What Unites Us: The Graphic Novel
What Unites Us: The Graphic Novel is an adaptation by Tim Foley of Dan Rather’s best-selling prose book (written with Elliot Kirschner).
Since the appeal of the comic format was recognized by larger, more traditional publishers, resulting in the graphic novel boom, there have been any number of non-fiction comics released. Some of them focus on education to the exclusion of anything else. That makes for dry, unappealing works that don’t take full advantage of the medium, or worse, illustrated texts, where the pictures aren’t needed to grasp the meaning of the content. Good comics allow both to combine into something more, using words and art to achieve greater understanding than either on their own.
When the World Citizen Comics imprint was announced, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Publisher First Second has put out the Science Comics line, which has a high proportion of wonderful, creative books that inform while entertaining. However, history can be a more difficult subject.
I feared that this collection of essays would be particularly susceptible to the block-of-text problem, but Foley has done a brilliant job of illustrating Rather’s words, whether they’re descriptive of a moment in his memory or history, or more subjective in describing a mood or symbolic virtues. I was pleasantly surprised to see how exceptional this book was, particularly since it adapted an existing prose work.
Rather’s long history — the book opens by describing the family car, a 1938 Oldsmobile — means that the pictures do a service by showing what the objects and world looked like in previous decades. In that sense, for older readers, they’re memory-joggers, capturing key public moments of politicians or movements or daily life. Through much of the book, Rather, drawn in his trenchcoat, is the reader’s guide.
The chapter on “freedom” discusses the checkered history of voting rights. the importance of dissent, and why we need a free press, with special attention to economic changes affecting journalism over the years. “Community” covers inclusion and tolerance. I found it affecting to see Rather acknowledge his own flaws, as he came to realize his ignorance around bigotry against homosexuality, as well as racism and sexism. He also makes a call for greater empathy.
“Exploration” argues for a return to supporting science over superstition and building a love of books and learning and the arts. “Responsibility” is about our lack of connection with nature, with moments of Rather’s childhood, which is very different from today’s. He also argues the importance of public education and how our schools are failing to live up to the ideal, as well as the virtue of public service.
“Character” is a call to remember the audacity that eradicated smallpox and took us to the moon. The book ends with material on the virtues of steadiness and courage. It’s a clear-eyed look at our many problems, with an overlay of hope.
I did not expect to be won over, but I actually found this book very inspiring. Rather’s own journey, as he recalls discovering some of the injustices that make up U.S. history, can be a model, as he has an honest view of community and patriotism that understands the best of what we can be while acknowledging our flaws and challenges. We have, he writes, as part of our love of country “a responsibility to bear witness to its faults.” We must translate our dreams and ideals into reality for all, regardless of race, heritage, or who one loves.
(Review originally posted at Good Comics for Kids.)