Written by CC Colbert; Illustrated by Tanitoc
First Second; $19.99
Growing up in the South, my friends and I were rather conflicted about the Civil War. On the one hand, there was a lot of geographic and cultural pride. We joked about the War of Northern Aggression (at least, most of us were joking), made proclamations that “the South will rise again,” cursed Yankees, patriotically ballyhooed the Confederate flag, and loved The Dukes of Hazzard. On the other hand, we knew that the right side won that war, that slavery was evil, and that racism was unacceptable. We absolutely revered Abraham Lincoln, and we thought that John Wilkes Booth – what little we knew about him – was the Devil himself.
Since then, I’ve always wondered about Booth. Why he did what he did. Who he was working with. If even Southern boys like us hated the man, who could be evil enough to support him? What kind of hood-wearing, baby-murdering secret society did this guy have to be in to want to assassinate the most beloved president this country’s ever had? What can I say? I was young.
I didn’t wonder any of this enough to do my own research, mind you, or even to crack open a book on the subject. Deep down, I probably suspected that the answer wasn’t nearly as exciting as I’d made it out to be in my imagination. But when I saw that First Second was publishing a comic about Booth – written by historian Catherine Clinton (Mrs. Lincoln), no less – I was eager to see what it revealed. Sure, it’s publicized as a fictionalized account, but this was the perfect opportunity to satisfy my curiosity about the notorious Booth, and in my preferred medium.
How it did, after the break.
This is Clinton’s first graphic novel, but though she’s a respected historian and used a penname for this book, you never get the feeling that she thinks she’s slumming by writing a comic. In fact, she refers to other historical comics in her Author’s Note and praises their “strong characters, vivid images, and powerful narrative arcs that clearly complicate and improve a story.” In talking about her collaborator Tanitoc, she’s excited about his creating “a world of images to enrich and complicate my world of words.” She understands the unique storytelling opportunities that comics provide and obviously desired to make the most of them.
This is pure speculation, but I’m guessing the penname is used to separate Booth from her other, purely historical work because of the fictional aspects of the book. Though she’s striving for authenticity, Clinton admits to relishing the narrative freedom and What If-ing that fiction brings. Unfortunately, it’s on these two levels – using art to complicate the story and using fiction to enrich it – that Booth disappoints.
I learned a lot about John Wilkes Booth that I didn’t know before. I learned about his family, about his complicated relationships with both a senator’s daughter and a whore, and about his motivations for wanting Lincoln dead. I learned something about his co-conspirators too, though not enough to satisfy my curiosity. I suspect though that Clinton would be perfectly pleased with that last statement, since she also states in her Notes that she hopes Booth will be a starting point for those interested in Lincoln’s assassination.
But though Clinton provides a good feel for Booth’s general temperament and personality, I wish that she’d speculated more about what it was that drew people to him. As written, he’s a moody, unlikable man. That sullenness also makes him passionate, and I suppose that might be part of what makes him attractive to Lucy Hale, the senator’s daughter, but I got no sense for what she really saw in him or why her father tolerated his attentions.
Booth’s strangeness is accentuated by Tanitoc’s drawings of him. Though the artist can be quite animated in the way he draws faces, Booth tends to be stuck with only one or two expressions. This contributes to the reader’s understanding that Booth feels superior and detached from the rest of humanity, but doesn’t lead to any insights about why the other characters would associate with him.
Tanitoc is extremely generous and loose with his ink throughout the book and – while his pages are captivating to look at – I often found myself confused about which character was in a particular scene. This was a particular problem when I couldn’t quickly tell which girlfriend Booth was talking to. Clinton’s dialogue usually helped me figure it out, but it was a case of the words helping the art rather than their complementing each other.
Especially after reading Clinton’s comments about art’s complicating and enriching the text, I can’t help but compare Booth to another historical comic published by First Second, George O’Connor’s Journey into Mohawk Country. In it, O’Connor adapts the journal of a Dutch trader who travels deep into Indian Territory to solidify his colony’s trade relationship with the Iroquois trappers on whom they rely to stay in business. What could have been – by all rights should have been – a completely dry drama about a business trip became – thanks to O’Connor’s clever and whimsical illustrations – engrossing, funny, and romantic.
In contrast, Tanitoc’s work doesn’t contribute to Clinton’s text in that way. He does a fantastic job of presenting historical people and places in an interesting way – his attention to accuracy and detail is wonderful – but he stops short of truly bringing them to life the way I’d hoped he would when I started the book. Which, I suppose, is also my complaint about Clinton’s story. Booth is a fine presentation of historical fact, embellished a bit by speculation, and it serves Clinton’s purpose in whetting my interest for more information. I just wish there’d been more of a human element to connect to as well.
Three out of five cross-country manhunts.