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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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Seamus Heffernan on “Drawing a convincing Revolutionary-Era Boston”

This continues my interview with Seamus Heffernan, the artist and writer behind the new comic Freedom, set in a Boston that’s still under British rule in 1779.

B75: What were your biggest challenges in researching that setting? Your biggest thrills?

SH: Visually, if you’re doing a WWII comic you have more photo-reference than you could ever need. Drawing a convincing Revolutionary-Era Boston requires relying on drawings, etchings, paintings, written descriptions from the period and Rev War reenactment photos. I am constantly cross-referencing material to make sure I’m getting my depiction as correct as possible, but the process is time-consuming and challenging.

I’m a little OCD when it comes to getting the setting to be historically accurate in the face of what is essentially a fantastical, fictional story. At one point I redrew all of the grenadiers in the checkpoint scene when I realized I had left out an important element of their uniform.

I’m sure I’m still missing a million things, but eventually you have to let some things go. And I’m more of an artist than a writer, so developing compelling dialogue in the vernacular of the day, particularly in the realm of slang, was more challenging than any line I put down on paper.

The most thrilling part is when story moments seem to leap out perfectly from history and land exactly where they need to for my fictional version to work. For example, I needed a redcoat captain who was sympathetic to the Americans in the checkpoint scene. I realized the best candidate would be someone who was an American himself. Perhaps a famous one who had left the colonial ranks to go spy on the British and (in my alternate history) enlists with the British and rises to the rank of Captain. Hence, Nathaniel Hale escaped his historical fate and shows up in the nick of time to save Adam Farr from his execution. I have many more examples like that but can’t say too much without giving away some spoilers.

B75: You started this project from the Pacific Northwest, but recently moved to Boston. Do we measure up to what you imagined?

SH: I’m actually a born and raised east-coaster! I went to high school in Newburyport, which is probably where the real seed for this whole project was planted. I was of course terribly bored with all the colonial charm of this area when I was a teenager, but you grow up and realize how much power there is in history, and how cool it is to be around it.

I’m back in Newburyport now, living here after stealing my wife from the west coast. We’re about to have our first kid together, so I guess you can say I’ve come full circle. And so far, being back here has measured up beyond what I had hoped. I’ve gone to Rev War reenactments, walked the “Freedom Trail” for days, gone to talks of yours and other historians, and can just walk downtown if I need to get a first-hand look at what colonial cities might have looked like. Beyond that, I feel just being around these old cobblestones and warped brick walls has lent gravity, legitimacy and interest to my work.

TOMORROW: Telling the story of Adam Farr.

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