I've been falling behind on these posts--good thing this week is spring break.
I'm still not entirely comfortable teaching a comic that thinks it needs to jazz up slavery with chases and fight scenes and huge Frank Miller heroes who battle dozens of guys in silhouette. I have some problems with a comic that romanticizes any part of slavery, even if it casts rebelling slaves as romantic heroes. But I wanted at least one of the nonfiction comics in our course to be something other than an autobiography, and I certainly got that in Nat Turner.
Some of my students had the same problems I did, and it was fascinating watching our opinions change as we read the book. The biggest hurdle was probably just getting over the fact that Nat Turner is not a history but a romantic fiction, a Frank Miller comic in slave-narrative drag. The book's early scenes, where Baker has the most latitude to invent, are filled with action-movie cliches. These scenes fail as history (or even as realistic historical fiction) but some of them work as a kind of psychological condensation of the horrors of slavery--a series of attempts to compress the experiences of hundreds of years and millions of slaves into a handful of shocking images. (Then again, the worst of them, like one absolutely ridiculous moment where raiders lasso a defiant woman as she dives off a cliff, doesn't seem to express anything about slavery; it's just an attempt to build Nat Turner's mom up into an action hero, to make Turner some sort of genetically pedigreed badass.)
By the three-quarter mark, when the violence is grounded in historical fact and the comic turns into a collage of cropped and severed body parts, the shock turns from a liability into a carefully deployed asset. It's not just that we become glutted with violence at the moment Turner's followers overindulge in their killing spree; it's the way the cameos and insets and photographs and generous amounts of negative space lend a false decorum, an album-like quality, to a story of grotesque and largely pointless bloodshed. That serene and evil domesticity says more about the institution of slavery than all the splash pages of babies dropping neatly into the opened jaws of sharks.
Baker gets great mileage out of using nineteenth-century media and art styles--photography, prints, silhouettes, photo albums--to tell this story of the nineteenth century. He even throws in a couple of anachronistic but still antiquated D.W. Griffith-style cinema close-ups when he needs to let us know, wordlessly, what Turner is thinking at a decisive moment. My students went nuts with the silhouettes, looking for strategically encoded meanings whenever Baker rendered his characters in stark outline (and finding more than were probably ever contemplated). Technically, visually, narratively, the book was a challenge and a reward for students who have already gotten very good at reading comics.
The technical command doesn't lessen the book's troubling ethical positions, though. Kyle Baker graciously spoke on our campus the day after we finished discussing Nat Turner, and he fielded a lot of questions from my students. He told the audience that he deliberately avoided taking a stand on Turner's actions--that to forestall the inevitable criticisms that would come from one camp or another if he did editorialize, he simply depicted Turner's actions and withheld any commentary.
He certainly doesn't editorialize in the actual text of Nat Turner, since the comic uses few words that don't come directly from Turner's confessions. But that leaves a skilled comics artist like Baker plenty of other ways to comment on the action. As my students pointed out, and Baker admitted, he draws those slaves who acted to save white slave owners from Turner's followers--or those followers who undermined the revolt with drinking and fighting--as pop-eyed minstrel caricatures. Turner, on the other hand, gets a handsome face, a heroic physique, and a Christlike sanctity that lasts through his execution. His dignified death and the postmortem transmission of his narrative are presented as unequivocal victories in the struggle against slavery.
When Baker does refrain from comment, that restraint is selective enough to constitute a comment unto itself. The book doesn't shy away from showing the horrors of slavery or the horrors of Turner's revolt, but its judgments onTurner's killing spree are ambiguous at best whereas Baker's revulsion at the more routine tortures of slavery is unmistakable. Even if Turner's murders of children and other noncombatants are presented with cold neutrality, that would itself stake out a position relative to Baker's uncomplicated abhorrence of slavery. Not that I don't expect a modern portrayal to evaluate Turner's actions differently from those of white slaveowners--I'm more worried that it refuses to evaluate them at all, or refuses only when they are at their most appalling.
And there is always the possibility that the book does not regard those murders with evenhanded neutrality or noncomittal ambiguity. The class spent a lot of time consulting this page (cropped, but I think you'll get the gist of it):
Is this an admirable refusal to sugar-coat Turner's rebellion, an insistence on showing the true cost of a futile revolt whose victims were mostly children? Is it a fair and balanced depiction of what really happened in Southampton in 1831? Or does the sheer graphic overkill leaven the image with a perverse undercurrent of joy?
R. Fiore detects something of that undercurrent at the end of this post on "literal" and "freestyle" cartooning:
I think the real impulse behind Nat Turner, revealed in its remorseless depiction of the savagery of the revolt, is to see the slaves take the direct revenge against their oppressors that they were mostly denied. In this it’s reminiscent of the work of Kara Walker, who seems to despise white abolitionists as much as the slaveholders, for usurping a struggle that ought to have belonged to the slaves themselves.
I don't want to endorse that last statement in any way: I think it oversimplifies Kara Walker, it paints a dangerously romanticized picture of social struggle, and it flirts (however unintentionally, I'm sure, and however much it comes by way of Fiore's effigy of Walker and not from Fiore himself) with the reprehensible idea that whites had no responsibility to end slavery. That said, the rest of this offers a lot to agree with, including the comparison to Walker; I showed some of her silhouettes in class as an example of another artist who fuses nineteenth-century art styles with grotesque violence to capture the horror of slavery. And Fiore may be onto something when he suggests the real impulse behind Nat Turner is not historical documentation or assessment but simply the vicarious pleasure of revenge.
Nat Turner furnished plenty of material for some rich class discussions. Baker's graphic novel and his appearance on campus were both important parts of our course. (If nothing else, it did the students a lot of good to hear that at least one artist's creative decisions are primarily technical and design-oriented, not thematic; sometimes a silhouette is just a silhouette.) But I wish Nat Turner had the courage to judge or condemn its hero as easily as it praises him.