Kyle Baker
Nat Turner
Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
207 pages, $12.95
B&W, softcover

I have a great respect for Kyle Baker, and I’m very interested in the history of slavery. So I really wanted to like this biography of slave revolutionary Nat Turner.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that I did. A lot of this has to do with Baker’s decision to rely mostly on images rather than text. There are long stretches of wordlessness; what exposition there is consists almost entirely of long quotes from Nat Turner’s pre-execution confession. There’s no real dialogue as such. Baker’s black and white art is meant to be expressionistically grim and evocative, but while it’s certainly competent, it’s not really distinctive or powerful enough to carry as much of the narrative weight as he places on it. For a mainstream comics artist, he’s very good, but to do what he’s trying for he needs to be Bill Sienkiewicz, and he just isn’t quite there.

Dispensing with any explanatory text is intended, I think, to focus on the dramatic and mythic qualities of the story. But it also makes it difficult for Baker to elaborate the story’s specifics. Sometimes when he tries, the result is just confusing — I’m still not entirely sure, for example, whether the protagonist of the beginning chapter is or is not supposed to be Turner’s mother. In other places, the lack of historical context leads straight to cliché. The book ends, for example, with a slave sneaking off with a copy of Nat Turner’s confessions, by which we are supposed to understand that the inspiration lives on. Okay as far as it goes — but this obscures the fact that one of the main effects of Turner’s quixotic rebellion was to confirm Southern white fears and significantly harden resistance to change. If you want to make the case that Turner’s good outweighed the bad, I’m ready to listen, but to be effective you need to engage the other side, not merely ignore it. And just as Baker’s sentiment often seems unearned, so too does his gore have a second-hand, horror comic inevitability. Babies are tossed to sharks, a drummer gets his hands chopped off, there are multiple whippings. And, in the inevitable denoument, we get to see a hulking, axe-wielding, superhuman, almost slavering black murderer, stomping right out of America’s collective unconscious to take his place as Turner’s right-hand man.

If that last image sounds like borderline racist caricature — well, yeah. Baker avoids most of the real questions raised by Turner’s story — is hopeless rebellion heroic or immoral? Is murder of one’s oppressors justified? — and as a result he’s at the mercy of his own genre conventions. Those conventions dictate blood, revenge, inspiration, and exoticized others. Worthy pulp tropes, perhaps, but I don’t think they’re the best lens through which to view a complicated and controversial figure like Nat Turner.

This review first appeared in the Comics Journal.