7.08.2013

The Gettysburg Address [Graphic Adaptation]

The Gettysburg Address (William Morrow): The Gettysburg Address is a deceptively simple title for a complex, but accessible work. It’d be easy to casually dismiss this book at first glance as an artistic interpretation of one of the most famous speeches in US History (JFK and MLK are the only others that really even come to mind). While it does ultimately decipher Lincoln’s words line by line, it’s also much more than that. Writer Jonathan Hennessey and artist Aaron McConnell create exceptional context for Abraham Lincoln’s 200 word speech by positioning it relevant to The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. The Declaration essentially supported the notion of rebellion and seccession on moral, if not legal, grounds, and is a “small government” document. The Constitution supports the idea of preserving a Federal Union, emphasizing the strengths of big government, and The Gettysburg Address keys off of that tension inherent in our country’s guiding documents with very precise word choices imbued with specific meaning. The creators are careful to tell this tale from the alternate POVs of slaves, soldiers, and statesmen. Hennessey and McConnell’s interpretation takes what could be dry and rote facts and fills them with life. McConnell’s art in particular is somehow dirty and majestic all at once, with lively colors and thick ink, capturing the horrors of the US Civil War, but also the grandeur of the experiment the Founding Fathers must have envisioned. There’s a very painterly two page title spread that is an early cue to McConnell’s artistic ability. Now, I know a lot about the US Civil War. I’ve read tons of books, I’ve seen all the movies, and my father is in the antique business, with a personal passion for military pieces from the Civil War, and he bombarded me with history growing up. I studied the Civil War from a few different angles in college. But, I can safely say that I learned more from this book than I ever did in my K-12 education, so it makes me think that this HarperCollins imprint has unlocked the medium in a way that could be illuminating and entertaining for so many school age children across the country. For example, The Gettysburg Address made me understand The Articles of Confederation as an experiment in small government (that was too small) better than any teacher ever did. It made me understand the “compact theory” and POV of The Confederacy opting out of The Union in a way I never fully appreciated before. I never knew that Vermont declared its independence from New York State. I never knew that Connecticut and Pennsylvania had an armed dispute. As a student of history, I can’t help but feel that several educators failed me! The Gettysburg Address covers lots of ground, from the characteristics of the continent, regional and cultural differences between North and South, the invention of the cotton gin, and how all of that influenced an economy dependent on slavery, to European influence, to Robert E. Lee being such a key figure, to presidential fame, military struggles, demoralized troops, anti-war citizens, and the city of Richmond, Virginia. Imagine today’s equivalent, 5.5 million lives being lost in a US Civil War, and you have some idea of the horror of this conflict, and how poor old Abe Lincoln’s speech was supposed to put everything back together and justify a war on tenuous legal ground, but implicit moral and aspirational grounds for the country. The book’s main theory posits through interpretation of Lincoln’s actions and intent that The Gettysburg Address is a quintessentially American piece of writing. It wrestles with the very idea of what our national character is. The Gettysburg Address was commentary on the war, the war was armed commentary over tension between The Declaration and The Constitution, those two documents largely create the very vision of the country. The Gettysburg Address should be required reading for every citizen of the United States. Grade A.

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