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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Friday, December 02, 2016

Putting Down Rebels

The first ten issues of the Rebels comic book have been collected in a single volume from Dark Horse.

The series was conceived and scripted by Brian Wood on the model of his Northlanders series about Vikings: a variety of stories—different characters, different points of view, different lengths—all drawn one from extended historical conflict.

Most of this volume consists of a story titled “A Well-Regulated Militia,” illustrated by Andrea Mutti; it tracks a soldier from Vermont through the war. Then come much shorter stories following two women, a Native American, a British soldier, and (as seen through the eyes of the hero of “A Well-Regulated Militia”) a black Loyalist; each of those stories has art from a different artist.

I looked at the first issue of Rebels back in August 2015. I hoped the comic’s depiction of Revolutionary events would improve. It didn’t.

In a word, the historical content of this book is godawful. Wood presents such events as the conflict over land grants in Westminster, Vermont; the mission to bring heavy cannon from Lake Champlain to Boston; and the battles of Bunker Hill, Harlem Heights, Saratoga, Cowpens, and more. He mixes real people in with his original characters. But very little is accurate.

The errors aren’t at the level of “The author hasn’t read the latest scholarship” or “He hasn’t read Don Hagist’s guest posting about Pvt. Mathew Kilroy leaving the British army in 1776.” They’re more like “He didn’t bother to check Wikipedia for basic information.” Or if he did, he ignored it.

For example, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys fight at the Battle of Bunker Hill, with Gen. George Washington and Benedict Arnold nearby. Henry Knox heads out to Fort Ticonderoga in the summer of 1775, already a major general. A sergeant, not an officer, commands an artillery company. The Continental Navy flag of late 1775 (the “Grand Union Flag”) flies over a British fort in the Ohio Valley in 1755. Every long firearm is called a “rifle.”

Many errors reveal not just carelessness but basic misunderstandings about the Revolutionary conflict and the society in which it took place. Sometimes those arise from old nationalist assumptions. Thus, we see army regulars getting involved in real-estate disputes in the New England backcountry. The one British soldier we meet in depth is forced to enlist to avoid prison. Sometimes the problems grow out of modern inclusive preferences, not acknowledging how different society was. A woman of color owns a printing press in Boston, operates it entirely on her own, and posts anti-Stamp Act placards years after the Stamp Act has been repealed—which causes the British army to lock her up in Connecticut’s New-Gate Prison. And some errors are just plain errors: U.S. military officers interview people about government pensions instead of distant civil bureaucrats making the decision as they almost always have.

The art is quite good, in a range of realistic styles. Wood often gives the artists free rein for dramatic pages, sometimes wordless. But there are visual anachronisms blazing on every spread. Eighteenth-century British-American men appear with sculpted beards, mustaches, and sideburns. Women wear modern hairstyles and no caps. Civilians often appear in nineteenth-century clothing. Mounted hussars with tall, furry caps charge up Breed’s Hill. An 1802 dining room features furniture, fenestration, and houseplants out of the 1980s.

Even forcing myself to read this collection as stories from another universe, not rooted in Revolutionary history, left me unimpressed. In the first episode the hero and his father shoot at a group of redcoats. One teenager in uniform makes the choice to desert and ends up part of the hero’s family—but we’re just told about that change in a caption. We never see that character make a decision. We never see the family decide to take him in. And we never see major consequences from that arrangement—the character and the potential drama fall away.

A second volume of the Rebels series is slated for next year, following the son of the hero of “A Well-Regulated Militia” through the naval conflicts of the early republic. At this point, I don’t expect much better.

1 comment:

D Hayes said...

Thanks for the warning. I'll be sure my grandchildren and students avoid this nonsense.