The Speaking Slave Corpse and Kyle Baker’s Graphic Novel Nat Turner
Towards the beginning of Nat Turner–a graphic novel fantastically about the great slave rebel–Kyle Baker portrays the young Turner retrospectively prophesying about the horrors of the Middle Passage. The young slaves who make up his audience are our readerly counterparts. They respond to this ingenious and aptly horrendous book with mouths agape in awe of the tale.
At this moment the distinction between Turner and Baker as tellers of horrific tales productively unravels. That difference loosens in the slack of fiction’s permissive contract with readers. After all, according to this scene of the young Nat narrating, everything we have seen in the graphic novel thus far becomes mystifyingly congruent with two other narratives—the visions that motivated the young Nat to undertake his 1831 rebellion in the first place and the instigating retelling of those visions to an audience of incipient revolutionaries.
Ultimately, Baker’s pictorially dominant graphic novel suggests that history is best experienced not in academic, lexical, or verbal terms but in soteriological terms. In terms of icons and idols. Baker’s orientation to history as a kind of visionary encounter recalls Walter Benjamin’s formulation: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (247).
While the speech bubble of the shark about to devour the infant ends the episode, it has the effect of drawing my attention to the graphic novel’s very first imagistic speech bubble (i.e., one containing a picture as opposed to words or symbols), which corresponds to a different historical “flashing up of danger” –to borrow from Benjamin.
The ambiguity of this earlier image as speech works retroactively to explain the nested structure of the aural picture-story. It comes before the infant scene, just after a series of events showing the dehumanization of the African woman from the market—she has her clothing removed, her hair shorn, and her body branded. She is shown lying shackled next to another unmoving slave, its mouth open, one eye rolled back in its socket.
Over the course of three action-to-action panels, we see our heroine swat away a rat that has perched over the mouth of the unmoving slave, whom we know by this time to be dead. After a few scenes of slaves being ushered above decks, we come to a full-page panel of a silhouetted figure falling toward the ocean like a limp doll. A picture appears in a speech balloon; the tail of the balloon points toward the falling figure. The picture is of the cadaverous face of the shackled slave that we saw earlier.
One could argue that this is Baker’s unique way of re-tailoring the speech balloon to serve as a kind of detail or exploded view. By this logic the tail is not intended to suggest that the body is speaking the image, as in the case of the later scene where a young Nat is speaking the story of the baby and the shark. The speech bubble there indicates both the content of this earlier story and his character’s first-person telling of it. That earlier speech bubble functions as speech, but here, one could argue, we have a pictorial incrustation or an inset that only looks like speech. Perhaps for reasons of stylistic consistency the only way we can have identifying information about the corpse is to have it enclosed in a device that only resembles a speech balloon without actually being one.
But is it not our resistance to the idea of a corpse speaking that leads us to reject the similarity between the speech bubble of the young Nat narrating and the scene of the falling corpse? Is it fear that prods us to pass off the speech indicator attached to this bubble as either misnomer or mistake?
Beyond such resistance is the intrepid awareness of a deliberate similarity. In both instances a speech bubble bears an image repeated from an earlier scene of the story with a tail that designates who is speaking. Indeed, before even getting to the later more conventional panel of the young Nat narrating an image (which the entirety of this book also sets out to do), I want to see this scene as an intentional (mis)reading of a body being tossed overboard, as a slip of the illustrator’s pen that yields a dead body speaking its own death.
Given the context, the surreal is not only permitted but demanded. After all, this is the moment where the process of memory as memorialization is most in doubt, where the narrative wavers between this rhetorical pause for the trauma that surrounds the many bodies lost during the Middle Passage and the narrative urgency to get to that other silenced, under-verbalized history of the Turner Rebellion.
The complexity of signification produced by this epitaphic image deserves careful elaboration. It is proleptic of that later scene of euthanasic infanticide that introduces a historical trajectory alternative to the slaveship’s course, veering from the Americas as a liminal destiny and charting a course toward the ocean as a finite grave. By virtue of this prolepsis, the ocean becomes another kind of mouth, a maw within which the dead word is deposited, and in this regard the ocean in this panel is not so different from the shark’s mouth in the panel shown later.
Eerily, these two kinds of mouths (or wounds) find an echo in the corpse’s open mouth in the inset speech bubble. Words as corpses, graves as mouths—the upshot of this allegorically compound image addresses more than just the tragic moribundity of the Middle Passage through the oddity of its pictorial aurality; it self-reflexively comments on this particular medium’s way of doing so as a wordless graphic narrative. Multiply proleptic, the scene of the speaking corpse anticipates more than just the scene of the baby and the shark. By analogy it serves as the causal origin for the Turner Rebellion.
< portions originally published in Callaloo 36.2 >
Read more of my analyses of graphic novels and comics in my latest academic book, Reading Lessons in Seeing: Mirrors, Masks, and Mazes in the Autobiographical Graphic Novel (from University Press of Mississippi).