Louisiana PurCHASE Review

By | Monday, May 03, 2021 1 comment
Louisiana Purchase: An American Story
The Louisiana Purchase is often given something of a mythic quality when it's taught in US grade schools. President Thomas Jefferson was such a genius that he managed to double the size of the United States with a fantastic deal he brokered with Napoleon Bonaparte, getting over 800,000 square miles of land at about $18 per square mile! However, we're typically not taught a lot of detail about it, so in 1953, John Chase began a daily comic strips to relay a more complete history for kids. These strips were later collected in book form, which was then reprinted several times. I think it was last year when I picked up the 2002 version, and I just got around to reading it.

Prior to finding this, I didn't know anything about Chase. But Emilie Dietrich Griffin provides some information about him in the Foreword citing, among his other achievements, that he "created a new form" with this strip. "He's taken a rich vein of Louisiana history, national history, international history—all the political struggles that went into the making of a territory and a nation and a continent, and told it from both a historical and an editorial cartoon viewpoint."

Except cartoonist Jim Baker did that with Ben Hardy & the Ohio Adventure a year earlier. John Rosenfield Jr. and Jack Patton did that with Texas History Movies in the 1920s. I haven't done much (any, really) research on these types of strips, but Griifin's assertation is proveably false with minimal effort.

And I bring that up because that's how much of Chase's version of the Louisiana Purchase reads the same way. Earlier this year, I looked at Chucky Jack's A-Comin' -- John Sevier's 1956 book on the founding of Tennessee -- and complained that Chucky Jack was presented in such a heroic, can-do-no-wrong fashion that it's impossible to believe the story is remotely accurate. I felt the same way here. Americans are always proud, strong, and heroic while literally everybody else is weak and cowardly. Native Americans are stereotypical savages, and Black people are absent. (I could find exactly one Black person drawn anywhere in the book -- a passing reference to Meriwether Clark's slave York. And it's in literally the very last panel, as part of a six page epilogue Chase added in 1982.) The story told by Chase here is basically a slightly expanded version of the bullshit that's in US grade school textbooks.

Further making things frustrating, Chase isn't a very good cartoonist. His illustrations are decent enough -- even if they're somewhat inconsistent in style from one panel to the next -- but the storytelling is awful. There's no real narrative to the story; it's almost like a series of only-tangentally-related vignettes. And it's only just barely comics -- much of it is closer to illustrated prose. And frequently very heavy on the prose to boot! It's honestly not an especially long book, but it took me several months to get through because I had to keep setting it aside after only a couple pages because I kept getting annoyed at trying to work my way through each panel.

Of the various "state histories presented in comics form" comics I've read, this is easily the bottom of the barrel. It's perhaps not quite as obviously false as the Chucky Jack story, but the lack of skill with which Chase tries to tell the story doesn't even make the myths here engaging, which strikes me as cardinal sin number one when it comes to storytelling. How this got reprinted as often as it did, I have no idea.
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Matt K said...

Ah, the Louisiana Purchase.

The nascent great republican experiment closed a deal, with an imperialist dictator on another continent, to take over imperial colonies (whose residents got no say in the matter) and enjoy exclusive right to steamroll the vast territory's mostly native population (who also got no say in the matter).

It is difficult to say what part of that is the most appalling, and even the whole is probably not as disgraceful as the fact that two centuries later it's probably still being taught as a great advance for progress, in most schools. Aiieeee.