Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Derf Backderf

Derf Backderf’s Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio (Abrams ComicArts, 288 pp. $24.95) tells in graphic novel form the true story of a massacre of four unarmed students by Ohio National Guardsmen on the college’s campus in May 1970. That bloody incident often is considered the end of the turbulent sixties, along with much of the promise that those years embraced.

I am in awe of what Backderf—a renowned cartoonist and graphic artist—has accomplished in this book, especially the massive amount of research he did and his ability to incorporate the results of that research into an artistic format. Following a brief Prologue, Backderf gives us four chapters, one for each of the four days of the Kent State story which played out from May 1 to May 4. He includes an Epilogue on the book’s very last page, following more than two dozen pages of endnotes. Placing the Epilogue there is akin to a director adding a scene in a movie following the credits.

Kent State is a dramatic recreation of the events based primarily on eyewitness testimony and official reports. I strongly suggest reading the 26 pages of endnotes, which provide source material for each scene and serve also to flesh out the entire story.

College campuses around the nation erupted when President Richard Nixon announced that his latest attempt to bring the war in Vietnam to an end was to officially expand America’s role beyond the borders of Vietnam and move U.S. troops into Cambodia.

At Kent State University in Ohio a student group reacted by publicly declaring the U.S. Constitution dead and burying a copy of it on campus on Friday, May 1. They also called for an antiwar rally for Monday May 4. That antiwar agitation made for an intense weekend, both on the campus and on the streets of Kent.

The book is pretty much a moment-by-moment telling of what happened over these few days, culminating in National Guard troops opening fire on students, killing four and wounding nine others.

This is not a comic book made up of mostly drawings. Plenty of words filll every page. Backderf, an Ohio native, includes boxes of text throughout, providing background information on such subjects as the military draft, Students for a Democratic Society, and ROTC.  

His illustrations are so vivid that I could almost hear the sounds of the weekend on each page: music blasting from stereos, the ringing of the campus Victory Bell, the marching feet of the advancing Guard troops, and then the screaming. 

The unfortunate highlights of this book are the violent, sickening pages (thirty-three panels) that show each student at the moment he or she was shot. It was a brave decision to illustrate these in such an explicit fashion—and it was absolutely necessary for readers to see the carnage in order to understand the horror unleashed on the students that day.

This is a marvelous historical account and artistic undertaking. Don’t question the depth and seriousness of this book because it’s in a graphic novel format. It’s appropriate as a college textbook, and for any others who wish to know about this episode into the darkness of the American soul.

Backderf’s website is

–Bill McCloud

Such a Lovely Little War by Marcelino Truong


There were comic books back in the 1960s, but the graphic novel hadn’t yet been invented. Now there are two extraordinary graphic novels about the Vietnam War. The first, Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965 by DC Comics’ Joe Kubert, published in 2010, could have been stripped down into an ambitious comic book project. It’s a visual record of a battle, and Kubert does an amazing job telling the story.

Marcelino Truong’s recently published Such a Lovely War: Saigon 1961-63 (Arsenal Pulp Press, 280 pp., $26.95, paper) is a product unique to the graphic novel: It is graphic, autobiographical, and a novel. And it takes a novel look at the war by telling the story through the perspective of a child in the early 1960s.

This is no ordinary child, however; the boy’s father worked in the South Vietnamese diplomatic corps and became the director of Agence-Vietnam Presse, as well as the official translator for Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Not that Diem needed a translator, we learn, but because he wanted time to compose his thoughts.

The book beings in Washington, D.C., and ends with the father’s appointment to a post in London, but for most of the book young Marco is witness to the war’s slow buildup in 1961-63. With a Vietnamese father and a French mother, young Marco reflects the biases of the Catholic elite even while he’s astounded, excited, and horrified by the ever-widening war.

He watches wide-eyed as an enormous aircraft carrier delivers war materiel and helicopters in December 1961. He ducks for cover when rogue Vietnamese pilots attempt a February 1962 assassination of Diem by bombing the Presidential Palace. He marvels at a display in downtown Saigon of confiscated Viet Cong weaponry.


Marcelino Truong

Even as he addresses such complex issues as the failure of the Strategic Hamlet program, class relations among the Vietnamese, the use of Agent Orange, and the self-defeating racism of the American troops, as a child he also has to deal with family issues: the birth of a sister, the death of friends, and the precarious state of a bipolar mother suffering to maintain balance and a family in a war zone.

Such a Lovely Little War (this English translation from the original French is by David Homel) is a fascinating book told in a new way from a new perspective. It’s a new history with interesting comparisons between the North and the South, and between the old ways and the new.

It doesn’t disappoint.

—Michael Keating

The Rest of Heaven Was Blue by Matthew Wilkins

There are a lot of Vietnam War-related graphic novels, but Matthew Wilkins’ The Rest of Heaven was Blue (Amazon Digital Services, 67 pp., $4.99, Kindle) is the first I’ve reviewed. I leafed through it as best I could on a Kindle, and it made a good impression due to the strong drawing (by Emmanuel Xerx Javier, with letters by Andy Manthei) and the vivid green of the jungle and the red of the bloodshed.  

But then I read the book carefully, frame by frame and page by page.  The good first impression did not survive.

The first thing I noticed about the drawing and presentation of the soldiers in this book is that the depictions of both our side and the enemy showed men of great musculature and size. The difference in size between the Americans and the Vietnamese is ignored. In this book the Vietnamese are not tiny the way they really were, and the Americans are not thin and underfed with that lean and hungry look.

The drawings seemed right out of the war comic books of the 1960s, which depicted soldiers on both sides the same way. My theory is that the author believed that for the VC and the NVA to do well against us, they had to be big guys. In other words: How could little tiny people kick our asses?

It saddened me how bad this graphic novel turned out to be. Javier has drawn it very strongly and the lettering by Manthei is fine, but the writing is just not good. Wilkins, for example, has an infantryman saying “If it were…”  That simply does not capture the flavor of true grunt-speak.

Another unreal sentence: “I felt engulfed in an undertow of savagery.”

After building a huge fire to sit around when in the jungle sleeping in well-built tents furnished with ground covers and sleeping bags, the men converse as though no enemy can be sneaking up on them. Grunts behaving like this on a recon patrol? Not likely. Not even possible.

While sitting by the fire one of the men says, “Back home once, I smelled a nigger burning, but what we smelled today…”  This is what passes for realistic fireside chat during patrol downtime?

Showing infantrymen sitting around a fire wearing wife-beater tee shirts, arms bare to the ten million mosquitoes and leaches, does not encourage this reader to believe that the writer and artist have done much research on the Vietnam War. I suspect that the three principals of this book are not Vietnam veterans.

Further reading tops this off with a scene of a grunt saluting with his left arm a major who arrives in a very small LZ in a helicopter delivering beer to his men. Is the salute symbolism or a mistake?

The grunt is wearing a white tee shirt. Where are the green ones we all wore?  Further, during my war, saluting of majors in the field was not required nor encouraged.

The story lost me when the men shot their own buddies on the patrol. Then, when a trooper was shown cutting an ear off of a live VC, I was ready to quit this graphic novel. But I persisted. Oh, and the knife the guy uses to saw off the ear was bigger than anything that Jim Bowie ever used.

There’s a scene I enjoyed for all the wrong reasons in which Agent Orange is sprayed from the air and the spray is lightly tinged with orange. But the name “Agent Orange” came from the color of the barrels it was stored in, not the color of the toxic herbicide.

Most of the grunts look much older than they should. They don’t appear to be teenagers and men in their early 20’s that most of us were. And when the troops cross a stream in the jungle, they use a swinging bridge that looks as though it came from Yellowstone Park.

All this leads me to ask the question that dogged me throughout the book: “Why do people choose to write books about subjects they know little or nothing about?”

And if they make that choice, why don’t they get close to an expert, someone who has been there and get advice and counsel? Is it hubris, sloth, ignorance, or what?

I don’t recommend this graphic novel.

The author’s web site is

—David Willson