Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Framing the Warren Commission

Can a graphic novel really convey the complexities of America's most controversial assassination and the era that gave birth to it?

by NOAH GORDON / The Atlantic

Most graphic novels don’t begin with the villain shooting the hero in the head, nor do they go on to show that villain’s capture and murder before the halfway mark. Then again, Lee Harvey Oswald isn’t most villains.

In The Warren Commission Report: A Graphic Investigation Into The Kennedy Assassination, Dan Mishkin, Ernie Colon, and Jerzy Drozd conduct a visual investigation into the killing of a president and the plot behind it. A medium best known for the likes of Batman and Wonder Woman, the graphic novel seems like maybe a strange choice for someone looking to examine a somber day in American history. But this is a more serious study than some readers might expect.

I asked Mishkin how he decided to do a graphic novel on Kennedy’s death. “I didn’t realize at first how motivated I was by my own lingering emotional devastation as a 10-year-old who lived through those events,” he said. “The shape that the book took was not, you know, a whodunit. Instead of doing that, what I wanted to do was get to the bottom of the way this whole event and the official truth that was assembled about it, how it’s persisted, how it’s affected the lives we all lived.”

It’s been decades since comics stopped being considered kid stuff. They’re now widely bound in hardcovers, marketed to a wide audience, and often critically adored. Dark, violent books like Alan Moore’s Watchmen and V for Vendetta are some of the most popular in the medium, while the artists Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi have achieved success with intelligent graphic memoirs on, respectively, homosexuality and the Iranian Revolution. The cartoonist Joe Sacco won an American Book Award in 1996 for Palestine, a combination of political history and comic journalism focused on the West Bank in the 1990’s.

It was the 2006 The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, which Colon also illustrated, that inspired Mishkin to start the project. The Warren Commission Report, like its namesake, stands out for its close attention to politics and to the grisly details that supported various theories: One panel shows a man poring over Zapruder film images in a darkroom. Beneath him is a large drawing of Kennedy’s broken brain. Pages later, the path of “the single bullet” gets lengthy treatment, arrows pointing through each deflection.

Though the actions of Lee Harvey Oswald—who Colon calls “a perfect little twerp of a villain”—drive the narrative, the book is about more than just Kennedy’s murder. It is about the tumult of the '60s. Boomer children gambol in a booming suburb. Secretary of State Dean Rusk tells the reader how the Russians “blinked first” during the Cuban missile crisis. Bob Dylan, flanked by James Baldwin and Betty Friedan, makes an appearance to show that the times are a-changing; on the next panel, titled “Settling the Dust,” Lyndon Johnson stares with conviction at the reader, pencil shading his hangdog cheeks.

The commission’s desire to “settle the dust” is a major theme. Mishkin quotes Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach’s memo to the White House. “The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin, that he did not have confederates who are still at large…” We see President Johnson’s frenzied plea to Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was reluctant to head the committee. “These wild people are charging Khrushchev killed Kennedy, and Castro killed Kennedy, and everybody else killed Kennedy! …. If Khrushchev moves on us, he could kill 39 million in an hour!”

“It was difficult enough for them to figure out how they could be true to their obligation to seek out the truth, and to a very clear charge from LBJ to put it to rest,” Mishkin said. In his book, the inflexibility of and mistakes made by various investigative bodies are plain to see.

Marrying art and journalism does require some authorial interpretation. Emanuel Leutze's famous painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, a copy of which hangs in the White House, depicts a heroic General Washington clutching a stars-and-stripes flag that had not yet been adopted—for Leutze, glorifying history outranked documenting it. Drawing comics is, too, a creative exercise. As Joe Sacco said in an interview with the CBC, “You cannot get away from the subjective element. And you cannot get away from the tension between what is an accurate quote, for example, and then the drawing beneath it, which might subjectively show that person’s experiences. I mean, if you’re drawing something you’re making decisions.” One might ask: Sure, the quotes are right, but did Kennedy’s head really snap forward at that angle? Was the sniper’s nest arranged just so at the fatal moment?

Still, the book is certainly no full-color conspiracy theory. It raises questions, rather than making accusations. Mishkin, in the midst of a nuanced answer about evidence and possible plots, says, “I think it’s nearly impossible to come up with a conclusion that there was somebody other than Oswald shooting in Dealey Plaza.”

In composing a visual style, Colon and Drozd largely forego dramatic top-down shots and close-ups in favor of depicting the events through human eyes. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the illustration is the mysterious Oswald’s constant appearance in black and white. The assassin is only an outline; the symbolism is clear enough.

While the book is serious, it is intended to grab kids' attention. Colon told me, “Every year we get another group of young people who don’t know a thing about World War II, or the Holocaust, or Nixon, or any number of things .… My wife is a teacher, and when The 9/11 Report came out she gave it to her students and they went nuts over it. They would have never have read the full report.” Mishkin thinks the book will appeal to middle schoolers and high schoolers. The authors’ hope is that a confusing day from the past becomes more accessible. By briskly covering a period of several years in around 150 pages, they largely succeed.

The book comes out in just in time for the 50th anniversary of the commission presenting their report, and yet November 22, 1963, still feels close, relevant. For an event for which the visuals matter so much, it’s nice to be able to see what happened without a road sign in the way. [END]

[Editor's Note: This graphic novel is a well-done, even-handed look at the Warren Commission investigation and the controversy that followed. Highly recommended. Get the hardback edition.]