Writer Jonathan Hennessey estimates that there is more than one Civil War book for each day that has passed since the end of the war in 1865, and yet he and illustrator Aaron McConnell accepted the challenge of trying to tell one more, using the medium of comic books to try and recreate that story in a new way in “The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation,” published by Harper Collins’ William Morrow imprint.
To accomplish this, they focused on what Hennessey calls the “elegant chronological structure” of The Gettysburg Address, telling a story of the before, during and after of the Civil War and America’s continuing struggle with bigotry and hypocrisy.
Comic Book Resources spoke with Hennessey and McConnell about the extensive research required to tell their story, some of the hidden human tragedies lost to time, the accessibility of a graphic novel, both accepting and avoiding bias and the complexity and imperfections of Abraham Lincoln.
CBR News: The attention to detail is breathtaking, what can you tell me about the scope of this project, the amount of time you put into this and the people you spoke with who illuminated this journey?
Jonathan Hennessey: At the outset of this project, quite a few times, I grieved over the idea that I’d really stepped in it with this one. The Civil War is such well-trod ground, in fact, there is more than one Civil War book for each and every calendar day since the war ended in 1865! In hindsight it may not have been the most practical sophomore effort for Aaron and myself. We arguably could have taken something to press a whole lot sooner had we chosen an easier subject. It took four years of research — on top of, you know, the knowledge I already had — before I felt ready to make a run at writing a graphic novel that might possibly be a worthy addition to the massive Civil War library that’s already out there.
Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War aside, great stuff has already been written on the Gettysburg Address. That made my work, from the start, a little shifty and unfocused. But then a bit of a “eureka” moment completely transformed the writing process.
The Gettysburg Address has this elegant chronological structure. It sets out in the hazy past, pushes forward to a present time frame that is overcome with turmoil, and finally widens out to contemplate a vision of the future. To my knowledge, no one had ever applied the speech’s chronology to the entire sweep of American history, including the present.
Aaron and I took the step of traveling to Gettysburg in 2009. This was just a bit of a commitment for two West Coasters. But failing to go there would have been, I don’t know, dishonest somehow. The gentleman now serving as the president of the battlefield guide’s association joined us for an entire day and helped fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge. That was key. A history professor then at Occidental College, now teaching in Missouri, was also a huge help.
How does a story like Jane Clark’s discovery on the battlefield — her husband and the dented button — make its way to you and into this book?
Hennessey: With material that threatens to occasionally dry out some, I felt it was important to return at intervals to dramatic storytelling. Inject stuff that returns a human face to the clash of armies and ideas. The Jane Clark story was a serendipitous find in an archive of period Pennsylvania newspapers (specifically the defunct “Philadelphia Press”). While the war created hundreds of thousands of heartbreaking stories, one where a man had miraculously survived one potential killshot only to fall in battle to another killshot months later — and be identified by the button that had once saved his life — was particularly stirring.
Aaron, I’m interested in the level of importance you put on historical accuracy in as much as you could. What kind of research did you do with regard to the fashion and architecture of the time and the facial features of the principles?
Aaron McConnell: Jonathan provided image references for most pages, but the page you’re asking about in regard to Jane Clark’s discovery didn’t have any photo references for the characters. One of my reference books did have a picture of Solomon Powers, so I used that, but invented the other likenesses based on Jonathan’s descriptions and photos that had figures who could approximately match those descriptions.
I had a lot of photo books to flip through, and whenever I could, I’d try to throw in an architectural detail or something specific to make the panels convincing. Jonathan and I visited Gettysburg before I started drawing the book, and I think the drawings of the landscape are informed by that experience. Google maps and “Street view” can get you there in a sense, but can’t equal the experience of being there in person, especially for a place like Gettysburg where the history of the setting is so well preserved.
There is a bit of diversity of style in the book, but one recurring theme stands out: political cartoons from the era are pulled into this and re-created, can you tell me about their importance to this story and also, is it fair to say that they also inspired some of the art?
McConnell: That’s a good question that I doubt I can sufficiently answer. [But] it does give me the opportunity to explain my role in illustrating the book that I think a few people misinterpreted when Jonathan and I did our first book “The US Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation.” Jonathan’s script dictates when we incorporate editorial cartoons from the era and, in addition, Jonathan is the brain behind the original visual metaphors that we come up with to depict certain concepts. I’m not trying to undersell my role, because it is a challenge to turn an idea for a visual metaphor into an actual image, but I just wanted to clarify my role as illustrator.
Astute readers will notice, as you did, that I occasionally re-created the cartoons, especially in the beginning of the GN. I thought it made for a cleaner read, and perhaps my ego had something to do with wanting to see all the art done in my own hand, but I eventually decided as long as I could find a high quality image of the original, [that] I would go ahead and use it despite stylistic incongruity. To me, the inclusion of these cartoons adds to the understanding of the subject in the same way that reading a bit of text written during the time transports you to that time in an intimate way.
In regard to my own stylistic shifts, I basically work in three primary modes depending on the type of information that I need to convey visually. I use a Dramatic Narrative Mode, a Visual Metaphor Mode — which is informed by editorial cartooning — and an InfoArt Mode such as maps and diagrams. I employed a couple other shifts, but my hope is that the visual differences assist the reader in following the ideas as we toggle between the various forms of communication.
Would it be fair to say that the general population doesn’t have a firm grasp on the complexities of both the civil war and Lincoln’s speech, and what do you think makes a book like this, a graphic novel, effective as a teaching tool?
Hennessey: As for the first part of the question, I would definitely agree. For starters, there is a lack of acknowledgment out there that slavery was once a countrywide phenomenon. The first state to actually legalize it was my own home state of Massachusetts.
Much of our book is about what we describe as the self-destructive flaw in the “ideological DNA” of the United States. That is, the fact that our two founding documents — the Declaration of Independence on the one hand and the U.S. Constitution on the other — are, in a handful of ways, as opposite as two sets of ideas can be.
Most people I talk to are really provoked when this is pointed out to them. The Declaration of Independence upholds the act of rebellion as a patriotic thing, but in the Constitution it is treason. The Declaration claims all men are created equal, but the Constitution permitted slavery to exist and also enshrined many important concessions to slavery in what was our supreme law of the land. And the Declaration calls for a government that is local and weak: the precise opposite of the distant and powerful government in Britain [that] the colonists struggled against. But the Constitution creates another distant, powerful, federal government with power over the states in many crucial areas of influence.
Think about it: slavery, state sovereignty, size and scope of the government, the nature of rebellion… There is your Civil War right there, decades and decades before 1861. Most people seem to have no idea of our “Founding Fathers” being so dramatically at odds with each other.
Like I mentioned before, I find many in the North [assume] that their whole region was somehow racially progressive — that the Civil War was fought to end slavery simply because it was a gaping moral injustice, and that white and black equality followed quickly on the heels of the surrender at Appomattox. The truth is far different and more troubling than that.
Alternatively, I talk to many Confederate sympathizers who vastly overestimate how powerful the federal government was in the days leading up to the Civil War. The weakness of the federal government is one thing that allowed the war to happen. Many of the folks who talk about a “War of Northern Aggression” likewise tend to need reminding that the federal government was largely what Southerners had made it. Before the war, there had been more Southern presidents than Northern ones, and Southerners had always dominated the Supreme Court. They has also often dominated Congress.
A graphic book like this works wonders as a teaching tool because, for instance, you can have in one panel a visual line-up of all these antebellum Southern presidents coupled with the state from which they came. The image just somehow has the power of vaulting into your head in a way that a mere text list could not. As any comics lover will know, there is a powerful alchemy when words and images work in concert. I would never have every book replaced with a graphic novel. But I think with a book like ours, you can sit down in a very short amount of time and absorb more knowledge and argument than you would with any other short book.
Can history really be examined in an unbiased way when there is a clear right and a clear wrong being discussed?
Hennessey: Wow. Although slavery is a clear wrong — especially the brand of chattel slavery that persisted in the South — that’s still a heady question. I don’t think any history can be completely free of bias. It’s just human nature to color the world with our own perceptions, experiences, and beliefs. That being the case, you don’t just throw up your hands, give up, and accept the belief that everything is subjective — and therefore that every point of view equally valid. That road leads nowhere.
Just as we’re asked to as citizens, when we are exercising our privileges to vote or to serve on juries, responsible historians must do the hard work of trying to be aware of their biases and work to overcome them. Only by rigorously exercising good judgment and sense can we try to steer clear of the pitfalls of purely self-serving decisions. Decisions and assertions that too easily fit the mold of our preconceptions. A good friend of mine, a guy who’s exceptionally sharp yet whose politics are a whole twist of the weathervane opposite of my own, was instrumental in helping me spot some key areas where I needed to re-think something, be it a certain potentially loaded word or even a whole position.
As someone who spent a bit of time surrounded by Lincoln’s choices and his words, I’m curious if you think his greatest virtue was his firm resolve or his evolving compassion?
Hennessey: It is breathtaking how the Civil War aged Lincoln in those four years — a time when, we should not forget, he also lost a son to illness, became quite sick himself, faced all manner of personal drama and troubles (including in-laws who fought for the other side), and lost many close friends to death. Lincoln was not a demigod: he was flawed in many ways. But his political acuity, his belief in the power of words, and his pure emotional and mental stamina astound me. I think no other president ever had to bear such incredible burdens of office.
Lincoln has been characterized as a Christ-like figure. One need only look at the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic to see that. You can see something of the Jesus narrative in his somehow shouldering, and dying for, the whole country’s “sin.” I do and don’t see him as a savior-like character. His resolve and compassion are simultaneously virtuous and terrible. We can be deeply touched by his, say, pardoning so many Union deserters who faced execution and for working so hard to push the 13th Amendment through Congress. But he still prosecuted a terrible, bloody war, and his plan for what to do with the ex-slaves was practically nil. I continue to contemplate ways the war might have been avoided, or could possibly have been less destructive.
What went into the choice to close the book at the culmination of the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s, and if you were to write another chapter on America’s continuing struggle to live up to Lincoln’s words and true measure of equality throughout these last 50 years, would it be one that closed with hope or concern?
Hennessey: In our book, individual sections and phrases of the Gettysburg Address are singled out to inspire chapters that help tell the whole Civil War and Battle of Gettysburg stories. The second-to-last of those phrases is, “Shall have a new birth of freedom.” The fact remains that there was not much of a “New Birth of Freedom” for the freedmen and women (ex slaves) until a hundred years later — with the Civil Rights Movement. So it very much belonged in the book.
I think the Civil Rights and entire 20th Century section was a justifiably organic inclusion. Because if Lincoln began his speech invoking a time before his own birth (the American Revolution), then it’s fair game to adapt the speech looking at the time after his death as well. I like to think that the book’s argument that there were two racially segregated “New Births of Freedom” — one for whites and a much-delayed and hard-fought one for blacks — is one of the more interesting conclusions of the book.
As a nation we definitely have not yet put the last nail in the coffin of racism, much as many would like to think we have. But I’m hardly alone in thinking we’ve come very, very far. I’m getting to be something of a graying individual myself now. But I’m raising very small children, and I see them, and even people well into their 20s, living and breathing with incredibly healthy racial attitudes. My own kids live in a wonderfully demographically mixed environment, and this came about with no excessive amount of fuss over where we live, play, shop or go to school. When the young people of today rule the world, I think racial prejudice will be one of the least of their concerns.
“The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Novel” is on sale now.