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 www.derfcity.com