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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Is It a Movie Treatment? Is It a Storyboard? No, It's a Graphic Novel
I loved Birth of a Nation, a new graphic novel with a story by Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin and illustrations by Kyle Baker. The concept—outraged by being disenfranchised by shoddy electoral procedures, the city of East St. Louis secedes from the United States and becomes the independent nation of Blackland—is smart, and there are enough interesting subplots—a banker with a killer scam, renewable energy, a convenience-store-owning sleeper, and bougie armchair radicals who drive down to Blackland to live the revolution, to name but a few—to keep things moving once the main theme is established. The Bush, I mean Caldwell, administration is played for laughs, which is too bad in some ways, since the writing is weaker in those sections than in the rest of the book, and Mayor, later President, Fred Fredericks is a rare portrayal of a devoted public servant. On the whole (I wasn’t too keen on some of the fluorescent highlights), the art was great.

I’m no comic-book queen. I have maybe one and a half shelves of comics and graphic novels, and they tend toward the political side of things—Dykes to Watch Out For a-go-go, Maus, the collected works of Joe Sacco, etc., so maybe I just don’t know the genre, but my big complaint about Birth of a Nation was the way that its style shifted from comic book to screenplay at times.

For the vast majority of the book, the characters spoke directly (there were no speech bubbles here, the dialogue appeared underneath the panels, but still …), but from time to time, it became more indirect. For example, on Page 43, alongside an illustration of guys entering a room under heavy manners, it says, “There are noises of people outside the room. A secretary’s voice is heard. ‘Wait … you can’t just—” Even a small slip like that was jarring, but on some pages, there are whole paragraphs of exposition, and in most cases, they didn’t feel necessary. In the spots where more explanation was needed, it would have worked better if the information had been presented by some kind of narrator, so that the direct manner of address could be maintained.

I suspect the problem is that the creators hurried to get the book out during the 2004 election season. In the (fascinating) introduction, Hudlin mentions that he and McGruder originally conceived of the project as a movie, but the studios all passed. For the most part, they succeeded in turning movie storyboards into the panels of a graphic novel, but there were a few spots where the transition didn’t go far enough.

Funnily enough, in Slate on Monday, Aleksandar Hemon talked about books that appear to have been written and published with the primary intention of snagging a movie deal. Birth of a Nation isn’t a movie treatment disguised as a novel, it’s a movie treatment repurposed as a comic book.