Harriet Tubman Fighter for Freedom Review

By | Monday, February 01, 2021 Leave a Comment
Harriet Tubman Fighter for Freedom
February is, of course, Black History Month and I thought I'd start by taking a look at Harriet Tubman: Fighter for Freedom, which came out in December as part of the "Show Me History!" series from Portable Press. The series are "graphic novels about unforgettable people." Each one is a 96 page biography of a famous American (and also Jesus 😕❓) and they're mostly names you'd expect in a line geared towards 8-12 year olds: George Washington, Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, etc.

The book cover Tubman's entire life, from when her grandmother as brought over from Africa through her death. Although the story is narrated by Libby and Sam (young versions of Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam) the overall story is a good mix of narration and actual comics storytelling. Unlike some history comics I've reviewed, this never feels like it's just illustrated prose. Probably at least in part because Libby and Sam are characters in their own right, and have ongoing conversations while they (mostly Libby) help to relay what's going on in the story. Also they mostly only step in to fill in gaps between scenes or provide a little context, while the scenes themselves play out organically.

I've commented before how, in biographic comics, writers are often reluctant to write dialogue that they don't know for sure the person in question really said. And since those are often pulled from letters and other written documents, they tend to be both sparse and abnormally formal. Writer James Buckley Jr. does not have any issues with that here, giving Tubman natural dialogue, but an interesting option that I don't recall seeing in comics before is that any of her speech balloons that are colored yellow are things she is known to have said, compared to the usual white ones wheree Buckley had to invent some dialogue. It's a simple and elegant way to distinguish the historical record from creative license without impacting the narrative flow.

I did feel the story was a bit soft of just how awful slavery was. They certainly didn't paper over it with happy slaves or "not all slave owners" or anything like that, but they did skirt parts of it. For example, in an early scene when Tubman was still a child, she's punished for falling asleep while watching a neighbor's baby. There is a panel showing someone holding a whip, but there's an entire page of her just looking sheepished while her owner yells at how embarassed she's made her. Nearly all of the physical violence has been removed, leaving it only to be implied. I presume the argument is that this is a book geared for younger readers and the publisher doesn't want to take any flack from overly protective parents, but it does make the story... well, certainly not as blatantly dishonest as my history textbooks in school, but very misleading at least. (In a couple cases, in fact, it appears that there was something the artist rendered, but seems to have been edited for publication -- odd figure placements and empty spaces and such -- so I'm inclinded to put this more on the publisher than anyone else.) Granted, I don't have kids myself, but I'm of the opinion that if a child is old enough to learn about slavery at all, they should be told the whole truth about just how fucking awful and horrific it is.

(As an aside, I just went back and double-checked my copy of Golden Legacy that covers Tubman. The art is a bit muddy, but they present the violence inherent in slavery much more honestly, I think.)

Generally, the narrative flows pretty smoothly from a visual perspective. I think artist Izeek Esidene did a fair job overall. There were a couple places where I did have to rely a bit on the writing, but I'm willing to give Esidene the benefit of the doubt in most cases because I did run into a few issues in the inking. There were, in fact, four inkers on this book: Cassie Anderson, Caitlin Like, and Duddy & Rachmat Pratama. I wouldn't say any of them were bad inkers, but they all have very distinct and different styles of inking, none of which compliment one another very well. So any given page would look fine, but it would become a bit jarring if one of the other inkers did the next page. This could potentially work if the story was divvied up, and each inker took a section, but it looks more like a round robin type of approach where none of the inkers did more than three or four consecutive pages before they switched. So the style shifts sometimes several times in one incident or anecdote. Further, there are a few instances of panels or parts of panels being copied and pasted from one page to another. Not so many that they'd be overly distracting by themselves, but in some cases the copied panels are pasted on to pages with a different inker, so you get two radically different styles on the same page!

I sound fairly critical of the book, but keep in mind that I'm looking at it from the perspective of... well, a critic. But this book -- this whole series -- is not made for that. It's expressly written and designed for kids. Many of whom are probably going to be too young to notice a switch in inkers, or who might not yet have learned about slavery at all and have no idea what the word even means! (I believe, at least in the US, history isn't really introduced as a subject until kids are nine or ten!) I don't think they have any grand artistic ambitions with this book. I think the goal here is pretty much the same as the old Classics Illustrated: make a story interesting enough for kids to enjoy and maybe start a spark of curiosity to get them to learn more, and maybe make a few bucks while we're at it.

The book retails for $12.99 US and is available now from your local bookstore.
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