As with every, this year’s Independence Day was a time for fireworks, barbecues, and… uh… thinking about the flag. I don’t know. I’ve never been that good at the whole Independence Day shebang, possibly due to growing up in Hawaii, where historically our perceptions of America have been ambivalent at best: on one hand, hooray for statehood in 1959; on the other, boo to the U.S. annexing us in 1898. Add to this the turmoil that America is experiencing right now, and I was not exactly in a fireworks mood this year (although I could always go for a hot dog). It is crisis time for sure. And in a crisis, there’s one thing you need to do: read some comics.
From single issues to graphic novels, these six must-reads tackle the complex issue of what it means to be American in a world like this one.
PREACHER BY GARTH ENNIS AND STEVE DILLON)
What starts out as a modern take on the Western turns into a sprawling epic interrogating the codes that regulate “American” identity, whatever that might be. Through the wild adventures of its title character Jesse Custer, his sharp-shooting, take-no-B.S. girlfriend Tulip, and his best friend Cassidy—an Irish vampire who left his home country for the New World—Preacher invites us to reexamine the stories that define who we are. The cowboy ethos is super fun, the comic says, but America needs to let go of its more harmful elements and embrace change in order to live. It’s a message worth keeping in mind, especially now.
MAUS BY ART SPIEGELMAN
Although Maus is usually classified as a Holocaust narrative, it’s also an American story. The graphic novel follows Spiegelman’s father Vladek’s account of how he survived one of the darkest events in Western history, interspersed with present-day Vladek (now living in New York) and Spiegelman negotiating the daily struggles of their father-son relationship. Just as Vladek’s trauma reverberates through his American-born son’s life and forces him to confront its legacy, Maus reminds us that global trauma underlies so much of modern America, implicitly raising the question of what collective agonies are simmering beneath other communities’ histories.
PUNISHER: DO NOT FALL IN NEW YORK CITY BY GARTH ENNIS AND STEVE DILLON
Another Ennis and Dillon joint, and a 9/11 issue to boot. Not in an obvious way—there are no planes here, no rescue workers lifting rubble off the wounded—but conceptually: how can the average American come back from this? Punisher: Do Not Fall in New York City suggests that all we can do is reach out to those around us here and now. Maybe we’ll save a few lives. Maybe we can help ease an old friend’s suffering. Maybe sometimes, when the country feels broken and we feel terrified and alone, we can begin there.
NAT TURNER BY KYLE BAKER
Your Fourth of July dose of righteous fury. Baker’s Nat Turner tells the story of the 1831 slave revolt leader through expressive sepia-toned panels combined with quotes from Turner himself. It’s the best kind of historical drama—the kind that asks why certain narratives do or don’t become widely known parts of America’s history. If America is supposedly all about freedom, we should be celebrating—not erasing—a man who refused to tolerate being treated as property and encouraged others to stand up for their human rights. We should know the name and story of Nat Turner. This is a good place to start.
FURY: MY WAR GONE BY BY GARTH ENNIS AND GORAN PARLOV
How do you love a country that’s spilled so much blood around the world? That’s the burning question at the heart of Fury: My War Gone By, a comic that uses Marvel’s favorite eye-patched badass as a vehicle to explore America’s history of global conflict following World War II. Through this, Ennis and Parlov explore the toll war takes on the individual, what it means for one’s national identity to be dependent on violence, and the pain of wanting to believe in a country that’s betrayed you and yours.
TRUTH: RED, WHITE, AND BLACK BY ROBERT MORALES AND KYLE BAKER
Inspired by real-life histories of American science exploiting black people’s bodies, such as in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment or Henrietta Lacks, this heartbreaking miniseries details the rise and fall of Isaiah Bradley, a black American soldier who became the first Captain America before anyone had even heard the name Steve Rogers. Bradley, the only survivor among a group of black soldiers who are forcibly experimented upon in attempts to create a super-soldier, liberates Jewish prisoners from a concentration camp, lays waste to a whole lot of Nazis, and undertakes superhuman missions for the U.S. government—only to be court-martialed, imprisoned for 17 years, and expunged from official records.
Oh, and in case that weren’t bad enough, the super-soldier serum causes cognitive degeneration, so he can’t even remember his amazing accomplishments. A massive downer? Totally. But somewhere in there lies hope: despite the efforts of those in power to erase Bradley’s legacy, his story was still told. And, possibly, the stories of other Americans who were marginalized, oppressed, erased, and screwed over will someday see the light of day too.
What’s on your Fourth of July reading list? Tell us below!
Images: DC/Vertigo, Marvel