The educational possibilities of comics have been theorized and discussed for nearly as many years as comics have existed, though nonfiction comics remain a vastly out-numbered minority in the field. First Second, in collaboration with historian CC Colbert and French illustrator Tanitoc, has added one strong piece of comic book nonfiction to the industry ledger.
Booth chronicles the life of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth during the inevitable conclusion of the American Civil War, tracking his alliances with Confederacy sympathizers, his engagement to the daughter of a prominent Senator, and finally his criminal killing, flight and eventual death. Echoing the state of the country, the schism in the Booth family is explored, in addition to his conflicted engagement.
A recognized authority in American history, CC Colbert makes her comic debut, abetted by the European comics illustrator Tanitoc, providing readers with a detailed reading of Booth’s motivations and final years.
We spoke to Colbert and Tanitoc about Booth.
Newsarama: CC, this is your first foray into writing comics. Of all the possible subjects in American history, what makes John Wilkes Booth the place to start?
CC Colbert: Certainly Lincoln is one of the most charismatic of historical figures, whose image and legacy looms large, not just in America but as a symbol of America around the world. And his assassination was one of the most dramatic episodes in all of American history, certainly a moment that changed and challenged a generation. And this first dramatic assassination of a President is forever associated with John Wilkes Booth. And while Booth is such a famous name, yet he is a man whose background and motives have been shrouded in mystery. I thought a graphic novel about him would make an engaging project, and I am pleased the artist was able to create such a visually compelling work.
Nrama: Booth’s relationships with his family and with Lucy Hale are not secrets, but they offer some insights into the Civil War era in microcosm. Literally, you have brother vs. brother in the Booth family, and his relationship with Hale was on one level caring, yet also duplicitous. In addition to the assassination of Lincoln, often regarded as the greatest President, do you feel that these themes add resonance to Booth’s story?
Colbert: Since so much of my work has been about divided families, and the divided nation, and the way in which debates over race, slavery and sectionalism split the nation in two, the way in which Edwin and his younger brother became alienated during wartime was familiar terrain. And I tried to enhance this theme. But Booth’s trajectory was distorted and melodramatic, and the diary from the days of his manhunt gave an opportunity to explore his character and motivation.
I discovered Booth managed not just the “love triangle” I imagine in my story, but Booth might have been involved in at least a hexagon. He was not just romancing Ella and Lucy (whose picture was only one of the five female photos found on him when he died), but a young woman in New York claimed he fathered her child – so Booth exploited this clandestine quality and proved quite a cad, even though he convinced himself he was a man of honor.
I wanted to capture the torment and the tumult of the times through moving alongside this one man’s tortured route to infamy.
Nrama: Did you have any difficulty adjusting to writing for comics?
Colbert: I had written illustrated books before—for children. But with a graphic novel, it is much more collaborative, like screenwriting. I was deeply blessed to have Tanya McKinnon as an editor on this project as her talents are superlative. Economy of prose is a matter of trust and practice, and furthermore this format is difficult for someone used to footnotes and piling on evidence. But it is also extremely satisfying to have words accompanied by such beautiful artwork—to set the tone and evoke a mood. Again, a matter of trust, which the graphic novel forces on a writer.
Nrama: What pros and cons do comics possess as a vehicle for exploring history?
Colbert: Because it was my first graphic novel, and I was unsure how the final book would turn out – I used a pseudonym and was a bit cautious. But once I took on this pen name, I threw myself into the project, determined to use my imagination to stitch together a collection of intriguing pieces of evidence, which, taken together, evoke a kaleidoscopic portrait—and one that I tried to make compelling.
This can be quite liberating for a scholar generally discouraged from speculation, whose every conclusion must be bolstered by footnotes and encased in historiography. But I wanted authenticity with Booth – weaving together disparate intrigues into a possible scenario. What did or did not happen, this and more will be debated into the foreseeable future—in this and any other works involving history. However, comics invite a new audience with its dynamic framework. I trust Booth can tap into audiences that love history and that love comics, and there need be no sense of mutual exclusion, quite the contrary. . .
Plus if readers are put off by thousand page, multi-volume books, the graphic novel can be a cure for those seeking good stories unleashed from academic apparatus.
Nrama: What, if any, insights into the American mindset today do you think can be taken from Booth’s
Colbert: Once Robert E. Lee surrendered and the nation felt delivered from war and looking forward to peace, Booth’s misguided plots were extreme and dangerous. And yet this twenty-six year old believed he could prevent rapprochement, and single-handedly derail the peace. Since I now live in Northern Ireland and see the challenges of maintaining peace, and so many people across the world find themselves caught up in these kind of conflicts, embroiled and embattled, I hope that Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation rather than Booth’s political violence will inspire Americans—and others, seeking change. Booth wanted to be remembered as a hero, but is most often recalled as a tragic figure. Nearly 150 years later, as we approach the Civil War sesquicentennial, Lincoln has triumphed in Booth’s stead, and taken center stage.
Nrama: Have you done many comics for the American market prior to this?
Tanitoc: I haven't done any – except creating a page for Matt Madden's OuBaPo website.
Booth is a completely new experience for me, on many levels; I normally write my own scripts, and do my own coloring as well as the art. Not to mention the fact that during the three years this book required, there was a rather large ocean between the creative people involved and myself!
As for the theme of the book, I had had a first glimpse at the American Civil War in 2004, when illustrating a bilingual anthology of American poetry (for Mango publishers, France) working with U.S. poetess Alison Kim. I then became aware of Walt Whitman's wartime prose.
Nrama: What made Booth the right project for you as a creative venture and as a move into the American market?
Tanitoc: I was tempted by Mark Siegel's offer to work on Booth when he revealed his editorial ambitions for First Second at a time when none of their books was out yet: to open a territory among U.S. readers with international collaborations. He had told me he was planning a book with an academic historian about John W. Booth — quite a fascinating figure. I didn't know much about the man, to be honest, couldn't even recall his name (although my early research made me realize he was the assassin I had seen in Griffith's KKK propaganda epic, Birth of a Nation). Booth was 26 when he shot Lincoln, he was a very talented actor who could have made an even bigger name for himself with his art (at the exact same age, with a pretty similar oversized ego and a similar respect for Shakespeare, Orson Welles chose not to shoot the president, but to direct Citizen Kane!). I was keen on the idea to work from a script I hadn't written, feeling it would shake me out of my creative routine. It did: How big was my original artwork to be, to fit the U.S. comic format? What did it mean in terms of pacing the story? What was my no-pencil-straight-to-the-page brushwork to become when dealing with a colorist? …
The team at First Second, Catherine Clinton and myself were aware from day one that her script wasn’t a bande dessinée scenario as such, not in the traditional sense – to me it was more like an impressive tapestry, and my job, as far as I could see when I received the script was to gradually illuminate and highlight elements of Catherine's writing, so that our readers could take in its complexity without being overwhelmed. Otherwise I could have – but that’s the writer in me talking – the story could have been approached from a radically different angle, let’s say by following the destiny of the Philadelphia Derringer pistol used to kill President Lincoln, or by telling the story from Mary Surrat’s perspective. But that would have been another adventure.
Any political assassination plot is complex by nature; there is a tension between what we call History and the personal journey of the individuals involved, which one has to carefully weave together. Some of these individuals might have to fuse into one fictional character, events might just have to be made up. Not only is this not an issue for me but there is something stimulating in the weaving of fact and fiction (James Ellroy's work on JFK’s era being a fine example in literature), as long as you’re clear about what you’re trying to achieve. The challenge for me was to translate Catherine’s script into comic narrative while remaining true to her screenplay/scenario based on her researched and referenced historical writing.
It was difficult at times to be both bold and humble, to allow myself to intervene because it simply felt right for the story, while respecting Catherine’s initial vision. The central question to me is not so much to decide what I am going to show than to decide what I’m going to “not show” to the reader. I hope I have made the right decisions; when I discovered in a book that John W. Booth had tattooed his initials in his hand as a teenager, for instance, I thought it was a crucial detail, a very telling one about the adult he was to become, so I added the brief introduction, with his father and brothers in the countryside; I knew then that I could use that incident to be echoed later on the night of the assassination. This was my very first idea as far as storytelling goes, and I remember sending Hilary Sycamore a color scheme for a very brief “green flashback” in a very “theater red” dramatic moment. I was also very aware that readers would need silences in a very dense string of conversations, secrete plans and arguments: I begged Mark Siegel who agreed to give me some extra pages.
Nrama: Most of the people in this story are well-documented historical figures, but as far as recreating the time period, how was the research?
Tanitoc: I was already a keen reader of 19th century literature, but Catherine was my first source of information, for obvious reasons — she knows everything on the subject; we met once, in Paris, shortly after I had read the script, she answered my initial questions about context and people, and she brought me … a suitcase of books, images and articles! I spent a few months reading all this material, including Michael W. Kauffman's biography on Booth, which proved to be an excellent basis for imagining how to visually tell the story.
I was relatively familiar with this particular century, having published a short story about Thomas de Quincey in “Lapin” comics anthology (L'Association publishers, 1997), and written and drawn a comic book set in the Crimean War (Rackham publishers, 2002) — I believe Mark Siegel had seen this book when he generously offered me to collaborate with First Second on Booth. It was fun re-opening my visual files and adding some years to follow ladies’ fashion, for instance, up to 1865 (The Crimea took place in 1854).
Let’s confess it right away, I have never been to the States – which gave me some creative freedom, in an unexpected way: while being rigorous with documentation (photographs and engravings from the National Library of Congress website proving to be an amazing help) I decided I had to accept the fact that it was my limited vision, with the geographical and cultural distance, or else things would look contrived, stiff or artificial – my main concern was to make scenes as lively and convincing as possible in terms of showing some kind of … respect for the characters, whatever their motives and contradictions, precisely by remembering they had been real people before being “characters”. All this happened only yesterday!
From a creative, pragmatic point of view, I tend to approach any story thinking about the qualities of the light – what would be the atmosphere for a given scene, could a night scene be more exciting if set at lunch time, and so on; I would sketch bits of scenes as they come to my mind, trying at the same time to have a general overview of the story. Early on, after breaking down the story to evaluate the total number of pages (I begged for more!), I decided to establish a simple layout system, most of the time made of three strips per page. My work is essentially based on observation drawings, on sketches: you can’t beat reality when it comes to visual resources! So, while I am getting around minding my own daily business, my eyes are busy looking and selecting; I might cast a … tree, thinking “that one will be perfect for this scene”.
I have lived in Scotland, so I would also use memories of places like the New Town in Edinburgh for Hale’s wealthy neighborhood, for instance. One thing often strikes me when reading European so-called “historical comics” is that their creators are so obsessed with the necessity to be “of the time” that they forget that any given period has also a past: architecture, fashion, etc. are an accumulation of whatever was produced before, so I feel like saying relax, you can draw a “has-been street” or anything obsolete, it might even help to characterize somebody if you dress him with out-of-fashion clothes! While drawing Booth, I remembered a point made by Jean Giraud/Moebius about Lieutenant Blueberry, which was the fact that every object, furniture or clothing in the 1860’s was made by hand. I live in the countryside and there is a very down-to-earth way to build or fix things, with recycled bits and bobs, and to deal with changing weather conditions – so Booth hopefully has that quality, especially in exterior scenes, which I enjoy setting up. In any art-form, every element makes sense, whether you want it or not, so I try to select “things that are meaningful” when working on a page composition. One example of this could be the scene of Booth dying in the early morning, where I show a calf and a cow in a field while he’s pronouncing his last words, as if to say “yes, you saw yourself as a hero but the ironical fact is that, no matter what, life goes on”; I also added the kid singing a song – it’s just an attempt on my part to use the visual language of comics to add an extra level of meaning when possible.
Nrama: As a European creator, did you find any surprises in the story? Or do you feel that the story offers any insights into the United States?
Tanitoc: I have learnt a great deal about the American Civil War and the complexity of racial issues. I was trying at all costs to keep a healthy distance with Gone With the Wind pictures that initially come to mind. Having read things like The Red Badge of Courage by Crane, I came to the conclusion that any civil war in the world is the same (more than 1700 people were massacred in my village doing the post-Revolution civil war, in the late 1790’s…). These must have been extremely difficult times for your country. I was shocked by to the way Edwin Stanton had conducted the manhunt, round-up of suspects, military trial and execution of Booth affiliates. When the fear of chaos is in the mind of those in charge, it seems that anything becomes acceptable … I wish I had had more space to talk about the victim and his family, they tend to be perceived as monuments, not so much as persons – which is why I decided to focus on Abraham Lincoln, on the cover.
Nrama: Will you be creating more comics for this side of the Atlantic any time soon?
Tanitoc: I’d love to. I am been working for a number of years now from ancient Indo-European sources, Irish epics, which I’d like to adapt onto comics. It is a true challenge to adapt an oral tradition, and to do so miles away from Celtic clichés. A short story based on this mythology is to be published by Sai Comics (in Korea) in the near future as a first step in that direction, thanks to support from the Asia-Europe Foundation. Creating more comics for your native shores? The geographic distance was frustrating at times, I would have loved to be able to see everyone involved in Booth around my kitchen table from time to time, to look at the pages in progress, have a glass of local wine and get a good old creative argument going. I feel extremely lucky that people at First Second are all creators in their own rights: we do speak the same language. So, you never know what could happen.