By Leroy Obama Douresseaux
September 11, 2008 - 10:13
Acclaimed cartoonist and graphic novelist Kyle Baker (Why I Hate Saturn, Plastic Man) produced what he called a historically accurate comic book biography of Nat Turner a few years ago, and initially released it as a four-issue serial entitled Nat Turner (2005-06). He later collected the series in two “Encore Editions.” Image Comics recently published the graphic novel in single hardcover and paperback edition.
Nat Turner (1800-31), an American slave of African descent, was a popular religious leader among fellow blacks in the Southampton County region of Virginia where he lived all his life. Born without a surname like other slaves, Nat took on the surname of his owner, Turner. In the last year of his life, Turner started the largest slave insurrection in the antebellum southern United States. By the time he was captured (and later hanged), Nat and his fellow rebels had killed over 50 whites, including women, children and infants.
Nat Turner, Vol. 2 (of 2): Revolution reprints Nat Turner #3-4. [Nat Turner Encore Edition, Vol. 1 (2006) reprints Nat Turner #1-2.] In the second half of his cartoon biography/history, Kyle Baker displays full command of his prodigious talent at creating comics through powerful visual imagery. The reach of his skill is evident in that he doesn’t have to pass judgment on Nat Turner’s players, events, and times to engage the reader. The storytelling is clear enough. The fierce, perhaps crazed determination of Turner and his cohorts is evident. The stark brutality of their actions is clear, and these actions strike to the core of our being. Baker leaves it up to the reader to decide.
In the context of Nat Turner and his fellow insurrectionists being slaves, one could understand the lust to murder their White enslavers, as well as any other White citizens that benefit from or support the system, either actively or passively. However, there is such an immediacy and energy to the images and the way they connect to form a visual narrative that one barely has time to really stop and pass judgment or offer support or criticism to the actions of Turner and company. Still, it’s almost quaint that Turner has created such a profound graphic narrative that trusts the intelligent reader to contemplate and examine the text on many levels. This includes allowing for judgment of the characters’ actions, analysis of the execution of the storytelling, consideration of the technique, craft, and symbolism of the art, etc.
There are so many panels and sequences worthy of scrutiny. In one panel a babe sleeps in the foreground while in the background, outside the window by his bedside, in the front yard below, his family’s murders realize they’ve left behind a witness (so to speak). That panel gives way to another panel at the bottom of the page – a close-up of killer’s intense gaze. The following two-page segment starts with a debate – what shall the insurrectionists do about the White infant? Baker closes that sequence with a powerful panel featuring a looming shadow cast against the wall in the background and a powerful, ax-wielding arm in the foreground; both objects framing the baby-in-a-cradle that occupies the center of the panel.
Kyle Baker’s intelligent, adroit use of images – when to use a particular image, how to use any one image, and where to place them – is what puts Nat Turner at the top of the list with the great graphic novel and comic book biographies (Maus, Louis Riel), and makes it a truly special work of comics that mustn’t be forgotten.