The Graphic Novel as Argument: Visual Representation Strategy In Kyle Baker's Nat Turner
2021, Vol. 13 No. 02 | pg. 1/1
Traditional slave narratives follow a set of conventions that helped abolitionists recognize them as factual and trustworthy stories. Previously enslaved authors subverted those conventions to take control of their narratives and expose white abolitionists’ selfish motivations. In Kyle Baker’s graphic novel retelling of Nat Turner’s life story, free from the conventions of those traditional narratives, the reader is provided a new perspective on Turner’s story with an emphasis on reader participation. His graphic narrative prioritizes the black story without a white person overseeing the storytelling. The accessible visual style which draws on superhero comic book rhetoric, brings Turner’s story to contemporary audiences, creating a new opportunity for understanding Turner’s motivations from a modern standpoint. This paper combines scholarship on traditional slave narratives as well as comic book rhetoric, and Kyle Baker’s narrative specifically, to understand how Baker’s graphic novel honors Turner’s life and uses the same techniques that previously enslaved authors used and repurposes them for a new era. Through drawings and the purposeful structuring of comic pages, Baker creates a silent narrative underpinning the words written by original Nat Turner biographer Thomas Gray, using his style itself as an argument for closer reading of the narrative.
Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner is a graphic novel depiction of the story of Nat Turner and his 1831 slave rebellion, drawing on multiple accounts of his life but mostly Thomas R. Gray’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. It tells the story of Nat Turner from before his birth when his parents were still in Africa up to the moment of his death and after. Interspersing the text of Gray’s narrative with comic book style drawings, Baker creates a compelling and emotional retelling of Turner’s story. The pseudo-superhero style comic book gives Turner an origin story and a rise and fall without glorifying him or outright justifying his actions. His use of a graphic novel as a vehicle for this story makes it more relevant to modern readers as well as utilizes a form that encourages reader participation in the making of meaning. Baker’s use of the graphic novel style allows him to recontextualize the story of Nat Turner, provide alternate justification, and prioritize the black story over the white retelling for a new generation of witnesses.Baker’s graphic novel revolutionizes the way slave narratives can be read by using drawings and collage style imagery to tell the story as opposed to solely relying on the written word. This gives power to nontraditional styles of storytelling, much the same way that writers of traditional slave narratives often subverted conventions of writing and authenticating their experiences. One scholar, Hillary Chute, prefers to call graphic novel versions of real events “graphic narratives” because they are “they are rich works of nonfiction,” instead of fiction as the term “novel” is usually associated with. (Chute 453). Chute insists that the “graphic narrative offers compelling, diverse examples that engage with different styles, methods, and modes to consider the problem of historical representation” which makes them a unique form of art and storytelling (Chute 457). Baker’s graphic novel can definitely be described as a graphic narrative because it truly utilizes many different styles to address how and why certain historical events are presented the way they are. The very form of his book makes an argument about accessibility, voice, point of view, and art as a resource for learning and archiving.
Turning back to Nat Turner’s slave narrative is a complicated choice because the narrative is so determined by Gray’s white point of view and value system. That is one issue with narratives written by ex-slave narrators, the force us to think about how to examine the stories of slaves when we know the stories were chosen by the white abolitionist editors for their own purposes, “the archive of the masters” (Gikandi 92). Ex-slave narrators would find moments during which they could resist the rigid structure of their stories imposed upon them by the white editors. Nat Turner’s skill at doing this is especially adept considering that a white man actually physically wrote the narrative for him. These moments of subversion are described by John Sekora as moments where “when they found light or a break in the fences, they ran out” (Sekora 511) . The value of using archival texts despite their interference by white authors is to find ways in which “new voices and selves [emerge] in what appears to be the site of discursive interdiction,” or find the ways in which slaves exerted their power despite being constrained by guidelines of the white editors (Gikandi 92). Baker uses text from Gray's recording of Nat Turner's story, but he looks for the moments of resistance to the prescribed format of slave narratives and he utilizes those moments and expands upon them using images to give even more depth to those moments of resistance.
Instead of Turner's narrative being forced to exist only through the lens of a white author, Baker gives power back to Turner and the other slaves in his story. In the 19th century slave narrative tradition, there was a need for events in the accounts to have evidence supporting them that a reader, or white abolitionist editor, could corroborate, fostering “a habitual attitude of disbelief toward black accounts” (Sekora 497). Baker’s version of Nat Turner’s story relies heavily on trauma and memory as justification for the slave rebellion and for Nat Turner’s actions, therefore upsetting the commonly held structure and values of a slave narrative through the use of evidence that cannot be corroborated. This emphasis on physical evidence forced “unique and distinctive experience of an individual life” to be “pushed to the periphery” (Sekora 503). The level of choice inherent in the medium of graphic novels allows Baker to prioritize the slaves and Nat Turner's humanity rather than just the sensational story of murder and rebellion. Baker also uses this power to create compelling stories based on the characters’ facial expressions or body language that cannot be conveyed as effectively solely using the text from Gray’s version of Nat Turner’s narrative. Slaves often took power back from their masters by utilizing their community in ways that the white man was not privy to. Baker cannot know what slaves’ exact memories or emotions were or what their tactics for diverting masters’ attention and scrutiny, but he can speculate and he uses those to create a more personal story. As the author of the graphic novel, his role as storyteller allows him to follow in the path of ex-slave narrators on the 19th century who would subvert racist power relations by influencing readers’ experiences and understanding of slaves’ actions and methods of control.
The traditional hierarchy in slave narratives is that white abolitionists legitimate black experience and this is the case in Gray's book, but Baker subverts that. The first chapter of the graphic novel, “Home,” which takes place in Africa is both speculation of what could have been Nat Turner’s ancestors and a universal story. Not every slave experience is the same but being taken from Africa, kidnapped and put on a slave ship to America, and being forced to make incredibly difficult decisions about your life and your family’s lives was something that many slaves experienced. Baker’s choice to start the story there with no writing from Turner’s narrative, only speculation, is a choice to prioritize black stories and to take the emphasis away from the easily corroborated truth that is so often the focus of slave narratives. Baker’s turn to Africa and a time before the action of Turner’s documented story is a direct response to the need for provability that was integral to the acceptance of slave narratives in the 19th century. He also helps to give voice to the voiceless slaves that were kidnapped and brought to America by giving them scenes full of life, joy, and fun before the slavers came to rob them of their lives and freedom (Baker 11-13). He creates a subjective existence of these slaves as opposed to them being objects existing only for the white man’s gaze. The story of these Africans being kidnapped for slavery justifies Turner's rebellion later in the Baker’s version of the narrative, which Gray's version of the story does not do. Having a backstory for what is presumably Turner's parents gives more substance to Turner's story and offers a more communal and ancestral justification for his rebellion. It also addresses the unknowable nature of the Middle Passage and how the journey from Africa to America is the reason many black people are disconnected from ancestry and culture. The inability to remember anything from before slavery means that many slave were “cut off from ancestry and collective memory” (Gikandi 88). Baker takes it upon himself to reconnect his characters to an ancestry. A sense of history and compounded generational trauma informs African American experience, especially for ex-slaves, and it is something that Gray, as a white writer, did not pay attention to. Graphic novels as a visual style criticize and dismantle “boundaries between black and white, past and present, performance and history, and a range of other binary formulations central to the maintenance of Western culture” due to their lack of constraint in terms of linearity and adherence to strictly text (Chaney, “Drawing on History” 175). Baker intersperses moments of past history into the present of the story as well as use visual representations to compare people and their actions throughout the story.
Turner is a controversial figure because of his brutality in his slave rebellion, but Baker gives context to his life, especially by starting the graphic novel in Africa. Baker gives voice to Turner’s motivations and gives examples of extreme brutality and abuse from before the slaves were sold into slavery in America. Baker portrays Turner’s revolt as “complex, brutal, and torn by competing agendas” by offering ideas of some of those agendas and motivations (Kunka 175). The violence in the graphic novel is both physical and emotional, starting with the first chapter in Africa. The violence is depicted honestly in order to examine what led up to Turner’s rebellion, and Baker uses juxtaposition in those beginning scenes to emphasize fear and pain. By placing images of laughter and fear on the same page, paralleling one another in style, the fear is more striking (Baker 19). Baker uses a “redemptive history of slavery in which the review of disquieting scenes yield opportunities for readers to express horror for them in the present” in order to make readers witnesses of the horrors of slavery in a more visceral way, through images (Chaney 285). When Nat Turner is first seen, he is a young boy telling the story of what happened on the slave ship and this is the first time we see his journey to the rebellion (Baker 57). His retelling of the events of the slave ship that happened before he was born which “motivated the young Nat to undertake his rebellion” brings the visions to the audience as justification for his actions and a logical precursor to his rebellion (Chaney 289). In Gray’s narrative, Turner is not given the power to explain everything leading up to his rebellion, but Baker takes that power of representation away from Gray and gives it back to Turner by giving his rebellion context beyond brutality for its own sake. This also immediately sets Turner up as someone who is in tune with his ancestry and his history, not someone who unquestioningly accepts his life as a slave.
Baker references Gray's text as a starting point but he extrapolates in order to create illustrations which make points more detailed or to give more depth to Gray’s version of the story. The scene of the baby being thrown overboard on the slave ship is a scene that takes place over a few pages and panels but in the Gray text is only represented as “things” and “something” that Turner knows from before his birth (Baker 57). Turner described himself as someone who could tell the future or had a prophetic nature about him and Baker's drawings and “Home” chapter help support that image, but it is not the only image of Turner that Baker wants to portray. Baker also “adds images that display other modes of resistance among slaves, including secret attempts to achieve literacy and the use of coded messages sent through drum beats” which are not written about in Gray’s narrative but that Baker speculates helped the slaves survive (Kunka 171). Baker’s attempts at taking power back for black people from white editors and writers is evident in this expansion of the narrative from the text that Gray chose to publish. When Gray wrote down Turner’s story, he included “the legal case, and stories of survivors” instead of only focusing on Nat Turner’s life and story, which is clearly a political and racially charged choice as the white man with the power to control a black narrative (Kunka 170). The choice to use illustrations to tell a story over 150 years old gives Baker the power to compile what he knows of slave narratives and Nat Turner’s life to tell the story through a more modern lens, giving more significance to the trauma and brutality of slavery in the lead-up to the rebellion. While Gray favors the white side of the story, Baker privileges the black side, humanizing Turner more than Gray’s narrative does, as it focuses not only on the religious fanaticism of Turner’s justifications but also on more secondary issues like the trial after the rebellion.
Using multiple different styles of art and interspersed text and images gives Baker’s graphic novel a collage quality, making a story out of multiple elements and perspectives. Sometimes the art style is very cartoonish with more realistic aspects thrown in, especially depictions of weapons and the homes of slaveholders that were killed. Because there is so little text in the graphic novel, the instances of text in illustrations stand out strongly. In one scene of brutality where a slave is being whipped, there is the image of a container of salt being poured into the master’s hand to be rubbed into the slave’s wounds. The images are very dark and overly shaded but the font on the container of salt looks realistic, crisp and clean in the face of the messiness of the violence (Baker 66). The act of salt being rubbed in the slave’s wounds is still extremely violent, but the clean lines of the word “SALT” and the detail on the salt container call attention to the fact that even small actions can be violent, it is not always grandiose, dramatic shows of violence. Something as small and everyday as salt is used as a weapon in an act of abuse that sticks with Turner throughout the story. This is seen later during the rebellion as well. There is a page that is mostly taken up by a drawing of the ax used in the rebellion that has the name and markings that identify it as a William Marples & Sons 2 ½ pound axe, specifically (Baker 152). This level of realism reminds readers of the historicism of Turner’s story by placing it in its specific time period and location. Some of the font used as headings in the graphic novel are “reminiscent of wanted posters from the Old West” which is also a commonly recognized visual, incorporating a genre commonly associated with the victory of good over evil, similar to the use of a comic book style which is usually associated with the same themes (Chaney 283). There are also photographs of plantation houses interspersed throughout the images of violence during the scenes of the rebellion, further grounding the story in a real setting although it is not clear whether these are the actual houses or just plantation style homes (Baker 107-138). This realism against the comic book style of the rest of the narrative brings the reader’s attention to the reality of the violence of the rebellion as a retaliation against slaveowners’ previous violence against slaves and complicity in tearing families apart and squashing any sense of culture or community. Baker’s graphic novel, true to the tradition of slave narratives, serves to create witnesses out of the readers, and bringing in actual images of plantation houses creates a greater sense of the reality and gravity of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion.
Baker’s use of the graphic novel as a means of retelling Nat Turner’s story involves reader participation to an extent that a normal slave narrative does not. Comic books and graphic novels have action that takes place not only in the drawn panels or in the text but also the spaces in between. These spaces are often called “gutters” whose job is to “mark change in time and space” and the act of inferring what happens in those gutters is called closure which “establishes continuity to create meaning” (Carleton 163). Baker’s involvement of the reader in the story creates less of a sense of alienation from the story and forces the reader to place themselves within the story, as an active participant. The graphic novels themselves use transitions to help the reader complete “incomplete mixtures of textual and visual information across gutters and between panels” which is a feature that can often be established early in a graphic novel so the reader knows how to interact with it (Carleton 163). Baker chooses to switch his style throughout the graphic novel, sometimes with a traditional page of square or rectangular panels with some interspersed text but sometimes he will have a full page with a few drawings scattered about with text in the center of the page. This second style is used primarily during the rebellion to represent a simultaneity of action as well as an erraticism (Baker 148-153). The reader sees just a picture of an ax, a hand, a blood splatter, a child’s face, and a house all surrounding text describing the murder of the Williams family (Baker 148). Not only does the reader receive historical information but there is an emotion attached to the scene based on how the drawings are arranged and chosen as representatives of the murder. In this case, the meaning is created in conjunction with the text, although there are other moments where meaning is created by image alone.
The use of images and the classic comic book style makes literacy almost unnecessary to understand the story being told. Readers bring their own reading style to the experience of the graphic novel by using “textual and visual literacy to be active agents of the storytelling process” by making inferences from the arrangement of images and the relationship between the images and the text (Carleton 162). By choosing to represent this story using this medium, Baker is taking power away from the traditional ideas of the importance of literacy for slaves and for readers. The graphic novel and comic book style “require readers to bridge the gap…between panels by using their own imaginations and the blended images and visuals as guides,” making readers active creators in their experience of the text (Carleton 162). Literacy is often framed as the main event which leads slaves to freedom, but for Baker, freedom and knowledge does not hinge on literacy so much as awareness and intuition. In the story, Turner seems to gain literacy quickly and almost magically, as he does most things, describing his experience with literacy as him having “acquired it with the most perfect ease, so much so, that I have no recollection whatever of learning the alphabet” (Baker 86). This is mimicked in the style of the graphic novel, which “makes reading the story a matter of automatic scene-decoding for anyone familiar with the most basic storytelling procedures” (Chaney 283). In the same way that Baker is constantly subverting power structures throughout his telling of Turner’s story, this pictorial style is another way of taking the power away from something that was normally given inordinate amounts of importance in traditional slave narratives. There is also the use of onomatopoeia in favor of text, such as “boom b-b-boom” and “clang clang” giving the graphic novel a superhero comic feel while still telling a very real story (Baker 62-69). These are conventions that readers recognize from traditional comic books and allows a sense of comfortability in reading. Accessibility of the story is an important part of this graphic novel but the storytelling and the impact does not suffer for it. This accessibility allows for a wider and more modern audience, creating new witnesses to Nat Turner’s story. As graphic novels rise in popularity as items of literary substance as opposed to just pop culture, stories become more accessible to more people and can be used to broaden horizons and readerships.
There are multiple scenes of slave resistance that Baker focuses on, most of them outside of the realm of Gray’s texts. One such incident is of a slave playing the drums and subsequently being brutally beaten in front of other slaves, with a focus on his pain and the pain of those watching. There are three other slaves, that appear to be women, who are watching the whipping, their faces distorted in agony, crying while they watch (Baker 65-66). The slave master cuts off the slave’s hands and destroys his drum, effectively silencing him and sending a warning message to other slaves about resistance and having their own culture (Baker 68). Baker uses this scene as the first scene in the second chapter which is called “Education.” Because Baker’s graphic novel is a piece of visual art, he is able to curate his images and text in order to make a separate statement from just the words themselves. Turner’s traditional education – which is commonly associated with literacy in slave narratives – does not begin until he has learned many other lessons essential to a slave’s life. His education includes seeing fellow slaves punished for making music, learning to read, and having fun with their children. He learns that slaves are not seen as human and that slaveholders silence any sign of personhood and community. Only after his father is taken from him does he learn to read, completing a traditional rite of passage in slave narratives, taking the first step towards his rebellion.
The fact that Baker does not shy away from depicting the extent of the violence that happened during the slave rebellion is notable because it allows the reader to form their own opinion of Nat Turner. There is no moral skew either way from Baker’s depictions and artistic choices. On perhaps one of the more graphic pages, Baker depicts his “executioner” Will chopping the head off of a young white child (135). Even in this scene of extreme violence, Will is drawn like a traditional superhero, as strong and powerful as the Hulk, which Michael A. Chaney draws a comparison to in his article, saying “superhero comics function as an extraneous soundtrack for the silent witnessing that Nat Turner reenacts” (282). Though making Turner into a superhero is not Baker’s main purpose, his drawings’ proximity to superhero comics is a notable part of the style of the graphic novel because it draws a comparison to the common idea of good versus evil, similar to the use of Old West font. Baker depicts Turner using a number of different personalities including “a traditional trickster figure, a revolutionary leader, as a religious zealot, and as a cold-blooded murderer” because he was all of those things, not just the monolithic image of a violent slave (Kunka 175). Baker’s goal is not to create heroic image of Turner but rather an honest portrayal of a multifaceted and deeply tortured man. Gray’s narrative provides a narrowly focused image of Turner that Baker takes it upon himself to turn inside out and complicate.
The relationship between graphic novels and time is an important one for Baker because he uses memory and time to provide possible justification for the rebellion by interjecting moments from the past into the present action. The form of a comic book or graphic novel “hinges on the way temporality can be traced, in complex, often nonlinear paths across the space of the page” using both words and images whether it be historical time or the timing of the scene (Chute 454). The erraticism of some of the rebellion scenes coming across in the arrangement of images is one example of the use of nonlinear time but it is also interesting how Baker chooses to represent the passage of time linearly. One visual representation he uses twice – first when Baker runs away from a plantation and again when he runs away after the rebellion – is the use of moon phases (Baker 95, 183). These moon phases suggest the passing of a specific amount of time and without those images the two scenes before and after would not be connected in a way that follows the narrative, but it is notable that the same method is used both times, suggesting a connection between the two times he ran away.
Baker uses the title of each chapter and the first images of the chapter to make a statement. Chapter two is called “Education” and on the facing page is an image of Nat Turner with hands folded in prayer (Baker 58-59). This implies a different type of education than what is commonly the source of education in slave narratives, but it also foreshadows his emphasis on religion in the justification for his rebellion. The third chapter is called “Freedom” and the first image is of a slave chopping wood with the ax that is used during the rebellion to kill the slave masters and their families (Baker 106-107). The ax acts as a symbol of freedom for the slave foreshadowing the rebellion. Chapter 4 is entitled “Triumph” but opens first with an image of his body hanging after being lynched for his rebellion, followed immediately by the image of Turner in jail, telling his story to Thomas R. Gray (Baker 186-188). Turner’s triumph, based on Baker’s illustrations, is that despite being killed for his rebellion, he is able to tell his story to Gray, allowing others to read it and learn from him. That his actions were still triumphant despite his death are also a testament to his vision of himself as a sort of prophet or leader of people into freedom. His death being triumphant is Christ-like in his sacrifice and the spectacle of his death for others to watch. These connections of image and chapter titles is another example of closure on the part of the reader. These two pages could just be next to each other because the action of one comes after the other or the signification of the new chapter needs to come before the action, but the deliberate choice to use those images with those chapter titles is the telegraphing of a connection between ideas, which the reader’s closure can create meaning out of for themselves.
Turner being a Christ figure is a theme throughout the graphic novel, he is often depicted standing in poses reminiscent of the crucifixion as well as coming back when he goes missing and showing his fellow slaves his body as proof that he is alive. Turner runs away from an especially cruel overseer and comes back “after remaining in the woods thirty days” which is reminiscent of the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, but when he comes back and shows himself to the others on the plantation, the way Baker depicts him is extremely Christlike (Baker 96). He walks towards the plantation with palms outstretched, which is a way that Jesus is often shown as he shows the evidence of his wounds to his apostles after his resurrection. He references his own closeness to Jesus when in a moment of interview between him and Gray is used at the end Gray asks “Do you not find yourself mistaken now?” to which Turner answers “Was not Christ crucified?,” explicitly aligning himself with the epitome of self-sacrifice and a savior of a whole people (Baker 189). When he is about to be lynched he looks up and the drawing shows from his perspective the tops of trees but also an overwhelming light taking up most of the image, as if he is looking up at God and heaven (Baker 193). He seems calm as he is lynched with the whole community watching. He also has a resurrection in the publishing of Gray’s book. In the very last pages, a slaveowner gets a copy of The Confessions of Nat Turner and leaves it out where a slave takes it and is seen reading it in the shadows (Baker 200). His sacrifice and struggle is here depicted as a way for future slaves to gain freedom, mentally or physically.
Baker uses contradiction multiple times throughout his narrative, both in his art and in his art’s relation to the text used on the same page. In the beginning of the narrative there are a few instances where a character has a bubble over their head commonly used to signify speech but it is instead used to show a picture. When the slave who died in the bottom of the slave ship is thrown overboard, the speech bubble holds a picture of the dead body that we saw earlier when she was laying next to the other slave women (Baker 46). The dead are given identities and voices in Baker’s graphic novel very explicitly here, which is something that a white author like Gray would not focus on. They are not only given voices but complex internal lives in the form of memories and experiences that cannot easily be expressed with words. This is contradictory to what the reader normally expects from a speech bubble, therefore calling into question what readers think they know about traditional forms of slave narratives as well. There are also examples of contradictions between the text and the images on the page, such as during a scene of literacy. In the images, Turner is reading a book and when his master comes in he flips the book upside and pretends to not understand the words (Baker 89). During this scene, the excerpt from Gray’s narrative that is used is completely irrelevant. It is a passage about how Turner spent his time in his imagination when he was not busy working for his master (Baker 89). This juxtaposition is an interesting way to frame a scene of literacy that would traditionally be a symbol of freedom with a passage of text about labor and not about the freedom literacy provides for slaves, but the freedom in one’s own mind.
During the scene where Turner is learning to read, Baker once again uses Gray’s language and combines it with his own ideas in order to foreshadow future events and show Turner’s ideas about himself. In Gray’s account, Turner describes that once he started reading, “I would find many things that the fertility of my own imagination had depicted to me before” which are drawn on the page before (Baker 89). In Baker’s drawings, he shows Turner’s eyes reading books on the bottom of the image, and above him the things he is reading and presumably imagining before he ever read them. He is imagining the story of Moses leading his people to salvation and out of slavery (Baker 86-87). The implication that he imagined this prior to reading it is a further testimony to his image as almost an oracle, able to see the future and enact it. It is also foreshadowing to his rebellion and attempt to lead slaves out of bondage and into freedom. Nat Turner as Moses is also another instance of him aligning himself with biblical heroes, this time turning to the Old Testament before he is presented as Christlike. In the beginning he is only leading his people to freedom but in the end he is sacrificing himself for the cause, something distinctly Christlike.
In Baker’s efforts to show Turner’s motivation in his slave rebellion, we see Turner’s thought process as the rebellion is happening. When he kills the Travis family and sees the baby, he at first wants to leave it alive, but on the next page we see his thought bubbles that show his justification for having Will and Henry kill it (Baker 118-119). When Turner is thinking about whether or not to kill the baby, his thought bubble shows him recalling black children being torn from their parents’ arms and sold into slavery, as well as the mother of the child reaching out for her child, laying on the ground in grief and he uses that image as justification for killing the white child (Baker 120). As Chaney describes, these inset bubbles “function therefore as embedded warrants for the decision Turner finally makes” when he tells Will to kill the white baby (293). In Gray’s texts, Turner asserts that a sign from heaven told him “I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons” (Baker 110). Despite Turner’s adherence to the religious imagery of his justification for rebellion, Baker’s illustrations create a story that also incorporates a real, historical basis for Turner’s trauma that cause him to lead the rebellion.
This basis for the rebellion is also evident in the many instances of mirroring in the imagery Baker produces to compare the slaves’ time in slavery to their rebellion. Nat Turner’s slave rebellion often paints him as a monster and a violent brute, but Baker’s comparison of his actions to the actions of slaveholders pushes back against that characterization by making the two instances of violence equal. One moment in which this is evident is in the drawing of the slaves walking through the woods, guns over their shoulders, to go kill the next family (Baker 124). This image is important because it directly mirrors the image earlier of the white enslavers marching the African to the boat to America (Baker 29). In both images the characters are set back against a foreground of trees and foliage while only their silhouettes are visible in the background. In the image of the slave in chains they are depicted as marching backwards while the image of them during the rebellion is them marching forwards, towards the future and hopefully liberation. The white men were marching backwards as if reverting to a lesser state of humanity, the slaves are moving forward to the future. There is another moment of mirroring in the onomatopoeia of the bell being rung. Early in the graphic novel when the slave is beaten and has his hands cut off for playing a drum, the scene is immediately followed by a scene of a bell being rung accompanied with the onomatopoeia “CLANG CLANG” repeated (Baker 69). Later in the novel, the CLANG of the bell is used to signal that the slave rebellion is coming, which cause a white slaveowner and this child to run for their lives (Baker 144-145). This scene is not only giving the slaves the power to instill the same fear in their masters that their masters instilled in them, but it also implies a reciprocal relationship between the earlier violence and the violence inflicted during the rebellion.
Because Baker uses both his art and Gray’s text, he is able to create his own narratives in order to give a new perspective on Turner’s story. Right when Turner is getting his inspiration for his slave rebellion, he falls in love and his wife is taken from him. Baker shows this interaction on a page directly preceding a scene where the text from Gray’s narrative is used that describes Turner having the vision that spurs his rebellion (Baker 102). There is no way for Baker to know that that is the exact moment his vision happened or that those two events occurred anywhere near each other in time, but his family being taken from him could very much have influenced his rebellion and Baker acknowledges how many different things could have led up to the murders in 1831 and uses those possibilities to draw parallels between actions of the enslavers and the consequent uprising. This is an example of how Baker uses his illustrations in conjunction with and contradiction to Gray’s text. Baker quotes Gray’s text exactly but “the juxtaposition of image and text alters the meaning of the text” (Kunka 183). It also overturns the normal power structure prevalent in slave narratives that prioritizes written record or physical evidence. Baker makes connections and tells a story that cannot be corroborated in the traditional way that slave narratives are expected to be.
Baker’s Nat Turner repurposes archival texts to prove that they can still be relevant today. The mixture of archival text and modern day form allows us to examine how archives that are from the very beginning of America’s formation can still “speak to the politics of the present” (Gikandi 82). When the slave takes the copy of Nat Turner’s narrative from her owner at the end of the book, her face is shown on the very last page of the novel drawn on a fully black page with just her face and the book visible. This implies a futurity to Turner’s narrative, a sense that it will last in culture for future generations to read. Baker makes this even more possible by rethinking the story in graphic novel form. The graphic novel style can “uproot and revise normally time-bound units of information,” for Baker this is the actual text of Turner’s narrative, “in order to re-circulate them in new visual contexts,” which Baker does by placing them with images that can contextualize the text either by directly aligning their meanings or by contrasting meanings (Chaney, “Drawing on History” 199). This reimagining of a slave narrative allows Baker “to remind contemporary readers of events enshrined in the grainy repertoire of a past forever immanent in the present” (Chaney, “Drawing on History” 199). The visuality of his chosen medium creates an accessibility and level of engagement that traditional slave narratives do not have and its ability to provoke emotional responses is more visceral because of that visuality. Baker brings a story over 100 years old into the modern consciousness using a well-recognized form to give new voice to Nat Turner and bring that voice to a new generation of readers and witnesses.
Baker’s choice to tell Nat Turner’s story in the form of a graphic novel was a choice that reflects his attention to style and art as well as the importance of telling ex-slave stories and carrying on the legacy of their lives. He is able to provide an alternate, more slave-focused version of Turner’s story. Baker acknowledges that he had very little prior knowledge of Turner but found his story fascinating and important, therefore inspiring him to write this graphic novel. He is carrying on an important and impactful story in a way that many people can read and understand, therefore preventing Turner’s obscurity from continuing. Baker creates, with his graphic novel, more witnesses to the injustices of slavery and an awareness of how those injustices and their aftershocks carry on and still affect people today.
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Gikandi, Simon. “Rethinking the Archive of Enslavement.”Early American Literature, vol. 50, no. 1, 2015, pp. 81–102.JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24476612.
Kunka, Andrew J. “Intertextuality and the Historical Graphic novel: Kyle Baker's ‘Nat Turner’ and the Styron Controversy.”College Literature, vol. 38, no. 3, 2011, pp. 168–193., www.jstor.org/stable/41302878.
Sekora, John. “Black Message/White Envelope: Genre, Authenticity, and Authority in the Antebellum Slave Narrative.”Callaloo, no. 32, 1987, pp. 482–515.JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2930465.
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