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Review: Abina and the Important Men, A Graphic History

November 23, 2013

Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clarke. Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. 179 pp. ISBN 978-0199844395, $15.95.

tumblr_mav54s4hjp1qg0xfyo1_r1_1280Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History by historian Trevor R. Getz and illustrator Liz Clarke is a unique combination of educational storytelling and meticulous historical research. Touted by its authors as a new kind of historical graphic “novel”—a graphic history—Abina contains a pictorial translation of an engrossing historical account.

In the first section lush pictures convey the all-but forgotten legal case of Abina Mansah. In 1874 she brought charges against Quamina Eddoo, her slave master and an “important” man in the Gold Coast’s lucrative business of palm oil cultivation, for wrongly enslaving her. Her charge, of course, was based on the fact that the British had abolished slavery in all of their territories in 1834. As the book cleverly demonstrates, practical complexities arise that supersede moral and legal concerns. The British “important men” must balance their principles of abolitionist justice with the profitable necessity of allowing rich landowners like Eddoo to quietly carry on with abusive systems of indenture and slavery.

getz1Although ultimately unsuccessful in her lawsuit, the intrepid Abina shines through in every panel. As a character, she incarnates a very different kind of colonized African woman. She threatens to replace the historian’s standard for the representative with the novelist’s ideal for the exceptional.

By the end, Abina voices one of the conceits of the entire project: Do not exert a retrospective and largely empty justice of sympathy for those wounded in the traumatic past; rather, allow their stories to be heard. “You don’t understand,” Abina says to her lawyer, with tears in her eyes and seeming to implore the reader more so than he.

“It was never just about being safe. It was about being heard.”

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Despite a few lapses in which the dialogue unnaturally trudges through the backstory of British colonization, Getz does a superb job of recreating the court scenes. He bases his word choices on the primary source of the court transcript, which is also included in the book’s extensive appendices. In fact, whether to call these other, more overtly pedagogical components of the text appendices at all is problematic, since Abina is expressly an anthology. As explained in the prefatory letter to the reader, the book is intended to expose the interpretive work that all historians must do when converting primary documents into readable narratives. To make this work of translation as transparent as possible, Getz and Clarke include many of the primary documents and historical contexts that informed their creative rendition of the facts. The result is a book that is as much a classroom tool as it is an experimental marriage of the comics form, historical research, and storytelling.

After the primary text of the court proceedings in part two, part three offers the essential historical context for understanding the narrative. It nutshells the early history of West Africa, providing relevant maps of  Akan language families and the evolution of the Asante region in what is modern-day Ghana. Bolstering these concise overviews of slavery are subsections that elaborate the British civilizing mission.

Although appropriate given the subject, these explanations generalize the ambivalence of William Melton, the British magistrate in the case, whose behavior wavers between lazy idealism and smug indifference. Some readers might see these sections as a subtle exoneration of the British. The author would most certainly pass this off as a by-product of the historical facts of the case; after all, the British administrator does ask Abina—as indicated in the transcript from part two—whether she had “a will of [her] own” (86), and so was probably legitimately concerned with the philosophy of natural rights, just as the more speculative account in the graphic narrative suggests.books_Getz_Abina1e_7

Nevertheless, one potential pitfall for students seeking a more general overview of British imperialism in Africa is that in the narrow glimpse presented of it in Abina, the British come away looking far less guilty of anything than the wicked palm oil slave drivers whom they administrate.

Even so, the pedagogical sections of the book would help students of all levels come to this realization for themselves. Indeed, one reason why I am excited about this text is that it contains all the relevant information anyone  would need to both appreciate and critique it. Parts four and five of the book make good on the authors’ prefatory promise to make the work a teaching tool. These parts include an annotated timeline, reading questions, an extensive bibliography for further research, and a glossary of key terms.

top_pic1The teaching components of this project lend it brilliance. The attitude the creators have towards the illustration, however, subtracts from that brilliance.  Getz and Clarke indicate in the preface and later sections of the book a reductive view of the illustrations as that part which adds a touch of fun to the more mundane rigors of historical knowledge. From my perspective (and it must be said that this is only a minor complaint), I am wary of outdated hierarchies that continue to value pure text as a medium of abstraction (as primary knowledge), while relegating pictures to the more infantile domain of the concrete, which demotes the visual to a secondary mode of knowledge. The illustrations in a comic rendition of history could be doing much more than simply documenting or dramatizing, much more than merely helping to spice up the textual monotony of standard history. They could be unmasking, ironizing, interrogating, or even undermining the claims of the textual as they commonly do in graphic novels and comic strips.

But even if the illustrations in Abina do not seem inspired to stand on their own as interpretations of the history, they are, nevertheless, skillfully done and interesting to look at. Liz Clarke’s illustrations are at their best when providing a visual context for the courtroom dialogue. Clarke animates the past with a clean-line style and a patterned palette that alternates between bluish hues, sienna browns, and golden ambers. One potential drawback, however, is the discernible invariance with which mouths and cheekbones are depicted. Characters appear in slightly frozen postures, their mouths always slightly agape.top_pic4

Although it may not pack the same visual punch as other historically-minded graphic novels such as Rick Geary’s J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography, Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner, or James Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing, Abina and the Important Men is still an important, engrossing, surprisingly affordable, and eminently teachable book. Its major triumph is that it surpasses these other texts by being not just a graphic history but a metacritical reflection on history as well. With entire sections devoted to such questions as “Whose story is this?” and “Is this a ‘true’ [and later, ‘authentic’] story?”, Getz and Clarke have created a work that is sure to be an enduring fixture in a range of classrooms. I can think of no other text that makes the historian’s negotiation with historical materials as clear, or the process of translating those materials with and against the grain of the historian’s own cultural mores so vividly integral to the work as a whole.

< originally published in Biography Studies >

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 (forthcoming from University Press of Mississippi).

6 Comments
  1. Thanks for this wonderful post, I’m not sure if I’m sitting in a lecture hall in Uni or behind a school desk as teacher reads my young mind a story.

  2. Michael Andreoni permalink

    Really great stuff. I admit I’ve had little respect for graphic works–but this is a game changer. Thanks for getting this out into the wider world.

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