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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Showing posts with label pulp fiction of the Revolution. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pulp fiction of the Revolution. Show all posts

Friday, October 03, 2014

Just One More History Comic

Adventure Comics, #296, from May 1962 featured a story titled “Benjamin Franklin’s Super-Reporter.” It was drawn by Al Plastino, and some fans think the script was by Bill Finger, best known for co-creating Batman.

The story, according to someone who’s actually read it:
When Jonathan, Clark, and Martha Kent see their picture in an American newspaper from Revolutionary War days with a headline that they perished during a party, Superboy takes all three of them back in time to what turns out to be a parallel universe in which they have an adventure with Ben Franklin and other heroes of the Revolution, and are presumed wrongly to have died during a fire at the Boston Tea Party.
You remember the fire at the Boston Tea Party, right? And how at the time that event occurred, Benjamin Franklin wasn’t in London watching his career implode?

The back of this comic book offered another Revolutionary diversion.
That is less than one penny per soldier! The thing is, these plastic soldiers were all small and thin, practically two-dimensional.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Revolutionary War Comic Coming in 2015

Last month the Nerdist website announced that in April 2015 Dark Horse Comics will launch the comic book Rebels, which “will explore the lives of soldiers, ordinary colonists, and the extraordinary men and women that lived and died during the Revolutionary War era.”

The series was conceived by scripter Brian Wood, and the art will come primarily from the Italian illustrator Andrea Mutti and American-Irish colorist Jordie Bellaire.

Wood created the series Northlanders, about Vikings, which Vertigo published from 2007 to 2012. The Nerdist says:
Wood has proven that he is no stranger to taking a piece of history, modern or ancient, and putting it under the microscope. When it came to tackling a new piece of historical fiction, it was a no-brainer that he wanted to shine a light on the American Revolution. “I’ve had the idea for AGES to write an Ethan Allen story,” Wood explained, “and I made a couple attempts at a screenplay trying to tell a very epic, visceral Ridley Scott type of story about the guy. I couldn’t quite figure it out but its been in the back of my head all this time.”
But Allen won’t be the main character for the whole series. Wood will follow the model of his Northlanders, which told a series of separate stories about different Vikings over the centuries. The scale of Rebels will be smaller, with all the tales set during America’s Revolutionary fight, but there will once again be a variety of characters and conflicts.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Inaugural Issue of Action Presidents!

The first issue of the new Action Presidents! comic debuts today on ComiXology, and it naturally tackles the towering figure of the first President, George Washington.

This comic book comes from Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, the team behind Action Philosophers! and (a series I like even more) The Comic Book History of Comics. The Action Philoaophers! series dissected the lives and ideas of famous thinkers in comic-book form, the tropes of superhero action often satirizing the subject matter. In contrast, some of the Action Presidents!, including Washington, really were quite active men.

Van Lente structures the story around Washington’s quest for self-control, at first for himself and then for the Continental Army and ultimately for the young U.S. of A. Washington undoubtedly had great ambitions, and he struggled to maintain the calm that his culture demanded of gentlemen.
As you see, Dunlavey’s approach to the art owes a lot to the satiric approach of the 1960s “underground” comics and Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History books. His undisciplined American soldiers, for example, look much like a certain trio of mid-20th-century movie comedians. Because Action Presidents! is being published first in digital form, we see Dunlavey’s art in color, not just black and white as in the previous series.

Naturally, a 20-page comic has to skip a lot of Washington’s life. Among the major aspects left behind was his support for a new Constitution in the late 1780s. Readers would never know from these pages that he chaired the Constitutional Convention, providing its product with far more legitimacy than if he had stayed home. Instead, the comic emphasizes Washington’s wish that someone else could lead the country and let him stay home at Mount Vernon—not that he ever suggested any other man take the job of first President.
The lower panel above shows one repeated lapse of the comic: facial hair on eighteenth-century American men. This is a common mistake among cartoonists trying to produce a variety of male faces in yore; at least Dunlavey’s style means no reader can take those portrayals as realistic.

The comic starts with Washington’s birth in Virginia’s slave-owning aristocracy, noting how upper-class his family was; it could have said more about how precarious his own perch in that upper class was after his father’s death. We see some of Washington’s challenges in the French and Indian War, though not what a grasping young man he was until he married Martha Custis. Overall, however, it does a good job of highlighting the tensions between Washington, the ideal gentleman he wanted to be, and the paragon that American culture has often portrayed him as.

The Action Presidents! narrative of the Revolutionary War is the standard popular American account: New York to Trenton, Valley Forge and the Fabian strategy, the French alliance and Yorktown. That of course leaves out a lot of events, including the Boston campaign, the loss of the nation’s capital in 1777, the long warfare outside New York, and the campaigns Washington oversaw from afar in the north and south. But again, Van Lente and Dunlavey have only twenty pages, and they still have to get to the Presidency.

In that Presidency, the comic focuses rather narrowly on Alexander Hamilton’s fiscal policy, the Whiskey Rebellion, and Washington’s personal response to that unrest. Again, many other aspects of the first administration go unexplored. But that series of episodes raises interesting questions about President Washington and how he interpreted his job. It fits well into the overall theme of this short and, to be sure, active biography.

Friday, October 18, 2013

“King George’s Stamp Act Tea”

This funny-pages version of the Boston Tea Party appeared in newspapers in 1904 and is reproduced in Peter Maresca’s new book Society Is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy at the Dawn of The American Comic Strip 1895-1915.

It starts with King George giving his Stamp Act to Lord North, which prompts Boston housewives to break their teacups at Liberty Tree. And at the end the American eagle is born. Okay, that’s a historical hodgepodge, but at least the graphics are striking.

Maresca’s Sunday Press Books collects and reprints early comics at their original size, even larger than today’s newspapers (and much larger than today’s newspaper comics). In these early decades, editors and artists were still working out what to do with the form, so they were trying all sorts of things that look crazy to us today. The Atlantic offered some more previews of this collection.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Founding Boys, Before It Disappears

Founding Boys was a webcomic that ran from December 2010 to June 2012. It’s a mashup of Revolutionary American history, Japanese manga, British boarding-school stories, and the musical 1776.

Here, for instance, is a discussion between John Adams, who’s the allegorical school’s overly intense scholar, and Benjamin Franklin, who appears to be the grumpy teacher secretly in sympathy with the rebellious students.

Founding Boys ends abruptly as George Washington, the school’s big silent jock, steps over a spill of Delaware milk. But it’s still an impressive run considering the pseudonymous cartoonist was a high-school student all that time. A student who also won a national award for best high-school newspaper comic strip. And people say kids don’t care about history anymore.

Friday, December 07, 2012

William Cunningham Enters Stage Left

Boston 1775 isn’t the only website discussing William Cunningham this week. Lora Innes has introduced him into her historical romance comic, The Dreamer. One of the heroes of that story is Connecticut hero Nathan Hale, and his real encounter with Cunningham didn’t end well for him.

Fans responded to the debunking of Cunningham’s “Dying Confesssion” this way:
  • Caera: “Please don’t tell me he got off after all the crap he put everyone though, to say nothing of our dearest Nathan!”
  • Susan: “Wait he wasn’t hanged? WHY DID THE INTERNET LIE TO ME!!!!!!!!!!”
  • David: “I smell a conspiracy here. SOMETHING kept the British authorities from doing the right thing and removing Cunningham from his position.”
And people say that modern audiences can’t get passionate about a story from the Revolutionary era.

There are now two paperback volumes of The Dreamer published, as well as several digital short stories at the comic’s webstore. And since it began as a webcomic, you can start reading the story from the beginning for free.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Nathan Hale’s Provost

Periodically Boston 1775 likes to note new Revolutionary-era comics. And here comes Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy, written and drawn by Nathan Hale, and also narrated by Nathan Hale—a semi-fictional Nathan Hale based on the real Nathan Hale. The first Nathan Hale in that sentence is not a relative of the others.

Just to confuse matters, the writer-artist Nathan Hale also did the art for a couple of terrific tall tales written by Shannon and Dean Hale, who are related by marriage, but not related to Nathan Hale.

Anyhow, here’s how star librarian Elizabeth Bird explains the premise of the first volume of Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales:
In One Dead Spy our hero Nathan Hale stands at the gallows alongside a hangman and a British Provost Marshal mere moments before he is to be hanged by the neck until dead. Suddenly he is eaten! Eaten by a big book of American history no less. After being spit out he now knows the entirety of American history and is willing to tell everything he knows. The first story that needs to be told, however, is the tale of Nathan Hale himself. And if along the way he happens to tell the stories of folks like Ethan Allen, Henry Knox, and other big and colorful characters all the better. Like a Colonial Scheherazade, Hale is spared by the childish and endearing hangman and the blowhard Provost Marshal, just so long as he keeps weaving together new tales.
And here’s the Provost, carefully labeled “semi-fictional,” and some of the remarks surrounding him fit that category.

As the art says, “There was a provost, just not him.” The real provost involved in Nathan Hale’s execution was a man named William Cunningham. In 2007 I wrote about a false report of Cunningham’s execution after the war.

TOMORROW: The truth about Cunningham’s prison career.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Exploring the World of Assassin’s Creed 3

One of the big videogames of the season is Assassin’s Creed 3 from UbiSoft. The Los Angeles Times review was mixed, finding the game play limited but the mise-en-scène amazing:
Set largely in the period during the American Revolution, “Assassins Creed 3” (Xbox 360, PS3, PC) is an action-adventure at its most expertly researched, and it is the all-too-rare title to prominently explore Native American culture. Colonial cities such as Boston are constructed via 18th century maps, and Ubisoft hired a Mohawk community consultant for language accuracy. It’s perhaps the only game released in 2012 that could be more fun to experience as a historical fact-checker than a player.
I already did that, based on a preview video of the game, and you can hear the interview here. Since I’m not a gamer, I can’t speak to the elaborate backstory, the character movement, the narrative options, and the like. But the visual recreation of colonial Boston looks great.

I’ve seen some articles describe the game’s version of Boston as “one-third scale,” which means the characters should be peering over the tops of houses. I think that’s a confused reference to the designers recreating about a third of the town. I know characters can jump around the Town House (now Old State House) and the docks, but they may not be able to make it down to Pleasant Street or all the way out to the Mill Pond.

Slate called the result “the most accessible reconstruction of the Revolutionary War era that’s ever been made.”
Walking the cobblestone streets of Boston means maneuvering around pigs, dogs, and street urchins, down lanes and alleys that are unrecognizable even to a longtime Boston resident like me. Town criers belt out news of shots fired in anger in other cities and of troop movements, first by the French and later, as the revolution sets in, by the British. There are bonnets and britches and tricorn hats, and most of the small talk and bickering you overhear doesn’t come with Boston’s infamous accent but in slang and jabs imported from England, Germany, and the rest of the Old World.

If this sounds a little unpleasant, that's because it is. Colonial Boston is boldly, fascinatingly ugly. It’s relentlessly brown—the docks are brown, as are the fences, the wood-sided buildings, and the clothes on most passersby. “The irony is that the game you see is far less brown than it was,” Hutchinson says. “We spent a lot of time telling the art director, ‘Everything’s brown,’ and he would say, ‘But everything was brown.’”
Assassin’s Creed 3 was developed by a French company with a big office in Montreal and developers all over the world. At the launch party this fall, I heard all sorts of accents. That national diversity meant the developers could contemplate the Revolutionary conflict from many angles, not bound consciously or unconsciously to America’s heroic origin story.

The game’s main hero, Connor, is of Irish and Mohawk origin (as well as somehow related to assassins in the medieval and Renaissance versions of the game—the details escape me). He may not feel complete allegiance to one side—there were men of Irish and Mohawk descent on both sides of the war, after all. According to this L.A. Times story, the game’s writers chose that hero to be “someone who would be coming into Colonial society for the very first time,” like the game’s players. And he seems to voice a modern sensibility:
For example, at one point in the game, Connor meets with Samuel Adams. As the two walk through the streets of late 18th century Boston, Connor criticizes the Founding Father’s position on slavery. Though Adams personally opposes slavery and abolished the practice in his own household, he does not use his pulpit to speak publicly on the issue — a decision that Connor finds incongruous with the patriots’ cause.
Which is a fair question—but one usually brought up by Loyalists in Revolutionary Massachusetts.

UbiSoft’s developers were even able to take their first downloadable add-on somewhere that past American authors would have found anathema: a post-Revolutionary America where George Washington has become a tyrannical king and must, presumably, be assassinated. I doubt the next downloadable add-on invites players to leave the army and return peacefully to a farm.

If anyone has played through Assassin’s Creed 3 and has strong impressions of the game and its depiction of history, you’re welcome to share your thoughts here.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Crossing the Delaware by Air?

If you’ve long felt that the only problem with the American War for Independence is that it didn’t have enough airships, then you should check out the Kickstarter campaign for Steam Patriots.

Steam Patriots is a “transmedia interactive project” from Noble Beast Books, publisher of speculative fiction in print, digital, and audio forms. Its past titles include Steampunk Holmes.

The image above is a detail of Patrick Arrasmith’s scratchboard illustration “George Washington with Airships.” See the full image at the Steam Patriots site. It “will be included in the interactive iPad edition and will be sold separately as a poster.”

I first heard about this project some months ago, but apparently a necessary part of launching a Kickstarter campaign these days is to create video promotions and previews. That seem circular to me, but then I’m old enough to remember when videos were harder to produce than manuscripts, photographs, and drawings.

Friday, August 24, 2012

That’s Some Green Beret

From the NEREV email list I learned of the comic book Tod Holton, Super Green Beret! This magazine, published by Lightning Comics, lasted all of two issues in 1967. But those issues are preserved in full on Ethan Persoff’s website.

They include the story “Dawn of American Freedom,” which starts with young Tod at the local “teen canteen,” the Stomp and Chomp (also called the Chomp and Stomp, and for some reason having its name painted on its window so it reads backward from the outside). Tod recalls that he has to prepare a report on the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Instead of cracking a book, however, Tod dons his special green beret—the one which allows him to turn into an adult soldier with untold superpowers. It may not be a surprise that Super Green Beret was co-created by Otto Binder, who a quarter-century before had provided the origin of Captain Marvel.

In this version of Boston in 1775, the first people Tod meets are two men driving a wagon full of gunpowder out of town—without, however, going through the army fortifications at the Neck. So right away you might wonder if the storytellers were making a priority of historical accuracy.

The comic’s depiction of the Bunker Hill battle continues along those lines, with:
  • easy entrances and exits from Boston for rebel raiders. 
  • Gen. Israel Putnam commanding the entire American army instead of Gen. Artemas Ward
  • a British officer wearing checkered underpants at a time when men’s long shirts were their usual underwear.
  • no long British cannonade onto Breed’s Hill.
  • Putnam expecting Washington to arrive soon when news of his appointment hadn’t reached Massachusetts.
But the best moment is when the Super Green Beret volunteers to serve as a gun carriage.

He shouldn’t have been able to do that, of course—Super Green Beret turns back into young Tod Holton whenever he takes off his beret.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Going Way Back with Blazing Combat

The Warren company started publishing Blazing Combat in 1965. It was a quarterly comics magazine—larger than a typical comic book, without color, and thus not under the Comics Code Authority. It lasted only four issues before being canceled for lack of sales.

Some people said that Blazing Combat failed because military officers wouldn’t allow the magazine to be sold in PX stores since it offered a jaundiced view of war. Others say it was simply too gruesome for a mass audience. The entire run has been collected in one volume.

All of the stories were written or co-written by editor Archie Goodwin, who worked with some of the medium’s stellar artists. Most of the tales were set during America’s mid-20th-century wars, but in each issue Goodwin reached further back into the past as well. There were two Revolutionary War comics.

The first, “Mad Anthony,” features Gen. Anthony Wayne, but as a supporting character, and hardly mad at all. The tale is really about two fictional soldiers putting out each other’s eye. The pictures suffer from the mustache problem I’ve noted elsewhere, with Wayne drawn like Errol Flynn.

The other Revolutionary tale is “Saratoga!”, illustrated by Reed Crandall. That story is a straightforward retelling of the battle’s crucial American counterattack, with the final panel’s twist being that the general who carried the day was Benedict Arnold. But the story’s real stunner is the art. Click on the panels above for a larger image, and just look at that hatching!

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Legend of “The White Horseman”

I believe “The White Horseman,” the earliest printed tale of Hezekiah Wyman, is an example of a lost literary genre called a “legend.” Washington Irving launched this form in American literature with such tales as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820). The genre’s ingredients include a historical setting, a spooky atmosphere (whether or not events are actually supernatural), and a tone of inevitable moral judgment.

Other early American authors who used the form include:

  • William Austin, “The Man with the Cloaks: A Vermont Legend” (1836).
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Legends of the Province House” in Twice-Told Tales (1837).
  • Robert Montgomery Bird, “The Legend of Merry the Miner” (1838).
  • George Lippard, Washington and His Generals; or, Legends of the Revolution (1847).
You might guess that I chose those titles because they include the actual term “legend,” but there are many other examples of the form. Probably the highest achievement within the genre is Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

The people who wrote legends and probably most of the people who originally read them understood those stories to be fictional. (Especially the ones that involved little men bowling ninepins, of course.) Some authors might have been inspired by historical episodes, but they added too much fiction for the result to be believed.

When those authors remained famous, as Irving and Hawthorne did, their legends were republished under their names, and American readers continued to recognize those tales as fictional. However, when an author was forgotten, his work was easily reprinted and retold without credit or context. In some cases, new authors took those legends to be fact.

For example, some of Lippard’s legends of Revolutionary Philadelphia, such as the Liberty Bell being rung to signal independence, got into the history books. His tale of a mysterious man orating to the Continental Congress continued to circulate as fact at the highest levels of American society into the late 1900s. Lippard appears also to have started the story, mentioned in the last Presidential Inaugural Address, that Gen. George Washington ordered Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to be read to the entire Continental Army (though he might have thought that was accurate, based on his interpretation of a Paine biography).

The fact that legends often included names that grounded them in real places and events furthered that confusion. One local example is the series of tales about “Peter Rugg, the Missing Man.” The Boston lawyer William Austin wrote those stories for The New England Galaxy starting in 1824. They were reportedly a major influence on Hawthorne, and later on Edward Everett Hale’s Man Without a Country.

Austin included some details that seemed authentic, most notably a man from Menotomy named Cutter. That was a common surname in that village; everyone in greater Boston probably knew a man from Menotomy named Cutter. (As I’ve noted, “The White Horseman” also mentions an Ammi Cutter from that village.) Nonetheless, Austin made up the whole story of Peter Rugg.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Austin was forgotten. The story of Peter Rugg was still being retold—as history, or at least as ancient New England folklore. Alexander Wollcott felt he had to write an article setting the record straight.

TOMORROW: So if “The White Horseman” was a legend, where does that leave Hezekiah Wyman of Woburn?

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

“An Alchemist Who Consecrates George Washington…”

From the Library Company of Philadelphia’s website on the “Philadelphia Gothic” school of early American popular fiction:

George Lippard. Paul Ardenheim, the Monk of the Wissahikon. (Philadelphia, 1848). Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

A would-be recruit to the mystics haunting Philadelphia’s most romantic stream comes upon an alchemist who consecrates George Washington as the Deliverer prophesied in the Bible; but the hero is diverted from patriotic duty by a voluptuous demon-woman who lures him into her bedroom.

In what might still be an understatement, Lippard stated proudly in his preface that he had written “the most improbable book in the world.” It may also be spiritually autobiographical: Lippard may have considered joining a Rosicrucian order before he invented a secret brotherhood of his own with many of the same rituals.
Can’t wait to read that novel? No need! It’s available through Google Books. All 536 pages.

Here’s a taste of Lippard’s preface:
The author was aided in the preparation of this work, by a series of papers, letters, and other MSS. relating to the events and men of our Revolution, and especially to certain incidents, connected with the Wissahikon, near Philadelphia. The incidents detailed in the MSS. were of a remarkable and various character; presenting at one view, a picture of the home-life, the battles, and superstitions of olden time.

Some portions of the MSS. were written in a cipher, not only difficult, but utterly untranslatable, at least, without a key. As the pages in cipher occurred in the most interesting points of the narrative, and seemed from the context to picture not only events which took place in ’75, ’77 and ’78 on the Wissahikon, but also events of other lands, and of distant centuries, the author was exceedingly anxious to discover the key to this secret writing.

The reader will appreciate the difficulty when he beholds a specimen of the untranslatable Cipher: or, perhaps, Cryptograph would be a better word.
At first sight, this of course, looked like nothing but a scrawl, without object or meaning, but as entire pages were written in the same manner—as there seemed to be something like system, in the very irregularity of the lines and their angles,—curiosity was excited, and the most strenuous exertions made to discover the meaning of some particular part, and thus construct a key for the whole. After much effort, the characters given above were discovered to represent the word—“MOUNT SEPULCHRE.”
Of course, once you know the answer, it seems obvious.

Some of Lippard’s Revolutionary stories actually made their way into the history books, such as the legend that a mysterious stranger harangued the Continental Congress about independence, and that the Liberty Bell was rung on 4 July 1776 to signal the Declaration of Independence. But later authors have generally been able to see that the presence of a “voluptuous demon-woman” makes Paul Ardenheim fiction.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The North American Premiere of the Celebrity Actor

The latest issue of Common-Place includes Jason Shaffer’s article “Unveiling the American Actor”, about the rise of theatrical celebrities in late colonial and early republican America. Of course, Boston was late to that game because of the Puritan prohibitions against theater.

Shaffer notes that it took a while for the faces of celebrities from any field to become known:

As Wendy Wick Reaves of the National Portrait Gallery has pointed out, even Washington’s image took time to gain common currency: she documents an engraving of the British poet John Dryden from a 1773 New England almanac that is recycled as an image of Sam Adams in a children’s primer in 1777, then again as an image of Washington in another primer in 1799.
One of the first star actresses in America, Susanna Rowson (thumbnail portrait above, courtesy of Explore PA History), was also its bestselling novelist:
Better known as the author of popular sentimental novels such as Charlotte Temple, Rowson was raised partly in Massachusetts by her father, a British naval officer who was eventually seized by the Continentals, deported, and repatriated in a prisoner exchange. She returned to the United States along with her husband, moved more by economic need than artistic ambition.

While performing with Wignell’s company in Philadelphia in 1794, at which point Charlotte was already available from Philadelphia booksellers, Rowson wrote Slaves in Algiers, a heroic play about Americans held captive by Barbary pirates. The controversy that attended this production illustrates the inherent difficulty of reintroducing British actors to the American stage and the specific difficulties that faced women onstage in the early republic.

While Rowson’s overwhelming emphasis in the play is on the generically American ideal of “liberty,” one of her characters, an Algerian girl named Fetnah who has been sold by her father into the Dey of Algiers's harem, expresses the desire that women should be as free as men.

Meanwhile, Rowson delivered the play’s epilogue not in her starring role of Olivia, a captive of mixed English and American parentage, but as the author of the play. “Disguised” as herself, she comically turned the tables on eighteenth-century gender relations by informing the audience that “Women were born for universal sway, / Men to adore, be silent, and obey.”

Rowson awakened the wrath of the arch-conservative (and fellow immigrant) newspaper editor William Cobbett, who in a pamphlet painted her as an aspiring petticoat tyrant and ally of French radicals while also questioning the sincerity of her conversion to the cause of American patriotism since her emigration from Britain. The controversy was brief, and Rowson went on to enjoy a successful, if short, theatrical career before retiring in 1797 to focus on writing books and opening a school for young women in Boston.
Rowson located her academy in Medford, Newton, and Roxbury at different times. Her school’s curriculum included learning to embroider this map of Boston harbor, featured in a Bostonian Society online exhibit.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Truly Revolutionary Webcomics

You’ve probably noticed a dearth of newspaper comic strips with Revolutionary content. In fact, I can’t remember seeing any since around the time of the Bicentennial. Fortunately, the web provides a platform for dedicated sequential artists to reach niche audiences.

One of the most prominent is the romantic adventure The Dreamer, by Lora Innes. Here’s its introduction:

Beatrice “Bea” Whaley seems to have it all; the seventeen year old high school senior is beautiful, wealthy and the star performer of the drama club. And with her uncle’s connections to Broadway theater, the future looks bright ahead of her. Little does she know that her future might actually be brighter behind her.

Bea begins having vivid dreams about a brave and handsome soldier named Alan Warren—a member of an elite group known as Knowlton’s Rangers that served during the Revolutionary War. Prone to keeping her head in the clouds, Bea welcomes her nightly adventures in 1776; filled with danger and romance they give her much to muse about the next day. But it is not long before Beatrice questions whether her dreams are simply dreams or something more.
The first printed collection of The Dreamer has just come out from IDW Publishing. It’s 160 pages and covers the first part of the story arc titled “The Consequence of Nathan Hale.”

I hadn’t stumbled across The Paul Reveres, by Tina Pratt, until I read Desizn Tech praising its illustration. It takes a, well, less serious approach to the start of the war in Massachusetts:
Remember having to learn about the American Revolution in grade school?

You didn’t do your homework, did you?

You obviously missed the part of our nation’s history where all the battles were fought with electric guitars and awesome hair. It’s a good thing for you, however, someone did pay attention and is prepared to give you these golden tidbits of historically accurate tales.
This comic offers anime-influenced versions of Revere, Thomas and Margaret Gage, and even Johnny Tremain (“Saying Johnny is weird would be a total understatement”).

Finally, I’ve been meaning to mention The Adventures of Brigadier General John Stark, by Eric Burns. Alas, there have been no new installments since August 2006. [ADDENDUM: But see comments.] Hard to believe that there are no more unanswered questions about Gen. John Stark.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hair and Hergé in Road to Revolution!

Since I’ve bearded other comics for showing eighteenth-century British-Americans with facial hair, I have to note that several men in Road to Revolution! could use a shave as well.

There are a few hirsute farmers and laborers (like the frontiersman at right), and mustachioed army officers (Hessians wore moustaches, but not British gentlemen). In addition, as you can see, some men appear in clothing more suitable to the next century.

I wrote earlier about how creators Stan Mack and Susan Champlin came to Boston while researching the book to scout out locations like Old North Church and Longfellow National Historic Site. Alas, it’s not so easy to find eighteenth-century people walking around.

We can study paintings, prints, and other period artwork, bearing in mind that expensive portraits show the elite as they wished to be seen, and cartoons exaggerated traits. Would following those models result in every gentleman looking like a clean-shaven white man wearing a white wig, suit, waistcoat, and breeches? Probably so, since in formal portraits every gentleman was a clean-shaven white man wearing a white wig, suit, waistcoat, and breeches. Craftsmen and yeoman farmers tended to dress in a cheaper, sturdier version of the same styles.

Such visual similarity makes it harder to tell a comics story. First in Space is another historically-based graphic novel, about the chimpanzees used in the early U.S. space program. Their keepers are all burly young Air Force men, with crew cuts and T-shirts, and I had real trouble telling those characters apart. So I can understand Mack’s desire for visual variety.

Another compromise Road to Revolution! makes for the sake of storytelling is modern idioms. Penny not only behaves like a modern girl—even objecting to being called “proper”—but she speaks like one: “You’re not the boss of me!” Her sarcastic “Hilarious” above comes in response to Nick’s boasting at left, which itself is probably more bold than a 1775 teenager would be.

But of course young readers will have an easier time understanding this familiar way of speaking, and thus have an easier time being entertained while absorbing a bit of history.

Mack’s drawing style, which School Library Journal characterized as both “whimsical illustrations” and “cartoonish scrawls,” is therefore quite appropriate for this book. The story doesn’t pretend to be history; that’s what its endnotes, maps, and encouragement to read more are for. It’s historical fiction, with a lot of adventure and humor. The drawings, informal but full of character, remind us that this is a story.

When I spoke to Mack at the Paul Revere House last weekend, he mentioned Tintin as one of his models for this book, and that sure made sense. The mix of danger and slapstick, the clear good guys and bad guys, the plucky young hero (and heroine), the silent comedic activity going on in the background—all fine lessons from Hergé.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Stan Mack and Susan Champlin Visit Boston

Yesterday I shared some general thoughts about Road to Revolution!, a new graphic novel for young readers about the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. As they created that book, Stan Mack and Susan Champlin visited the area to look at the actual buildings that play a role in their story.

Thus, when teenagers Nick and Penny attend Dr. Joseph Warren’s March 1775 oration commemorating the Boston Massacre, we see Old South Meeting-house and its galleries. When they visit Gen. George Washington’s headquarters, we see the mansion that is now Longfellow National Historic Site (albeit with its 1790s porches on either side).

And here’s the sequence in which Nick climbs the stairs inside the steeple of Old North Church to send the lantern signal on 19 Apr 1775. That page shows off another strength of this comic: the practiced pacing. Mack and Champlin could have cut from the second panel to the next page, which shows Nick at the top of the steeple. But by showing him mounting flight after flight, with sexton Robert Newman deflecting soldiers below, they raise the tension and give readers a better sense of Nick’s effort. Those church towers have a lot of steps!

Stan Mack and Susan Champlin are returning to Boston this weekend to sign copies of Road to Revolution! at the Paul Revere House in the North End. They’ll be there from 1:00 to 3:00 P.M.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reviewing Road to Revolution!

Stan Mack and Susan Champlin’s Road to Revolution! is a new graphic novel for readers aged ten to fourteen set in and around Boston in 1775-76. By some reckonings, the American Revolution was well underway by that time, but this historical fiction in comics form definitely shows the outbreak of the war.

The book has two teenaged protagonists, an orphaned pickpocket named Nick and a tavern-keeper’s daughter named Penny. They meet cute, fuss and feud a bit, and become friends, if not quite a couple. As characters for young readers to follow, they’re lively and sympathetic (particularly by today’s standards—more on that to come).

Fiction writers face a major challenge in giving their readers a look at every major development early in the war because those events took place both inside and outside Boston, often with distance and barriers in between. How can the same characters witness them all?

In Johnny Tremain, Esther Forbes gave Rab family roots in Lexington so he could be on that town’s common when the redcoats arrived on 19 Apr 1775. In Octavian Nothing, M. T. Anderson’s title character spends the first volume outside Boston, then crosses into the besieged town for the start of volume 2.

In Road to Revolution!, both protagonists get involved in spying for the Patriots, so they have reasons to cross the siege lines and show up where the action is thickest. We readers have to suspend our disbelief a lot, but that approach does provide fairly constant action.

Thus, in chapter 4 Nick and Penny bring Dr. Joseph Warren word that the king’s troops are about to march to Concord, and Nick hangs the lanterns in the Christ Church steeple to send the same news to Charlestown. In chapter 5, Nick helps row Paul Revere across the Charles River, and Penny supplies the petticoat to muffle the oars.

But that’s not all! Nick rides “along the back roads to Lexington,” arriving five hours after Revere, just in time to see the shots on the common. After a “Six hours later” caption, Nick gets to see the regulars retreat back through Lexington, assists provincial militiamen, and even treats Dr. Warren’s head wound. (In reality, the doctor had part of his hair shot off, but wasn’t hurt.)

And the excitement doesn’t stop! Penny discovers Dr. Benjamin Church’s treachery months before the Patriots actually tumbled to it. Nick fights in the Battle of Bunker Hill, seeing Dr. Warren fall and assisting his brother in surgeries. Then, as usual in modern histories, the rest of the siege of Boston is dispatched in one chapter. By dramatic standards, the action peaked early, and those nine months were anticlimactic.

One big strength of Road to Revolution! is its humor, in both verbal and visual form. Mack and Champlin exploit the comics form well, and use animals for extra comic relief. As an example, here from the last chapter is a scene that’s de rigueur in this sort of Revolutionary fiction or myth—a personal encounter with Gen. George Washington. I have a hard time imagining the generalissimo being a “Huh?” type of guy, but I still get a chuckle out of the young characters’ interaction. (Remember, Nick starts as a pickpocket.)

Friday, September 04, 2009

Dueling Events on 26 September

Families have a plethora of historically flavored events to choose from on Saturday, 26 September.

Battle Road Open House
Minute Man National Historical Park

10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
The park celebrates National Public Lands Day with a rare opportunity to see inside the restored colonial homes along the Battle Road Trail: the Meriam House, Sam Brooks House, Noah Brooks Tavern, Job Brooks House, Capt. William Smith House, and Jacob Whittemore House. People will demonstrate different colonial trades. There will be no fee for the ranger-guided tours of The Wayside: Home of Authors; those tours are limited to ten visitors at a time, so you can reserve in advance by calling 978-318-7863.

Sudbury Muster and Colonial Faire
Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, Sudbury

10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
The Sudbury Companies of Militia and Minute and the Sudbury Ancient Fyfe and Drum Companie host their annual gathering of fife and drum corps from across New England, with special guests from elsewhere in North America and occasionally from Europe as well. There are also children’s games, cooking and crafts demonstrations, and vendors of everything from hot dogs to books and hand-sewn clothing.

Book Signing: Road to Revolution
Paul Revere House, Boston’s North End

1:00 P.M.
Stan Mack and Susan Champlin are creators of the lively new graphic novel Road to Revolution, about a couple of teenagers caught up in army-occupied Boston. They visited the Paul Revere House in researching the book, and this Saturday they return to talk about the process of developing a historical graphic novel, read from their book, and sign copies. (Looks like the most up-to-date listing of events at the Paul Revere House is its Facebook page.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

George Washington Launches the Career of Jack Kirby

The Boston 1775 editorial staff continues to tabulate feedback on whether the next series of posts should be about what made Ebenezer Richardson unpopular even before he killed Christopher Seider or about people mucking about with dead bodies (including, at long last, Maj. John Pitcairn’s). So today’s posting is another brief excursion into how the American Revolution has been remembered in comic books.

This is the cover of a pamphlet that H. T. Elmo of Lincoln News produced in 1937 for banks to give away to their customers. The back cover was blank, letting banks add their own name and branch addresses.

The 24-page booklet was arguably in comics form, making “The Romance of Money” the earliest comics artwork by young Jack Kirby, who would go on to help create Captain America, the boy gang genre, the romance comics genre, the Challengers of the Universe, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Silver Surfer, and other icons. Some people consider Kirby the finest American comics artist. (Me, I admire his output, but he’s never been one of my favorites.)

As we can see, Kirby’s comics career started with George Washington. Almost forty years later, Kirby would draw Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross. But was the material in “The Romance of Money” any less fictional than those figures’ encounter with Captain America? Just a bit. The Mount Vernon website says this about Washington’s coin-tossing:
This myth is often told to demonstrate his strength. The Potomac River is over a mile wide and even George Washington was not that good an athlete! Moreover, there were no silver dollars when Washington was a young man. His step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, reported in his memoirs that Washington once threw a piece of slate “about the size and shape of a dollar” across the Rappahanock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia. The Rappahannock River at the site of the Washington family homestead today measures only 250 feet across, a substantial but perhaps not impossible distance to throw.
Whoever wrote that 1937 pamphlet did get the name of the river right. On the other hand, the upper blurb about the dollar symbol coming from the letters U and S is a total myth; the dollar sign predated the U.S. of A.

Kirby’s first publishing partner, Joe Simon, also depicted American founders in comics form, in 48 Famous Americans, published in 1947. Like Kirby’s image of Washington, this was created as part of a corporate promotion, in this case for J. C. Penney. And, like Kirby’s depiction of Washington throwing a coin, it emphasizes legend rather than solid history.