History Comics: The Roanoke Colony – Chris Schweizer

4 out of 5

I cannot recall when I would have first heard of the Roanoke colony and its disappearance, but I definitely think it lives on more as a cultural zeitgeist as a mysterious mystery than it does for its (more interesting) actual history, something that various fiction writers would pick up on and spin into occultish tales… And while my memory blanks on my Roanoke education, whatever and whenever it was has always been enough to instill a ho-hum reception to these fictional takes, as it seemed like a mystery that’d been solved, and not worth the hand-waiving attempted by these stories.

That I wrote the history off as such is indicative of maybe a poor education, poor followup and comprehension on my part, or my general disinterest in, like, history overall. That cartoonist (and educator) Chris Schweizer can render his researched and as-factual-as-it-can-be account of the Roanoke Colony interesting and fun and memorable to such a dismissive dullard as m’self is thus indicative of how good at his craft he is; reflecting on how dense the information is in this comic’s 100+ pages – and yet how easily it reads, and how well the stuff has stuck in my thoughts afterwards – is further proof of that, and reminds me of how the best teachers can make things we don’t think we care about worth our time.

Schweizer elects to use two American natives who stood on opposite sides of the various conflicts that occurred amidst the various Roanoke-adjacent tribes during English settlers abuse of its peoples in and lands in their attempts at colonizing: Manteo, sympathetic to the English, and Wanchese, dedicated to his tribe. While the way they duck in and out of the history – talking directly to the reader from our present; participating in events as they occurred – is occasionally a bit confusing, just in terms of always understanding when they’re “here” versus “there,” it’s nonetheless a clever and quite effective way of talking us through this, because there’s a lot of information to get through. Chris has rightfully sussed out that Roanoke’s disappearance has much more impact when we understand the events leading up to it, which requires understanding the sticky network of the English (and Spanish) peoples who traveled there, and understanding the various political motivations that encouraged that… It requires a lot of rewinding – we start with the discovery of Roanoke’s disappearance and then jump back to fomenting problems between the English and Spanish and work back forward – and having some narrators (Manteo and Wanchese) whom we can associate with personalities and faces makes sifting through that information conversational and personable. Even if Chris had used a friendly omniscient voice to talk us through it, I don’t think it would be as welcoming – one of the potential barriers to entry for this book is that a flipthrough doesn’t make it seem like an easy read, as there’s a non-stop flow of text and crowded imagery on each page. But Chris, over his years as a cartoonist, has proven rather masterful at concise characterizations through his figure-work and those characters’ tones, and so having Manteo and Wanchese be rather excited to tell us about Roanoke at the book’s start gives us that same jolt of energy, and makes the withholding of the story’s quirkier elements – all of the strange theories regarding the disappearance – that much more fun when we get to them as well, because it’s more like a campfire story buildup than an educational tome. (Even though that’s certainly what it is…)

Regarding the last bit, Chris goes through the gamut of theories, including things like aliens and magic, and treats them all with the same, objective tone. This holds true thoughout almost all of the comic (there are a couple of points that feel more like opinions than fact, but they’re very minor, and would be hard to argue otherwise), and it’s another part of why it works: it’s respectful to its reader, providing all of the information in a logical and understandable fashion, and then allowing one to take from it what they will. Leaving room for such freedom is, in my mind, another sign of a good educator – give us the tools, guide us on how to build, and let us loose. That Schweizer has married this ability to his awesome craft as a cartoonist has resulted in some great – and educational! – works like this book.