At 288 pages, Kent State definitely qualifies as a graphic novel. But it’s more than that. Derf Backderf has crafted an immersive experience on paper, released at a time when American society is, once again, politically polarized and awash in falsehoods, some of them emanating from the highest office in the land.
Title: Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio
Writer/artist: Derf Backderf
First published: Sept. 8, 2020
The events at Kent State, Ohio, in May of 1970, get retold from as many perspectives as the author could find and (to the best of his ability) verify.
Despite the mountains of research into people, places, and allegations, Backderf’s novel never reads like dry history. The characters feel like people you know. I became engaged in their lives.
It’s not fair to expect a graphic novel to incorporate other historical events, but the passing reminder of the subsequent Jackson State Killings tells us that the cultural memory can become skewered, and we do not always remember what we should.
Kent State was not an isolated incident.
Originality: 3/6 Many people have told the story of Kent State, 1970, from numerous non-fiction accounts of variable accuracy (particularly the early accounts, written before many facts were not yet known) to the surprisingly candid (given the polarization of the times) official reports.1. But no one has told it in this form and with the attention to detail we see here. In between the end of the graphic novel and its disturbing, one-page epilogue (with dialogue taken directly from one of Nixon’s White House tapes), Backderf provides nearly thirty pages of detailed notes on his sources.
Artwork: 6/6 Backderf’s stylized reality gives us cartoons that can be more affecting than a photorealistic depiction might be.
Story: 6/6 Sure, it is chaotic and filled with characters, but that is really the only way to explain what happened, as best as anyone likely ever will.
Emotional response: 5/6
Flow 6/6 Backderf has taken a thousand threads and woven them into a whole cloth.
Overall: 6/6 Dangerous riots in the street—some of them neither political nor protest-driven— anti-war protests that sometimes turned ugly, official infiltrators, rampant, unfounded rumours and conspiracicsm (some of it encouraged by official channels), improperly trained forces led by a former army desk jockey with no combat experience, unchecked violence by people in uniforms, faulty communication, and an order no one can confirm2, possibly given in response to a shot no one can verify.3 Wherever your politics may lie, you should read this book.
In total, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio receives 37/42
1. The Report of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest concluded that the Kent State shootings were “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
2. An audio recording made that day appears to indicate that someone gave an order to fire. No officer has ever acknowledged giving the order or been definitively identified as having done so.
3. The graphic novel depicts the known actions of FBI informant Terry Norman at the time, but cannot confirm or deny what many suspect: that Norman, for reasons unknown, fired his .38, which the National Guard took as a sign they were under fire.