I teach a course at Miami University (in Ohio), on the History of the English Language, also known by the acronym HEL. To help tell a very complex story, I have for years been making presentations for the classroom I call "ink talks," penciled by hand and then inked with the medieval-like tool of the nib pen. In the last few years, I have begun developing these ink talks into the form of a book—a work-in-progress of graphic nonfiction entitled A Comics History of the English Language. One 20-page chapter is on Old Norse contact with Old English in the Danelaw, a linguistic encounter with significant and lasting effects.
Comics offers a wealth of formal tools for telling a story as complex and multifaceted as the history of a language. Anything but simple, a comics text relies on dynamic interactions of sequence and layout, text and image, and other elements of what Charles Hatfield calls an "Art of Tensions." I am still in the process of discovering these possibilities, but the intent of my work has been to leverage the diagrammatic potential of the medium to outline linguistic change as it is entangled with complex historical contexts.
The HEL storyline includes groups of speakers from various cultures, a cast of characters difficult sometimes for students to follow. I have experimented with various forms of visual shorthand to help clarify matters, while also suggesting a bit of the texture of the times. But it turns out that drawing a Viking "realistically" is no simple matter, and indeed my approach to medieval figures has often been to render them so outlandishly cartoonish that no student will mistake them for anything but a visual placeholder, a game piece for keeping track on the timeline.
At the same time, I have often attempted not merely to call out anachronism, but to use it to my advantage—drawing out images such as the horned helmet into extended metaphors for the more serious subject at hand. But of course any representation of the past—whether purely fanciful or grounded in scholarly citation—will bear some mark of the maker in the present.
In the shift from ink talk presentations to comics proper (in sequence, on the page) I found it useful to introduce a comics avatar of myself—a narrator to substitute for my classroom presence. The character design reflects the subject: a headlamp for spelunking into the underworld of HEL, along with elbow and knee pads—absurdly insufficient protective gear for the audacious journey. It has seemed important to me to stress the tremulous uncertainties I feel, both in trying my hand at a new medium and in attempting to represent something as unwieldy and unsettled as the history of a language.
Scholars have noted that the imperfect, hand-drawn quality of comics journalism and memoir is an underappreciated source of their power. The same may prove to be the case for comics as the form comes into increased contact with medieval studies, a field long haunted by anxieties and ideals of professional detachment. Anyone engaged with a subject as loaded as HEL had best, I believe, acknowledge their own limitations and uncertainties. After all, the hands behind teaching and scholarship are human. If nothing else, the irregular lines of comics are transparent about that.