Thursday, February 05, 2009

Read through Kyle Baker's Nat Turner last night. For those who have never heard of Baker, go read Why I Hate Saturn and The Cowboy Wally Show, they're two of the best books to come out of the Eighties indie comics scene. He's mellowed a lot since the cynical misanthropies of those two classics, but he's still an interesting and fearless artist. He went through a rather Chuck Jonesish phase in the late Nineties (You Are Here and King David are highlights, if seriously different in tone from each other.), and later kind of went avuncular, writing "life with the family" Dave-Berryish autobiographical stuff like the Bakers. So, I knew that a Nat Turner comic from Baker would be *interesting*, if nothing else.

It's certainly that. The book is more in the style of his Eighties indie stuff, all painterly sepia-tone browns and tans, more in the style of an illustrated chapbook than your standard gutters-and-word-balloons comic. The text is a series of excerpts or highlights of the pamphlet "Confessions of Nat Turner", published right after his execution & written in a typically turgid pre-Victorian style. Baker's native style was perhaps an unfortunate fit with the Nineteenth-century pomposity of the text, as the two tend to emphasize each others' tendencies into faults, inflating Baker's visual wit into buffoonery and the text's attempts at dignity into pretension and bombast.

But Baker doesn't try to sugarcoat anything, or make allowances, or excuses, any more than the original "Confessions" did. It's all there, in bloody, violent, merciless browns and tans. The second half left me wondering why anyone would find Turner an inspiration for anything other than regret and horror. The first half, on the other hand, almost elevated the subject into a religious figure. The text and the imagery lead me to compare Turner with his contemporary prophet, Joseph Smith, who was going through much of the same plow-side revelation at about the same time. The parallels are striking, if probably not intended by the author. Religious radicalism was in the air in the 1820s and 1830s, there's no doubt about that. He sort of steals a base by starting the book with the capture, enslavement, and middle passage of Nat Turner's grandmother, since it isn't covered, properly speaking, by the text, but it's some of the most compelling imagery of the book, and worth the diversion from the subject matter. It probably would have been more appropriate to a book on the Amstad mutiny, though.

What I kind of lost the track of in the course of reading was how the first half led somehow into the second half, how Turner's religious revelation turned suddenly into an exterminationist rebellion. Because that was, indeed, what the prophet Turner delivered - a determined slaughter of every white within axe-reach, from infant to invalid. Baker papers it over with some wordless montages of broken families, but there isn't enough middle here to satisfy my questions. This is the point where Baker's choice to rely on text and images rather than traditional comic-book stylings causes a narrative break-down. Who's that losing his children? Is it Turner? Was Turner married? Or was that a flash-back? Too many visual cues from traditional comic visual syntax are missing in the style Baker is using, when he needs to play these sorts of narrative tricks it causes confusion in the reader, or at least, this reader.

And when I said earlier that Baker doesn't paper over the bloodshed, he certainly doesn't. It occupies a good third of the book, and it's horrible. He doesn't shy from making the insurrectionaries look like monsters, and shows un-named whites suppressing the armed slaves in a fairly heroic light, which you wouldn't expect in a modern adaptation aimed at the guilt-industry crowd. He even throws in the old stand-by of post-bellum nostalgia, the faithful house-slave desperately trying to save his family, comically shucking-and-jiving for the bloodthirsty band while the whites run for it.

In the end, it's kind of chaotic, and mournful, and strange. Certainly haunts you afterwards, I'll say that much for it.

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