For the week of July 13-17, The Junto is hosting “Graphic History: Sequential Art & History,” a roundtable examination of relationship between history and graphic novels. We will explore graphic novels as historical fiction, as histories, and their uses in the classroom. For our first entry, Roy Rogers reviews a new comic book series about the American Revolution from award-winning writer Brian Wood.
What does a historical epic of the American Revolution look like in the twenty-first century?
Rebels (2015, Dark Horse Comics) # 1-3 by Brian Wood, Andrea Mutti, et al.
We live in a moment where historical fiction–particularly of the American founding–is very much on the public’s mind. Historical fictions like Turn and Sons of Liberty flit across our television (and laptop) screens alongside historically drenched fantasies like Sleepy Hollow. Fantastical heroes and heroines from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America sell books alongside their cousins set in Regency and Victorian England. The comic book industry is not immune to such cultural currents. Rebels, which launched in April, from acclaimed writer Brian Wood (Local) and artist Andrea Mutti (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) is one of the first modern experiments by prominent industry professionals in this genre.
Sequential art is in many ways an excellent medium for historical fiction, particularly in comparison to film or television, for the ability to evoke the time period is only limited by the illustrator’s skill–not by budget or special effects. This freedom of interpretation is Rebel’s greatest strength, for Mutti and colorist Jordie Bellaire offer a vivid visual representation of earliest days of the Revolutionary War (the story starts in 1775). The artwork has a great physicality to it, as one scans the pages of the first three issues you feel the explosions of gunfire, the falls through ice, the showdowns between willful patriots and dastardly Red Coats, and even the chopping of wood. It is very easy to allow Mutti and Bellaire’s beautiful work to sweep you away to the lush forests and hills of late eighteenth century New York, Vermont, and Canada. This great strength, however, is undermined by the series’s writing.
There is nothing new, at the level of plot or character, in Rebels.
In some important ways the script for Rebels could have been written in the 1990s, 1950s, or even the early nineteenth century. The first storyline “A Well-Regulated Militia” follows Seth Abbot, a fictionalized Green Mountain Boy, and his wife Mercy Tucker. The eighteenth-century world as shaped by Brian Wood, and so vividly illustrated by Mutti and Bellaire, is one of stiff-lipped but sensitive men who serve their country and women who weather the hardships of war with a long-suffering dignity. The patriot cause is one of aggrieved farmers set against a British Army that shoots first and asks questions later. It is not so much a nostalgic depiction of an idealized vision of the Revolution, in the same vein as Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, but a staid one. Its protagonists are less characters and more spigots for platitudes. This is historical fiction as historical romance, following the same beats as the earliest American interpreters of the Revolution with a bit more sex and glossier pages.
As a series, according to Wood, Rebels has its origins in the laudable impulse to offer a retelling of the American Revolution which focuses common people and rescues the story of the Revolution from distortion. As he notes one hasn’t “lived through an election season without seeing and hearing this history evoked on a daily basis.” This evocation, though, promotes a very particular vision of the American past that Wood feels disconnected from and makes “being a proud American an extreme partisan position.” The problem presented by the first set of issues of Rebels is that this laudable, corrective impulse has driven Wood to produce a saccharine vision of the American Revolution. In trying to tell an historical epic for the twenty-first century Wood has produced one that has its emotional core in the historical romances of the nineteenth.
Rebels drains all of the drama out of the Revolution. The American cause is just, the British tyrannical. The characters must make sacrifices for their liberties but Wood’s plotting is tension free and makes such characterization feel rout and predictable. Modern scholarship has shown us that there was nothing straight forward about the Revolution–loyalties shifted, the just cause wasn’t so easy to identify, today’s patriot could become tomorrow’s traitor. None of this drama is present in Rebels. Perhaps that will change, for Wood has promised to expand his story beyond the Abbots to include African-Americans, Native peoples, and even a Red Coat.
As it stands, however, the opening issues of Rebels are a failure to fully leverage the strengths of sequential art to tell an excellent, informed twenty-first century historical epic of the American founding. Andrea Mutti and Jordie Bellaire beautifully channel the scenery of the rural eighteenth century and evoke the terribleness of revolutionary violence. Brian Wood’s scripts, however, fail to do justice the story he hopes to tell, instead offering a pat, tired, and limited vision of the origins of the United States.
The title of this post is quoted from Brian Wood’s disclaimer at the start of each issue: “Rebels is a story of historical fiction, and in some places time and events have been compressed to fit the narrative, and some key historical figures appeal in locations where perhaps they never were. The writer assumes all responsibility.”
 The characterization of the Red Coats in Rebels has more in common with our contemporary police forces in Ferguson or Baltimore than the historical British Army.
 This is not say that Rebel’s is not an exercise in a very particularly American nostalgia for the Revolution… because it certainly is.
 One character in the first issue exclaims, during a heated violent conflict with a British solider, that he and other patriots are a “free and protected men under the law, with rights and privileges as such.” Such on the nose dialogue continues throughout the subsequent issues.
 As quoted in the “Horsepower” column of Rebels #1 (April 2015).
 As quoted in the “Rebels” column of Rebels #2 (May 2015). This column Wood notes that many of his fans believed that Rebels would be a “hatchet” job on the story of the American Revolution. The final product is about as far away from that as can be – less a hatchet job and more of a love letter.