Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Kent State by Derf Backderf

Comics has not traditionally been full of historians. It's a field that tends heavily to the fantasy end of fiction - the more fantastic, the better - with the details of actual life and people far behind in the race. Maybe that's getting better in recent years, and there have been people like Larry Gonick working seriously in non-fiction comics for decades, but comics have mostly been synonymous with escapism. 

Derf Backderf's Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio is the opposite of escapism, coming at a cultural moment when widescale protests, mostly by young people, against the government are once again splashed across the news and right-wing responses to those protests are again violent, intemperate, and murderous.

It was originally scheduled to be published just about a year ago, on the fiftieth anniversary of what we now call the Kent State Massacre. (The archival collection at the college itself is more tastefully dubbed the May 4 Collection; our standards for how many deaths constitute a "massacre" may also have inflated in the years since.) But one crisis delayed publication to the fall, and another crisis - sparked by the murder of George Floyd the way a lot of anti-war activity in 1970 was sparked by the Kent State shootings so long ago - made it horribly more relevant and immediate.

Backderf had a long career as a weekly cartoonist in alternative papers, making comics that zigged and zagged between reportage and fiction for a couple of decades, but has more recently transitioned to being a maker of serious book-length stories. So far, it's all been connected to his own life and experiences: he's an Ohio guy, and they've been Ohio stories, with more blue-collar ambiance than usual for most serious comics-makers these days. (The big breakout was My Friend Dahmer, because Backderf really did go to high school and was vaguely friendly with Jeffrey Dahmer; he followed that up with the fictionalized Trashed.)

Kent State is on more substantial level than Dahmer and Trashed; this is a deeply researched book, with long pages of notes in the back to detail exactly what is known and what is postulated, and to signpost where Backderf comes down on some questions that will probably always be open. It tells the story of the massacre in comics, focusing on the four people killed, starting just before the previous weekend on April 30 and running through the end of that fatal day of May 4.

Backderf's people are lumpy and rough-hewn: I like to think of them as Ohio people. Salt of the earth, real...whatever phrase or euphemism you want to use. They're not pretty: this is one of the few recreations of a story about college students where they look less attractive than they did in real life. But Backderf isn't here to make things pretty; he's here to tell the truth. And he's really good at that.

This is a big, detailed book. Even if you don't read the notes at the end as you go through it - I did; I always end up reading like that, if a book has extensive endnotes - you will be struck at the level of detail and precision Backderf brings to his work.

A lot of people in power made really stupid decisions in 1970 for several days for this to happen. (Backderf makes that all very clear here.) Worse, they pretty much all were rewarded for it: the Ohio public was not so much shocked that four young people were murdered by soldiers as they were happy that "those hippies" were put in their place. There's an unpleasant lesson for today in all of that, obviously. The children of those horrible Ohio bystanders are still out there, with the same toxic opinions, in Ohio and elsewhere. Maybe there are fewer of them than there used to be. We'll have to see.

As Neil Young put it, "Should have been done long ago." And it's still not done. I don't know if it ever will be done. But books like Kent State can at least make it more likely. That may be all we can hope for.

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