Nat Turner Vol. 1-2 (Kyle Baker Publishing/Image Comics)

natheaderThe legacy of one of the most controversial figures in pre-Civil War America bursts into life in this visually stunning, thematically provocative pair of graphic novels.

 

 

Nat Turner Vol. 1: Encore Edition (Kyle Baker Publishing)

Nat Turner Vol. 2: Revolution (Kyle Baker Publishing/Image Comics)

96 pgs. ea. B&W; $10 ea.

 

 

Nat Turner is easily one of the most polarizing figures in pre-Civil War America. To some, he's a hero, the leader of a failed slave rebellion that struck the biggest blow to the culture of slavery in the pre-War South. To others, he's a monster, a warped man who took a righteous cause and used it not just to brutally slaughter slave masters but also women, children, and even infants, often in their sleep, murdering 55 before a militia halted the attacks. So controversial is Turner's legacy that he often receives little more than a context-less mention in history books.

 

"Who is this guy who's so important that he gets in all the history books," Kyle Baker asked rhetorically in an interview with Wizard, "why don't they ever tell us what the story was?" In attempting to reveal the true story of Turner, Baker entered a virtual minefield of potential criticism from camps on either side of the Turner controversy. In the hands of a lesser cartoonist, Nat Turner would have been disaster. In the able hands of Baker, it's quite simply a masterpiece.

 

Those familiar with Baker through mainstream work like the kid-friendly Plastic Man for DC may think Baker's whimsical, cartoonish style a poor fit for such heavy subject matter, yet it's the expressiveness of his artwork that truly sells the story. Working (it appears) mostly in charcoals, Baker's characters have weight, but their animated faces and fluid body language communicate more than words ever could. Baker, wisely, leaves well enough alone: Nat Turner contains a scant 5 words of dialogue in its two volumes, instead using exquisitely illustrated silent panels augmented sparingly with words from The Confessions of Nat Turner, purportedly the words of Turner himself as related to Thomas Gray as Turner awaited trial for his crimes.

 

Turner's own words are scattered few and far between in the early parts of the book (just two short paragraphs in the book's first 75 pages), their appearance increasing as the tension increases. As the rebellion explodes, Turner's uncomfortably detached confession serves as a sort of running commentary to the brutal atrocities that unfold on the page. He matter-of-factly gives the play-by-play as heads are severed, children are slaughtered, axes drive deep into defenseless human flesh. The violence is shocking without being exploitative, treading a fine line between historical accuracy and gory glorification.

 

The pacing of this pair of graphic novels is utterly flawless. Opening in Africa, Baker shows the horrors of the slave trade: the vicious attacks on African villages, the deplorable conditions on the Middle Passage across the Atlantic, and the savage treatment the slaves received upon arrival in America. Separated from his father, Turner (the rare slave who could read) found solace in the Bible, and from its passages, he manages to convince himself that he is a prophet. With God on his side, Turner and his squadron of fellow slaves set out on their barbarous assault. Turner is utterly remorseless, both in the words of his confession and the face shown in Baker's finely-crafted panels. Those entering the book with an agenda may accuse Baker of glorifying Turner's actions, but that would be missing Baker's point entirely. The savagery of the slavers brings forth the savagery of Turner and his marauders, the inexcusable brutality of Turner's crew sparks the bloodlust of his captors, Turner's legacy inspires those left in the aftermath; violence begets violence until the only solution, the eradication of slavery, reveals itself.

 

It's powerful stuff, executed brilliantly by Baker. The only complaint one can lodge against Nat Turner is its format: this is one story that needs to be told in its entirety, and by reading either half of the story without the other, the work's mood and theme completely falls apart. After originally publishing the book as a 4-issue miniseries, collecting it into 2 trades seems nonsensical. Baker has hinted that the book will be collected once again in a one-volume edition; let's hope he does so sooner rather than later.

 

One hundred and forty years after the end of the Civil War, the effects of slavery still echo in the race relation problems that divide American society. Nat Turner rips open the origins of that divide for all to see in the form of a stirring, perfectly illustrated narrative that is 100%, without a doubt, required reading. | Jason Green

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