Yesterday I started to list my misgivings about George Washington: The Life of an American Patriot, a comics biography scripted by David West and Jackie Gaff and illustrated by Ross Watton. I discussed how the book’s text and art were both slanted to make Washington’s enemies look bad and to make him look even more impressive than he was.
More troubling than that one-sidedness, however, is the book’s depiction of non-white North Americans. Here’s a list of all the black people pictured in the comic pages:
- A man in livery weeps at the death of Washington’s father.
- A young man holds surveying equipment and gazes up while Washington writes in his notebook (as shown here).
- A man holds Washington’s hunting hounds.
- Men work in a grain field under Washington’s supervision.
- A man drinks from a canteen while sitting on the ground while behind him two white American soldiers face the British ranks at Monmouth.
- One man holds Washington’s horse and another opens the door for him when he arrives in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention.
- A white boy grabs a black boy’s sleeve and informs him who George Washington is.
There’s no picture of Washington’s enslaved manservant William Lee riding alongside him in the foxhunt or on campaigns. There’s no picture of a black soldier bearing arms; the one panel that might show a black soldier has him seated on the ground, facing away from the action while white men face the British ranks.
This absence of African-Americans from the artwork is matched by the absence of slavery and Washington’s own slaves from the text. A caption to a nineteenth-century stock image in the introductory material describes slavery in passive, impersonal language: “Plantations were large farming estates that grew up in the Southern colonies. The estates were mainly worked by slaves brought over from Africa.” On page 35, the book says that a British commander “told the Americans that he’d destroy their land if they resisted.” Actually, the Crown’s main threat during the Southern campaign was to free Americans’ slaves.
Page 40 shows George and Martha Washington at dinner, yet there’s no enslaved servant waiting on. That doesn’t reflect how they lived. George’s main activity for most of his adult life was as a plantation owner, managing an enslaved labor force. The book’s shyness about the Washingtons’ slaveholding actually misses the chance to show how they eventually provided liberty to their slaves. Of all the American Patriots with fortunes invested in enslaved labor, George Washington did best by the issue.
Akin to the book’s portrayal of blacks is how it depicts Native Americans. Page 17 shows Native allies of the French scalping British soldiers. The opposite page shows a French-allied Native aiming a musket at the reader, one of the very few images that break the frame this way.
On page 30, after the Revolutionary War has begun, a British-allied Native attacks a fallen American’s body, again facing out of the frame and thus threatening readers as well. The caption explains, “Settlers who had invaded Indian lands were being massacred.”
The lower panel above contains the book’s only sympathetic remarks about Native Americans, and they’re undercut by the top image. The art never depicts an American in such threatening poses.
Those elements of George Washington: The Life of an American Patriot add up to, I’m sorry to say, a racist book. The text basically ignores the issue of slavery in the midst of a fight for liberty, and the blacks who surrounded Washington his entire life. The artwork, which in a comics history carries at least half the message, communicates white superiority, black subservience, and Native violence. Washington surely deserves better.