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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Civil War Adventure #2: Real History: More Stories of the War That Divided America (graphic novel) by Chuck Dixon (author) and Gary Kwapisz (illustrator)

History in a more approachable format (for some)

All forms of media have their fans and detractors. History teachers (like me) often have mixed opinions about different formats. Movies show the viewer but often skip details or over-emphasize items in order to make the stories work better. Textbooks cover the basics but do it in a dry, boring manner. History books can tell the story with more detail, but give the topic to a bad writer and it is an impossible challenge to the reluctant reader. Audiobooks may help, but how many students will listen to a 13 hour history book? Historical fiction - it is a mixed bag, but has potential to keep the interest up and teach something along the way. The internet - well that's a mixed bag - it's literally all there - the good, the bad, the delusional.

As a teacher, I have always espoused the theory that I have borrowed from Malcolm X - teach it "by any means necessary." There are good movies out there. There are good books. Well-written historical fiction can do the job. The internet can be used if it is all verified with other sources. Graphic novels like Civil War Adventure #2: Real History: More Stories of the War That Divided America published by History Graphics Press have a place, too. While I would hate to think that someone got all of their knowledge about history from a graphic novel (or from movies or the internet or any one format), I have no problem with a student (or an adult) reading books like these for a bit of "edu-tainment" - certainly this is more edifying than most graphic novels I have read.

The best thing that Dixon and Kwapisz have done here is they have put the grit, sweat and fear back in a topic that the textbooks have mostly removed. Let's face it, the life of a Civil War soldier was dirty, full of hard work and at times, absolutely terrifying. You can't convey that with a map that shows a blue arrow moving along a map towards gray rectangles in a line. In the seven stories of this volume we see the "black flag" offered to African-American soldiers who fought for the Union (no mercy offered, no prisoners were to be taken for them or their officers), the gruesomeness of battlefield surgery, the heartbreak of the nurses who gave so much to help the wounded and the dying, and the dangers of going out on a little reconnaissance patrol in the middle of enemy territory.

I was particularly fond of the story of the Battle of Milliken's Bend in the story Will the Black Man Fight? which was a concern of the Union generals. They simply could not imagine that they were even more motivated than their white counterparts - with the take-no-prisoners policy of some Confederate generals and the threat of enslavement (or re-enslavement) the fact that those men would even join in the first place should have shown their willingness.

Used with permission of Gary Kwapisz
The emphasis is on the small, tiny bits of action in a vast war that killed hundreds of thousands and injured just as many and displaced an untold number. But, those small stories are bound to be forgotten as they are shoved aside by the larger stories of the war, so I am all for re-telling them here (and in other formats as well). Like I said in the beginning of this review, I would hate to think that this was the only source of information that a person had about the Civil War, but it is an entertaining supplement.

Gary Kwapisz's work on the art is very strong - lots of action, dramatic shading and he does not spare the reader the violence and pain of the war. This is not an episode of Gunsmoke, with its gunshot with no blood and a man wordlessly crumpling and dying. Men are bayoneted, there are gunshots through the head and a civil war surgeon's work is shown in hideous detail (I loved it - show it for what it was). I also loved the full page artwork (see left) in the story about Milliken's Bend with the buzzards gathering as the battle is about to start. Not only do we get a view of the battle from above, we feel the impending doom and we are told what motivated some of the Confederate soldiers.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on August 6, 2011.

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