Turning History into Comics: David Lasky’s Visit to Washington Middle School

By Erin Langner, WITS Program Associate

The Oregon Trail seems to have been following me for most of my life. To some extent, I followed an urban version it, from growing up in the suburbs of Illinois, to attending college in Colorado, to eventually moving to Seattle. Like many others who grew up in the 1980s, my most memorable connection to the Trail was the hours I spent moving the massive pixels of my digital “family” and their wagon across Missouri and Nebraska, usually losing most of them to dysentery and typhoid before reaching Wyoming, in the video game I played during elementary school.

Those sicknesses and the existence of the wagons are most of what I can remember from what may or may not have been a history unit about the Trail –clearly not a very fruitful one. What made me realize this recently was not my own westward journey but a version of the Trail that took the form of a graphic novel, as it was projected before an audience of Washington Middle School students, by the artist and writer who created them, David Lasky.


David Lasky speaks to students at Washington Middle School.

It is not difficult to convince a room full of sixth graders to take a pause from the school day to think about comics. We expect comics to induce laughter or pull us into the drama that unfolds across their panels, both of which David Lasky’s comics and graphic novels do. However, the moment the artist started showing drawings from his and Frank Young’s book, Oregon Trail: The Road To Destiny, the library full of students fell especially silent. Apparently things have not changed since the 80s: kids still love the story of the Oregon Trail.


Pages from ‘Oregon Trail: The Road to Destiny,’ by Frank Young and David Lasky. Image from buyolympia.com

As David went on to show them an advertisement from a more recent video game inspired by the Trail, he asked the students to point out parts of the image they thought might be historically inaccurate. A field of hands shot up instantly. One noticed how the wagon looked like it was moving too fast; David agreed and pointed out the way most people on the Trail walked beside the wagons rather than sitting in them. Another thought the horses pulling the wagon should actually be oxen; David confirmed this was indeed correct. Most often, students were bothered by the expressions on the travelers’ faces; these people were having too much fun to be enduring the laborious journey of the Trail. David wholeheartedly agreed.

Afterwards, David explained the reason he knew so much about the Oregon Trail was all of the research he puts behind his work. Once, he journeyed all the way to an obscure museum in Virginia, in order to see the belongings of the Carter family, which he used to illustrate the intricate details of his and Young’s more recent graphic novel, The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song. He pointed out the way a quilt he had seen became the background for a vivid panel that showed the family recording one of their most important hits. Images like that of the quilt, in which historical facts intersected with the creative mind of an artist so beautifully on the page, were the ones that will help us all remember history in the most meaningful ways.


Page from ‘The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song,’ by Frank Young and David Lasky. Image from comicsbulletin.com


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