PencilPanelPage has been a platform for many valuable discussions about the use of comics in the classroom. It’s a question I have been contemplating along very pragmatic lines as I prepare my syllabus for the French Civilization sequence I’m slated to teach this year. French Civilization courses are standard in most French curricula, usually taught as a two-course sequence with the French Revolution as the chronological dividing line. Traditionally, I suspect, the rationale behind the course sequence was that French majors need a basic grasp of French history if they are to master the French literary canon. But now that French curricula no longer tend to be organized narrowly around literature, French Civilization courses are able to target the broader rubric of “French culture” through almost any combination of disciplinary approaches and using any number of cultural artifacts, from opera and architecture to film and comics. But how can anyone impart so much history, and such a rich archive of cultural production, responsibly? In this vein, my two biggest concerns are: 1) how to cover so much historical ground while also being faithful to the attentiveness to form that my disciplinary training has taught me to value? And 2) how to avoid teaching the class as an uncritical celebration of a certain hegemonic version of French (high) culture, as it is so often taught?
It goes without saying that I will incorporate comics into the course. A colleague recommended the Casterman series l’Histoire de France en BD [The History of France in Comics], which offers the tempting possibility of covering two millennia of French history in three highly accessible 90-page volumes. Although I may end up using the series for the sake of historical coverage, I also find myself resisting the use of comics as an easy and accessible means of teaching history and culture. For one, the perception of comics as an art form in its own right gets obscured as soon as it becomes a pedagogical vehicle. What’s more, I’m not convinced that these pedagogically oriented comics convey as much cultural and historical information as, say, historical fiction comics. Nor do I think they are as capable of taking a critical approach to celebratory grand historical narratives.
I only wish every historical fiction comic matched the level of cultural richness and intertextuality that we see in Jacques Tardi’s four-volume graphic adaptation of Jean Vautrin’s novel, Le Cri du Peuple. The series follows a fictional murder mystery tied to and set amidst the events leading to the famous Paris Commune of 1871. There is an extraordinary amount of cultural information that might be unpacked for the benefit of French students in Tardi’s series. Among the fictional characters, Tardi places a number of historical figures associated with the Paris Commune, including Louise Michel, Jules Vallès, Victor Hugo, and Gustave Courbet. He also includes some interesting allegorical characters who represent the many anonymous citizens and archivists of the Commune, including a cabaret singer, Gabriella Pucci, and a photographer, Théophile Mirecourt. Each of these figures presents an opportunity to examine the Paris Commune through other media: popular song (Pucci sings a famous resistance lyric while baring her breast in what seems to be a visual reference to Delacroix’s painting), poetry (Hugo published some of the first poems about the Commune), painting (Courbet and Girardet are both referenced visually and Courbet himself appears as a character), and print culture (through Jules Vallès whose daily, Le Cri du Peuple, the series is named after). Additionally, Tardi’s series requires its reader to unpack a great deal of linguistic information: the characters speak in ways marked by social class and regional background; a Basque phrase, “hitza hitz” is inscribed on a gun. And on the visual register, there is almost too much to mention: architecture and urban design as indicators of class and power, not to mention the numerous historically significant monuments such as the Hôtel de Ville; clothing and hairstyles on various characters as markers of social class, regional background, and vocation; a number of Tardi’s panels reference famous photographs of the communards and at least a couple famous paintings. And perhaps most interestingly, from a comics studies point of view, Tardi makes a number of self-conscious references to the political cartoons and caricature that played such an important role in the cultural battles of the Second Empire. These references to the comics of the 1870s ennoble comics as a medium tied to popular revolt and as an art form with roots deeply embedded in French history.