Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

History Bleeds

Posted by Don MacPherson on March 8th, 2007

Nat Turner Vol. 2 of 2: Revolution original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Kyle Baker
Publisher: Image Comics/Kyle Baker Publishing
Price: $10 US

I was fascinated and a bit inspired by the first volume of Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner (originally published as traditional, “floppy” comics), due in no small part, no doubt, to the face that U.S. history is not one of my strong suits (I’ve got a good excuse: I’m Canadian). I was really taken with Baker’s unusual approach to telling the story of a slave who managed to educate himself in secret to rise up to fight against what was arguably the most egregious injustice in American history. But with the release of the second part of the story, a darker, more disturbing atmosphere takes over, making it difficult to see the title character as a hero. Baker doesn’t offer any judgments himself, allowing the barbarities of one group of people to be compared to those of another. The question that this story ultimately poses is whether or not Turner’s revolution was a matter of war or one of frenzied revenge. Baker’s art is richly detailed, but his cartooning influences still shine through without compromising the grave nature of the subject matter.

Over the course of two hot but bone-chilling days in August 1831, Nat turner led a group of fellow slaves in a revolt against not only their masters but any white man, woman and child who crossed their path. At first consisting of just a handful of men, Turner’s group gradually grew in size to dozens of angry men who were all too willing to exact a bloody price as payment for years of abuse and debasement. Travelling with great speed from home to home, they methodically eliminated every perceived threat and persecutor, real or imagined. The revolt was brought to an end quickly, with only Turner himself managing to elude capture for several weeks.

Baker’s black-and-white artwork brings the brutality and ugliness of this violent story to life incredibly well. Sometimes, he opts to show some of the graphic details, and at others, he only suggests what’s to come or what’s transpired. It’s quite effective. To shy away from the graphic violence altogether might have lessened its impact, but Baker’s careful not to be too gratuitous with it either. Furthermore, while the others in Turner’s group are depicted as explosively brutal, the narration in Turner’s voice continues to paint him as something of a reflective, honorable figure. If the book was replete with bloody gore, that tone would have been overwhelmed. Baker employs a sketchy, loose style here, but there’s nevertheless a strong sense of realism at play. His work here reminds me of some of Kieron (Remains) Dwyer’s stronger efforts.

Another challenging aspect of this book is Baker’s choice in terms of storytelling. This is not a traditional comics story, but nor is it illustrated prose. It lies somewhere in between. I also like the divide between the prose narration — in Turner’s voice and, later on, in Thomas R. Gray’s — and the action that’s actually depicted in the panels. Turner’s remembrance of the revolt is presented in a detached tone, in a matter-of-fact manner that runs contrary to the horrors he’s discussing. Nat Turner Vol. 2 isn’t easy reading. One’s instinct is to be on Turner’s side, to cheer for the freedom of slaves. But the ideological message comes into conflict with emotional reactions.

As I noted earlier in the review, Baker leaves it to the reader to decide if Turner’s snowballing throng of fury is a small army or a mob that’s out for blood. It seems clear to me that Turner and his allies turn out to be murderers rather than soldiers. Innocents are slaughtered over the course of their two-day rampage, and those killings are carried out in such bloodthirsty fashion that one can’t help but feel revulsion. But that sickening feeling is balanced by the reader’s awareness of the horrors of slavery and how that practice continues to taint the sociological and political landscape in the 21st century. One has to ask if there is a justification, if the notion of “by any means necessary” is acceptable. Turner remains the hero of this story, but he proves to be one of its villains as well. 9/10

3 Responses to “History Bleeds”

  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Mar. 8, 2007: Back and to the left Says:

    […] Don MacPherson reviews the conclusion to Kyle Baker’s gripping historical drama, Nat Turner. […]

  2. JohnnyZito Says:

    I just saw something on PBS about Nat Turner. I’m going to have to check this out now, thanks for the heads up.

  3. K Says:

    It’s always fuuny how whites are so quick to criminalize any minority figure that fights as ruthlessly as they to liberate themselves. “Racism” has become a catchphrase just like “sexism” and all the other “political evils” that ensnare society today. Get a clue. It’s very easy to be diplomatic and to observe everything with cold reserve when we are sitting upon our comfortable throne of capitalism. Do you know what it’s like to have someone judge you on the color of your skin. To be considered inferior because you look differently than they. When whites kill minorities in wars they are called heroes. If you are black and kill whites in war(Yes, slavery was a WARCRIME inflicted on my ancestors) you are called a murderer and your moral being is brought into question. Hypocrites! Pharicees!
    Africa to this day is being exploited by governments all over the world with their people dying like insects. One of the richest countries (resourcefully) in the world and no one cares about it’s people. Isn’t standing idly by and watching a country bleed to death a crime? Oh i forgot you are too civilized!

    Here’s some help pulling your head out ofthe sand Read ” The Autobiography of malcom X, The Fire Next time, and any other black history book you can get your hands on so you can actually understand the black experience. If you get all your history from comic books you don’t really know anything fence sitter!