Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio. by Derf Backderf. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2020. 288pp, $24.99.
The connection between journalism and comics runs very deep. You could say the first cut is the deepest of all. Comics and journalism in America goes back to its very roots. So, it is no surprise that many of the comics I am drawn to and that I feature here have that connection. In fact, more have it than don’t; some more than others. That said, it makes a lot of sense why some cartoonists have one foot in art and the other in writing, specifically nonfiction, more the literary journalism type. This brings us to Derf Backderf who is an excellent example of the cartoonist auteur compelled to explain and report. In his latest graphic novel, Backderf takes his formidable visual storytelling skills and presents, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio.
It’s a little silly to call yourself a graphic novelist unless you’ve really established a track record of creating graphic novels. Usually, it’s just fine to call yourself a cartoonist. That said, Derf Backderf could, if he chose to, claim such a title. Beginning with his comic strip, The City, a favorite in numerous alt-weeklies, Backderf was building the skills required to take on a longform work in comics. Then things started to evolve when Backderf created a 24-page minic-comic about his high school friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer, who later became the infamous serial killer. That project developed into the 2012 award-winning graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer. This led to another graphic novel about sanitation workers, 2015’s Trashed. And now, after more than a quarter century of creating comics, perhaps Backderf could call himself a graphic novelist, if he chose such a title! What is clear is that Kent State is a masterful work: a sprawling narrative with great clarity and sense of purpose.
Backderf, like an auteur movie director, focuses in on one specific character and action after another, then rolls back to provide perspective, and so on. The reader gets to know a set of main characters who can speak to events from various vantage points. Some are in the thick of it. Some have their facts wrong. Some are simply caught in the middle. Backderf gives the narrative a journalist’s objective framework with the goal of setting the record straight: events are presented in chronological order, backed up by dates and documented facts, all leading up to May 4, 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State University demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine Kent State students. The book spans five days: April 30 to May 4, 1970.
It’s quite impressive how Backderf intertwines his research within this book. The reader is never taken out of the narrative and all the moments specific to each character. When you wonder about the future of transmedia storytelling, if you even do, I highly recommend a book like this that lets you know all is well with simply processing information one page at a time. For instance, there’s a sequence following the misadventures of Terry, the most inept of student protest infiltrators. At one point, a segue is made to get a deeper look at the historical record. Here, Backderf provides a lot of eye-opening information like the fact that the CIA’s Operation CHAOS is still not fully declassified. This was during the Cold War and the Nixon administration’s full tilt war on student protestors. These factoids then give way back to more intimate circumstances like the relationship between two students, Sandy and Jeff. While Sandy cooks dinner, Jeff confides in her his being scared of even leaving the house for fear of being spied on or stopped by soldiers. Maybe listening to the new Paul McCartney album can relieve the tension for a little while.