We continue day three of our graphic novels roundtable with an interview with historian Ari Kelman, who co-authored Battle Lines: a Graphic History of the Civil War. Previously Jessica Parr discussed using graphic novels to explore painful histories and Roy Rogers reviewed Rebels from Dark Horse Comics.
Ari Kelman is the McCabe Greer Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University, specializing in the Civil War, Reconstruction, Memory Politics, and Environmental History. In addition to Battle Lines: a Graphic Novel of the Civil War, he is the author of two award-winning books. A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Harvard, 2013) was the recipient of the Bancroft Prize, the Avery Craven Award, the the Tom Watson Brown Book Award, and the Robert M. Ultey Prize. A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans (University of California Press, 2003) won the Abbott Lowell Cummings Prize.
JUNTO: You’re of course known for your scholarly work on the nineteenth century, and particularly your award-winning book, Misplaced Massacre. What inspired you to take on a graphic novel of the Civil War?
ARI KELMAN: About five years ago, on the eve of the Civil Warsesquicentennial celebration, an editor at a university press asked me if I’d consider writing a very brief introductory survey of the war for a general audience. It was an intriguing offer, but the word count was so small that I couldn’t fathom how to make it work. I passed. This was long before A Misplaced Massacre’s publication, and I was still known primarily as an environmental historian—if I was known at all. So, after I said no, I started fretting about a lost opportunity to make my mark as a Civil War historian. I also became obsessed with the question of how many words I’d need to do justice to the sweep of the Civil War’s history. I decided that the way to kill two birds with one stone was to write a graphic history of the war. I pitched the book to an editor at Hill and Wang. He was interested and introduced me to Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, my co-author. Then Jonathan, who had already written a graphic history of the atomic bomb, a book called Trinity, spent a couple of years trying to teach me how to work in this new medium (more on that process in a moment).
JUNTO: One of the things that sets your treatment of the Civil War apart is your decision to start in 1808, with the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. How did you come to that decision?
KELMAN: As we’ve seen again recently, during the debate over flying the Confederate flag in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, the myth of the Lost Cause remains in wide currency. And so Jonathan and I wanted to make sure that our readers understood the centrality of slavery on the road to the war. We decided that we would signal early and often that the Civil War was fought over that issue—though, given my work on Sand Creek, I often felt like we should be saying more empire as well.
JUNTO: What did you find to be the biggest challenge in representing the complexities of the Civil War in graphic novel format?
KELMAN: There were a lot of challenges, but three stand out as the most complicated. First, we struggled with how to depict corpses in a way that wouldn’t be mawkish or exploitative. This was a major issue, because we knew that we wanted death to figure prominently in the book. Still, given that it was our responsibility to treat dead bodies with dignity, we had to figure out how to avoid sensationalism. Second, although we were delighted that Hill and Wang asked us to do the book in color, finding the right palette was complicated. We were terrified that Battle Lines would appear cartoonish or garish. In the end, we settled on muted colors that we thought reflected period-correct imagery. The third challenge was by far and away the toughest: defining the line between fact and fiction. Jonathan wanted to capture the drama of the war through fiction. By contrast, I wanted to remain true to the past. In the end, we compromised: we never put fictional dialogue in the mouths of non-fiction characters.
JUNTO: Can you describe the process behind “Battle Lines?”
KELMAN: Because Jonathan and I lived on opposite coasts while we wrote the book, and because we’re both annoying perfectionists, the process was cumbersome and absurdly inefficient. We’d talk on the phone, often for five or six hours, late at night. During those conversations, we’d map out a chapter, discussing dialogue and imagery. Then, in the weeks following, Jonathan would produce a rough draft. He’d send me that draft as an e-mail attachment, and I’d make notes on his work. Then we’d get back on the phone, figure out the changes we wanted or needed to make, and he’d eventually produce a more polished draft.
After we had a full draft of the entire book—which took us almost four years to produce—we conducted an informal peer review. We sent it out to friends who pointed out errors, offered suggestions about improving the narrative or capturing an important historiographical point, and generally tried to keep us from making complete fools of ourselves.
JUNTO: How did your working relationship with illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm come about?
KELMAN: Our editor at Hill and Wang introduced us. Jonathan had just finished writing Trinity. He was intrigued by my book proposal, because it placed an object—a slave’s shackles, a pair of opera glasses used to capture the spectacle of First Bull Run, a spinning bullet, and many others—at the center of each chapter. He thought those objects lent themselves to visual storytelling, and so he signed onto the project, even though he knew I had no idea how to write a graphic book. He was absolutely right: I had no clue what I was doing. Jonathan spent nearly a year gently correcting me about this and that: reminding me that I couldn’t solve problems by throwing words at them, encouraging me to embrace visual metaphors, and helping me to understand that images rather than text would have to carry Battle Lines. We ended up having a great working relationship, and we think we’re going to do another book together in the future. But first we need to rest, because Battle Lines took forever to write.
JUNTO: Did you and Fetter-Vorm envision Battle Lines being used in classrooms? If so, how did you see it being taught?
KELMAN: We can imagine the book being used in AP high school history classes, in college surveys, in Civil War courses, and perhaps in seminars on historical methods or writing. It’s too soon to know if that’s going to happen, but we’re hopeful.