Advance Review: This book will be released May 5, 2015
Americans seem to be embarrassingly uninterested in history, neither the world’s nor even American history. The reason, I feel, is the way history is presented to us in school, as a bunch of ‘facts’ that are supposed to memorized, and to test us on, rather than thinking about the why’s. The exception might be the Civil War, with all kinds of reenactments being staged around the country, though those make me uneasy in that they seem to glamorize the battles, or the idea of battle, again without asking any why questions, nor with reenacting the aftereffects of those battles.
This new book about the American Civil War, Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War doesn’t emphasize dates, though still reveals some interesting facts. It’s not a linear narrative of the American Civil War, nor even a For Beginners/Introducing-type of informative comic, but rather a series of vignettes, or scenes, some based on fact, some seemingly fictionalized, but all designed to leave the reader with more of a ‘feel’ of the war, or to feel how war feels. Which, surprise, is that war is horrible, and slavery is horrible, and why the hell did America almost destroy itself that way?
The actual book itself is designed to look like an old photo album or historical photo book, longer horizontally than it is tall. Each chapter/vignette takes its title from some thing, some object, key to an event in the American Civil War. The beginning of each chapter features a page of text made to sort of look like an old newspaper from that time, and at first I thought the writing was intentionally bad so as to mimic the sound of those old papers, but then I realized that that was not the case, and that the writing was just bad: style-wise, and confusing. I thought that the three columns of pseudo-newspaper text were supposed to summarize what was going on in the war at the time, and so give a ‘big picture’ look at what the rest of the chapter, the vignette, was about. Except that isn’t always the case: Sometimes the vignettes had nothing to do with the ‘summaries’, so that some puzzling sentences go unexplained, as if the general reader is supposed to know specialized terms and obscure names. For example, this one about Lincoln’s reelection during the war:
“By late August, Lincoln thought he would lose the upcoming contest to his former subordinate, George McClellan. McClellan, though, had problems of his own: the Democrats were divided between peace and war wings. Trying to split the baby, they nominated McClellan but inserted a peace plank into the party platform. Just days later, Atlanta fell. An infuriated McClellan repudiated the Copperheads, who considered running a candidate of their own.” (176)
Besides the wtf? of the ‘split the baby’ phrase, who are the Copperheads? There is no other mention of that name anywhere. I thought maybe it might be explained in the vignette, but no. Based on the given paragraph, I think they might be one of those wings of the Democratic party, but I’m just not sure, leaving me to feel something got cut somewhere sometime, in the revision process. A good editor would have caught this, if not the writer.
Another example, this one of style, in this two-sentence paragraph:
“Early in the war, enlisted men sometimes elected their own officers, choosing people they trusted or admired to lead them into battle. Consequently, citizen soldiers, no matter how poorly trained or green they might have been at the start of the conflict, felt extraordinary pressure to perform courageously under fire.” (26)
To my reading, those two sentences don’t seem to logically go together. Like, why “consequently”? The problem is, even though the paragraph is done, the idea continues into the next long, one-line, paragraph:
“Knowing that they would return home at the end of their term of enlistment with their surviving comrades-in-arms, even the most inexperienced troops usually displayed courage and fought hard to win approval from the men who, once they mustered out of the military and made their way back to their hometown, might be in a position to offer them a job, a bank loan, or the right to court their daughter.” (26)
If I’d been the editor of this book, I would have suggested a rewrite here, and put all three sentences in one paragraph, with the word ‘consequently’ (if one must use it) to go in the last sentence. Anyway, the whole section could be tighter.
By the way, the ‘vignette’ that follows is instead a look at the first major battle of the Civil War, which I actually knew about: The Battle of Bull Run. Everyone thought it would be a rout, so normal folks came out and sat on a hill to picnic while watching (!). The battle was a rout, with Northern troops retreating in a panic through the picnickers. The text of some of this vignette is quotes from the picnickers, as copied down by a reporter on the scene, and apparently they’re actual quotes, though there’s no actual citation, just mention of it at the end of the book in the “Notes” section. Most of the other chapter get less citation even than that, which surprises me a little. Usually historians are pretty careful about this. Here though, sometimes I couldn’t tell if certain dialogue and letter excerpts were actual quotes, or fictionalized, or pure fiction. The reason this is important is that with a book like this, one designed for more of an emotional effect—that is, the emotional effect is more important than factual truth, apparently—how am I to know, as a reader, whether the creators of this book aren’t fudging facts in order to make me feel a certain way? That may be true of any history book maybe, or any book period, but that’s why we have systems of citation. I mean, I trust the publisher, FSG, (this book was put out by a subsidiary, Hill and Wong) but Battle Lines wouldn’t have suffered any from a more thorough “Notes” section.
All of which early on had me skipping the text summaries at the beginnings of the chapters, though later I changed my mind, finally deciding there were still some interesting tidbits to be had. Still, it’s a tribute to the main idea of the book, and the artwork, that the vignettes basically ‘work’ by themselves. That is, they are the best part of the book, because they’re stories, about people. They are not history reduced to facts, but points of empathy. This is how to make history interesting to people, with good storytelling.
The artwork itself is not quite realistic, or not consistently, though I find that interesting. Sometimes people’s faces are fairly detailed, with whiskers and wrinkles, and other times they appear almost as caricatures, with noses being nothing more than sideways triangles. But in all cases, the important thing is the emotion portrayed: fear, anger, disgust, sadness, despair. This is the power of comics: you don’t have to tell us what people are feeling, you can show us.
That said, some of the choices about what to represent are odd, and seem to be avoiding what’s really important. For example, Chapter 10: Bodies, about the taking of Fort Wagner by an all-black regiment of northern soldiers (which you may have seen portrayed in the 1989 movie Glory with Denzel Washington and Mathew Broderick) five pages are devoted to two white guys burying a bunch of black soldiers in the sand after the battle mumbling about how “it ain’t right…giving rifles to a pack of Negroes…dressing ’em up like soldiers”. I get the point, and the contrast between the two white men and the later pages about actual black men in the regiment, but five pages?
The most interesting chapter is nine, “Draft Numbers,” in which three separate stories are told in parallel through three large panels on each page. The main characters end up ‘meeting’ in the last pages. This again is the power of comics. Neither movies nor straight prose can ‘tell’ stories in the same way, with such effect.
Another strength of comics is to give us images physically impossible in the Real World as metaphors, or ‘points’, like the one in Battle Lines featuring America as a huge conglomeration of bricks and building blocks of ideas, all balancing on two small bricks labeled SLAVERY and LIBERTY, the idea being that the big conglomeration cannot rest on both, and yet to pull either of the bricks out would bring the whole thing crashing down. Great idea, I just wish the creators of the book hadn’t used it twice. We got it the first time, guys.
I have other quibbles, but I also have other things I love about this book, not least the idea, after finishing it, that yes, wow, this is why we should all make a practice of studying history: in order to think and re-think about where we and our country came from, and that by knowing our country, we know ourselves. And yeah, that might not be an entirely good thing, but necessary.
Unfortunately, Battle Lines doesn’t answer many why’s, not beyond any of the big ideas most people (I mean, I hope) already know about the Civil War: that the cotton industry was dependent, supposedly, on slave labor, and the southern economy would have collapsed without it. And the old line about the states right to determine their own laws and policies versus those brought by the federal government, and which should have priority, is still heard today and is really a ploy by rich people to have more control of their states’ natural resources.
One thing Battle Lines does show is the hypocrisy of the whole situation, especially that of the northern federal forces and civilians, with regard to how many white folks actually felt about blacks. Still, ok, again, this isn’t about facts, nor about the whys. It’s about stories, which the creators of this book are arguing are the most powerful thing about history. The stories of other people are our stories too. History is a story. History is part of the humanities, and I’m not the first one to say it, but the study of the humanities is the study of what it means to be human.