By Ellen Levitt
Anniversaries can evoke nostalgia and quaint reminiscing; anniversaries can also inflame, inspire, and be teachable moments. The upcoming 50th anniversary of the Kent State University campus shooting, when four students were slaughtered and several others injured, will bring attention to what has become a footnote event in 20th Century American history. It likely will resonate sharply with many people in today’s angry, strained society.
Those of us who care about how history is taught, analyzed and retained are typically dismayed by how little many Americans, especially young people, know about Kent State, why it occurred and what it came to symbolize. Typically today’s high school students read briefly about the event when they cover the Vietnam Anti-War Movement. In class they may view John Filo’s iconic photo of a dead male student and a young woman sobbing by his body. College students who major in United States history may cover the event in deeper depth. Some teenagers may have read the Teen Vogue 2017 article “How the Kent State Shootings Changed Protests Forever”. But for many years, Kent State has been encountered as little more than the subject of an older song played on classic rock ‘n roll radio stations (“Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young).
However, 2020 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings. And in recent years there have been academic books published that covered the background, the event itself, its aftermath and lasting impact. “67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence” by Howard Means (2016), “The Kent State Massacre: The History and Legacy of the Shootings That Shocked America” by Charles River Editors (2014), “The Kent State Shootings and What Came Before” by David B. McCoy (2017) and a few other books join James A. Michener’s “Kent State: What Happened and Why” (1971) and other 1970s books, in documenting and exploring the events.
Perhaps the most unusual book about the May 4, 1970 scenes of horror is Derf Backderf’s Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio (Abrams Comic Arts). To be published in the spring of 2020, this is a graphic novel rendering. Note that “this book is a dramatic re-creation, but all of it is based on eyewitness accounts, detailed research, and investigation. The footnotes in the back of the book list the source material for every scene.” Indeed, there are two pages of commentary and 15 full pages, in small type, of painstaking documentation, following this 251 page illustrated book.
In the tradition of fascinating graphic history books such as “Maus,” “Persepolis,” “Laika” and many others less well-known, Kent State breathes new life and perspective into a bewildering historical era. Graphic novels reach audiences that may not gravitate to academic works nor refer back to their US history textbooks after they pass their exams and graduate. Kent State is sustained by a homespun narrative that features the experiences of many different people involved both deeply and tangentially with the shootings.
The voices of various students, National Guard soldiers, politicians, college administrators and other people are portrayed throughout the text. At times it was a bit difficult to follow the multitude of characters, and a few plot lines were confusing. But Backderf, who both wrote the text and illustrated it, has succeeded in bringing drama, tension, horror, and even some humor to the characters and the situations they encounter, and who are identified by names and realistic details. Although he does have an identifiable style of drawing, he is able to differentiate the many personalities at play here, explore their personalities and emotions, and make their interactions feel real and immediate.
The craftsmanship is most obvious on the pages devoted to depicting violent, fearsome actions, such as the single panel on page 95, with soldiers holding up their rifles, and the single panel on page 53, of a huge gathering of students marching and chanting. Most pages are composed of three to nine panels of differing sizes, as in a comic book. But other pages consist of one harsh panel, such as page 223 which shows the bloody death of a twenty-year old student named Jeff; and page 229 which shows the bloodied schoolbooks of a dying student named Sandy. The last page of the narrative, with no words, shows heavy rain washing away the blood stains; it is a haunting ending image.
As for its historical viewpoint, Kent State is most sympathetic to the students and to some extent the young, frightened soldiers. The politicians and military higher-ups are seen as self-serving, coarse, prejudiced, although also confused. The narrative portrays an out-of-control series of horrors that highlighted the opposing views on US involvement in Vietnam. The book will not comfort those who were pro-war and who distrust youth culture, the protests of the time, and revere Nixon. But the author’s research is certainly impressive, vast, exhaustive.
High school and college students are a natural fit for reading this book, but academia snobs should not disparage it until they have read it thoroughly. It would be a wonderful addition not only to history courses but also literature classes and art/design courses as well.
I enjoyed reading it very much, and the flow of events was gripping, touching. The text, art and layout all contributed to its impact.
Will this book make an impact on renewed discussions of the Kent State shootings? Will it spark discussions and debate of the importance of this event? Bringing together First Amendment rights, youth culture, the war itself, and many other topics, it cannot help but spark contemporary discussions on modern protests, the fractured political outlook we face today, and other serious issues.
© Copyright 2019 Ellen Levitt
Ellen Levitt is a lifelong New Yorker, veteran teacher and writer, and the author of six books, including Walking Manhattan www.wildernesspress.com (2015) and the The Lost Synagogues of NYC trilogy (Avotaynu, 2009, 2011, 2013). You can find her on Twitter: @EllenLevittEL and Instagram: the_world_of_el_yeah.