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Slave Memory Without Words in Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner

From: Callaloo
Volume 36, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 279-297 | 10.1353/cal.2013.0103

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The cover of Nat Turner is a study in visual diachrony. Fusing two distinct styles of representation, it emblematizes a primary objective of the book to bridge chasms of history and memory, fact and inference. The first style may be seen in the simplified, nearly cartoonish hand, which embodies the agent of slave rebellion. It is nondescript and rudely formed with bulbous fingernails and curvaceous palms that catch a reddish highlight. Apart from the highlights, flesh tones are a flat hue of brown; the upraised arm and knuckles are so simplified as to resemble a cut-out made of construction paper that has been affixed to the background where a second, altogether different, order of representation obtains. More detailed than the hand, the sword—like the moon behind it—is photorealistic and comprises a second order of representation.


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Cover of Nat Turner.

Kyle Baker © 2008

Filigree ornamentation appears on the pommel and cross guard in tints of cerulean and grainy shadows reminiscent of photocopy impress the blade edge. Although viewers might expect the hand to possess subjective emphasis, it is rendered in a style that calls its agency into question. Despite visual echoes of the upraised fist of the Black Power movement, the cover reanimates the hand that signifies Nat Turner’s historical gravitas according to a principle of ludic distortion. In this rendering, the cartoonish is what seems most alive, while such correlates of photorealism as the material evidence of the past are left to appear coldly instrumental.

No mere interplay of contrasts, the stylistic tensions on the cover hint at a historio-graphic pedagogy underlying Nat Turner. Scott McCloud informs us that such contrasts are far from unusual as a strategy of focalization in the comics. According to McCloud, the combination of a less detailed character, with which readers can easily identify, along with a more fully realized background “allows readers to mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world” (43). Similar to Baker’s cover, McCloud’s example centers on the detail of a sword brandished by a less detailed character in a Japanese comic: “the sword might now become very realistic, not only to show us the details, but to make us aware of the sword as an object, something with weight, texture, and physical complexity” (44). A reductive Orientalism concludes McCloud’s inquiry into this difference, but our investigation can neither begin nor end there. Baker’s cover image initiates a sustained strategy of objective reclassification in Nat Turner, as the more detailed images of historical evidence are relegated to panel backgrounds in ways that call attention to the text’s larger historicist project.

And just what that larger project is may be determined in its resemblance to one that Lisa Woolfork finds throughout twentieth-century diasporic literature, in which fiction becomes a vehicle for embodied acts of traumatic memory. Through this vehicle literary characters, along with authors and readers, are curatively transported to the irrecoverable past time of slavery and the Middle Passage. Unlike conventional, Eurocentric narratives of traumatic memory, according to Woolfork, works such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale eschew Freudian assumptions concerning the allusiveness of trauma and its intolerable discursiveness in order to posit a different kind of trauma, one tied to racial community. In contrast to most of Woolfork’s Sci-Fi neo-slave narratives, however, no character in Baker’s Nat Turner moves from our world to that of the Nat Turner rebellion. Such cross-time movement is reserved for the author and the text as a whole. Indeed, Baker sets himself up in the preface as one who has traveled over the chasm of silenced history, newly returned to transmit the present visual tale as an eyewitness. And the very same historical fluidity enjoyed by the author in the preface imbues his text as well. Like Butler’s Dana from Kindred, Baker’s graphic novel seems to possess the occult ability to circulate in our time and in that of American plantation slavery. The intrinsic temporal duality of the text, which imagines itself to be not just about but also to originate from the nineteenth...



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