J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

George Washington Gets the Comics Treatment

The finest looking history comic I found in my recent perusal of local libraries is George Washington: The Life of an American Patriot, created in 2005 by David West Books, a British book packager, and published in the U.S. of A. by Rosen. The scripters are Jackie Gaff and West himself, and the illustrator is Ross Watton.

Watton’s name doesn’t appear in the Library of Congress data for this book, but he contributed a great deal to it. The illustrations are handsome, the layout varied and lively, and the historical details in the art above average. For example, the book correctly shows the Royal Artillery in blue coats with red trim (facings). One of the few obvious anachronisms I saw was a French tricolor; Lafayette didn’t design that flag until the French Revolution. Some of the images are based on famous paintings, such as the full-length portrait of President Washington on page 42, based on Gilbert Stuart. Watton obviously knows his art history.

The book describes Washington’s life mostly in captions, with little dialogue—a contrast to the Graphic Library books’ approach, heavy on speech balloons. It focuses on his military experiences in the French & Indian War and Revolutionary War, with only a couple of pages at the end about the Constitutional Convention and his eight-year Presidency.

The book includes a very good map of the British colonies of North America and another of America’s growth. There are a few antique prints and stock photos in the pages before and after the comics pages. At 48 pages, it’s 50% longer than the Graphic Library titles I discussed earlier.

Two things bothered me about this book, however, and bothered me a great deal. One is its bias: at first pro-British Empire, later pro-U.S. of A., and always pro-Washington. The text starts, “The great American general and politician George Washington...” I happen to believe that Washington was indeed great, but I prefer authors to describe what he did and let me reach that conclusion myself.

The book tilts the scale by leaving out many of Washington’s blunders, such as Fort Necessity in 1754, and less appealing traits, as in his ambitious quest for a British army commission after that. It says, “George’s first military success came quickly”—but it actually took more than eight months after Washington arrived in Cambridge before his forces drove the British military from Boston.

As for the British Empire, here’s the book’s version of the European settlement, from page 5: “The first British colonists reached North America in 1607. . . . Other European countries, including France and Spain, also founded North American colonies.” You wouldn’t think that the Spanish had been governing large swaths of North America for a century before the first British arrived.

Page 17 says the reason for the Seven Years’ War was “the French threat,” and that at the end of that conflict “Virginia’s frontier was at last safe from invasion.” You wouldn’t know that Virginians—including George Washington—were pushing into Native American territories, some of them claimed by the French. “Invasion” was a two-way street.

Then the Revolutionary War begins. Page 23 says of the Hessians, “Like all mercenaries, these Germans served in a foreign army. They fought for money or just for the love of war.” This is accompanied by a picture of a Hessian bayoneting an American as he tries to surrender. There’s no equivalent discussion of the motives of foreigners who came to fight for the Americans, such as Steuben and Lafayette, nor of the French monarchy’s reason to support American independence.

When Charleston is besieged in early 1780, the text says, “The city bravely held out until May” (p. 32). Bravery doesn’t come up when the book mentions cities besieged by the Americans: Boston, New York, Newport. The British forces “invade” parts of what was, arguably, the British Empire on pages 26, 29, and 32. Only on page 30 do Americans “invade” other lands; the book never mentions the 1775-76 Canadian campaign that Washington helped plan.

The language describing battles is also far from neutral. Page 32 tells us: “Maddened by the resistance, some British soldiers set houses on fire. They claimed villagers were shooting at them from windows”—hinting that those “maddened” soldiers were lying. Later, “In Virginia, [Benedict] Arnold and his British soldiers were raging across the countryside. They set fire to crops and destroyed Patriot supplies.” When American troops do the same—“[Gen. John] Sullivan had his men burn Indian villages and crops” (p. 37)—there is no “raging” involved.

The art magnifies that one-sided depiction. Every time the book depicts a death up close during the Revolution (pp. 23, 25, 30, 31, 33, 36), it shows Americans killed by the British or their allies. (In three of those pictures the wounded man says, “Aaargh!” in fine comics fashion.) There are pictures of Crown corpses, but not of any British men actually being killed. Instead, pages 27 and 29 show Americans taking British troops prisoner.

There are almost no pictures drawn from the British troops’ perspective. There are many pictures from behind the American lines. And in some of those the British or their allies come straight out of the frame, aiming their guns and swinging their swords at us readers. That one-sided portrayal negates what I thought was one of the potential strengths of the comics format—the ability to show both sides of an argument.

But that’s not the worst of it.

TOMORROW: The worst of it.

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