History lessons– a review of Nat Turner by Kyle Baker

Nat Turner is an ugly, disgusting book.

Its ugliness and horror make it a powerful and chilling story of what man can do to man.NatTurner

Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner is a biography of slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, following his story from when his mother is taken from Africa to be brought to America as a slave through to the rebellion and his death.  In his introduction to the book, Baker acknowledges that Turner is a well known name from this era of American history but that little is still known about him.  Most history books will say “In 1831, Nat Turner led a slave rebellion” before moving on to the next nugget of historical information.  Baker’s story, based on Turner’s own accounting of his life, is large and rich, covering many different aspects of the slave trade and depicting what life was like and how far some slaves would go to escape that life.

In the introduction to the book, Baker writes about how Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X have cited Turner as an inspiration and I can see that.  His strength was not in his fighting abilities; it is almost comical to see how often he failed in a fight only to have someone else step in and finish what he started.  His ability to rally slaves together and to seek the freedom that they should never have had denied to them demonstrates the strength of Turner’s character.  Slaves didn’t rally to his side because of any physical prowess.  But from an early point in his childhood, when he recounted events that occurred before he was born and which he was never told about, people thought that Turner was gifted, spiritual and maybe even anointed.  From his youth on, he was considered special.  You have to wonder what could he have accomplished if he had been allowed to be educated and free.  Slavery is ugly enough but in Nat Turner, you see what horrors and death slavery was capable of producing in one man.  The rebellion that Turner led was a bloodbath and a slaughter as he led other slaves through Southampton County, Virginia, killing fifty five people and leading many more to their own death.  The night of the rebellion is brutal, bloody, horrific and shows everything that is corrupt and evil about slavery. 

It’s difficult to tell whether Baker approaches Turner as an inspirational character or as a monster produced by his times.  To Baker’s credit, he presents a fairly impartial view of the character.  You have the two levels of the story; excerpts of Turner’s confession reprinted are mirrored against Baker’s raw and honest images.  Baker’s use of Turner’s own confessions may produce a more sympathetic view of the man but Baker’s drawings don’t pull any punches and show a very grounded and realistic interpretation of what happened that night. 

Baker’s artwork is even different in this story.  Usually his cartooning is clean and neat; he has a very controlled style that often produces some wonderful images.  He chucks that control in this book for and gains an immediacy and an aggressiveness that’s generally not associated with his drawing.  It looks like most of this book was created with ink and charcoal, giving a textured and physical presence to the book.  The art “feels” heavy and important.  It’s also much more expressive and rougher than a lot of Baker’s art.  All of that makes the art in Nat Turner more personal as well; it’s not a polished Baker cartoon but something that came from his heart.  The images are put down on the paper with a speed and immediacy that doesn’t allow him to go back and clean up the images.

Baker’s Nat Turner is captivating and repulsive at the same time.  From the beginning when you see people ripped from their homes and families through to the end when you see what people will do in the name of freedom, Nat Turner shows the ugly side of humanity.  No one is innocent in this book.  At the same time, as you see what atrocities man can do and have done to other men, there’s the need to keep reading and to learn the lessons that can hopefully be gleamed from these stories.  There are lessons to be learned from Nat Turner; lessons that we still need to learn today.

Nat Turner
Written and Drawn by: Kyle Baker

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