Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Booth - Graphic Novel Review

For many Abraham Lincoln enthusiasts, nothing intrigues them more than the tragedy of his assassination. Just as he had, at long last, achieved victory in the Civil War, he was struck down by the vainglorious young actor, John Wilkes Booth. Even today, books written about one of the saddest events in American history go on to become best sellers. The past few years have seen the publication of two superb books about the assassination: Blood On The Moon (Edward Steers, Jr.) and the more recent Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase For Lincoln's Killer.

Joining the growing list of Lincoln assassination books is Booth, a graphic novel published by First Second. Booth is a joint effort by the author C.C. Colbert and the graphic novel artist Tantioc. C.C. Colbert is the pen name of the esteemed historian Catherine Clinton, who earned her Ph.D. in history from Princeton. She is the author of numerous books, including her recent biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, titled Mrs. Lincoln: A Life. Dr. Clinton also is a member of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. This is her first foray into historical fiction.

Tantioc is a French artist who specializes in graphic novels. He is also a writer, lecturer, a scholar of comics criticism, and has authored two graphic novels.

Booth presents a semi-fictionalized account of John Wilkes Booth and the events which led to his murder of President Lincoln. After a brief two-page introduction to the Booth family in 1850 Maryland, the novel rapidly moves to the year 1863, during the heart of the Civil War. By then, the Booth family (John and his brothers Edwin and Junius - also famous actors), have become divided, with Edwin and Junius supporting the Union, while John is an unabashed Confederate sympathizer. The graphic novel progresses through Booth's becoming involved with rebel plotters to either kidnap or murder Lincoln to the assassination itself. Along the way, the various relationships Booth had with women are also depicted, including his secret engagement to Lucy Hale, the daughter of a U.S. Senator.

In the author's notes, Colbert (Clinton) discusses that she enjoyed the speculation and "what ifs" this form of book permitted her to write, freeing her for once from the rigors of accuracy expected of scholars. Her sons are apparently fans of graphic novels, which also helped lead her to this effort.

A fine effort it is, at least considering the writing. Colbert/Clinton wrote the text of the graphic novel and she does a nice job of blending fact with speculation and fiction. The major characters in Booth are true historical figures. Booth and Lincoln (barely seen...this is Booth's story), Booth's family, his fiancee Lucy, her father, Robert Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, and the people hanged for the conspiracy were all real, of course. Where the book diverges into speculation is when it shows Booth involved with other Confederate agents (which may have been true...historians aren't sure) in plotting against Lincoln. Booth is also shown in the company of a women of questionable morals, Ella, one of the fictional potential plotters. The dialogue is believable and very well-written.

A little more background about the real conspirators would've been nice, especially if readers aren't familiar with the assassination story. For example, George Atzerodt (his name misspelled as "Adzerodt") is shown as one of the people who was hanged on July 7, 1865. Other than a single panel earlier in the work, no reason is given as to why he was hanged. (Of course, the real Atzerodt was assigned by the real Booth to assassinate the Vice-President, Andrew Johnson.)

The artwork didn't impress me nearly as much as the writing did. I make no claims to being an artist, but the artwork in Booth detracted (for me) from the overall quality of Booth. Today's "style" of many comic book and graphic novel artists is, to my eyes anyway, crudely drawn with muted colors. It gives a "flat" appearance to the art with poor attention to facial features and perspective. I happen to be a collector of vintage comic books. When I look at the art from the 1930's through the 1970's, I'm stricken by how beautifully drawn and colored those comics were. I also think larger dimensions for this graphic novel would have permitted the artist more room with which to work. The overall appearance is that things look "cramped" in the art in Booth.

(Speaking of the artwork, I do want to warn parents who might be reading this review. This book is NOT a comic book, and it is not meant for younger readers. There are panels which show Booth's companion, Ella, while she is topless. A bit gratuitous, perhaps, but at least realistic. Booth was a notorious womanizer.)

In spite of my criticisms, I enjoyed Booth. I would recommend it to graphic novel enthusiasts or to Lincoln buffs. For her first attempt at writing a graphic novel, author Colbert did an excellent job with the story, the introductions to the chapters, and the dialogue. Well done, Dr. Clinton.

3 comments:

Jim said...

I enjoyed the review. Where did you get it?

Geoff Elliott said...

Jim,

I was provided an advance copy of the book for the review. I am unsure if it's been published just yet, but it will be available at any book store.

Jim said...

Got it on Amazon. Reading it soon! Thanks for the heads up.

 
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