Saturday, August 02, 2008
A book tells the story of Nat Turner's uprising -- in cartoon form
By JAMIN BROPHY-WARREN
August 2, 2008; Page W2
On Aug. 21, 1831, a self-educated slave named Nat Turner sparked an uprising in Virginia that left more than 50 adults and children dead and served as one of the opening salvos in the fight to end slavery. Nearly 200 years later, award-winning cartoonist Kyle Baker is exhuming Turner's story and presenting the tale as a graphic novel aimed at readers of all ages.
"Nat Turner" uses stark black-and-white graphics to portray Turner and his band of rebel slaves. It follows Turner from childhood to his execution of the bloody revolt.
As a youngster, Mr. Baker had wondered why there were so few details about Nat Turner in his history books. "There are no statues and there's no plaque where the rebellion was," Mr. Baker says.
In 2003, Mr. Baker launched his own publishing company and began researching the uprising and slave conditions before printing "Nat Turner" as a three-part series a year later. (The recent edition collects those comics into book form.) "The thing I thought was preposterous was that people wonder why he did it," he says, noting that the brutal conditions under slave masters were "worse than jail."
"Nat Turner" is a more serious turn for Mr. Baker, who had specialized in lighter fare. Born in the New York borough of Queens, Mr. Baker started his comic career at Marvel Comics as an intern in high school. Mr. Baker went on to work in animation, and also published several graphic novels. His work for DC Comics' "Plastic Man" series won him one of his nine Eisner awards, considered the Oscar of comic books.
"People say history is boring and they don't want it in comics," says Karen Berger, a senior vice president and executive editor for DC Comics, who worked with Mr. Baker on his graphic novel "King David." "He brings such a contemporary take. He can make stories like Nat Turner seem like they happened today."
Mr. Baker's instincts as a visual artist drew him to Nat Turner's story. "I thought it would make a good comic book," says Mr. Baker, noting the story has "lots of visuals, action, and fights." Mr. Baker's most recent series about the Iraq War, "Special Forces," features similarly explosive content.
The artist hopes his book will appeal to young readers. His publisher, Abrams Books, is promoting the story to schools with its other young-adult fare. Mr. Baker says he even passed a copy to his mother at a family reunion. "That was one of my happiest days," he says.
Write to Jamin Brophy-Warren at Jamin.Brophy-Warren@wsj.com