Teacher became the student in creation of graphic novel of the Civil War

By Matt Swayne
March 28, 2016

Penn State historian Ari Kelman is not afraid to tackle daunting and controversial research questions.

In "A Misplaced Massacre," his award-winning book about the Sand Creek massacre, Kelman helped expose one of the darkest, messiest moments in American history by surgically separating generations of conflicting memories—white and Native American—as debate swirled around the federal government's planned opening of Colorado's Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in 2007.

No sooner was that book published than Kelman, seated in his office surrounded by walls of books on 19th century American history and volumes on the Civil War, began to contemplate another complex research challenge: Could he re-tell the story of the American Civil War, one of the country's most documented events, in a few thousand words and do it in a fresh and accessible way? The answer would lead him to one of the least likely publishing vehicles for a university researcher, as well as, arguably, one of the most innovative. He agreed to work on a graphic novel—a novel told in comic strip format—to help tell the story of the conflict in an accessible and immersive, yet economical, way.

"I didn't read comic books as a kid and, before we published this book, I didn't read graphic novels as an adult, so I'm not really an enthusiast," says Kelman, who is the McCabe Greer Professor of the American Civil War Era. "For me, this was a story-telling challenge and the graphic novel was a solution."



Telling a story in pictures presents a special challenge—it must include a lot of visible details that can be left out of a text-only story, and all those details, from the firing mechanism on a gun to the style of uniform buttons, must be accurate.

IMAGE: lllustration by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, courtesy of Hill and Wang

The result, "Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War" (Hill and Wang, 2015), tells the story of the conflict using different voices and augmenting those stories with artwork from author and illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, whom the publisher selected to work on the project.

Fetter-Vorm, who worked on a graphic novel about the history of the atomic bomb prior to Kelman's book, says he was interested in the project because he recognized the power of images to both tell a story and inspire future exploration.

"The real strength of the graphic approach to history is that it creates a sense of resonance—that you can suggest ideas very economically, very efficiently that spark a much larger intellectual process," says Fetter-Vorm. "With images, you can suggest things and create a way of telling history that leaves a lot of room for the reader to investigate even further."

Teacher Becomes the Student
Kelman admits that the creative process alone was intimidating. He says his collaboration with Fetter-Vorm helped him navigate the new territory.

"I didn't know how to write a book like this so, basically, Jonathan took me to school on how to write this, which is more like how a television show or a movie script is written," he says. "It wasn't until the fourth or fifth chapter working with Jonathan that I really got it."

In a graphic novel, subtle aesthetic changes can profoundly alter the story, Kelman quickly learned.

"There's a particular way that images carry meaning, and that meaning can often be compromised or enhanced when the images change. For example, moving the image from portrait to a landscape orientation can affect what you are trying to say," says Kelman. "I just don't think in those terms. As a writer, if I want to change the story, I just throw more words at it."

Often, the collaborators, who were living on opposite coasts at that time, would engage in marathon creation—and education—sessions on the phone, as well as through email, to produce the book.

Rather than focusing on generals and political leaders, the authors chose to profile common people caught up in the conflict.

The novel is divided into 15 chapters, with each chapter using an ordinary object, such as a flag, a photograph, or opera glasses, as a focal point to tell personal narratives about the Civil War from different perspectives.

Kelman says that rather than focusing on generals and political leaders, as is done in most books about the Civil War, he and Fetter-Vorm chose to profile common people—soldiers, civilians, and people of color—caught up in the conflict.

"Lee, the generals, and political leaders may be there on the periphery, but most people already know their stories," he adds.

Keeping History Civil
Kelman says the graphic novel format, along with a narrative approach that focuses on common people and ordinary objects, could help explain the war from a fresh perspective.

"There are more than 65,000 books written about the Civil War," he says. "If you published one book every day about the Civil War since the war ended, you would still have 10,000 books left over."

The authors also hoped that the new format would introduce Civil War history to a new audience, a desire shared by the publishers, who turned the project from a smaller, black-and-white book into a larger, color piece.

But the authors were also aware—as anyone who has attended a Civil War reenactment or lecture can verify—that Civil War buffs, as well as military historians in general, can be exacting critics. A writer of a standard book doesn’t have to get all the visible details right. But a story told in pictures has to show a lot more—and make sure it’s all accurate.

"That was actually one of my top concerns," says Fetter-Vorm. "First of all, how do you tell the story that everybody knows about, a story that everyone has strong opinions about, and, on top of that, you have a contingent of people who know specifically what kinds of buttons are on the uniforms at a certain period in the war and all of the intricacies of the weaponry?"

"There are more than 65,000 books written about the Civil War. If you published one book every day about the Civil War since the war ended, you would still have 10,000 books left over."—Ari Kelman

Before the book was published, the authors submitted it to a group of military historians to make sure the details were as historically accurate as possible.

"We sent the book out for peer review—a scholarly and artistic peer review,” says Kelman. “Jonathan sent it to contacts in the comic community, as well as his writing group, and I sent it to about 30 scholars around the United States. We got feedback from around 20 people—really useful feedback, ranging from details we got wrong to some extraordinarily helpful feedback from military historians."  

Kelman says the experts added insight on everything from what crops were grown in certain areas to what types of uniforms were worn during certain phases of the war.


Ari Kelman

Ari Kelman's first foray into the graphic novel form dealt with the Civil War. He and his co-author, artist Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, are already talking about collaborating on another graphic novel, this one about events leading up to and after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. 

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Research, Teaching, and Publishing
In many cases, publishing a book starts with research. However, in this case, class lessons and student-inspired discussions helped shape the material, according to Kelman. The next step for the historian, which may include another graphic novel, may lead him closer to his research interests: how the Civil War and America's quest for empire influenced the nation's policy on expansion and Native American rights.

"We definitely want to do another one, this one on the road to and from the Little Bighorn," says Kelman. "Jonathan is from Montana and I write about Western U.S. history and about the American empire. The Little Bighorn is also another one of those stories that is a quintessential American epic."

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Last Updated July 28, 2017