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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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Serious Flaws with a George Washington Comic

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.
In every case the black male (there are no black females) is lower in the panel than the surrounding white people. In every case but one (a field hand), the black male is bowed, crouched, or seated. Such poses were a convention of art for centuries, carrying a message of black subservience. Given the artist’s knowledge of art history, evident in how he modeled some panels on classic paintings, it’s hard to believe he hadn’t been exposed to that visual language.

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.


Geoff Elliott said...

This comic is a further example of the deification of our nation's founders, especially of George Washington. This of course began with Mason Weems' fanciful book and has continued to this day. This deification does a disservice to everyone. Our founders were not without flaws and were not the demi-gods we were taught about in school.

Thank you for your review of this comic.


J. L. Bell said...

The saddest part of that hagiography of many of the Founders, I think, is that they don't actually need it.

Why leave Fort Necessity out of the story of George Washington when it shows how he grew as a person? Why leave out slavery when he handled that tough issue better than almost all of his planter contemporaries?

Including those shadows on his portrait would create a more complicated image, to be sure, but also a more rounded and ultimately admirable one.

Ross Watton said...

I am Ross Watton, the illustrator of the George Washington Graphic Novel. The first thing I should say, is it was my first outing in the GN genre, as I am really an oil painter and not a comic book illustrator. I went on to complete another three volumes, in this series. Following immediately on from the previous. Each one took about 3 months of intensive work, following the designer's rough layouts. Sadly illustration work, is not highly regarded, or paid in the UK. While I also had to sign all rights to the artwork over to David West's Children's Books, whom then went on to sell it to other countries, for which I received nothing. As for the content of the Washington book, it was a 'done deal' by the time it came to me. I agree it is totally biased in favor of GW. I knew very little about the man, before I began, so had to learn as much as I could while illustrating. This included purchasing 2 DVD's, one on Benedict Arnold, the other on GW. These were dramas, so probably not too factually based. I found all the research into uniforms and weapons very interesting and tried to make it as accurate, varied and pleasing as possible. I hold up my hand as guilty, for showing the wrong French Flag. Though in my defense, I would say that it was used as a recognition devise, for where that scene was, as we had jumped continents. Not many would have recognized the original French flag. As for the illustrations putting black people into a subservient position, the fact that it came out that way was not intentional. If you look at the picture of GW surveying, there is a huge inset box showing another scene in it, so one is forced to place subjects where one can. Compositionally, that picture is based on a pyramid/ triangular structure, where the main element in this case GW is at the top. Which in that instance you would actually expect him to be, to obtain the best view for his surveying. I can only apologize if picture content appears to be giving another subliminal message.
Unfortunately, a book like this is limited in several ways as to what it can cover. I don't think it was meant to be taken as the total summing up of GW's life, warts and all. Perhaps some bad points should have been included for the sake of balance. I suspect they were not, because it was considered they would effect sales in the US. I believe the main objective of these books, is to encourage boys to read. Whether they actually learn anything close to the truth, was probably only a secondary consideration. I once showed the book to another publisher, to which he remarked, 'I cannot imagine who would by such a book'. I did a fourth book about Roman Mythology, where I designed all the illustrations, ( but still got the same fee). I have never been asked to do anymore by David West, as I refused to sign the contract handing over my artistic rights. Such is life.

J. L. Bell said...

Thank you, Ross Watton, for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate how you had limited input into how the George Washington volume approached its subject. It’s too bad you got limited reward out of the project, and I hope this work led to books with better pay and retained copyrights.

I was struck by the beauty of your artwork, especially compared with some of the other history comics I was seeing. I sampled the images of Washington as surveyor and a Native war dance first to show the book’s warm colors and lines, second because it showed how the images aren’t pinned down by panel borders, and finally to show the caption narration.

Although that image fit a pattern I perceived in both text and art on the depiction of African-Americans, I don’t think this image alone has to be read that way. For one thing, given that Washington was (a) the book’s subject, (b) often in charge, and (c) usually the tallest man in the room, it would be hard not to show him dominating a gathering. Furthermore, that image showed the young black man assisting with surveying, a skilled art.

I don’t think the American market would have balked at seeing a few more of Washington’s warts, especially since he was constantly trying to improve and usually succeeded. But then I wasn’t putting my money on the line with this book.

digital dragonfly said...

@Geoff Elliott: I think viewing our founders as deity makes some sense because of the great lengths they went to free us from a tyrannical king. I believe that they were truly great men with resolve and passion that allowed them to pull together a nation of men dedicated to unity instead of the rabble that stir up trouble to make the king mad. I do not consider them gods by any means, however. They were just men. I do wish more of our congress had the fire and grit that the Continental Congress did. Perhaps we would be a stronger, healthier nation.

@Ross Watton: Thank you for your candor and honesty.

Although I have yet to read the comic I am on a mission to find it now that I have read this blog and the comments. Not because I believe it will be perfectly accurate, but because I hope that it will spark my 9-year-olds interest enough to seek more.