Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History (review)
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Reviewed by
Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clarke. Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. 179 pp. ISBN 978-0199844395, $15.95.

Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History by historian Trevor R. Getz and illustrator Liz Clarke is a unique combination of educational storytelling and meticulous historical research. Touted by its authors as a new kind of historical graphic "novel"—a graphic history—Abina in its entirety is a fascinating multipart text. It contains a pictorial translation of an engrossing historical account, the primary transcript of that account, and various textbook-like supplements for understanding and teaching the history behind the story. In the first section, lush pictures convey the all-but-forgotten legal case of Abina Mansah, who in 1874 brought charges against Quamina Eddoo, her slave master and an "important" man in the Gold Coast's lucrative business of palm oil cultivation, for wrongly enslaving her. Her charge, of course, was based on the fact that the British had abolished slavery in all of their territories in 1834. But the complexities of the case, as the book cleverly demonstrates, arise from the difficulties faced by British "important men" in balancing principles of abolitionist justice with the profitable necessity of allowing rich landowners like Eddoo to quietly carry on with abusive systems of indenture and slavery. Although ultimately unsuccessful in her lawsuit, the intrepid character of Abina shines through in every panel, incarnating a very different kind of colonized African woman, one that threatens to replace the historian's standard for the representative with the novelist's ideal for the exceptional. By the end, Abina voices one of the conceits of the entire project, not to exert a retrospective and largely empty justice of sympathy for those wounded in the traumatic past, but to allow their stories to be heard. "You don't understand," Abina says to her lawyer, with tears in her eyes and seeming to implore the reader more so than he: "It was never just about being safe. It was about being heard."

Despite a few lapses in which the dialogue unnaturally trudges through the backstory of British colonization, Getz does a superb job of recreating the court scenes, basing his word choices on the actual primary source of the [End Page 375] court transcript, which is also included in the book's extensive appendices. In fact, whether to call these other, more overtly pedagogical components of the text appendices at all is problematic, since Abina is expressly an anthology. As explained in the prefatory letter to the reader, the book is intended to expose the interpretive work that all historians must do when converting primary documents into readable narratives of the past. To make this work of translation as transparent as possible, Getz and Clarke include alongside the graphic story many of the primary documents and historical contexts that informed their creative rendition of the facts. The result is a book that is as much a classroom tool as it is an experimental marriage of the comics form, historical research, and storytelling.

Aside from the primary text of the court proceedings in part two, part three offers the essential historical context for understanding the narrative. It nutshells the early history of West Africa, providing relevant maps of major Akan language families and the evolution of the Asante region in what is modern-day Ghana. Bolstering these concise overviews of slavery are a few subsections that go on to elaborate the British civilizing mission. Although appropriate given the subject, these explanations generalize the ambivalence of William Melton, the British magistrate in the case, whose behavior wavers between lazy idealism and smug indifference. Some readers might see these sections of a piece with the subtly exonerative portrait given of the British in this text. The author would most certainly pass this off as a by-product of the historical facts of the case; after all, the British administrator does ask Abina—as indicated in the transcript from part two—whether she had "a will of [her] own" (86), and so was probably legitimately concerned with the philosophy of natural rights, just as the more speculative...