Friday, July 15, 2005

This Comic Is Good: Nat Turner #1

Nat Turner #1
Kyle Baker Publishing

Nat Turner was born in 1800 as a slave in Virginia. From his childhood, he had visions and prophesies, and was widely known among his fellow slaves as an intelligent and powerfully spiritual man of God. He learned to read, a forbidden practice among slaves. Then in August of 1831, Turner led a full-fledged slave rebellion, the largest in American history.

Turner felt he was an instrument in the hands of God. He saw visions of white spirits and black spirits in battle; he found hieroglyphics on leaves and saw forms of men portrayed in blood that matched the visions he saw in the skies; and he felt that judgment day was at hand.

Turner’s rebellion was never all that large, topping off around forty people. The group traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and murdering all of the white people in their path. By the time Turner’s forces were crushed, they had killed fifty-five people.

In the aftermath, fifty-five black people were executed for their (real or imagined) part in the rebellion and two hundred more were killed by mobs. Turner himself was caught, tried, convicted, and executed in November 1831.

Kyle Baker has adapted the life story of Nat Turner into a four-issue miniseries. The story of Turner and the rebellion has tremendous potential for storytelling: the tragedy of slavery, the struggle for human dignity, the religious fervor of Turner, the further tragedy of the slaughters both during and after the rebellion. It’s not something to be taken lightly or simply.

Judging by the first issue, Baker may be just the man for the job.

The first issue of Nat Turner is gripping. Baker took an unusual tack in setting up the tale: the beginning of the story is entirely without words. Page one shows a marketplace in an unnamed African village. A man flirts with a woman. Children laugh. Then comes a cry of alarm we cannot hear. Slavers arrive on horseback and take all the people they can.

The story begins to follow a single woman who kills two slavers then tries to commit suicide, only to be saved at the last moment and taken away in chains with the rest of her village. She is stripped naked, shorn of hair and branded. Then comes the nightmare of the slave ship, which Baker evokes all too well.

The silence of the story is a brilliant technique. What village was it? What is the name of the young man who charms the young woman? By avoiding the use of names and dialogue, the story is not fixed in time and space, but rather becomes a universal village. The men and women taken by the slavers are individuals, but their silence makes them stand for all of those taken. Had the young woman been named, the reader would have become more fixed on her as a particular person than her situation.

Baker’s art is flexible and extraordinary. The people of the story are drawn using rough lines and dynamic shapes, making them feel alive. The lines in the Africans’ hair was particularly fuzzed, creating a sharp contrast to their forcibly shaven heads. During the voyage, sharks circle the slave ship, awaiting the inevitable feeding they’d receive from the corpses of people who died en route. These sharks were drawn using a few thin lines, rendering them inhuman and cold.

Baker’s linework shifts to match the mood of the panels, and is amazing throughout. He’s been an exceptional artist for years. Nat Turner shows he’s grown better with age.

What interests me is how Baker will treat Turner and the rebellion itself in later issues. His rebellion was both a response to horror and a horror itself. The stirring tale of freeing slaves was marred by the slaughter of women and children. To my eyes, the rebellion is a complex mixture of heroism and cruelty, a tragedy born of tragedy. I can’t help but believe Baker will do it justice.

This comic is worth your money. Kyle Baker is a great cartoonist. He tells a difficult story with grace and humanity.

Go! Buy it now!

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3/25/2009 10:03:00 PM  

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