Historical Figures In Comics

By | Tuesday, January 31, 2023 Leave a Comment
A lot of comics focus on fiction. There are indeed an almost frightening lack of non-fiction comics commercially available. But from time to time, those fictional books bring in characters who were people in real life. I've seen the Fantastic Four banter with Richard Nixon, Superman share cover space with Ben Franklin, and Harry Houdini join forces with Arthur Conan Doyle to ward off the evil machinations of H.P. Lovecraft.

There are any number of reasons for bringing real-life celebrities into fictional works. In some cases, it provides a quick sense of context for the reader. If you open a scene, for example, with Abraham Lincoln writing the Gettysburg Address, the reader quickly understands that the story takes place during the height of the American Civil War, and it at least starts in or near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It also provides an immediate sense of gravity as the circumstances around the speech itself are fairly well-known. Opening a scene, by contrast, on Lincoln's deathbed alerts the reader that the War has officially ended, but there are still a great deal of hostilities between the two sides of the conflict.

Another reason for using a real life person in a fictional story is to provide a greater sense of importance to the other characters and/or the plot. If Julius Caesar himself is specifically asking by name for Asterix to be killed, then the reader gets the sense that the protagonist must be really significant to bring on the wrath of Rome's Emperor. Of course, alternatively, if Adolf Hitler completely ignores and out-of-uniform Steve Rogers, it can bring some humility to the character who is now considered "beneath the notice" of a powerful figure.

In other cases, the real life people are in fact the primary characters of the story itself, often re-created in larger-than-life roles. The primary idea here, I think, is another form of shorthand in that readers might have a better sense of who the character in advance, allowing the writer(s) to focus more on the story and leave more of the character definition to the person's actual character in real life. That's not to say, of course, that these types of characters are NOT given adequate characterization necessarily, just that it's more quickly rounded out more fully by history itself.

In any of these cases (which, I might add, are not mutually exclusive) the historical/real people used in fiction are necessarily interpreted by the writer(s). The characterizations they write are simply how they believe the real person would speak/act. Personally, I find that especially fascinating to see how different people will interpret others differently than I do. I've read up, for example, on the historical Blackbeard and my interpretation of who he is and how he would act is significantly different than any other interpretation of the man in comics that I've ever seen. In some cases, the misinterpretation (at least, I call it a misinterpretation) is due to just an obvious lack of research. (Jack Kirby's Blackbeard in Fantastic Four #5 seems a noteworthy example of this.) In other cases, the research has been done but deliberately modified for storytelling purposes.

At the end of the day, I suppose it's not that different than using any existing character, including fictional ones. How does any one interpretation of Sherlock Holmes hold up against Conan Doyle's? How does a comic book Tarzan compare with Burroughs'? The difference, though, that does exist is that using real people provides an immediate and generally more complete character template to start from. How evolved a character was Mina Harker before Alan Moore got his hands on her? By contrast, did Matt Fraction really have to do that much much to make Nikola Tesla interesting?
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