I noticed that a lot of people had been writing about the first chapter on Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner, and while this isn’t supposed to be a response post, I thought I would share my thoughts on why I think the first chapter is even present in the story.
First of all, I think it’s really important to notice the lack of text in the first chapter. Save the onomatopoeia in a few frames (pgs. 20, 22), a brief excerpt from the memoir of Captain Theodore Canot (who is not the author of the rest of the book’s text) on page 36, and another brief quotation from The Confessions of Nat Turner by Thomas Gray on the last page of the first chapter (pg. 57), the chapter is composed entirely of illustrations. Obviously this isn’t a great departure from the rest of the book, which also barely has any text, but I think it is interesting that Baker doesn’t introduce what will become his only source of text (Gray’s Confessions) throughout the book until the very last page of the first chapter. It seems like Baker wanted to be able to tell the story of the enslaved woman without any interference from another text, but why wouldn’t he maintain this textless style (or at least only incorporate very short, factual tidbits along the way as with Captain Canot’s memoir excerpt) throughout the rest of the book? Why does Baker use another man’s words to narrate his account of Nat Turner’s rebellion? Why does Baker share this act of telling Nat Turner’s story?
It is this establishing of different narrators (/sharing of narration) that I believe is the reason for Chapter 1 (“Home”)’s inclusion in the story. Baker must first establish in a chapter with very few words that his narration exists within the illustrations of the book, not the text, and then subsequently incorporate Gray’s account of the insurrection into the book. By doing this Baker has established a tension between the his narrative (which seems fairly sympathetic so the slaves in the first chapter) and Gray’s narrative, and despite the images being supportive of the violent nature in which the slaves are described, the way in which Baker’s illustrations are exaggerated and hyperbolic such that Will almost appears to be a giant suggest that he is not agreeing with Gray’s account so much as he is questioning it. Baker sets up two interwoven narrations of the same event to show how perspective is important in a story like this. Gray’s account might say something like “Will killed the little boy” (not actually text from the book), but then Baker’s illustration will show a gigantic mammoth of a man wielding an axe and chopping a little boy’s head off. So, even if Baker’s illustration are in support of Gray’s text, they are somehow different. With a different narrator, with a different perspective, the truth of the history can become distorted (whether good or bad).
Like I said, I don’t think Baker was just trying to go against Gray at every turn to produce sympathy for Nat Turner, or that I think Baker thought Gray’s account was at all fictitious, I just think Baker wants the reader to understand that the circumstances surrounding Turner’s rebellion were not as cut and dry as “those people enslaved him so he killed everyone around.” I think Baker wants us to recognize that in dealing with historical subjects like slavery we must not only try and put ourselves in the historical context of the time, but also understand that from different perspectives (as acted out in this novel with “different” narrators) things can appear better or worse or completely different than we thought.