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posted March 3, 2010
C.C. Colbert, Tanitoc
First Second, softcover, 176 pages, March 2010, $19.99
1596431253 (ISBN10), 9781596431256 (ISBN13)
This is minor book, nice and unremarkable, closer to fulfilling its role as sturdy young adult's literature than it is at embodying the values of successful comics art. Historian CC Colbert has a killer story to tell: that of presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, whose unlikely murder of Abraham Lincoln changed the country's course in exactly the way Booth didn't want. Booth was a well-known actor from a well-regarded acting family, and there's never to my mind enough energy generated in the general direction of how weird a circumstance that was. There's no exact, modern comparison, although people have been tried: Jeff Bridges killing the first President Bush probably comes closest; Stephen Baldwin offing President Clinton is the most amusing.
Colbert and Tanitoc do a much better job with setting and mood than they do character and motivation. Unpacking the major historical cliche that Washington DC was a very small town until the 1930s, and the minor historian's truism that in the mid-1860s as the Civil War was winding down our nation's capital was stuffed to the brim with more political operators with chriscrossing motivations than at any time until World War II, they manage to paint a portrait of an American town swollen chaotic to the point a prostitute really might share a box at the theater with members of a high-end political family that wouldn't be happy about it. They even convince that Robert Todd Lincoln and Booth could be interested in the same young woman without the assertion seeming completely manipulative. Many of the scenes of closed-quarters social interaction will remind anyone who ever spent time in a summer community in a college town of those experiences: the re-presentation of one reality to reflect a better one.
I'm sure the events depicted here conform to the standards of historical fiction. Colbert is an author with a long history of work within the academic discipline of Civil War-era studies more so than its show-biz cousin. When idiosyncratic detail and insight is matched up strength to strength with the artist Tanitoc's loose, evocative art, Booth
really seems onto something. The character work remains solely lacking, though. The characters bounce off of one another, but the writing stays on this rigorously surface-oriented level and the art reveals very little about the character simply from a visual standpoint. The result is that the characters are broadly acted, and their interactions with other characters confirm Hollywood story-bible truths rather than teasing at hidden depths. I waited for what felt like promised development to Edwin Booth's character until a moment near the end when I realized I knew as much about him on page 10 as upon page 100. It's all too much like the melodrama that the too-cutesy chapter pages present, and I spent the last quarter of the graphic novel being rattled out of this facile reality by lines that spoke to so much more: Booth's declaration that as a Confederate Soldier he deserved to turn out a black family was wonderfully unsettling, but the shaking doesn't move past those individual pages. If this were a stage play, Booth
would need several more weeks in Boston.