Karen Green, curator of comics at Columbia, provides a most effective forward to the new graphic novel, The Invisible Empire: Madge Oberholtzer and the Unmasking of the Ku Klux Klan. Green begins with a quote from the first premier of the People’s Republic of China. In an interview from the early 1970s, Zhou Enlai was asked for his thoughts on the French Revolution. His response: “Too early to tell.” That anecdote will stick with readers as they navigate through a book with an eerie relevance. The Invisible Empire is written by Micky Neilson and Todd Warger, illustrated by Marc Bostel, and published by Insight Comics.
History is a settling down of seemingly disparate, raw and random events. Patterns emerge. Connections and conclusions are made over time. Sometimes, the facts are so undeniable as to smack you across the face. And then the passage of time covers them up, one layer of distraction and denial upon another. And so it is with what happened across the United States in the 1920s with a reinvented Ku Klux Klan. In the big scheme of things, you may have blinked and not noticed but that Robert E. Lee statue at the forefront of the Charlottesville tragedy in 2017 was a statue erected in 1924, at the height of the white supremacy hysteria. The story in this graphic novel focuses on events from the 1920s Ku Klux Klan in the north, specifically Indiana. A culture of hatred and violence had taken hold until a particular event broke the fever. It wasn’t until a local corrupt official was indicted with murder that citizens woke up and took back their state from the KKK and subsequently knocked it off its pedestal across the country.
That local corrupt official was D.C. Stephenson. It’s remarkable that there is no specific mention anywhere in this graphic novel of Stephenson’s title in Indiana government. But, in fact, he had no specific title beyond, perhaps, wheeler-dealer. In today’s parlance, he’d be thought of as a political operative in the same vein as Karl Rove or Steve Bannon, once known as “Trump’s brain.” Stephenson was similarly well connected, on intimate terms with Pres. Harding and Pres. Coolidge. In this graphic novel, the reader connects the dots, following Stephenson on his way to becoming a KKK Grand Wizard, and finding he was far from alone in his embrace of white supremacy.
The trigger for change is Madge Oberholtzer, the young white woman that Stephenson raped and murdered, an event that would subsequently inspire a backlash against the KKK. The most compelling scenes in this book are devoted to simply providing some room for Madge to go about her life. Left alone to make up her own mind, she befriends a young black man, despite her segregated upbringing. Amid all the machinations depicted between Stephenson and his cronies, it is refreshing to see what a life not cut short might have been like for Madge Oberholtzer. And while it sometimes seems impossible to imagine a world free of hate, it is these upbeat moments of peace that can free the mind and encourage hope. Indeed, this book ends with an appropriate mix of defiant hope and resolve.
The Invisible Empire: Madge Oberholtzer and the Unmasking of the Ku Klux Klan is a 112-page hardcover, available as of September 17, 2019. For more details and how to purchase, visit Insight Comics right here.