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C.C. Colbert on “Booth”

by  in Comic News Comment
C.C. Colbert on “Booth”

Only days after Robert E. Lee’s army surrendered, effectively ending the War Between the States, a young actor threw the country once again into turmoil by assassinating the president, shouting “Sic Semper Tyrannis” as he fled Ford’s Theatre. But while John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln is perhaps one of the most well-known facts of U.S. history and many students may even recall that Booth was a famous actor prior to attaining the role for which he is best remembered, the details of his life leading to the plot may be unfamiliar to most Americans. Historian Catherine Clinton – writing under the pseudonym C.C. Colbert – and French artist Tanitoc hope to shed light on the unlikely assassin’s path to infamy in “Booth,” an original graphic novel published by First Second in late March. CBR News caught up with Colbert to discuss the book.

“John Wilkes Booth was a twenty-six year old who changed the course of history – and so I think that his story is compelling on its own,” Colbert told CBR. ” Whether he was a ‘lone gunman’ or whether he represented a significant conspiracy and larger political forces, his actions represent one of the most tumultuous times in our history: how and why he became ensnared in these events is fascinating. How he single-handedly engineered the assassination in that sweet moment of peace, when the country was struggling toward reconciliation makes for very dramatic reading.

“Several recent history books, particularly Michael W. Kaufman’s ‘American Brutus’  and James L. Swanson’s ‘Manhunt’ (and a forthcoming study by Terry Alford) provide us with enormous historical data, and I am enormously grateful for this scholarship. But I wanted to have readers see and feel other aspects of this watershed event,” she continued. “So my book tries to bring to life characters associated with Booth – fictionalizing and imagining events built on the foundation of facts: for example, he was in political conflict with his brother Edwin and he did become involved with both Lucy Hale and Emma Turner, but we have no evidence about key aspects of these relationships – so that is where history leaves off and storytelling comes in.”

As Colbert suggests, Booth’s relationships with his brother Edwin and paramour Lucy Hale, the daughter of a prominent senator, take center stage in your book. But there’s even more backstory adding layers to the conflicts between them, including the fact that John and Edwin’s father was also a great actor and, further, had a second family – and they were it. “The powerful shadow of Junius Brutus Booth – that their father was the greatest actor of his generation and they both were trying to fill his footsteps – kept Edwin and John pitted against one another from childhood onward. In a war that has been characterized as ‘a Brother’s War,’ here was a competing conflict of gigantic proportions, with significant consequences,” Colbert said. “We know that these two brothers battled throughout the war, not unlike many families torn apart by conflicting loyalties. I am not suggesting that we can reduce Booth’s motives to sibling rivalry, but surely Booth’s psyche was shaped by the tangled roots of his father’s legacy: Junius Booth’s bigamy meant his second family were embroiled in scandal and unmasked as ‘bastards.’ Southern honor, fiery temperament and codes of conduct all came into play.

“Lucy Hale, the beautiful daughter of an abolitionist senator, created even more complexities. We have no evidence that she knew Edwin; this was just my imagination running wild,” Colbert said.”But the way in which Edwin would have wanted her protected is authentic.  Also we know Edwin berated his brother for his scandalous dalliances and dragging the family name into the papers through his misbehavior, like having it reported in the press that one of Johnnie’s lovers had stabbed him in the face. Considering his politics, Booth’s involvement with Lucy was a particularly fascinating aspect, and I brought in his brother to provide a verbal foil for this relationship.”

An actor, particular one who has enjoyed considerable success, may be an unusual candidate for the role of assassin, but Colbert suggested that Booth’s radicalization had as much to do with his fiery demeanor than his flair for theatricality. “Booth was a passionate young man who wanted to achieve great things in the world,” Colbert said. “He had just entered his twenties when the war propelled him into a dangerous place for a man with his temperament – to the sidelines.  He did not enlist in the army, but he waged a war by becoming involved in smuggling, espionage and other activities. I took seriously this idea that he saw himself as playing the part as the ‘savior’ of the Confederacy after others had deserted the stage – because Booth really did believe Lincoln was a tyrant and that his death would cause fellow Confederates to rise up and renew the battle for independence.  As a writer, it was my job to try to figure out how he became so firmly convinced by his delusions, which is how the story develops…not the story of the assassination, but the story of becoming an assassin.

“Booth was so deeply involved in his machinations that he could not see that the curtain had already rung down on war – and the fireworks and speeches and applause drove him into a frenzy. Booth had already been robbed of the role he desired when his brother Edwin returned to the stage following a long absence after his wife’s death,” the writer continued. “Edwin Booth’s acclaimed run as Hamlet caused him to eclipse his brother John.  And from that seed, I tried to imagine how he might respond emotionally and redouble his efforts to take on a more spectacular role in the clandestine, political arena – that of assassin. He was a fanatic who lost his grip on reality during the war’s final days.

“Again, there are so many fascinating aspects that not everything could make it into the graphic novel, like the fact that when the Booth brothers were united for a benefit – playing Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ in Manhattan (to benefit a statue of Shakespeare for Central Park, not for the Sanitary Commission as I suggest) – that there was a fire set in the theater (allegedly by disgruntled Confederates), and the play was disrupted and nearly had to be stopped, but it was Edwin’s cool head which prevailed and the show went on. Again and again, there are so many incredible dramas – the woman in New York who claimed to have Booth’s baby – someone who I could have introduced as a dramatic challenge for Lucy – but I found Ella a more compelling rival, once I read the story about her trying to kill herself, and then tried to imagine what led her to that awful, lonely desperation.”

Given his fame even before the assassination, and of course the combination of the crime itself and the culture of the country immediately after the Civil War, Booth presented a unique challenge to the authorities. “Booth’s notoriety meant that the American government had to be especially careful with him once he was caught.  And when he was killed, Secretary of War [Edwin McMasters] Stanton knew he might become a martyr and made sure the body was hidden away for years, not returned for burial in the family plot in Maryland until 1869 – so there could be no cult grow up around his grave,” Colbert said. “To this day, he is buried with no marker of his own. Yet his legendary role persisted.

“The government’s caution and secrecy led to a conspiracy theory that Booth was not killed at Garrett’s farm in 1865.  During the early 20th century, Americans were fascinated with the idea that he had escaped – and had been living in Texas or Japan. One enterprising author even published a book on Booth’s escape and his life under an assumed name, and exhibited a mummified body at carnival sideshows that he claimed was the ‘real’ John Wilkes Booth. 

“So what ‘really’ happened to Booth after the assassination became a popular underground folklore.”

“Booth” is not only Colbert’s first graphic novel, but also her first work of fiction. CBR asked the author what made her choose to delve into fiction at this point in your career and what made the graphic novel medium the best venue to tell this story. “In the past, I have written dialogue  for my historical children’s books, as story and character are important to books for younger readers. In my biographies I have tried to imagine the worlds my protagonists inhabited, and produced what I hope are engaging stories, but the economy and style of the graphic novel is unique and compelling,” she said. “But bande dessine [French comic albums] and manga have a more powerful tradition in their countries, and lessons for English readers. And they have taught us, like cinema, that stories can be transcendent and increasingly universal – if not global.

“In this era of competing media, we all want stories to be compelling, and to that end, I was excited by a medium which would allow me to explore ideas and characters through a much wider canvas, with a format which conjures more direct engagement, and with an artist and other collaborators dedicated to this same purpose.

“I will continue to try to explore forms which enhance our appreciation of the past, and bring more readers into engagement with history – which is not dead and boring but a part of our present and futures.”

Though some prose authors struggle to find their footing when writing comics, Colbert had additional experience to draw from in laying out her story. “For my first time out, I tried to use the techniques I had previously employed with screenwriting – trying to see the action and to write dialogue with descriptive inserts – so I could stimulate the artist to see the story unfold on the page.  I am afraid I overwrote, but this gave Tanitoc more to work with in order to create what I think is a gorgeous and compelling pictorial re-imagining of the period. The drawings are gorgeous, the color is beautiful and in this way layers of meanings come to life on the page.”

Colbert – as Catherine Clinton – also recently released a book on President Lincoln’s wife, Mary, titled “Mrs. Lincoln.” “I completed the script for ‘Booth’ when I was in the middle of my research for ‘Mrs. Lincoln,’ not yet writing. But I have been writing and teaching American history for decades, with more than twenty books to my credit,” Colbert said. “Since I published my first book in 1982, I have always been working on more than one project at a time, especially when you collaborate with artists, who have their own timetables, its important as a writer to be flexible and keep moving forward. This practical technique allows me to explore new genres, new horizons, and to always find new and compelling projects.

“Looking around today, I think it’s even more important that I start moving ahead on my next graphic project, which will plunge me back in time to another dramatic period when America was on the brink of disaster – the period before the ratification of our Constitution,” Colbert added. “We forget we were a confederation before we were united by our Constitution! We forget how narrow the margins were, how fractious the debate was, how courage and competition between leaders finally wrestled a compromise…that leaders from different backgrounds, different states banded together to create a means of governing for the people, by the people. Again, the graphic novel is a really vivid and bold way to convey important lessons from our past.”

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