Having memorably dramatized the degrading and dehumanizing effects of slavery in the first volume of his Nat Turner graphic novel retelling, cartoonist Kyle Baker now takes an unsparing look at the 1831 uprising that Turner led against Virginia slaveholders and their families with Nat Turner: Revolution (Image).
It's an unsettling, contentious part of American history, in large part because the details of Turner's understandable act of rebellion are themselves so horrendous. If Volume One's lingering image was the sight of a black infant being tossed off a slave ship to feed the sharks, Volume Two gives us a Frankensteinian scene featuring a curly-haired Southern moppet being beheaded by a rebellion-maddened slave. The book even opens with a wordless two-page sequence of the young doomed innocent waving at the smiling slave who will ultimately murder him.
After its deceptive two-page opener, Revolution quickly launches into the slave rebellion – which was spurred by Turner's convoluted readings of the Bible and occasion of a solar eclipse. As with the second half of Volume One, the details are narrated by Turner (as taken down by the not-disinterested lawyer, Thomas Gray). But where the earlier narration was filled with Turner’s messianic Biblical readings, the descriptions of the actual violent uprising are spare and matter-of-fact.
As Baker himself tallies, the uprising resulted in the deaths of more women and children than it did actual slaveholders, and the artist neither shies away from depicting these atrocities nor attempts to "explain" them either – letting us draw our own conclusions about these bloody acts. It's a risky approach, to be sure: if the reader comes to the second volume without having read the first, for instance, they'll definitely have a different response to Baker's black-and-white renderings of, among other things, a sleeping infant in peril or a group of carousing rebels enjoying the drunken spoils of a ransacked plantation.
That caveat noted, Baker's art is as assured, provocative and emotion-laden as it was in the first volume: the artist effectively alternates large panels with tinier images to evoke the piecemeal violence of this disorderly rebellion. The 10-page wordless sequence depicting Turner's hanging — as southern families picnic and little kids frolic in anticipation of the execution — in particular is a graphic tour-de-force. If descriptions of the horrors of Turner's rebellion were used in their day to squelch abolitionist opposition to the machinery of slavery, the panels of this everyday hanging are equally disturbing to modern eyes.
Taken together, Baker's pair of Nat Turner volumes make for a damn fine piece of comic art – a remarkable achievement that definitely deserves to be collected in a single handsome well-bound hardback…