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Educational Comics: A Family Tree

By Sol Davidson

The idea for limning out an educational comics family tree came when I was conducting a one-day workshop for educational professionals in Broward and Dade counties in Florida. Participants were given a bevy of handouts; the one that triggered the most interest and curiosity was the page on which I had listed as many kinds of educational comics as I could think of, each with an example of a comic title that typified that category: E.C.’s Picture Stories from American History.

These teachers, principals and administrators were way ahead of where I thought they were in their knowledge of comic books’ usefulness. They didn’t have to be convinced about comic books; they just wanted to know what resources they could supply to their students.

Leonard Rifas,1 who has focused a career on creating educational comics, correctly pointed out that “The quality of being ‘educational’ can be found to some degree in any comic book.”

What to include in any listing? What to leave out? The entrepreneurs of educational comics provide one hint: they named their comics Real Facts, Real Heroes, Real Life, as opposed to, I suppose, fiction or entertainment. Just as educational aspects are present in all comics, dramatization, embellishment and imagination are part of even the severest factual presentations. Still, there is a minimum threshold of truth or knowledge the compilers must seek.

Let’s try standing on the other foot for awhile: how shall we define the parameters of the project? In other words, how shall we limit our goals? First, we’ll focus on U.S. comic books in English.

I gave my foreign comics collection to the University of Minnesota many years ago, so I don’t know enough about them to include overseas materials, though you’ll find a few items have crept in, mostly from England. Graphic novels are proliferating wildly, so much so that in a few years, they’ll require their own family tree; you’ll find a few fact-based ones included here. I was asked by W.W. Norton to do the review2 for their five-volume compendium of Will Eisner’s Life, In Pictures. They called this work “semi-autobiographical.” Will was a good friend of mine and I can tell you that brilliant as it is, it’s been fictionalized; it does not meet the threshold for inclusion here; if it were truly an autobiography, it would have been included.

What about Special Purpose Comics? Practically every issue in that genre is an educational comic. But the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide has a full section devoted to listing these “giveaways” which they call Promotional Comics. So that list is available to educators or anyone else. Also I expounded at some length3 about that branch of the tree in IJOCA‘s Fall/Winter 2005 issue. That extensive collection now resides in Gainesville at the University of Florida George Smathers Libraries where it is available for scholars.

There is one category which is too rich, too numerous, to include in this starting survey at this time. It deserves its own telling, and I or another historian can do that as a sequel. The omitted category is Literature, which requires a few sentences of discussion here.

By our rules, Literature does not pass the test of fact vs. fiction; it is virtually all fiction. Yet, in the hands of great writers, the classics have taken on an aura of history, of the gravity of the lives they are fleshing out, even – after a mellowing time period – of the author’s own importance; they are studied in school and read with profit by successive generations. Their ideas and sentiments many times have changed history itself. Doubtless, a listing of comic book adaptations of great literature will prove to be a valuable contribution. But it will have to be our first sequel.

Finally, there are two more popular categories which we are postponing consideration of rather than simply omitting. One is Sports comics; the other is Movie comics. Our collection has most of the comics printed in both genres so it is possible, perhaps even likely, that we will produce such compilations in the future. However, we have already gone through the selection process for movie comics and have included in this index those based on movies that can be considered educational: biographies, events, subjects or treatments that provide more than mere escapism; e.g., the Disney nature films fit neatly under the Biological Science heading.

In summary, here are what we have largely omitted or postponed from this first-draft survey: Special Purpose (Promotional) Comics, Graphic Novels; foreign comics and those not in English, Literature adaptations, Sports comics and those Movie comics that are not fact-based.

We should say something about another set of deliberate omissions which we reluctantly had to make. There has been, within the past couple of years, a veritable explosion of non-fiction graphic novels on educational topics – philosophy, architecture, geo-politics, mathematics, science, Black history, Islam, art – vitally important subjects in the modern world, but from newer publishers. Unfortunately, their sites seem to be in disarray or too new to be reliable. Comics are listed but are “unavailable;” others advertised have yet to appear. Others are involved in legal problems. Hopefully, these publishers will get their houses and their products in order so educators and students can buy with confidence.

Let’s go back to our first foot – here’s what we have included: All the U.S. comics we could find in the following Dewey Decimal categories: 030, Encyclopedias; 100, Philosophy & Psychology; 350, Military & Warfare; 530, Physical Science; 570, Biological Science; 610, Medicine; 700, The Arts; 780, Music; 811, Poetry; 900, Current Events; 909, World History; 910, Geography & Travel; 973, U.S. History; plus World Biography and U.S. Biography (no numbers assigned since biographies are usually indexed by the occupation of the person).

There are a number of more universal, more modern, indexing systems we could have used; why did we select the Dewey Decimal approach? The parameters for our study made the decision for us. By including only U.S. comics, there is no need for a broader system. Also the fact that a substantial if not majority of the comics to be listed were issued before ISBN numbers or the world-wide indexing systems came along meant these comics had no numbers by which they could be catalogued. Teachers, readers and students are used to looking up and getting non-fiction books out of the library via Dewey Decimals; this familiarity will help them see the relationships between all-text books and illustration-plus-text comic books on the same subject. If they don’t jibe, the students will question why that’s the case. Does that not aid and abet education? Victor Guroshalov, PhD., one Russian who understands comics, has written:4 “The main reason for the popularity of comics in my opinion is that they significantly simplify and accelerate the process of cognition,” as good a raison d’être for educational comics as I have encountered.

Deciding whether a specific comic was primarily designed to educate or to entertain, and indeed which subject area to list it in, involve judgment calls. You will, for instance, find several Julius CaesarThe Life of a Roman General and Caesar’s Conquests (Classics Illustrated #130) are included in the Military and War section; Julius Caesar (Classics Illustrated #68) is listed elsewhere; in this case, the story begins after Caesar’s generaling has been completed; it’s not a military comic. The popular series Sgt. Rock and Sgt. Fury are not included, nor is Beetle Bailey (all designed for escapism, for entertainment); but Battle of the Bulge (Dell movie comic) is. Both the movie and the comic book are based on an actual situation and can be used to teach military strategy – the necessity to protect supply lines. Occasionally, a single comic fulfills two functions and will be listed under both pertinent categories – a deliberate duplication.

To gain some quick perspective before you review the list of Educational Comics, you should read two IJOCA articles which discuss History and Medicine. The former is by Cord Scott, “The ‘Good’ Comics: Using Comic Books To Teach History,” IJOCA, Spring 2006, Vol. 8 No.1. The second is by Bert Hansen, “True Adventure Comic Books and American Popular Culture: An Annotated Research Bibliography of the Medical Heroes,” IJOCA Spring 2004, Vol. 6 No.1. Much of Scott’s article is devoted to graphic novels and there is little duplication with our list. Hansen’s research dovetails more closely with our Medical section and he is able to go into more detail on a number of the citations.


Though a brief paragraph is included at the head of the list itself, a few explanations here would be helpful. For brevity’s sake, we adopted a set of abbreviations and contractions. The comic books are shown alphabetically within each Dewey Decimal classification. Each listing begins with the title and number of the issue, the name of the publisher and the year of publication to help the researcher locate the comic, whether through local dealers or research libraries such as the George Smathers Libraries at the University of Florida.5 The format is briefly described for each comic book, including “H” for hardcover, “PBK” for paperback size, “G” for graphic novel, “C-” for smaller-than-standard comic size and “C+” for larger. If these designations are missing, the item you seek is a standard size comic book. Finally, each item listed will also sport either a “P” or an “S” to indicate whether it was culled from elsewhere (S) and is thus a secondary source or whether the author owns and has reviewed the issue(s) – “P” for primary source.

A Caveat

It is not our intent to provide a discourse here on the history of narrative illustration tracing all the way back to prehistoric-cave painting. My 1958 PhD dissertation6 devoted 1,006 pages to doing that and many other scholars covered that ground from their perspectives. Leonard Rifas ties the millennia-long evolution into the educational comics branch.7 But one caveat should be pointed out because it is even more pertinent in the case of educational comics than those created for lesser purposes. There is general acceptance (and misunderstanding) about cave painting and its honored place as an antecedent to comics and I am more guilty than most in helping create and foster a misconception.

When it comes to purpose, educational comics cannot trace their ancestry back to cave painting. In my globe-trotting research for comics’ forebears, I went to Spain’s caves at Altamiras, to Australia’s Outback, to Mexico’s jungles, to South America’s Andes and elsewhere. One pattern emerged: the vegetable and mineral oxide paintings were located only in the dim recesses of caves – precisely because there no one would be likely to see them. Unlike educational comics, whose intent is to communicate, to educate, cave paintings did not share that purpose. Consider the paintings themselves: a mammoth or bison with an arrow (spear) pointing to its heart. The painting was a wish, a prayer that the bison or mammoth would be the victim of tomorrow’s hunt for food and survival. Like the finest in all religions, the prayer was personal, uniquely the artist’s vision of what the future should hold. The private purpose of prayer and the public communications of educational comics are the exact antithesis of each other.

This catalogue contains close to 2500 educational comics citations. The number is much higher if you count multi-issue series at full value where issue-by-issue specifics are not cited.8 As you would expect, comic books are accurate mirrors of popular culture and interests. The most prolific category is Military & Warfare, which has double the citations of the Religion category, which is itself well ahead of the other classifications. If you had to guess, would you think that the least-numerous category would be Philosophy & Psychology? So would we. It is encouraging to note that the Arts (even exclusive of Poetry and Music which we show separately) produced more stories and references than any of the other divisions. A few other interesting, if not surprising, correlations: As shown by comics, Americans are less interested in the rest of the globe than they are in the good old U.S. of A. U.S. biographies in comic books outnumber biographies about the rest of the planet two-to-one. If we were voting for comic book subjects instead of for politicians, U.S. History would win convincingly over World History, 55% to 44%.

While Poetry ranks near the bottom in number of mentions, still who would have thought that there’d be 60 issues of comic books touching the genre? And Music does even better with 106 sources for devotees to check out.

Categorical Observations

030– Encyclopedias

While only four true encyclopedias in comic form reached our attention (Charlie Brown’s ‘CyclopediaPicture Parade/Picture ProgressPicture World Encyclopedia and The World Around Us, there were numerous fact-based comic books which ran for extended periods of time, and therefore accumulated so many diverse references that even without original intent, they became multi-volume encyclopedias. True Comics (85 separate issues) and Treasure Chest (26 years of religion mixed with educational secular articles) are the best examples, but there were dozens of others that came close to qualifying. We did include It Really Happened (11 issues), Real Fact (21 issues), Real Heroes (16 issues) and Real Life Comics (59 issues). Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia and Picture World Encyclopedia were obtained through supermarkets rather than comic book outlets.

100– Philosophy & Psychology

No wonder Charles Schulz’ work with Peanuts is so revered. While humorous, it was loaded with warmth and Sparky’s down-home common sense wisdom, as voiced through Snoopy, Lucy, Linus and the rest of the cast. That’s probably why even his daily strips are among the most expensive works on the original art market.

The value of the pictorial approach in simplifying complex ideas is nowhere better demonstrated than in Pantheon’s Freud for Beginners. It rings a familiar bell for me because I did my master’s thesis on Freud’s analysis of humor. I concluded that his theories seem sound but his own sense of humor is missing at least one cylinder.

200– Religion

Religious ideas are expressed more ardently than most other subjects. Some of the comics cited here are controversial, including the Jack T. Chick tracts. We decided to include a number of them because they meet our definition of education. Other religious comics are touching, even awesome (see Norman Nodel’s illustrations for a Classics Illustrated Special Issue, The Ten Commandments). The fragile parchment depicted on the title page and the majesty of Moses receiving the Commandments on Mount Sinai (pages 82-3) and then destroying them (page 87) demonstrates the power of comic book presentations.

Especially interesting is the proliferation of Manga treatments of the Judeo-Christian Bible. One of the earliest comic book treatments of the Bible remains among the most effective in its simple art approach, E.C.’s Picture Stories from the Bible (1942-43). The hard-bound editions of both the Old Testament and the New were beauties. Ditto the Treasure Chest series which ran for 500 issues over several decades.

350– Military & Warfare

You can tell what captures the attention of Americans more than any other topic: Warfare.9 While educational comics may not trace their purpose back to cave painting, at least we can go back to the 11th Century. Wasn’t the Bayeux Tapestry the first war comic? It told the story via a 225-foot masterpiece of the successful Norman invasion of England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The vagaries of warfare become evident when reading comics over an extended period of time. “Japs” become Japanese, Russian heroes in American comics are eulogized, then moving into the Cold War, turn from allies to enemies and heroism is longer a Russian characteristic, but perfidy and cruelty are. Puzzles abound: how does a comic book (It Really Happened #4) dated 1944 have the feature story “D-Day Demons” about two Yanks who captured 50 German soldiers on D-Day which was June 6, 1944? There isn’t time to get the story, write it, draw it, publish it, distribute it in a month or two. Conclusion: the issue must have come out in 1945. Those interested in graphic novels would appreciate a look at My War–Szeged, 1932, one of the early examples of a wordless book in which the pictures tell the whole story. We included reference to P.S.: Preventive Maintenance Monthly, Will Eisner’s Army magazine because, even though it’s a Special Purpose Comic, it ran for a long time and demonstrates Will’s brilliance treating even mundane subjects with flair.10

700– The Arts

Where else but in a popular culture genre such as comic books would you find, listed side by side, the biographies of Charlie McCarthy (Edgar Bergen’s wooden dummy) and Michelangelo? (See True Comics #14.) The Arts embraces many disciplines, from stage drama (and comedy) to sculpture and painting, and contains well over 200 sources. There was even a Stamps Comics (eight issues) for philatelists with some of the most interesting “true” stories in all comicdom – the Hindenburg dirigible stamp, the Berlin 1936 Olympics stamp where Jesse Owens made Hitler fume with his victories, etc.

811– Poetry

Fellow Iowan Dave Morice pioneered marrying poetry with comics. His Happy Press was turned out on a home “press” but it couldn’t hide the wit and style of Morice – and sure enough, Simon & Schuster picked the best of his stapled pages and created a bound volume of more than 70 illustrated poems showcasing a wide range of drawing styles.

900– Current Events

One of the most fascinating categories is Current Events, which one would think would not apply to a periodical which publishes, at best, once a month. But comic book publishers were imaginative and quick to respond. During World War II, the bottom margin of each page of such publications as It Really Happened had a stream of messages – the ubiquitous “Buy War Bonds,” of course, but also “Do Not Listen to Axis Rumors!,” “Save Scrap – Help Scrap the Enemy,” “A War Stamp A Day Keeps Hitler Away,” “Be Too Wise for Those Axis Lies!” Picture News combined the latest with the funniest – Milt Gross drew a pageful in each issue of his crazy take on the news. With 20/20 hindsight, an historian today can pick out much misinformation, some of it dangerous. Real Heroes and other comics made heroes out of J. Edgar Hoover and Chiang Kai-Shek. History later revealed Hoover’s paranoia and Kai-Shek’s thievery in stealing all the gold from the Bank of China. To try to be current, True Comics ran monthly movie reviews. Many movie comics were truly current events, publishing simultaneously with the Hollywood release of the film that the comic was based on. Picture News tried to be more than current – coming out with a feature story about a boxing match yet to be held – Billy Conn vs. Champion Joe Louis and predicting the winner (Louis). Picture Parade did an annual News of the Year in Review. The dangerous comic? True Comics #64 which featured a “new wonder insect killer” which “is not a dangerous poison.” The compound was DDT. True Comics also sported the slogan, “Truth is stranger and 1000 times more thrilling than Fiction!” Yet, in each issue, the story of a fictional Hoover G-man, Steve Saunders, grew in size (about a page per issue), which meant the true stories were declining by that amount. More thrilling indeed! Worse, the strip tried to blend real G-men doings with fiction by having cigar-smoking Special Agent Sauders be responsible for catching killer John Dillinger outside the movie house. A minor faux pas was True Comics‘ statement that famed explorer Roy Chapman Andrews was “freezing at night in a temperature of 40 degrees.” Perhaps Andrews had a higher freezing threshold than water.

Despite the “gotchas,” it was fun reading old comics to complete this project. I came across old acquaintances like Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal (possibly the most brilliant person I ever met) and fellow L.S.U. alumnus Steve Van Buren (possibly the best football player I ever knew). Equally enjoyable was discovering a pocket in the inside back cover of a number of the 1940s magazines, marked with E. Seymour Free Library, Stookton, N.Y. library slips still in some. The earliest was 1942. One slip a bit later in the decade had been stamped 28 times. It showed that some librarians were ahead of even teachers in their appreciation of educational comics.

Gratitude for their help and suggestions is due to John Lent, IJOCA‘s founder and editor; Donald Ault, head of the University of Florida’s visual rhetoric program; John Van Hook, assistant librarian par excellence at the University of Florida’s George Smathers Libraries; Leonard Rifas of Educomics, the true expert on educational comics; Robert Beerbaum of Fremont, Neb., the comic book dealer with the heart of a scholar, and most of all, my wife, Penny Davidson, without whom this project could not have been completed at all.

A project of this size will have some errors, each of which is the full responsibility of the author. Many will be errors of omission; if any reader would like to suggest additions to this list, I would be grateful for your advice on the subject. Others, hopefully less numerous, will be errors of commission. These too, will be helpful to hear about . . . and to correct. For both kinds of errors, I apologize, but the project had to begin somewhere. I chose to begin here.


[1] Rifas also covers the gamut of Educational Comics in a paragraph as follows: “Rather than constituting a single genre, ‘educational comics’ encompasses a large constellation of related (and somewhat overlapping) categories. These include local and global history comics, ‘true fact’ comics, illustrated adaptations of novels and plays, instructional comics, propaganda and psychological warfare comics, religious education and proselytizing comics, advertising and industrial public relations comics, political campaign comics, health education comics, biography and autobiography comics, development education comics, educational fotonovelas, benefit/cause comics, comics-illustrated brochures, cartoon-illustrated nonfiction picture books, infotainment and classroom-based edutainment. ‘Educational comics’ include some of the most-widely circulated and most-respected comics ever made, and educational cartooning has attracted the talents of some of the most artistically ambitious and celebrated comic book creators. Such comics are read all over the world.” (This is to appear in The Greenwood Press Encyclopedia of Comic Books and Graphic Novels in 2009).
[2] The review appeared first in IJOCA, Vol. 10 No.2, Fall 2008, pp. 519-580.
[3] IJOCA, Vol. 7 No. 2 Fall/Winter 2005, pp. 340-357.
[4] IJOCA, Vol. 7 No. 1, Spring 2005.
[5] Contact Jim Liversidge, Curator, or John Van Hook, Assistant Librarian.
[6] Culture and the Comic Strips, December 1958, New York University Department of American Civilization. The PhD was conferred a month later.
[7] “The distinction between ‘educational’ and other uses of cartooning is relatively recent in the long history of ‘narrative illustration,’ which traces back to prehistoric cave paintings.”
[8]We excluded “Encyclopedias” when we counted the number of citations because, as an omnibus category, itemized references would have been too numerous and arduous to compile.
[9] You caught us. Actually it’s Sex, but that was off-limits for this project.
[10] Also because we had more copies (57) in our collection than Will had retained in his. We counted them together one evening after dinner.


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To launch a searchable version Sol Davidson’s educational comics reference please click on this link: Davidson_Educational_Comics_Reference.


Special Thanks

Special thanks to Patrick LeMieux for constructing the ImageTexT Comics Viewer to read Sol Davidson’s library.

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