Booth (First Second)

Historian Catherine "C.C. Colbert" Clinton explores the motivations behind Abraham Lincoln’s assassin in this historical graphic novel.


172 pgs., color; $9.99
(W : C.C. Colbert; A: Tanitoc)
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Even if you have forgotten everything else you ever learned in your American History courses, you probably remember that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. If you were a better than average student, you may remember that Booth killed our 16th president a few days after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. The facts are not in dispute but the real question is, why? Was Booth just the world’s biggest sore loser or what?
Enter Booth, the first graphic novel by C.C. Colbert (a pen name for the historian Catherine Clinton) which focuses squarely on Booth and explores his motivations as well as his actions. It’s a historical novel in graphical form, not a work of history, thus freeing the author to engage in speculation and imagined details which bring the story to life but would be out of bounds in a straight work of history.
I have to say that I find it hard to muster up much sympathy for John Wilkes Booth, but perhaps that’s not really the point: his life was certainly not without interest and his family, in some sense, embodied the divided American nation during the Civil War. Edwin and John both followed their father into the theatrical trade but chose opposite sites in the War: Edwin sided with the Union while John favored the Confederate cause and was a vehement defender of slavery (see why I find it difficult to sympathize with him?). In two of life’s great ironies, John became engaged to Lucy Lambert Hale, daughter of the abolitionist John P. Hale, and one of his rivals was Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the man John Booth would later assassinate.
Colbert has a nice feeling for setting the scene and including the telling detail in this novel: there’s not too much information but just enough to get the story told and keep it interesting. She opens in 1859 with a scene of Edwin rehearsing Henry IV while John hides in a nearby tree, setting up the sibling rivalry which may have motivated some of John’s behavior. And lest you become too sympathetic to the protagonist, she writes a scene in our nation’s capital in which the Hales’ servant declines to deliver a message to a particular tavern because he’s afraid of being kidnapped and sold into the deep South.
The art is entirely suitable to a historical novel: in fact Tanitoc’s heavy black lines and Hilary Sycamore’s vivid colors remind me of the old Classics Illustrated volumes. The frames feel mostly self-contained and static, like museum dioramas or posed tableaus, which might be annoying in a different book but suits this one since it also recalls the Classics Illustrated style. Now and then, Tanitoc does go for something different: for instance, the sequence presenting the assassination at Ford’s Theatre feels like selected frames from a newsreel camera whose operator is desperately trying to cover everything at once. You can read an interview with the author and preview Booth here, courtesy of Comic Book Resources. | Sarah Boslaugh

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