Skip to content

Words (and pictures) fail – Epic Battles of the Civil War, Volume 3: Antietam

January 21, 2012

Comics as educational tools, as repositories of important historical fact, can be a dicey proposition. We can all endorse a serious use of the medium that we love, and the easy-going combination of words and pictures can open doors to younger audiences. They can be a step up from the storybooks that are read to you when you’re little. But condensing immense and weighty events into one single normal sized comic is difficult from a storytelling perspective. Events are glossed over, there might be a lack of a unifying narrative thread, and that glosses our eyes over.

We see some of that here, in a well-intentioned and professionally crafted square-bound comic that fails to make much of an impact. This isn’t a vicious indictment, because more power to folks who try to bring something different to a medium built on capes and tights. But it’s truth.

This comic was part of a four issue series (all published under the Marvel banner) that told the story of significant Civil War engagements, the others covered being First Bull Run, Shiloh, and, of course, Gettysburg. Antietam was scripted by John Ford, with Angelo Torres (of Mad fame — more on that in a moment) tackling the pencils and inks. All installments featured different writing and art talent, so I can’t extrapolate any successes or failings here to the broader effort. But I do have several observations to make on this volume.

First, a few words on Antietam from the guy who always dozed off in the back of the class. It was the bloodiest day of battle in American history — granted, it’s easier raise the sad tally of casualties when there are Americans killing Americans, but the sanguinary record still stands. Over 20,000 men were killed and wounded. Ugly. When I was a kid there was a bad fire on our property, and to this day you can still find charred bits of wood in fields. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if I were told that those fields in Western Maryland were still stained red.

Antietam also made possible one of the seminal milestones in American history. On the micro scale the battle drove Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia back into the Confederacy. A battle that was a stalemate could thus be translated into a Union victory, and that solitary chit finally gave Abraham Lincoln the political cover to issue his Emancipation Proclamation.

Antietam screams THIS IS BIG STUFF.

On to the comic, and a few brief selections (I apologize for the blurriness at the edges of the scans — the perils of square bindings) to illustrate the contents. Some of the work with the fighting — like this rebel yell soundtracked charge — works well:

There’s a dash of gallows humor within:

General George B. McClellan, whose organizational competence forged the eventually triumphant Army of the Potomac, but whose timorous dithering kept him seeing hordes of Confederates where there were none, has taken a retrospective drubbing over the last century and a half. He deserves much of it — most Americans’ blood boils when they read quotes from him referring to Lincoln, his (and our beloved) commander-in-chief, as a “baboon” and “the original gorilla.” That carries over to here. The following panel, coming after Little Mac had fought Lee to a bloody draw — but then failed to capitalize on it before the Confederates could recross the Potomac — conveys his vain disconnect:

Speaking of Lincoln, here he is in his natural habitat, as opposed to walking amongst talking beavers and poorly talking dogs:

There you have it.

The entire affair feels haphazard. Familiar faces and names flit in and out, with brief bits of characterization to illuminate these marble models of history (Stonewall Jackson chomping on a lemon, etc.), while the rank and file are presented in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them vignettes. There’s never much to latch onto. The geography and topography of battle, the movements of troops, and the personalities of the commanders all jumble together. It’s a morass. As I alluded to before, there’s no thread. It’s as if the most boring college lecture you ever had to sit through were rendered in graphic form.

Also — I suppose you could call this a side-criticism — when I see Torres’ art all I can think of is his Mad oeuvre. Torres does a fine job with likenesses and action, but at every turn you expect to be outflanked by a double entendre or a fart joke. When you’re dealing with hallowed history, THIS IS A PROBLEM. I realize that this is horribly unfair artistic typecasting for someone who’s no one trick pony, but it’s unavoidable, at least for this reader, and I can’t imagine I’d be the only one to suffer this infirmity. My apologies to Mr. Torres for saddling him with a failing that may be (far) more mine than his. But nevertheless…

The bottom line here is that there simply isn’t enough space in a slim comic to do such a time and such an event justice. It winds up being a lame and tame recitation of events, and that just doesn’t do the job. These Civil War comics can be found in a variety of places, including Amazon. I can’t exactly recommend the series based on this sampling, but a Civil War buff may get a charge out of them.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: