The first chapter of Kyle Baker's four-issue dramatization of the life of Nat Turner – currently available in an Encore Edition paperback reprinting issues one and two of this self-published project – is a remarkable piece of graphic storytelling.
Set before Turner's birth, it tells how the African parents of the American-born slave were captured and brought to this country. With the exception of a single quote from the memoirs of African slaver Captain Theodore Canot, the 46-page sequence is basically wordless and completely compelling. We first see the people of a peaceful village just before the day's routine of work, play, and flirtation is destroyed. Once this idyllic set-up is established, a band of slavers rides in to round up all the able-bodied villagers – callously killing any that are too old to be of any use.
Much of the focus in this sequence is kept on the woman we presume will be Turner's mother: we see her racing through the jungle, desperately attempting to evade the slavers, getting captured and branded, then kept in the cargo hold of a slave ship where she's forced to fend off a hungry rat attracted by the corpse chained next to her. It's a harrowing story rendered in beautifully expressive charcoal and pencil graphics quite unlike anything I've seen before by Baker – who more frequently employs a more cartoonish strategy to his storytelling – and it's not surprising that Baker has difficulty sustaining it once he takes us to America and young Nat Turner.
Quoting extensively from Turner's verbose Diaries, this half of the book still contains some remarkable vignettes (there's a marvelous moment, for instance, when the boy Turner masks the fact that he can read by holding a book upside down, then engaging in a goofy turn of shuffle-and-jive to distract his white overseer), though at times the images seem to strain against Turner's text.
The violent slave rebellion that Turner will lead is still ahead of us by part two's end (to my knowledge, the remaining two chapters have yet to appear). The focus in the second half of Edition is on the grueling realities of slavery as filtered through the young boy’s eyes. A sequence where both mother and son realize Nat's father has escaped captivity is especially strong for the way Baker captures their body language, making you feel their simultaneous sorrow and exhilaration. Once our protagonist is old enough to experience the divine revelations that will spur him into self-destructive action, the book begins to sputter a bit.
Still, Baker's first two chapters provide beautiful storytelling that I'd love to see him pursue further. A marvelously vibrant cartoonist – as demonstrated by his rubbery Plastic Man art – Baker shows a maturity of expression in Nat Turner that's going to make it harder for him to coast in the future. Now that he's shown us what he can also do, our expectations have definitely risen.