Recommended historical graphic novels

For the most part, I am even using the correct definition of graphic novel, as distinct from other sequential art (comic books), because these were all conceived of as self-contained narratives. 

Rebels by Brian Wood. It's a pretty fast story that covers a lot of historical material from the perspective of a normal person. There is a sequel about the main character's son as a shipbuilder in the War of 1812, and I might even say I liked it more than the first.

Wood has also written an excellent series of standalone comics about vikings called Northlanders. It's bloodier than Rebels, and harder to remember that it depicts history rather than fantasy, since its subject is so much more distant.

Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City by Pierre Christin does a good job of covering both the positive and negative aspects of Moses' legacy.

Logicomix, by Apostolos Doxiadis, which is about Bertrand Russell's development of set theory, the consequence of his monumental effort to prove that one plus one equals two. It is a metatextual Greek tragedy about the difficulty of obtaining even the smallest certainty in this world.

Crécy by Warren Ellis is about the famous battle in the Hundred Years War. It's short, and Ellis is a good writer. My recollection of it is that it was about how soldiers felt about the war, and that it gets a little blue.

Caravaggio by Milo Munera is also really good, and gives a great feeling not only of the artist's life, but of the world he inhabited. This is part of a planned multi-volume series, which to my knowledge has not materialized.

Flight of the Raven by Jean-Pierre Gibrat is also one of my favorite graphic novels ever. It's about some members of the French Resistance in occupied Paris smuggling people past the Gestapo. Pair it with the movie *Army of Shadows*.

Bad Advice

Treat everyone with friendliness—injure no one.

How good you are, grandfather! How is it that you are so good?

I am good, you say. Nyah—if it is true, all right. But you see, my girl—there must be some one to be good. We must have pity on mankind. Christ, remember, had pity for us all and so taught us. Have pity when there is still time, believe me, that is right. I was once, for example, employed as a watchman, at a country place which belonged to an engineer, not far from the city of Tomsk, in Siberia. The house stood in the middle of the forest, an out-of-the-way location; and it was winter and I was all alone in the country house. It was beautiful there—magnificent! And once—I heard them scrambling up!


Yes. They crept higher, and I took my rifle and went outside. I looked up—two men, opening a window, and so busy that they did not see anything of me at all. I cried to them: Hey, there, get out of that! And would you think it, they fell on me with a hand ax! I warned them. Halt, I cried, or else I fire! Then I aimed first at one and then at the other. They fell on their knees saying, Pardon us! I was pretty hot—on account of the hand ax, you remember. You devils, I cried, I told you to clear out and you didn’t! And now, I said, one of you go into the brush and get a switch. It was done. And now, I commanded, one of you stretch out on the ground, and the other thrash him. And so they whipped each other at my command. And when they had each had a sound beating, they said to me: Grandfather, said they, for the sake of Christ give us a piece of bread. We haven’t a bite in our bodies. They, my daughter, were the thieves who had fallen upon me with the hand ax. Yes, they were a pair of splendid fellows. I said to them, If you had asked for bread! Then they answered: We had gotten past that. We had asked and asked, and nobody would give us anything. Endurance was worn out. Nyah—and so they remained with me the whole winter. One of them, Stephen by name, liked to take the rifle and go into the woods. And the other, Jakoff, was constantly ill, always coughing. The three of us watched the place, and when spring came, they said, Farewell, grandfather, and went away—to Russia.

Were they convicts, escaping?

They were fugitives—they had left their colony. A pair of splendid fellows. If I had not had pity on them—who knows what would have happened? They might have killed me. Then they would be taken to court again, put in prison, sent back to Siberia—why all that? You can learn nothing good in prison, nor in Siberia. But a man, what can he not learn!

— Maxim Gorky, The Lower Depths


Toleration is a necessary consequence of our being human. We are all products of frailty  fallible and prone to error so let us mutually pardon each other’s follies. This is the first principle of the law of nature, the first principle of all human rights

— Voltaire

The smell of the future

The future smells of Russian leather, blood, godlessness, and many whippings. I should advise our grandchildren to be born with very thick skins on their backs.

— Heinrich Heine

One of the great tragedies

There may now exist great men for things that do not exist.

— Jacob Burckhardt

There’s a very good chance that the most naturally gifted astronaut in history was born before the invention of space flight. Likewise, the most precise and industrious flint-knapper of all time was probably not a caveman. Oh well!

Burckhardt was the great art historian of the Renaissance period.

The Laslow Motor

`For a couple of years there, you could walk down to Sears and buy a working Laslow motor right off the shelf. At first it cost three hundred dollars, but got down to as low as two hundred after a year, once the factories started churning them out. It came in a black and grey box with picture of the device and some simple diagrams which good-naturedly tried to explain how it worked.

Truth be told, nobody who owned one really knew how it worked, anymore than we knew how television signals became television shows. The Hungarian physicist Emil Laslow, who won the Nobel prize for developing the device, tried to explain it in terms of oscillating quantum vectors wrapped around a series of stacked disks. The disks were made of a patented material. This didn’t help much in clarifying the science of it to the general public, but then of course, since when has the public cared how things worked, so long as they did?

They did. The box each device came in was heavier than you would expect for something so small—smaller than a bread box, by far—and once you unwrapped it the thing was fairly unimpressive-looking. I remember thinking, when I bought my first one, that it looked a lot like a miniature version of one of those home dehydration machines you use to make dried apple slices and such. Sears sold those machines, too, a couple aisles over. Once it got working, it began to hum, and if you put your hand on it you could even feel if vibrating a little bit. When you turned it on, it produced unlimited, uninterrupted, free, clean power. The consumer version outputted to 220 volt AC, and replaced the power line that went into your house. It was weather-proof, tamper-proof, and bullet-proof.

All you needed was a set of AA batteries to get the motor spinning the first time it ran. After that, you had essentially infinite energy for a one time fee of three hundred dollars—or, if you waited a year and bought it cheap, two hundred dollars.

I was working on one of the city papers when the Laslow motor went public. At first, there was some controversy, because the electric companies didn’t want to install the boxes, and it was unsafe for consumers to do it themselves, since it involved disconnecting the existing power lines that were connecting the building to the city grid. Soon, some private companies sprang up to install the devices, and the electric companies sued them. We ran all kinds of articles and opinion pieces on the debate, but ultimately the Supreme Court ruled that home-owners were in the right. The government ended up creating a regulatory agency that oversaw all quantum power sources. This was just a way to maintain the illusion that they were still in control.

Nobody complained about the power companies going out of business. It turned out they didn’t have as many loyal customers as they’d thought. Hey, it’s a free market system. C’est la vie.

Meanwhile, we sent astronauts to Mars. We irrigated the deserts. We built floating cities. We shot cargo into orbit on a laser beam. Everything was made out of transmuted gold: houses, churches, sidewalks. Nobody froze in the winter, or sweated in the summer. We traveled in silent, computer-guided electric pods that went six hundred miles an hour and didn’t produce measurable toxic exhaust. The engineering paradigm of that decade was not designing ingenious systems, but solving difficult problems by throwing energy at them. There was so much of it to go around, that we could afford to be sloppy and still succeed every time. It is amazing what you can do with an infinite supply of resources.

Then someone had the bright idea that it was unnecessary for everyone to buy a Laslow motor, when the city could simply build an enormous one and plug it in where the power station had been. The technology certainly scaled up to that size, and the government was happy to step in and recover its role as energy-supplier. San Francisco, California, and Reykjavik, Iceland were two of the first cities to provide ubiquitous, free energy to all their citizens. The Laslow motors used by these cities were roughly the size of tractor trailers.

Here is the unfortunate part:

Problems began to arise with these huge devices. Optical disturbances were reported around them. In San Francisco, a power plant worker noticed that if he approached the Laslow motor from a certain angle, part of it appeared to be upside down. At every other angle it was fine. A few days later, the disturbances increased, and additional localized effects were noticed—chronological anomalies, gravitational aberrations, and so forth.

In Reykjavik, space seemed to be curving out from the center of the generator, in a sphere with a slowly widening radius. A curious mechanic tested this effect by throwing a wrench at the device, which had no dramatic effect. A second experiment involved replacing the wrench with a small dog, who disappeared upon approaching the motor. The dog was never recovered.

Though the generators were immediately turned off, the phenomenon continued to worsen. The San Francisco motor increasingly produced disorienting optical effects—viewers standing in close proximity could no longer see in a straight line. Local gravity was as unpredictable as the movement of light, at first producing differences of only two or three times Earth’s gravity, but, much later, unbinding or compressing matter on a molecular level, as was first reported in the instance of an experimentally-hurled banana.

The sites, of course, became too dangerous to approach, but researchers were allowed more access than the general public. San Francisco researchers noted the spontaneous creation of unidentified heavy elements, and the disturbing tendency for the same space to be occupied by two or more different bodies.

Laws of causality also appeared not to apply in the vicinity of the Reykjavik generator, though this was not reported in San Francisco. Residents were disturbed when, one day, opening umbrellas caused rainstorms, and a sudden, sharp pain in their feet caused them to bang into a coffee table.

At both sites, using a ordinary protractor revealed that triangles had internal angles measuring anywhere from 8 degrees to 718 degrees, and that parallel lines not only intersected, but criss-crossed at several points.

Clearly something strange was happening to space-time near the massive generators. Scientists theorized (based on what I don’t know) that because of the way the motors worked, they were scraping the fabric of the universe at the spots where they were located. They tried to explain it to use using Byzantine metaphors involving termites, orbital sanders, or study hall desks, but in the end the basic message we got was that our Laslow motors were in the process of puncturing our dimension, and what we were seeing in California and Iceland were the first signs of local reality beginning to buckle.

Nobody was sure what would happen if the universe was ever completely punctured, but the consensus was pretty bleak. In the immediate aftermath of these revelations, the main questions were, could the damage to space-time be undone, and do all motors cause these effects, or merely the city-sized ones?

The second question was first to be answered. While the motors in San Francisco and Reykjavik were the first to show signs of the damage they’d done, a year later, reports of similar phenomenon began pouring in from all over the world. Apparently, any Laslow motor of any size would begin causing damage to the universe the minute it began spinning (or conducting, or whatever the hell it did). The larger or more heavily-used the motor, the quicker the damage would manifest, but, as it turned out, any point in space in which a motor had been used would eventually show local distortions which would either expand outward, or bend an expanding radius of space inward towards it, no matter if the motor was still on or not.

Someone else-not Emil Laslow-won the Nobel prize for determining a formula to calculate how rapidly and in what direction the distortions would move. I don’t remember his name, but I remember our paper ran a story about “innies” (like San Francisco) and “outies” (like Reykjavik), the two general classes of distortions his research had classified.

Immediately, governments throughout the world outlawed the devices, and sent the military door to door to confiscate and dismantle every motor they found. News broadcasts warned of the dangers of operating a Laslow motor, and the Quantum Power Regulatory Commission started up the coal plants, the nuclear power plants, and the hydroelectric dams again, and offered a free year’s supply of regular energy to anyone who turned in a Laslow motor.

At first, this seemed a bit outrageous, but then I realized the magnitude of the problem they were trying to solve. If the universe was ever completely ruptured, nobody knew what would happen: if it was punctured by an “innie”, we might be sucked into the hole, if by an “outie”, some other universe might be vomited into ours.

Either way, even a single device still operating, or a single distortion site left unrepaired represents a danger to life as know it.

Store records from the sales of the motors indicated there had been about 800 million Laslow motors sold worldwide. QPRC reports, released under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that the agency has confiscated or bought back, at most, 700 million. That means there are at least 100 million people on earth with the capability of destroying the entire universe. Not all of them believe the government is telling the truth. Some of them don’t think one little motor will make a difference. Some are curious. Some genuinely want to be the one to do it.

It doesn’t make me feel safe, knowing my life, and my family, and everything in the world could be destroyed by any one of these loonies. What’s stopping them from holding the universe for ransom? What’s the point of the rest of us scraping by on dwindling gasoline supplies, while they use their hidden motors anyway, and just laugh at us? It almost makes me wish I hadn’t turned mine in when they asked for it.

Late last year, Swiss scientists discovered a way to undo the damage caused by “Laslow-source dents” in space-time. This announcement was greeted warmly. Actually, the process is fairly simple, and involves simply going to the location of the site and hammering the universe back into place with small motor operating in an opposite vector oscillation—innies are repaired by outies, outies are repaired by innies. The process has to be fairly precise, to avoid overcorrecting, but it’s all computer controlled—fool-proof—and they seem to be working so far.

All you have to do to get one of these devices is take a short course on how to operate them correctly. It’s not hard—they want to get as many people using them as possible. There are, by most estimates, around four billion sites that need to be repaired before this is all over.

I myself have one of the handheld units, and on the weekends I go out dent-hunting. Sometimes I take my son. We have a system for keeping score, and we make a game out of it. He’s too young to really understand.

My main fear, which is shared by a lot of people, is that somewhere, someone put one of these devices in a backpack, and took it into a cave system somewhere, miles into the earth, and then left it there, running unseen. Or maybe someone dropped one into the Marianas trench. Or maybe NASA shot one into space without telling us, and it’s out beyond the orbit of Jupiter by now. How would we ever get to it in time? How would we even know where to look? This is what keeps me up at night.

(From the old site, circa November, 2004)

“Suggest me some Lovecraft”

Lovecraft wrote one novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, several novellas, and a lot of short stories for pulp magazines. Of his novellas, At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth are the best. There are about 15 short stories that are good, and most are collected in The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre by Robert Bloch, but also in other editions.

What made Lovecraft unique was his view of the universe as an essentially terrifying place, with the relative tranquility of human history existing in a temporary, fragile bubble of ignorance surrounded by an infinite ocean of seething madness. I've heard it described as "the horror of astronomy", meaning that the deeper you look into the universe, the more terrifying it becomes. Every time we gaze at the stars, or even dig into the earth, we risk popping that fragile bubble and destroying ourselves, and it's only a matter of time before we do.

I read these stories as a teenager, and recently reread them. I don't think Lovecraft was a very good writer, but he was a severely fucked up person, and seeing the world through his stories is an unsettling experience.

If you read one story, make it The Rats in the Walls.

While Lovecraft's way of sensing dread in the universe was one of his major gifts to literature, worldbuilding was not. The so-called Cthulhu Mythos was largely pieced together from fragments in various of his stories, and there isn't much evidence that he had an overarching vision for it in the way that Tolkien did. Lovecraft was writing quickly for magazine publication, not carefully and methodically. As reflections of his personality, his nightmare stories have a coherent feel to them, but I don't think that comes from careful engineering as much as having developed that voice as a writer.

Certainly, we know that most of the Cthulhu Mythos comes from later authors like August Derleth. Derleth was the founder of Arkham House, and published Lovecraft's stories posthumously for decades. He also added his own stories, and invited other authors to work in that shared universe. It was through these stories that the 'elder gods' of Lovecraftian cosmology were crafted.

In short, Most of what we think of as the 'Cthulhu Mythos' is fan fiction, and you won't find it in Lovecraft per se.