Mishkin, Colón & Drozd Explore Kennedy Assassination in "The Warren Commission"

When its 889-page mass was presented to President Lyndon Johnson on September 24, 1964, the report of "The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy," commonly known as "The Warren Commission Report" after its chairman Chief Justice Earl Warren, was intended to provide the definitive and final answers about the murder of John F. Kennedy.

Fifty years later, it remains glaringly obvious that the panel failed in that goal. Conspiracy theories, espoused in books and films and spread all across the Internet, abound. A recent report stated that six in ten Americans do not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Many believe that there was another gunman entirely.

On its fiftieth anniversary, creators Dan Mishkin, Ernie Colón and Jerzy Drozd, using the template of Colón's recent journalistic graphic novel volumes ("The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation"), took the task of examining the report's approach and findings. The resulting "The Warren Commission Report: A Graphic Investigation into the Kennedy Assassination" from Abrams ComicArts doesn't attempt to do what the Commission failed to do. Rather, Mishkin, Colón and Drozd take the report's findings and examine them in light of the evidence -- what information was not included because it didn't fit the narrative, what controversies hold water and which ones don't, and why did the Commission choose the tack it did. And ultimately, how did the Warren Commission's failings affect, overtly or subtly, the changing face of America in the 1960s.

Mishkin, Colón and Drozd spoke with CBR news about adapting the report to comics, how Mishkin and Colón's previous collaboration on "Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld" helped the process of adapting "The Warren Commission Report" and the depth of exploring one of the turning points in American history.

CBR News: It's important to note that you don't seek to provide any answers to the question of who was ultimately behind President Kennedy's assassination. What then in the mission statement of "The Warren Commission: A Graphic Investigation"?

Dan Mishkin: Our goal was emphatically not to answer the whodunit question, but to try to gain some clarity about where these events -- both the assassination itself and the official handling of it -- fit in the history of the last half century. Mainly, we want to help readers better understand what the factual disputes are about and why the disagreements have persisted; how the investigation was conducted; the culture and politics of the time; and the influence of "The Warren Report" on the times that followed.

Ernie Colón: Most of these historical/biographical GNs have a dual purpose; to inform, of course, and to engender enough interest in the topic to encourage further reading and investigation.

One of the fascinating things about this book is your willingness to leave the question marks. Is it fair that the largest failing of the Warren Commission report was to insist on a definitive answer to all the questions surrounding Kennedy's murder?

Mishkin: I think that's exactly right, and that's the greatest indictment we level against the commissioners. They failed the test of transparency and humility by doing everything they could to bolster their authority to an absurdly high degree. They're dismissive of questions and interpretations of the facts that don't line up with their own -- the report so often uses the phrase "no credible evidence" to knock down other theories that it became my working title for the book -- and they seem to want to bludgeon the reader with densely-packed verbiage, as if a higher word count indicates a higher truth.

And as our book points out, some of the younger staff attorneys realized what a mistake it was to write the report as a brief for the prosecution of Lee Harvey Oswald instead of saying "Here is the best evidence we have and here is the best conclusion we can draw from it." They not only closed the door to open dialogue with the American people about their conclusions, but in being so definitive about every one of their claims, they left themselves vulnerable to attack whenever any single element of their findings turned out to be mistaken -- even if those mistakes would not have materially affected their overall conclusion.

Colón: The Commission's report was well written (surprisingly) but was so extensive in facts, names, plane schedules, times, etc., that I found it impossible to digest. It was this difficulty -- shared by others with whom I spoke -- that led to the idea of presenting it in graphic form.

Eight U.S. Presidents have died in office, four by assassination. Excepting perhaps Lincoln due to his role in the Civil War, none sustain the cultural impact of Kennedy's passing. Why do you think that day in Dallas is such a part of the American psyche?

Mishkin: I think the simplest and best answer is television, and technology in general. The medium allowed the news to spread rapidly, Ruby shot Oswald on live TV, people on the street were interviewed in cities around the country, coverage of the funeral dominated everyone's attention on the Monday after the assassination. TV, as well as newspaper photographs and later the Zapruder film, also provided images to argue over. One of the really fascinating things about the photographs and Zapruder's home movie is that one's natural thought is that they would provide conclusive answers, but in many ways, the opposite is true. Because of what they don't show us, whether that's a result of the quality of the images or the fact that we don't see what's going on outside their frames, they probably raise as many questions as they answer; and they allow for many different interpretations. For instance, there's the matter of whether JFK and Governor John Connally, who sat in front of him, were hit by single bullet; you'd think that pictures would tell the story, but the signs in the Zapruder film that might give an answer one way or another are either vague or minute.

The other very important thing to understand about the lasting impact of the assassination, I believe, is the cultural moment in which it occurred. As we discuss in the book, the currents of a vast cultural shift were all around; and big changes would have come even if there'd been no assassination and no Vietnam. But the assassination did happen, and the task of explaining it to a changing country fell to a group of aging white men -- some of them born in the nineteenth century -- who were operating by a set of rules that were no longer sustainable. In that moment, what was needed was real communication; trying to shut down the conversation sowed seeds of mistrust, and in some ways we're still reaping the results.

Colón: JFK's personality, the saturation of media, the historical repetition of a nameless nobody instigating a tragedy and -- incredibly -- changing the course of world history.

How did this particular book come to be?

Mishkin: I thought Ernie's idea of adapting "The 9/11 Report," and the resulting book by him and Sid Jacobson, was so brilliant that when I realized the fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination was coming up, it seemed natural to give Ernie a call and see if he wanted to try the Warren Report. It was only when the project was well underway that I realized how much I was compelled by my experience as a ten-year-old in 1963 who was shattered by Kennedy's death, and who never received satisfactory answers to all the questions that event raised. It took a lot of research and thinking and writing to be able to come to terms with what it all meant, and what it means now to live with the mistakes and the uncertainties that can never quite be fixed. My hope is that I'm not the only one who can benefit from the work I did, and that even someone who didn't have my East Coast liberal baby boomer response to the assassination -- someone who may not have been born till decades after it occurred -- will find in the book an explanation of why it looms so large, with effects that reach out to the world we all live in today.

The other thing I should say about how the book came to be is that we were very lucky to have Carol Burrell of Abrams ComicArts as our editor. Not only because she's very good at what she does but because she realized it would be better to have the book come out for the fiftieth anniversary of "The Warren Report," not the anniversary of the assassination. Given that I was still working on the script when the assassination anniversary rolled around, I'd say that was a smart move. The book could not have happened otherwise.

Ernie & Jerzy, with all the likenesses, graphic charts, autopsy reports, layouts of physical locations and other details, you must spend a tremendous amount of time researching each volume.

Colón: Jerzy took on most of the research -- a heavy part of any of these books -- as well as the backgrounds and coloring. Some might fairly ask what the heck it was I did.

The answer is -- I relaxed.

Jerzy Drozd: I think it's safe to say that on most comics projects the artist spends more time than the writer in the making of the book. But in this case I'm pretty sure Dan spent more time working on this comic than either Ernie or me. Dan's script was loaded with links to reference images for locations (often a variety of angles), pieces of evidence and major players in the scenes. Thanks to Dan we were free to put the lion's share of our time on laying out the pages and drawing them to the best of our ability. There is no way we could have completed the art in the time we had without Dan's extensive research.

I remember the moment when I learned to truly appreciate all of Dan's efforts. It was on page 79, a scene which called for an arrangement of x-rays and autopsy photos, and Dan left it to us to decide which ones to use. I do not recommend that anyone ever do a Google image search for "JFK Autopsy Photos." I even had SafeSearch on.

At one point I made a crude map of Dealey Plaza in Google Sketchup. It was more or less a bunch of cubes and rectangles standing in for the Texas School Depository, the triple underpass, the motorcade, the stockade fence and so on. I used that to keep track of the spatial relationships and blocking. Given the amount of time the comic spends in Dealey Plaza, and the importance of accuracy in exploring this subject, it wound up being quite helpful.

The only substantial piece of research that fell to me was coming up with the color palette. I studied advertising art and lifestyle magazines from the period. I also wanted to find a coloring style that would work with Ernie's art, so I spent a good deal of time pouring over Ernie's recent works like "The 9/11 Report" and his Anne Frank biography (which is time well spent regardless).

It can't be overstated just how collaborative a process it was in making this comic. Though I came up with the initial color scheme, the final look of the colors is due to invaluable input from Ernie, Dan, and the editors at Abrams. I'm very grateful for having had access to a team of intelligent people with great taste to help me find a coloring style and scheme that told the story as well as it did.

On the art side of things, what is your collaborative process like?

Colón: Trust. Knowing the other would come through, page by page.

Drozd: Ernie and I landed on a pretty unusual way (unusual to me, at any rate) of putting the majority of the pages together. We would take turns roughing out various pages as thumbnail sketches. From there Ernie would draw the characters while I drew the backgrounds. I would then composite the various images into a single page. As Dan has said, this comic's process was very collaborative, and one loses sight of who did what, exactly. Some in-progress pages would look like a collage of disparate drawings that the whole team helped shape into a cohesive piece. Then there were plenty of instances where Ernie's brilliance would blast out fully formed, like page 33, the "Six Fateful Seconds" sequence. All I had to do on that one was the coloring and lettering, and I wouldn't dare touch it in any other way.

Of course I expected to learn a lot through working with Ernie, but collaborating with him was like taking a masters course on cartooning. Ernie has this almost Zen-like way of making simple, seemingly effortless changes that drastically improve the moment choice, composition, or tone. He can see exactly where the weak points are and can turn a serviceable page into a terrific one with the addition of a foreground element or a slight alteration of the viewing angle. It really was magical to watch that happen as we worked.

Dan and Ernie, you've also worked together many times over the years, including a lengthy partnership on "Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld." This book is very different project, but did that familiarity play into your working together again? How did this collaboration change, whether due to the passage of time or the change in story content from past fiction you've worked on together?

Mishkin: The fact that Ernie and I have been friends for more than thirty years and have great respect for each other as artists was a crucial part of making this work. The most important piece of that was probably that we could talk openly and honestly about every aspect of the project. Given the complexity of a narrative like this, there were bound to be frustrations and differences of opinion, and basically, we were able to just get on the phone and talk through them.

All of which leads to the second part of your question: dealing with the ways in which this book is different from something like "Amethyst." Unlike the very freeform way in which Ernie and I are able to work on fantasy story, where I can loosely plot and he can throw some of his famous curve balls (famous to us anyway), the Warren Report had one content expert and that was me. On the other hand, although Ernie and Jerzy and I are all accomplished visual storytellers, I'd have to say that Ernie plays on something more like a master's level. So here I am, needing to be the one who structures and divvies up the content, but wanting to defer to Ernie's visual narrative sensibilities (and Jerzy's too). Add to that the fact that Ernie has established an outstanding narrative style for his nonfiction work, a style that's objective and reportorial while at the same time conveying beauty and emotion. It was important that Jerzy and I be able to inhabit that style without inhibiting our own instincts. But again, being buddies made that doable, even when one of us was driving the other crazy.

Colón: Dan is that anomaly in comics -- a top talent who delivers top work and on time. That deserves to be in Italics. On "Amethyst", I liked springing surprises on him -- elements he hadn't written in the script. In JFK, I stayed strictly on script. It had to be historically accurate, and Dan's excellent treatment adhered to that principle.

Ernie, starting with the 9-11 Report adaptation eight years ago, you've created quite a niche as an artist on true-life, frequently journalistic graphic novel volumes. Have you enjoyed this latest career reinvention? How does it compare to the many children's or horror or fantasy or superhero comics you've been associated with in the past?

Colón: My good luck is I have the ability to draw in different styles. I drew very few superheroes, as I made it plain -- to my career detriment -- that I was not fond of the silly, snarling spandex crowd.

The book doesn't endorse any specific idea of who killed President Kennedy, but do you support any theories that seem to make the most sense?

Mishkin: I didn't go into the research and the writing of this book with a definite idea concerning Oswald's guilt or innocence, or about the various conspiracy theories, but more with a sense of seeking some kind of understanding and closure. And as we've already talked about, the focus of the book is not on solving the mystery but on figuring out what went wrong in society, in the investigation, and in the conduct of the commission that left us with such a confusing mess.

Having said that, I did come to settle on what I think is the most convincing theory of the case, and was surprised to find myself basically on the side of the Warren Report, at least as far as the findings are concerned. I think it's virtually impossible to read from the physical evidence any conclusion except that Oswald was the only person who fired a weapon in Dealey Plaza that day; and I think it's nearly that hard to place him as a member (or dupe) of any conspiracy, largely because of the timing of his getting the job at the Texas School Book Depository and the announcement of the motorcade route.

Which is not to denigrate people who raise reasonable doubts about the lone-gunman hypothesis. There are all sorts of inconsistencies and gaps in that case, and it's understandable why people would pursue them to see where they lead; I just don't think they lead to a theory that's anywhere near as compelling.

I also don't mean to give the Warren Commission a free pass or to apologize for them, which I'm sure you know since you've already read the book. Although I ended up believing the commissioners were by and large (though not always) very well-intentioned, they made bad choices and foolish mistakes just about every step of the way, with consequences that all of us are still living with.

Colón: Ah -- here's one; there was a bitter, complaining, near illiterate letter Oswald wrote to Connally which hasn't gotten enough attention. The governor, not JFK, was the target. Oswald -- the "marksman" -- missed the limousine completely with the first shot. He also missed General Walker, a sitting, stable target at a short distance. This posits that JFK was simply in the way -- maybe an even more bizarre scenario than the accepted version.

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