Booth by C.C. Colbert and Tanitoc

Posted by on March 9th, 2010 at 7:32 AM

Booth. Written by C.C. Colbert and illustrated by Tanitoc. Color by Hilary Sycamore. 172 pp. $19.95. First Second. ISBN: 978-1-59643-125-6.

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John Wilkes Booth was born in Bel Air, Maryland in 1838, and he died in a gun battle with the authorities a few days after he assassinated President Lincoln in 1865. An ardent defender of the institution of slavery, Booth attended the execution of John Brown in 1859 and regarded abolitionists as “traitors” who deserved the same fate as Brown himself. He and his small band of conspirators fantasized that by assassinating three men – Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward – they could revive Confederate hopes and reignite the war. Johnson and Seward survived the attempts on their lives; Lincoln of course did not. Far from inspiring a southern uprising, Booth’s actions seriously complicated and delayed the process of national reconciliation.

Most presidential assassins have been pretty nondescript. The same cannot be said of John Wilkes Booth. Even as he plotted against Lincoln, his career as a Shakespearean actor was taking off. His father and brother, Junius Brutus Booth and Edwin Booth, were two of the most famous actors of their era, and there was every indication that John Wilkes Booth would follow in their illustrious footsteps. He was even engaged to the daughter of a U.S. Senator, Lucy Hale, whose father was identified with the Free Soil party and the abolitionist cause. His future looked exceptionally bright.

Remarkably, John Wilkes Booth kept his true political views hidden from his fiance and her family. As he wrote to his sister in January 1865, in a sealed letter which was opened after his death, “I know how foolish I shall be deemed for undertaking such a step as this, where, on one side, I have many friends and everything to make me happy…to give up all…seems insane; but God is my judge. I love justice more than I do a country that disowns it, more than fame or wealth.” Or, as Booth reportedly said as he lay dying of bullet wounds, “tell my mother that I died for my country,” i.e., the Confederacy.

The saga of John Wilkes Booth has everything you need from a storytelling point of view – violence, intrigue, famous names, and passionate romance. Colbert and Tanitoc have made excellent use of the disparate elements of this inherently dramatic episode and have produced a gripping graphic novel that might well inspire high school students and others to learn more about the Booth conspiracy and the painful aftermath of the Civil War. Rather than presenting a straightforward biography, the book focuses on Booth’s activities during the war, and the uncomfortable juxtaposition of his courtship of Lucy Hale, his commitment to the stage, and his deepening involvement in pro-southern conspiracies.

C.C. Colbert is the pen name for the historian Catherine Clinton, who teaches U.S. history at Queen’s University Belfast. She has written extensively on women in the nineteenth century, and is perhaps best known for her books Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (2004) and Mrs. Lincoln: A Life (2010). This is her first graphic novel, and in the book’s Author’s Note she says that “as a writer, I became fascinated by the primal appeal of the form and became aware of their near-narcotic qualities. And so, instead of watching this literature from the sidelines, I decided to enter the fray.” Her prose is informative but a little dense in places. Some of her pages could probably have used a footnote or two.

As a first-time comics writer, Clinton was lucky to be paired with the French artist Tanitoc, whose distinctive compositions have a spare, observant and sometimes minimalist quality that nevertheless capture the salient details. Tanitoc contributed to the Comix 2000 anthology and has published books with Les Humanoides Associes and Rackham. He is a founding member of the International Bande Dessinee Society and has written widely on comics history and theory. Little of Tanitoc’s work has been published in English, and his name is not well known among U.S. comics fans. His Lambiek page is here.

Once again First Second have done a great job of both showcasing European comics talent and publishing historical-minded comics. Here are a couple of sample pages, to whet your appetite. Click on either image for a larger version. In this page, the conspirators meet in Washington, DC:

Here, Booth denounces tyranny as he flees the Ford Theatre:

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