Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pictures in a Confederate Gallery

Dorvall, writer, and Philip Renne, art, Southern Cross: Annuit Coeptis (CSA Confederate States of America, Volume 1)

In real life, when Lee and Longstreet feuded over how to resolve Gettysburg, Longstreet acquiesced to a straight assault up the center at Cemetery Ridge. History calls this futility Pickett’s Charge. But mononymic French scriptwriter Dorvall asks: what if Longstreet hadn’t folded? What if he’d sold Lee on a more complex pincer maneuver? With Meade’s forces smashed, Lee has a straight shot on Washington.

Many alternate Civil War narratives turn on Gettysburg. Celebrated authors like Harry Turtledove, Terry Bisson, and Winston Churchill (and wannabes like Newt Gingrich) have buttered their bread with tales of Confederate victories or near-victories. Each has their own character; this graphic novel depicts power struggles within both a disgraced Union and an unprepared Confederacy. Mixing historical icons with original viewpoint characters, Dorvall questions why history looks the way it looks.

With Lee’s forces one day’s hard march away, Washington power structures descend into chaos. Loyalists, led by New York Senator Dwight Loads, strive to maintain order, while General George McClellan forcibly escorts Abraham Lincoln out under arms. The military coup jeopardizes democracy, surely, but also splits Army resources, propping the door for Beauregard’s invading Confederates. Looting, gang feuds, and slavecatching reduce the capitol to a malarial mudpit.

The Confederates fare hardly better. Despite near-certain victory, Lee and Forrest compete for power. Moderate Lee despises Forrest’s reactionary social engineering; Forrest considers Lee a Negro-loving accommodationist. While Lee operates aboveboard, organizing for postwar stability, Forrest gathers a band of mutinous officers to circumvent Lee’s orders, re-enslave blacks, and preserve white power. This first volume ends with Forrest on the verge of open rebellion.

Because this is a graphic novel, it allows a sweeping pictorial depiction of Dorvall’s vision. Artist Philip Renne’s images create potentially legendary moments: Lincoln getting dragged from the White House under guard, Grant and Chamberlain’s gallant last stand, Lee and Forrest glaring across a table at Gettysburg. Renne’s art, which looks like watercolors (it’s probably digital), resembles early Dark Horse comics, when they revitalized the industry nearly thirty years ago.

The art sometimes resembles storyboarding for a cinematic adaptation. Renne’s skill at sweeping landscapes and battle scenes almost resemble establishing shots, while his occasional extreme close-ups and Dutch angles make the characters move around our viewpoint. The art intermittently suffers from very dark, almost illegible hues, and Dorvall’s intrusive narrative captions, but ultimately, Renne’s soft-edged, dreamlike work has integrity in today’s repetetive, almost plagiaristic comics industry.

Renne’s art combines smoothly with Dorvall’s writing, much like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did with Watchmen. For instance, Renne draws Senator Loads looking remarkably like old Johnny Cash, letting us hear Renne’s dialog in something like Cash’s distinctive growly baritone. Where Harry Turtledove’s Civil War novels often feel populated with Morality Play refugees speaking sententiously, these characters have real voices and perform real actions, some of them futile.

Despite their use of historic figures like Lee and Chamberlain, Dorvall doesn’t expect readers to remember much history. He explains situations in brief thumbnail sketches that keep readers abreast, while also rewarding the historically versed with little winks. Flashes of the New York draft riots or the Capitol Building’s ongoing construction situate the story in its moment. But characters explain unfolding events to each other, cuing us into their world.

In fact, excessive historical knowledge may not advantage readers. The idea of George McClellan, a commander so pusillanimous that he once telegrammed Lincoln for instructions on the disposition of two captured cows, organizing a military coup, requires significant suspension of disbelief. One could better imagine Sherman having that kind of chutzpah, though admittedly, one can hardly imagine him actually doing that. In case of defeat, Congressional impeachment seems more likely.

But that’s the point. We don’t know what would’ve happened if the South had the advantage. That’s why authors love to speculate, and why audiences keep buying. The Civil War, arguably more than the Revolution, defines America’s self-image, and the cultural interplay that drove the war continues coloring American history. (Or haven’t you noticed how many Texans get elected President?) The debate defines who we, as Americans, think we are.

Despite his Frenchness, Dorvall’s contribution to this identity debate is smart, energetic, and insightful. He paints a picture very different from the starchy inevitability we learned in high school history class. He forces Americans to ask ourselves: how would we differ today, if our base desires won in 1863? This is the first of seven volumes, so expect the answers to evolve over time. But Dorvall’s early conclusions aren’t pretty.

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