‘Battle Lines’ Immerses Readers in the World of the Civil War
Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Ari Kelman's Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War is a fascinating look at one of the biggest events in United States history, with particular focus on the war's impact on individuals. The book is released today, May 5, near the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and it's an interesting comic in which the creators tell a compelling story. The vignette format the creators chose can be a difficult one to get readers invested in characters, but they pull it off. They also pull off some great commentary on the treatment of African-Americans before, during, and after the war, which of course affects our society even to this day.
Initially, I was wary that the book would not be very compelling, as it's a series of vignettes introduced with historical context provided in the style of newspapers of the time. I love history, and in particular have long been fascinated by the American Civil War and its effects. The newspaper "clippings" were particularly useful in that they make the book accessible to folks who don't know a lot about the Civil War, without requiring a lot of in-story exposition, but still seeming to be of the time. But the first few vignettes didn't leave me with a strong feeling for any of the characters presented --- who are different in each of the stories --- and I worried that by doing short stories, Fetter-Vorm and Kelman has lessened the emotional impact.
By halfway through the book, however, I realized I was wrong. The gut-punches started and they simply didn't end until the conclusion of the book. Hundreds of thousands of people died, and Fetter-Vorm and Kelman offer a reminder that they were all people with their own hopes and dreams. Maybe they weren't good hopes and dreams --- after all, a large chunk of the soldiers involved were fighting for the right to own other human beings as property --- but still, they were people.
The characters that readers will meet cover all types of people who would've been affected by the war; not only soldiers, but women struggling to survive at home, African-Americans in various parts of the country, Southerners, Northerners, prisoners, and more.
One of my favorite vignettes centered on a photographer who positions and then photographs a dead Confederate soldier, with the end of the story including the actual photographs taken during the war that inspired the story. Perhaps the most famous photographer of the time was Mathew Brady, and the character in this story is based on one of his employees, Alexander Gardner. Part of the reason that the Civil War entered the national consciousness like no other war before it was that for the first time ever, there were photographers capturing images of the battlefields and their aftermath. It made the war real in a way that people hadn't been faced with --- although we modern folks are far too familiar with those sorts of images.
That's the interesting thing about Battle Lines, though; it's able to capture the concerns and feelings of the time for modern people who are often jaded about these sorts of things. Somewhere between 620,000 and 850,000 people died during the war, and it can be hard to really grasp the scope of those kinds of numbers. While at first, as I was reading, I thought the vignettes were a misstep, as I read on I came to understand that they were a smart, thoughtful way to offer many different perspectives.
The art is spare, with just a few colors that are painted, rather than digital. At times, I wished it were a little less spare and perhaps a little less ambiguous, but at other times that ambiguity offered something interesting. For instance, in one image I had a hard time figuring out who was a Confederate and who was a Union soldier --- and then I realized that, of course, the soldiers would have had similar issues (particularly as many had homemade uniforms). The linework is loose and sketchy at times, with a bit of the feel of an artist illustrating on the road --- almost like the reader is reading a comic drawn by someone of the time. Whether intentional or not, it's a nice effect.
Some of the scenes of gore and carnage are so shockingly executed that it can feel a bit nauseating --- not because they are detailed, necessarily, but because they often show the scope of trauma that each battle left behind. I'm assuming most ComicsAlliance readers haven't spent a lot of time looking at real battlefields of the sort that existed in the 1860s, so be prepared going in that the creators do not pull punches. Their goal is to make you feel the weight of this war, and they succeed with many of the vignettes. The storytelling by Fetter-Vorm throughout is very solid.
My only complaint about Battle Lines is its format. It's a very nice hardcover with beautiful paper stock, but it's also a landscape book --- so it's shorter than it is wide. I loathe this kind of format for comics. I'll tolerate it in print editions of webcomics, as many of those are originally published online in a landscape format. There's no excuse for it in a comic intended for print, though. There's no story reason why it couldn't have been a more traditional format --- I don't think the reader would lose anything at all. What they would gain, however, would be a book that is easier to hold, read, and store.
Still, I'd highly recommend it for history nerds like myself or anyone who wants to know more about the Civil War on a historical and individual level. It's clear the creators did a great deal of research --- Kelman is an award-winning historian, for one --- and present the information in an engaging and moving way. I'm unsure if it will be available digitally, but if you care about the format as I do, that might be a better option.
Finally, as a bit of a spoiler --- but not really, if you know anything about the end of the Civil War --- I think it's both appropriate and thoughtful that Fetter-Vorm and Kelman end the book on two closely-linked notes. One is that the work of truly accepting African-Americans as equal human beings both under the law and in every day America was not complete as soon as the war ended (nor is it over today), and that in fact people continued to treat them horribly, particularly in the South. The other is that looking at history is important to see where we have come from. Really, the two go hand-in-hand.
The Civil War was supposed to change our country ultimately for the better, by providing equality --- which it did, in theory, for all men. Reading Battle Lines was a good reminder that, as a country, we still haven't evolved quite as much as one would hope in 150 years.