Written & Illustrated by Kyle Baker
Published by Abrams Books
Of course, Kyle Baker can draw anything and changes his style at the drop of a hat, so it’s no surprise that Nat Turner looks great and like nothing else out there. What’s surprising is the technique Baker adopts to tell this history of Turner and his armed slave revolt of August 21, 1831.
Using the transcript of Turner’s confession as the book’s narrative, Baker chooses to make nearly every panel in Nat Turner silent. Though heavily illustrated and light on text, often no text at all on a page or only a few sentences, Nat Turner very nearly operates as illustrated prose. Nearly, but not quite. The overwhelming bulk of the story is carried by the artwork, as Turner’s transcribed confession amounts to only a few pages of text. Baker chooses to expand each of Turner’s admissions and editorial remarks, capturing the full terror of both Turner’s slavery and his revolution.
Opening with a slave abduction in Africa and offering grisly details of living conditions and shark pursuit (because bodies were thrown overboard often, sharks literally followed slave ships for leagues upon leagues), Nat Turner spends a considerable amount of time, highlighted by Turner’s own remembrances, detailing the circumstances of Turner’s childhood. Witnessing his inquisitive nature as it is ground under ignorance and oppression will leave any reader heartbroken. Baker pulls no punches with this book, depicting Turner’s shattered innocence on one page, then illustrating his rebellion’s slaughter of whole families on another.
Using a charcoal-like black and white art style on gray pages, Baker captures the dusty, historical quality of the pre-Civil War era, and his evocative characters display all the horror and humiliation of slavery and death all too emotionally. Often employing only a few panels per page, Baker opens the story up to breathe, enabling the importance of each scene to fully impact on the reader.
The most amazing thing about Nat Turner is that while reading it, while witnessing the callous murders of Turner and his zealous mob, you can’t really decide if his actions go beyond any pale of brutality or if, for all he and his people have suffered, they should be forgiven their actions. If only people treated their fellows with humanity, perhaps inquisitive young men like Nat Turner might’ve grown up to save or enhance lives, rather than take them. In that respect, Nat Turner is more than a well-researched and engaging historical comic – it’s a reminder that even today, we need to treat one another with respect and integrity, and that violence stills begets violence.