If the state of Ohio ever decides to start naming a cartoonist laureate every year as Vermont does, Derk Backderf would be the natural choice to be first awarded. His graphic novels touch on themes that extended well beyond the state’s borders, of course — particularly his 2015 book Trashed — but they are all rooted in his experiences growing up in the Buckeye State, and all have that hardscrabble sensibility that the industrial midwest inculcates in nearly all its residents. There’s nothing flashy about Derf’s stuff — nothing that self-consciously aims for some false sense of “transcendence” for its own sake. He’s a visual storyteller, plain and simple, and his work is infused with the “bring yer own lunch pail” attitude you find in places like Ohio, Michigan, or Wisconsin. He favors the hard, honest look at the places, people, events, and experiences that have formed the tapestry of his own existence, and once he settles on a subject he generally works it for all it’s worth. He puts in honest labor for honest pay and turns in the kind of effort that he can take pride in.
And, really, there’s a no better creative mindset from which to approach the subject of the tragic massacre that’s detailed in his latest hardcover graphic novel from Abrams, Kent State: Four Dead In Ohio. It’s a grim business, relating this outright lunacy, but even something this unthinkable, this beyond the pale, this frankly unfathomable to most re-thinking minds, was the result of a confluence of people, place, and circumstance. It had roots — and, just as surely, has tendrils that extend outward to this very day. Every day in the United States since May 4th, 1970 has been a day spent in a post-Kent State America — and many of the reverberations from the event itself have found their ultimate expression in our present socio-political environment.
Derf not only gets this, he’s down for doing the tough job of meticulously documenting everything that happened then in the earnest hope that we don’t have to live through something very much like it again now, but who are we kidding? The signs don’t look good. We may not have a war to protest (although we’re still actively involved in two that have gone on for a hell of a lot longer than Vietnam did), but we do have a mass protest movement happening in the streets in response to police violence and systemic racial injustice; we may not have a Richard Nixon in the White House, but we’ve got his even more boorish and autocratic spiritual heir — this year may have marked the 50th anniversary of the slaughter of student demonstrators Sandy Scheuer, Bill Schroeder, Allison Krause, and Jeff Miller at the hands of National Guard soldiers, but you’d have to be blind not to see that we’re in much the same place as a nation, and the ingredients for a similar situation are present and accounted for all over the damn place at this point. Inner cities may be the “hot spots” now rather than college campuses, but other than that? It sure looks like we’ve come full circle in far too many ways.
Derf gives the victims their due, that’s for certain — in fact, it may be the one task he pursues with just a little too much zeal, as there are instances where the dialogue can seem a bit canned, with info-dumps being used to fill in their backstories, but that’s largely in the early going. By the time they meet their unfortunate fates, we’ve truly come to know them as people, and their humanity is something that’s been skimmed over far too often in the anniversary newscasts that have been making their way onto the airwaves this year. Here’s where Derf goes even further above and beyond the call of duty, though — while never once excusing or minimizing or even seeking to partially justify their actions, he gives us a look at the other side, as well.
Those rifles didn’t fire themselves, after all — there were guardsmen holding them, most of whom were already engaged in the thankless and shitty task of breaking up a trucker drivers’ strike (ironically, many of the truckers at odds with the troops just the day before would support them when they were called into action against those “dirty, no-good” hippies), were going on little to no sleep, and were moving in on students who were herded into a space that sure looks very much like a shooting gallery by design. The book begins with schematic illustrations of the campus, and — trust me — they come in handy in its heart-wrenching final act.
And that final act — wow. Derf’s cartooning style is well-established by now, of course, but never has it been utilized to such dramatic effect. His familiar exaggerated features and actions bring home not just the actions on that fateful day, but their impact — something you rarely see handled with this much aplomb in books not drawn by a guy named Kirby. It’s doubtful that even a big-budget Hollywood production about Kent State would carry with it the immediacy and visceral wallop that the art here does, although it’s probably only a matter of time until they give it a try — perhaps even with a cinematic adaptation of this very book, Derf’s work having made it in front of the camera once already with My Friend Dahmer.
One thing that would be essential to get across in any prospective movie version, though, would be the truly personal outlook Derf brings to this. The opening framing sequence with a young Derf riding in the car as his mother drives by the truckers’ picket line while news about campus unrest swirls not just over the radio airwaves, but in the overall zeitgeist itself certainly has “pre-credits scene” written all over it, but the other manifestations of the author’s own POV are more subtle, though no less pronounced — the authentic dialogue, the intimate knowledge of local geography and history, these are rendered so effectively here because Derf brings an Ohioan’s eye for an Ohio tragedy that shook the whole nation, one that rose from extant cultural divides and exacerbated them rather than putting them to rest.
In addition to the lives lost, then, that’s the saddest thing about Kent State — that we didn’t learn. That we find ourselves once again split along roughly the same cultural lines, albeit for different reasons. That militarism, authoritarian over-reaction, and profound nationalist muscle-flexing — all of which the bodies of four dead students should have closed the lid on permanently — are back with a vengeance. The parallels are so obvious that Derf needn’t even go out of his way to draw attention to them — all he has to do is to rely on his razor-sharp skills as a cartoonist and historian for readers to get the point.
And so you will. Kent State: Four Dead In Ohio is a remarkable achievement, the product of a cartoonist at the top of his game telling a story he’s uniquely suited to tell at precisely the time it needs to be told.