Ah, historical fiction! Who doesn’t love historical fiction?
Booth is the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, told from the point of view of John Wilkes Booth. C. C. Colbert wrote it, Tanitoc drew it, and First Second Books published it with a $19.99 price tag on it. And now, I review it. It’s the circle of life!
Despite Lincoln’s large presence on the cover of this book, he’s not really much of one in the comic itself. He hovers over everything, of course, but this is much more of a sibling rivalry book.
It’s a well known story, so Colbert doesn’t bother giving us too much background on the Civil War and what drives Booth to kill Lincoln. There’s some of it, but Colbert assumes we know all about it. I don’t have as much confidence in Americans’ knowledge of their own history as she does, but that’s fine. In fact, if we take this as a comic about the assassination itself, it’s not very good. Colbert doesn’t take advantage of the best factor of historical fiction – the fiction part. I assume some of the characters are fictional – Ella and Private Harris seem to be the most obvious ones, but maybe not – but what I mean is that Colbert never really deviates too much from Booth’s inevitable date with destiny. There’s not much of a sense of character with Booth, and what there is doesn’t have much to do with the assassination and the plot itself (I’ll get to the good parts of the book below). Colbert simply moves Booth from place to place, taking him closer and closer to the theater on Good Friday, 1865. It’s an oddly inert rendering of the build-up to and then pursuit of the assassins – Colbert leaches quite a bit of the excitement from it. We do know it’s coming, so that is a small part of it, but there are some very good stories to which we know the end that still manage to enthrall us. Colbert has had a decent career as a historian, and she speaks in the author’s note about being able to indulge some of the flights of fancy to which historians cannot succumb. But she doesn’t actually do that. As I mentioned, I assume some of the characters are invented, and because Colbert writes that, I assume many of the scenes are invented as well, but the way Colbert lays them out is unexciting and exemplars of what people who don’t like reading history use when they point out evidence of why they don’t like reading history. It’s rather strange. I’ve often taken neophyte comics writers to task for overwriting, but that’s not the case here. Colbert does a fairly good job of balancing the prose with Tanitoc’s art, but perhaps she needed a bit more writing to flesh out some of the characters in the comic. As a narrative of the assassination, Booth is fairly boring. That’s too bad, because it’s the major narrative of the book.
However, if we read this as a sibling rivalry, it becomes more interesting. It’s still not great, but Colbert, perhaps despite herself (or perhaps not), gives the relationship between John and Edwin Booth some good depth. The comic begins in 1850, with Junius Booth giving a speech from Henry IV (the second part, Act I, Scene II, if you must know – he’s quoting Falstaff). John sits in a tree above him, while Edwin stands among the admirers.
Colbert doesn’t seem to be mirroring Henry IV in her comic – there’s no Prince Hal, rebelling against his father with Falstaff until the day comes when he throws off the vestments of youth and repudiates his old drinking partner – but she does seem to be setting up a sibling rivalry as old as the Bible itself – Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, those sorts of relationships – and early on in the book, Edwin refers to John as “the prodigal.” John constantly feels that he’s in Edwin’s shadow, because Edwin is a better actor than he is. John believes that Edwin is trying to woo his lady, Lucy Hale (the daughter of a prominent abolitionist senator from New Hampshire), out from under him, and Colbert makes a subtle implication that had Edwin stayed retired after his wife’s death in 1863, an event that allowed John to shine on stage for the first time, perhaps John wouldn’t have been so bitter to assassinate the president. John desired fame, and although he seems committed to the Southern cause, it’s also clear he’s being used by more sinister forces. This rivalry is much more interesting than the simple narrative of John moving through his life toward 14 April. We see that Edwin can be condescending, but he also doesn’t hold John back in any way. John sees impediments to fame wherever he looks, the biggest one being his brother, but it’s clear that he simply doesn’t have what it takes as an actor. He finds fame on stage, of course, but it’s fascinating to consider that if Edwin had stayed on the sidelines, Abraham Lincoln may have survived his second term.
Tanitoc is a solid artist for this book. He has a naturalistic look to his work, and he makes the people in it look suitably nineteenth-century, if you know what I mean.
We’ve all seen photographs of people from this time period, and while Tanitoc gives them plenty of personality (which daguerreotypes could not do), they still have that look about them. There’s a seediness to the art that works, as this was a time period when people were, frankly, dirtier than they are today. Everything looks very closed in and crowded, until Booth flees into the countryside, when Tanitoc does a nice job depicting the riot of nature. It’s solid art – I don’t love it, but it gets the job done.
Booth isn’t a terrible comic, but it only approaches a good one, and only every once in a while. If you have absolutely no idea what happened in April 1865 in Washington, DC, it’s not a bad place to start. But Colbert doesn’t do anything really new with the narrative of John Wilkes Booth and his journey into history, and that’s too bad, because we expect more psychoanalysis and speculation from a fictional narrative rather than a straight historical one. Colbert, it seems, can’t leave her past as a historian behind. I certainly don’t mind straight history (heck, I have a Master’s Degree in History, for crying out loud!), but the story of Booth is so well known it almost demands, in a fictional account, more than we can find in a regular history book. It’s too bad, but I can’t recommend Booth. Not the least because of this:
Tomorrow: Gloom descends over Eastern Europe! Whatever shall we do?
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