Writer: Van Jensen
Artist: Nate Powell
Publisher: Gallery 13
Rating: 9/10 (must read, relevant story and concepts)
I would argue that no region in the United States has as complex of a history as the south. It is constantly churning in an oftentimes chaotic combat of cultures. As the world changes, the American South grows more and more complex. It’s not something you understand unless you’ve lived there, in the thick of it. From the outside, things just seem black and white or unknowable. Despite it’s checkered history, it’s a region that’s given rise to change, revolution through civil rights and a layered intermixing of cultures. The bad things, however, do sometimes overshadow the good. There’s still so much work to be done, as seen in southern history and the modern day.
The graphic novel TWO DEAD, by Van Jensen and Nate Powell, explores the complex history of the south. This comic is massive, clocking in at almost 250 pages. What TWO DEAD gives you is a story set in post-World War II Little Rock, Ark. in a town waist-deep in crime and corruption. This graphic novel is an intimate, scathing, perceptive dive into crime, racism and civil rights in post-World War II America. The story itself is told from different perspectives, sometimes in different eras.
While creative freedom was taken in constructing the story, historical events are subtly intertwined within. World War II, Al Capone’s visits to Hot Springs, Ark., racial conflict and more. When I talked to Jensen, he told me he referred to police files to ground the story in reality and treat it with respect. And that’s what TWO DEAD feels like. The creative freedom is apparent in the character interactions but the contents are steeped in facts and reality. So much about this book feels like it was produced with great care. The years of effort are apparent in the size of the book, details in art and attention to story and dialogue. This is two creators working in sync with each other, making something entirely independent of micromanaging from corporate overlords.
What’s effective about comics (and the graphic medium in general) is how versatile it is. Comics can be fun, a way to escape from the world for a few minutes into a world constructed of flashing colors, bone-breaking action and fictional bliss. On the other hand, you have comics that don’t play around, ones that have a message and want to convey it to you vocally. TWO DEAD falls into the latter category. You’re reeled in by the mysticism of crime storytelling but what locks you in is the traumas of war, brutalities or racism and the cultural complexity of the American South.
It’s topical, probably even timely in how it’s not stuck in time. I mean that the book won’t go out of date in a few years. It gives you a look at what has changed in the US and what…well, what hasn’t changed so much. You get to experience war, crime, racism, trauma and more through a dense but easily accessible story filled with expressive art, memorable settings and characters.
I won’t summarize almost 250 pages of story here… it would be a disservice to Powell, Jensen and the hard work that they’ve put into this labor of pure dedication. You don’t water down something with as many moving parts as this in a 15-second elevator pitch. Doesn’t matter if it’s TWO DEAD, another comic or any piece of historical fiction. I am highly recommending this, no doubt. That said, I’m saying that you should read this for context and then you should read more about the south to have a deeper understanding.
Check out the MARCH trilogy graphic novels co-written by Andrew Aydin and Representative John Lewis and drawn by Nate. It’s tells Lewis’ perspective from his childhood, through the Civil Rights movement and into the modern day. I’d argue that MARCH is among the most relevant comics of the decade, at least. Also read southern journalists like John Archibald or Kyle Whitmire, respected political opinion writers in the south. And I’m just going to throw Toni Morrison’s books out there because she’s endlessly relevant in how her work tackled race in America, even after her death. You really don’t need an excuse to recommend Morrison, though. This isn’t everything but they’re a few quick recommendations I’d give to you before you leave.