Prophet Against Slavery from Beacon Press is David Lester’s visual retelling of the life of Benjamin Lay. Lay may not be a household name, but as Marcus Rediker notes in the afterword “Why We Need Benjamin Lay,” he should be. Lay was born in 1682 and took up the fight for the abolition of slavery generations before others would make headway in the 19th century. Though his story was suppressed during his lifetime and paved over in national Reconstruction, Lay’s ideals never died. In fact, the world today needs Lay’s passion for ethical treatment of everyone just as much as ever.
Rather than simply chronicling the events of Benjamin Lay’s life, Prophet Against Slavery tells the story with passion, beginning in the middle with Lay marching in 1738 to the Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends (commonly known as the Quakers). Business is portrayed as in many religious organizations, with moral appeals and recognition of the political state, until Lester presents a shocking triple-image splash page. The prominent leader with eloquent words is shown superimposed with the image of a wolf, which is superimposed with the image of a sheep. Rarely is hypocrisy summarized so powerfully in a single view.
More visceral pages follow in Prophet Against Slavery, juxtaposing brutal treatment of slaves, piles of gold, and seemingly upright people in willful ignorance. Lay interrupts the meeting and points out that people cannot pride themselves on Christian values while still owning slaves. The response is violent: Lay is thrown out, physically beaten, and ultimately excommunicated, one of four times he would be cast out of a religious community for denouncing slavery. People comforted themselves by calling him “outrageous” and a “troublemaker,” blaming Lay’s performance, which included throwing blood on people 250 years before PETA thought to do something similar.
Through the rest of Prophet Against Slavery, Lay’s life story is revealed, set against the 17th-century movements for freedom and equality. Lay grew up on a hardworking farm in Essex and then spent 12 years as a sailor, where he learned the ills of slavery along with the accomplishments of brotherhood among the crew. He spent a lifetime campaigning against slavery, publishing a book through Benjamin Franklin, refusing sugar harvested by slaves, smashing teacups made in Asian sweatshops, and marching barefoot in the snow only to point out that the people who now tried to help him had done nothing for slaves in the fields who were shod the same way. Short essays after the graphic novel give more context, mentioning that Lay was no poverty-stricken radical but passed away in 1759 with a self-built estate worth more than six figures today.
While the story alone merits reading, Lester’s art gives a flavor that lingers in the reader’s mind. As Paul Buhle notes in one of the afterwords, Lester takes inspiration from the style of images by artists of Lay’s day, such as sequential painter William Hogarth, portrait artist William Williams, and political cartoonist James Gillray, to give an antiquated feeling. Yet the deep inks and sharp lines are thoroughly modern in their display of Lay’s aggressive passion for freedom.