Erstwhile‘s Beau Driver kicks off a news series on historical graphic novels by reviewing Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb in the inaugural edition of Erstwhile‘s “Graphic Histories.”
Last year, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ari Kelman about his and Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s wonderful graphic history of the Civil War, Battle Lines. Since then, I have begun to notice more and more histories being presented in the format of the graphic novel. Since the success of Maus (1991) and Persepolis (2000), non-fiction, graphic treatments of historical topics have become quite popular and many teachers of history—among other departments—have incorporated these texts in their courses. Because of this rising popularity, we here at Erstwhile have decided to institute a reoccurring series of reviews on historical graphic novels: welcome to Graphic Histories.
Comics and graphic novels have come a long way from their origins as cheap entertainment for young people. In 1954, after a protracted battle with critics who charged that comics contributed to juvenile delinquency, the comic-book industry created the Comics Code Authority as a means to self-police the content of comics. Since then, comics have often struggled with the outdated image that they provide only sensational stories of men and women in tight-fitting costumes. This image is quickly changing. In his study of comics and graphic novels, Challenging Genres: Comics and Graphic Novels (2010), Paul Thomas makes a clear case for the use of comics in the classroom. He states, “Well-done graphic novels offer teachers another tool to be used in the classroom and can enrich students’ experiences as a new way of imparting information, serving as transitions into more print-intensive works, enticing reluctant readers into prose books and, in some cases, offering literary experiences that linger in the mind long after the book is finished” (45). Thomas’s book surveys the important academic literature on comics and literacy stretching from the 1940s to contemporary scholars who assert that comics and graphic novels can play an important part in developing multiple forms of literacy, especially for struggling students. Today, the value of using comics and graphic novels as ways to teach history and literature is becoming more and more clear as these texts make their way into the classroom.
When creating a rubric for the analysis of graphic novels, I wanted to keep the formula simple. Hence, there are three categories that we will use to rate the graphic novels that we review. First, the reviewer will discuss the novel’s merits purely on its successes as a graphic novel. The art, organization, and creativity will fall into this first category. Secondly, the reviewer will review the text on its quality as a history. Historical accuracy and merits will be considered here. Finally, the reviewer will make suggestions on how the graphic novel may be incorporated into the classroom.
For our inaugural review, I have selected—appropriately, I think—Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb (2013).
Artistically, the work in Trinity is somewhat unassuming and at first glance does not seem particularly striking; however, Fetter-Vorm makes the most of the space in each panel and brings a subtle beauty to the story of the Atomic bomb. Unfortunately, the book is all in black-and-white. I say unfortunately because the use of color could have brought a significant amount of drama to the micro and macro aspects of the “gadget.” Panels that depict fission at the atomic level would have benefitted from the use of color to show the “whizzing” of particles as they generate the immense energy of the bomb, as would have the panels that show the giant explosions that launched the globe into the nuclear era. Yet, even without color, Fetter-Vorm does a wonderful job of creating tension through his use of black, white, and grey. Fetter-Vorm’s creativity and thoughtfulness are also present in the organization of the panels in the book. Traditional layouts are accentuated by spreads that cover both pages and instances in which the illustrations of plutonium molecules almost jump right off of the page. In the end, the lack of color in the book is more than made up by the smart use of the space within and a deft hand at the use of light and dark.
In terms of the historical aspects of the book, Trinity presents the reader with more than just a simple account of the construction of the atomic bomb. Fetter-Vorm—who received his B.A. in history from Stanford—creates a scientific history of our understanding of nuclear physics and adds it to the story of Los Alamos. He takes the time to introduce readers to figures such as Marie and Pierre Curie, Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, and Albert Einstein in addition to those who worked on the Manhattan Project such as General Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer. What the reader receives, then, is a fully integrated story of not only the development of the bomb, but also the science behind it, and even the design and particulars of both the implosion (Fat Man) and the gun style (Little Boy) devices. For a book that can be read quickly in the span of an afternoon, this is quite a feat.
With regard to the usefulness of Trinity in a classroom setting, it must be said that this book may be a bit challenging to younger readers and would be most effectively used in a high school or college classroom. The incorporation of atomic science in the novel may be lost on students in middle school or below. Additionally, some depictions of the victims of the A-bomb might give teachers of younger students some pause. However, Fetter-Vorm’s incorporation of science, art, and history should provide a wonderful addition to the curriculum of high school freshmen and older, who will no doubt find the book a captivating and challenging look into the creation of the A-bomb in the context of World War II or the beginning of the Cold War.