trotsky:  A Graphic Biography.  New York:  Hill and Wang.

The actual biography presented here is actually very well written.  It depicts Trotsky neither as a saint, nor a demon.  The authorial position is neither advocating Russian communism as an ideal economic system nor rabidly condemning those thinkers who developed it as evil or idiotic.  In short, it is a fairly balanced look at the historical period that preceded the Russian Revolution.  It takes the reader behind the scenes and shows up close the bickering and politics between Lenin and Trotsky.  For history students, the text of this biography could be a helpful trade book source.

Unfortunately, as a graphic novel, it is sort of a failure.  Hill and Wang have, since the follow up to the graphic novel version of the 9-11 report, made it clear that they are unable to distinguish between good examples of the graphic novel medium and bad.  This particular book pairs text and image, but shows little sequential progression from image to image (an idea Scott McCloud first developed clearly).  Look at the image below this one.  The art is decent, there is a good balance of text and image, but even though the image is blurry and you cant read the words, it is clear that the images do not depend on each other.  We see no real story movement, no real emotion conveyed through facial expressions, no use of speech or thought balloons.  While omitting one of these elements does not constitute a reason for condemning a book, when none of them are used, it is clear that the creators of the book to not have an understanding of the affordances that the graphic novel form can offer.  To put it another way, there is no magic here.  The book is lackluster.


The difficulty of the text is appropriate for high school (or remarkable middle school readers).  The bottom line, though is that while graphic novels can be very useful for history classrooms, this one does not have much to offer.


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