Wednesday, June 2
Illustrated by Tanitoe
First Second 2010
A graphic novel exploration of the other half of the Lincoln assassination story, of its key player John Wilkes Booth, that lacks a very crucial element: motivation.
For as much as people refer to the United States as The Great Experiment in Democracy the simple truth is that it's history is marred by a pair of gaping wounds that will never heal out of willful neglect: racism and the Civil War. Until we can have a frank and open discussion about these rifts, and can come to a place of peace with them, the Great Experiment can never be considered a success.
Historian Colbert presents a pastiche of the life of John Wilkes Booth in an attempt, perhaps, to show us the other side of the story surrounding Lincoln's assassination. We first learn of the Booth acting dynasty and the rift between brothers John and Edwin standing in the shadow of their master Shakespearean father. Edwin, the prodigal, has the talent, but John has the looks, and the brothers are equally divided in their political loyalties once the War Between the States emerges. While Edwin is content to gain accolades for his acting, John's attentions are split between the stage and his political activities helping the South. At it's simplest, Booth presents John as a racist, separatist villain with no respect for democracy, and his particular brand of theatrical arrogance finds favor among those who would use his access to political figures via his fame for their own ends.
But why does he do it? How do a pair of brothers raised in the same house come to be divided over their politics during one of the most contentious periods of American history? Is it that Booth identifies with the South on an emotional level – be it an inferiority complex, a sense of entitlement, or simply an adolescent break from the parental confines – or is he nothing more than a pawn in a political game of chess? What drives the disgruntled beyond grousing and into the realm of sedition? These are the questions Booth doesn't answer, and given the ability to use the graphic novel medium to present a fairly large canvas it doesn't seem wrong to expect something more than backroom meetings and casual philandering for a shot at starring in the role of a lifetime. We see a surly, angry Booth but we never know why or what has pushed him to this point. Indeed, we aren't really shown anyone's motivations beyond the most one-dimensional of explanations.
Which brings me back to the point I started with, this idea that we are a nation scarred by the things we refuse to address. History is as full of conspiracies and plots and schemes as it is honest efforts and high-minded ideals, but these things all come about by the will of people, and people have their reasons for doing the things they do. If we cannot discuss their reasons, and do not engage in dialog through the ages over why people were motivated to do the things they did, we risk furthering old grievances and hatreds and misunderstandings. With a change of scenery and dialog, Booth could easily be refashioned into the story of Lee Harvey Oswald. I'm not saying the stories are identical, but that their backgrounds are equally murky and their motivations oversimplified. And we risk the possibility of allowing history to repeat itself with every successive generation so long as we continue to not discuss these divisive issues.
While I applaud Booth for wanting to address the idea that history has more than one side I find it lacks the necessary depth required for comprehending a difficult time in history.