REVIEW: Nat Turner (2008)

A Graphic Novel by Kyle Baker

As Kyle Baker points out – the life on Nat Turner is seldom spoken of in school. He is at best a paragraph in the section leading up to The Civil War, at worst a footnote. Personally, I chalk this up to the south’s control over history for a long time, and how certain groups had far too much control over how things were taught. Sounds pretty familiar right? I won’t trip over the current 2021 political minefield here, but let’s just say not too much has sadly changed. So who was Nat Turner other than a guy that vaguely started a slave revolt in the lead up to The Civil War? He was, in many ways, the archetype for many radical abolitionists, and later Civil Rights leaders, in their struggle against oppression as he knew that things would not change for the better unless blood was spilled. Notorious “Osawatomie” John Brown was particularly enamored by his story, using his words to further his own crusade against slavery. I actually got the idea to look up books on Turner whilst reading another book about Brown, hopefully to gain a better understanding of his views. What I discovered was a story I’m sad I was never taught.

Kyle Baker steps up to tell his heart-wrenching tale – the tale of a man driven to the brink on account of his education and his witness of grave injustice to his family and people as a whole. All it took was his own children to be ripped from his arms and, just like that, a holy war has begun. Unlike other slaves, he stood up and wreaked havoc on Virginia society, only to be pressed under the heel once again, and made an example of. But ideas are hard to kill, and as shown in the last pages of this very book – those ideas created a whole new generation of like-minded people, eventually ending slavery for good.

“The story of Nat Turner and his slave rebellion–which began on August 21, 1831, in Southampton County, Virginia–is known among school children and adults. To some he is a hero, a symbol of Black resistance and a precursor to the civil rights movement; to others he is monster–a murderer whose name is never uttered. In Nat Turner, acclaimed author and illustrator Kyle Baker depicts the evils of slavery in this moving and historically accurate story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion. Told nearly wordlessly, every image resonates with the reader as the brutal story unfolds. This graphic novel collects all four issues of Kyle Baker’s critically acclaimed miniseries. It also includes a new afterword by Baker.”

The artwork in this book is striking, done in a monochrome style with harsh angular lines and splashes of shadow on page after page. The style reminds me of charcoal drawings whether that was the artist’s medium or not. This style helps solidify the harsh conditions these poor people endured for the reader. very few flashes of happiness occur, and when they do they are cruelly ripped from your eyes on the next page. As many of you know, I love stark art styles such as this, and this is exactly the kind of book that excels with it. Hat’s off to Kyle Baker for being able to tell a story full of pain and emotion without nearly no dialogue, most bits of text existing as excerpts from Nat Turner’s own words before his execution and other first-hand accounts. It really shows when someone is a good comic creator when they can attempt and succeed at something like that.

You can say what you want about Nat Turner, hero or villain; freedom fighter or terrorist leader etc, but one can’t separate his short life from it’s importance in the lead up the The American Civil War. Had he not done what so many slaves were too scared to even attempt, many would have kept buying into the line of thinking that black people were docile sub-human creatures in order to make themselves feel better about the ethical travesty they were aiding and/or participating in. Why else would people make it so hard for slaves to have any sort of education – literally outlawing that at one point. Turner showed many of these people that violence can only beget more violence, and that there is a tipping point that you can only ride for so long before the entire system comes crashing down.

The book is a tough read – it’s uncomfortable and makes you really think about your feelings on people that don’t fit the “good guy” or “bad guy” templates easily. I won’t mince words here – Turner led a murderous revolt that killed upwards of 60 men, women and children indiscriminately – even a baby. But, as many know, Slaves were treated just a poorly in many ways – if not far far worse. Does that justify the brutality? Many would argue it either way. If men like John Brown are believed “the only way Slavery would end was by the spilling of the blood by an entire generation of men women and Children”, you have to wonder how much he based his ideas on the words of Nat Turner. Do yourself a favor and seek this out, it’s currently free on Kindle Unlimited, highly recommended.

If you would like to read this, click HERE This article is part of my summer series History Boy Summer, which you can keep up with by following this LINK.

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