Webcomics are like any medium in that they can tackle just about any subject or genre. Including, of course, history. Although the subject is one that many students dread, that is often the result of a less-than-ideal presentment. When given lots of dates along with the names of people and places that no longer even exist, it’s little wonder when students learn to eschew learning about what happened in the past. But when history is presented in the form of stories with clever plots and engaging characters, people can be mesmerized by the drama. Getting so caught up in the story, they miss the fact that what’s being presented is, in fact, history and they wind up remembering those very same facts and figures that rote memorization failed to embed.
One the more successful webcomics based on history — indeed, one of the more successful webcomics, period — is Lora Innes’ The Dreamer. Though the story starts in contemporary high school cafeteria, Beatrice Whaley finds herself dreaming every night about the Revolutionary War. More than that, she seems to be living a second life in the past with each night’s dream picking up not long after where the previous one left off. She’s running around with the likes of Nathan Hale and Thomas Knowlton, and is captured by the British General William Howe.
The story Innes is telling is filled with drama that taps into a variety of interests. At one level, it’s a love story with Beatrice trying to sort through her feelings between Adam Warren in the 18th century and Ben Cato in the 21st. Another ongoing question is what exactly is happening to Bea that’s allowing her to essentially live two simultaneous lives hundreds of years apart. Plus, the backdrop of the Revolutionary War is a very real and ongoing concern as the characters not infrequently find themselves in the midst of battle. That Innes does such an elegant job of balancing those three facets, and that they speak to three different points of interest, are what make the comic so popular.
Innes, to no surprise, is herself interested in the Revolutionary War and has studied it extensively. She then uses that interest to inform her story — helping to establish the sense of realism in the 1770s — but that, in turn, informs her readers. Because they’re interested and invested in the characters, they pick up details about when battles took place or what motivations drove certain decisions.
Of course, the Revolutionary War wasn’t the only thing that happened in the 1770s. Over in Vienna, Austria, an inventor by the name of Wolfgang von Kempelen revealed his latest creation, an automaton that played chess. Not just a single game, but any opponent could play against it, and The Turk, as this automaton was called, would be able to counter nearly any and every move, defeating human players more often than not. It was considered a mechanical marvel, and von Kempelen spent years touring Europe showcasing his creation.
This story is now all being told in Clockwork Game by Jane Irwin. While her story centers around The Turk, who receives guests ranging from Benjamin Franklin to Emporer Paul I of Russia, much of the interest lies in Wolfgang himself. How his fame associated with The Turk takes its toll, and how he has difficulty parlaying his fame as a showman into a career as a serious inventor.
Like Innes, Irwin has done a great deal of research on her subject. Not just the main characters, but all of the background material to make all of the 18th century exhibit halls feel authentic. She even goes so far as to annotate her strips with ancillary material, linking to historical drawings, Wikipedia articles and the like. The scale is smaller and argueably less significant than the Revolutionary War but the story remains engaging and still educational, providing not only a small snippet of that era’s popular culture but also a broader look at the European social customs and mores of the time, an aspect of history that is often glossed over here in the U.S. as students are taught about Revolutionary War often to the exclusion of other contemporary world events.
Innes and Irwin take somewhat different approaches to history. Irwin makes a great deal of effort into making her story as accurate as possible, even using letters of the time to craft dialogue. Though Innes is certainly not sloughing off the history in her comic, she takes a few more liberties, inventing her main characters and using her deep knowledge of history to establish the setting. Both accounts are equally valid, as they are shooting for slightly different goals, I think. But in either case, the great stories can’t help but educate people about the late 1700s. And that they’re freely available online makes them all the more enticing!