By Andrew A. Smith
Tribune Content Agency
Sept. 10, 2020 — It’s been raining graphic novels here in the Comics Cave. Let’s look at a few:
Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio
Art/writing: John “Derf” Backderf
Abrams ComicArts, $24.99
Backderf made a name for himself with My Friend Dahmer, a graphic novel that was part memoir, as Backderf actually knew the future serial killer as a teenager. I confess I haven’t read it.
I also confess that I’m not especially fond of Backderf’s art style, which reminds me strongly of several underground cartoonists from the ‘60s (but not the famous ones). It’s serviceable but simplistic.
But, boy howdy, does he make up for it with research. This book is amazingly detailed and informative. Which is what makes it all the more horrifying.
Most of us know the basic outlines of the events of May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in northeast Ohio. Heck, all you have to do is listen to the famous Crosby, Stills Nash and Young song, "Four Dead in Ohio,” to get the gist: Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on unarmed students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four.
But there’s a lot more to the story, and Backderf tells it. He finds every interview, every news story, every autopsy report. He takes you into the lives of various students and Guardsmen days before the event, allowing you to get to know each one personally.
Which makes it all the more horrific when some of the people you’ve come to know are killed or badly wounded. You even feel a little sympathy for some of the Guardsmen, not all of whom were gung ho.
But you know, a bunch of ‘em were. Sure, the protesters weren’t all angels. They did burn down the ROTC building. They committed acts of vandalism. They threw rocks. They flipped the bird to the troops and called them names.
For which four of them got the death penalty, and several others were crippled for life. This is called an “overreaction,” which is pretty much how to describe the behavior of the authorities, including those of the university, throughout. Before the shootings, students (whether protesting or not) were tear-gassed, beaten with clubs and bayonetted.
Then came the shootings. The Guardsmen were armed with the M-1 Garand, firing a .30-caliber, inch-long, copper-jacketed bullet that “can go clean through a foot-thick tree stump or through four men standing in a row … and kill them all.” When the Guardsmen were ordered to “lock and load” — chambering a round that can be fired instantly when the trigger is pulled — something bad was pretty much guaranteed to happen.
And when it did, it wasn’t just the four made famous by the song who suffered. The high-powered weaponry tore off body parts from unsuspecting students going to class or to lunch two and three football fields away. The Guardsman opened fire indiscriminately into the campus of a large university — of course it was utter carnage.
And the result, when it was over, was that the students were blamed. Sound familiar? Some of the most shocking material comes after the shooting, as Backderf describes authorities covering up their mistakes, one captain planting a pistol on a dead student and the entire student body marched out of town—by armed townsfolk.
So I led with the minor quibbles I had with Kent State. Because I wanted to build to a crescendo, describing what a powerful, effective and affecting work it is. It speaks directly to today, with victims once again being blamed for their own deaths and authorities painting protest as violent when it’s not.
School for Extraterrestrial Girls: Girl on Fire
Written by Jeremy Whitley
Art by Jamie Noguchi
Tara Smith is a nose-to-the-grindstone high school student with strict parents. That’s not a terribly unusual circumstance, but it takes a turn when Tara finds out she’s an alien wearing a shapeshifting device, and her parents have been lying her entire life.
Tara is some sort of reptilian alien who can burst into flame, which explains some of the title. She is adopted into a hidden school for the many aliens who apparently live on Earth, which explains the rest. As for her parents … that’s a mystery for the inevitable sequel.
Which is not a complaint. “School,” like Whitley’s “Unstoppable Wasp” for Marvel, is utterly charming. I have never been a teenage girl, but the dialogue, relationships and over-the-top drama — complicated by aliens with bizarre powers and appearances — ring true. The art is manga-inflected but not overly so, and is altogether … what’s the word? Oh yes, charming.
School leaves several loose threads (those parents, for example) and ends on a cliffhanger. I’m not the target market here, which is YA. But I’m interested enough for another helping.
The Glass Wall
Written by William Robertson
Art by Yulia Lapko
Soaring Penguin Press, $21.99
This mature-readers GN stars Lucian, an aimless, early twenties, self-absorbed East Ender in London, who moves in a haze of sex, drugs and whining among other aimless, early twenties, self-absorbed East Enders. The plot, such as it is, is that Lucian’s world is impacted when his best friend is accused of raping Lucian's ex-girlfriend.
To tell you the truth, I found it hard to sympathize with Lucian. He’s probably the best of a bad lot, but he’s still self-centered to an unpleasant degree, an easy liar who never met a drug he didn’t want to take or a girl he didn’t want to shag. He frequently indulges in over-analysis and philosophy, which veers between genuine existential doubt and self-parody.
But he’s the protagonist, because everyone else in this book is even worse. It’s like Trainspotting, but without Ewan McGregor to smile away the squalor.
Still, even though most readers will want to take a shower afterwards, Glass Wall has something to say. I think what that is will vary from person to person, but for those who like to ponder the big questions of life, it might be worth the journey.
Written by Jennifer Muro and Thomas Krajewski
Art by Gretel Lusky
DC Comics, $13.50
DC Comics has lots of superheroes, but that hasn’t stopped their YA and middle-school graphic novels from inventing new ones. Such is Primer, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley Ryburn who discovers paints that give her a wide variety of super-powers when she splashes them on her person.
The paints belong to her new foster parents — Ashley is in the process of being adopted — and sets her up to be pursued by everybody who knows about the paints and wants them. I really don’t have to tell you how the plot proceeds, as the back of the book says, “Now she has to make hard choices to protect her new parents and learn what it truly means to be a family.” I think we can all guess the lesson Ashley learns.
But sometimes it’s the journey, not the destination. Ashley is goofy fun — she’s got very little impulse control — and she gets to roll around in paints. That probably scratches an itch for those of us who loved splashing in mud puddles as kids but aren’t allowed to any more.
Primer also ends on a cliffhanger, with Ashley meeting her real father — who’s in prison. I suspect there’s a Primer II on the horizon, which isn’t at all a bad thing.
Find Captain Comics by email (email@example.com), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Andrew Alan Smith) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).
KENT STATE: I can't remember whether I pre-ordered this one or not. I also can't remember whether or not I pre-ordered "The Mueller Report", which you posted about in "This Week in Comics" earlier today. I do remember debating with myself about whether or not to order them, and I do remember both were originally solicited to ship in April, but I can't recall whether or not I pulled the trigger. Of course, not pre-odering them doesn't preclude me from buying them (although pre-ordering them does commit me to buying them). If they end up in my P&H I will honor my commitment, but homestly, I'm not in a good frame of mind right now... not to read dystopic fiction (such as "It Can't Happen Here" which I read last month), and certainly not to read dystopic history.
Check in with me again in December (maybe).
Sorry for your pain, Jeff. I think I know the causes, and it's certainly understandable. If and when there's more sunshine in your world, I will recommend Kent State again as not only dystopic history, but forgotten history. I was 12 when Kent State happened, and had no idea then or until this book just how awful, and infuriating, it was.
I haven't read Mueller Report, and probably won't unless it's sent to me for review. That one I am familiar with, and still carry the rage, so I don't need a prompt!
I used to work with a man whose brother was one of the students killed. I never asked, but heard from people the did and he wouldn't talk about it. I don't believe I'll read this as I don't think I could process it without this knowledge.
I revisited this this thread today to delete what I had posted yesterday... if no one had responded to it. (I know you do that, too; Incidentally, I did read a comment you posted, then deleted, to a comment of mine on another thread, FYI.) I am a big fan of the band Chicago. So was my older brother, and I kind of picked up where he left off. There is a song you may remember, Lowdown, whose lyrics include, "The country I was brought up in, fell apart and died." That was written during the era of Viet Nam and Watergate, but when I first heard it, I thought the country I grew up in was a pretty good place.
The guys from Chicago, however, grew up in the 1950s, though, the era of "Howdy Doody, comics books and blue jeans" (to quote the lyrics of their later song, Old Days"), but it was also the days of the McCarthy hearings, Civil Rights injustices, etc. I think any decade looks rosy through the goggles of youth. But I am reminded of a recent YouTube video of a young black woman who asks the question, "When has America ever been great?" and goes on to say. "Be glad we're after justice and not revenge."
I'm interested in Four Dead in Ohio, and will probably buy it in the near future. The art style doesn't bother me. It gets the point across. What really interests me is the level of research and detail.
When Kent State happened I was five months back at work at what would turn out to be my career and five-and-a-half months back from Vietnam. I was fortunate enough never to have had to personally kill anyone. I have realized that I was part of an artillery battalion that did kill a lot of North Vietnam's soldiers, so I helped kill them. Civilian deaths may have happened, too, but they would have been accidental. Civilians have always died in wars, which is one of many reasons that war should only be a last resort. Anyone who thinks that no civilians were killed in the bombings of Berlin, Dresden, etc in The Good War is deluded.
The concept of a military "illegal order" was established in the Nuremberg Trials in 1945-46. When Kent State happened, the "illegal order" was well established. Anyone who said that the officer told them to shoot should have known better. None of them should have fired. Killing unarmed people, civilian or military, is murder.
KENT STATE & THE MUELLER REPORT: Both of these shipped to my LCS today and, coincidentally, both were originally solicited for April 8. I took a critical look at Kent State per your recommendation but, apropos my comments above, I discovered I had pre-ordered The Mueller Report but I had not pre-ordered Kent State. I'll probably pick up the latter at a later date, but for today i was obligated to buy the former. (Look for a review soon.)
Apropos my other comments above, I can only conclude one of two things: 1) Things were never getting better and I just wasn't aware of it. or 2) Things are getting worse.