Nat Turner and the necessity of being appalled.

In Kyle Baker’s preface to Nat Turner he said that he chose the story for a graphic novel because of how the story contained so many images. I remember being horrified at that statement—sure, it has compelling images, but such terrible ones! It was after beginning to read the story that I saw how right Baker was. Hearing the story of Nat Turner, which I knew before picking up the book, was nothing compared to seeing the images represented in a graphic novel. True, the images were horrifying—and as they should be.

I won’t bemoan how desensitized our culture has become to violence—I know that for me and most others this isn’t a function of insufficient empathy but the only way to make it through the day. All the same, I think its useful for there to be art to resensitize us from time to time. I don’t think it does us as a population much good to drown ourselves in despair over the atrocities of the present and past, but I think we would fare much worse if we did not have visceral, painful reminders from time to time. I liked Nat Turner for that reason.

Baker didn’t shy away from portraying the reality of the Turner rebellion’s victims—white children were murdered too. As uncomfortable and as appalled as I was by this fact, it made me think about race relations in a way I hadn’t before. This term we’ve read and discussed how readers write a text against the text or “ghost chapters.” Despite the very few words used in Nat Turner, I knew it was a narrative because I found myself questioning it in this same way. Why would Turner and his followers kill white children, even infants? I found myself answering “well, because they will grow up and be slave owners too.” That answer brought this story into focus in a powerful way and left me unable to settle on any one interpretation of Turner’s actions from a moral standpoint. For a historical tale, that seems proof of success to me.

Much of what we read in the McCloud selections on comics was already familiar to me as someone acquainted with how comics are written. The most interesting part of these pieces was how it addressed the use of silent panels. McCloud said that these panels can make time seem to stretch on indefinitely and that it can make the image even more haunting to the reader. I found this especially true of Nat Turner. Days later, I’m unable to get the image of the infant from the beginning out of my head. Several hands stretch out to the African baby as it falls through the air. This image was disturbing and powerful in a way that I doubt words could have enhanced.