KENT STATE: FOUR DEAD IN OHIO – A Review of the Latest Graphic Novel by John “Derf” Backderf

Pages from Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, by John “Derf” Backderf, Hardcover, 288 pages. Expected publication: April 7th 2020 by Abrams ComicArts. Images courtesy of Abrams ComicArts and John Backderf.

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by John “Derf” Backderf is a graphic novelization of the four days leading up to the Kent State Massacre of May 4, 1970, where bystanders were shot by the Ohio National Guard, which had been called upon to suppress student protests of the war in Vietnam. Derf is a storied underground comic-book artist, but this will be his first epic from ABRAMS—the publisher of Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid books—just in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the shooting. We shouldn’t judge him for that, but inevitably someone will. Not me though.

The May 4 incident, to my mind, marks the death of white innocence as the sons and daughters of post-war middle America discovered the lengths their parents would go to maintain the status quo and eliminate free love, free thought, or discord with the establishment. It’s one thing watching Black America dodge police bullets, dog bites and water hoses because something about us believes this to be a necessary evil of the social order. But when the Kent State Massacre went down, the lengths the quiet majority would go to keep hippie kids off their lawn became apparent.

With Kent, it’s clear that Backderf illustrates in service to the story, and not himself. First-person is his strong suit, but we don’t get near enough of that here. He appears as his younger self but leaves us early in the going, preferring to hand the story to his four protagonists. This is an artist’s graphic novel. Backderf’s brilliance—like artist Peter Bagge, Frank Stack and Cleveland’s ink-master Gary Dumm—is his choice of what he decides not to put on the page. I love the determination to avoid cliché and showy visual exposition that you’ll sometimes see in graphic novels like this—pop-culture icons and interpolations of famous photos. None of that here. Backderf takes care to know this world and preserve it. This is all beef, no fat.

Backderf takes on the role of the journalist as he paints scenes and gives us all the facts, and that approach serves him particularly well with the inserts, wherein the story must stop while specs are given and key facts are explained. But paradoxically, journalists—trained objectivists, in theory—aren’t always the best storytellers. In their determination to get the facts right, they can miss the soul of The Thing, and that hit and miss is in Kent. Irksome for me was, in a region of dialects—on a college campus no less—no character has a voice of their own, causing the dialogue and laborious (but necessary?) exposition to read flat. This is a weakness of the book, if there is only one.

I have a great affinity for regional quirk, verbal farts, and vernacular tics, and I feel a naturalistic approach may have read better here. But I understand why he may have avoided that tactic, out of some duty to the material. Granted, I may have brought my own expectations to the work. Kent isn’t like Trashed, My Friend Dahmer or The City—works I know and love, that read as if he took care to capture the voices in his ear. There are some interesting nods to local short-hand, but I do not hear a college campus on these pages. I do not even hear the Midwest. I hear a journalist’s notebook with various transcriptions and citations thrown in at the editor’s behest.

There is some characterization in the exposition, but I like to see characters do their own lifting without relying on throwing facts about their lives at us. I like to learn about characters through their word choices and peculiar slang. With Kent, maybe he felt the weight of having to tell a hard, painful story, and did not want to screw that up by being too clever. I dunno.

I am not in any way comparing his voice in previous books to this one, though I’ve heard him capture the voices of characters in compelling ways in other works. Kent isn’t that, and that may not be a bad thing. Kent is a very serious book, an essential testimony, written with care, drawn in blood. That might be melodramatic, except the anguish is palpable: his emotional investment in this work is clear. Whether that is good or bad depends on why you picked up the book in the first place.

If there is a problem with the stories told here, its that every yokel of a certain age can tell you where they were when the shootings happened, and, if you let them tell it, they were ALL there, dodging bullets in protest of The Man. This to say, while “Kent’s” perspectives offer some insight, it is consistent with others you are likely to hear or have heard before. Sadly, the Hough Race Riots remain a footnote to this incident even though they (arguably) set the stage for it.  I wonder what interior narrative Mary Ann Vecchio and photographer John Filo may have to offer, because they both, in real life, end up being all of us: minding their own business, shocked into the epiphany of a country they thought they knew. That exploration is missing.

To be clear, this is a marvelous story, well-told and well-researched with heart. The art is amazing. It is not devoid of soul, but to be sure, Kent lives mostly in the moving illustrations and not the script.