Comic book history

Comic book author Bentley Boyd uses a vivid medium to snare new students of American history. July 20, 2009


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg Past and Present. This is Behind the Scenes.

Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter, sitting in this week for Lloyd Dobyns. With me today is Bentley Boyd, who an author of comic books, and Bentley has just adapted a Colonial Williamsburg program, the Revolutionary City program, and you have rendered this in comic. Tell me a little bit about what this project is, and the scope of it.

Bentley Boyd: I was flattered, because the Foundation came to me. My comics on American history are pretty well-known and have been for sale in the Historic Area for several years. So they came to me and said, “We like what you’ve done already, in generic terms. We would like to try to do something specific with Rev City.” Well I have loved Rev City ever since it came out. So you know, I watch it for fun, just because I think it’s a great, dramatic program.

So when they came to me and said, “We’d love to have a way for kids to take this home,” I was really excited. I have worked harder on this over the last year and a half than on any of my own books. Because I consider this a jewel that I’ve been given care over. So you know, there were a lot of research trips to just get the details of the buildings right, to make sure the costumes were right, poring over the script to pick one word or not the other.

I know that comics usually have a reputation as a simpler form of art, but actually, it’s a little like a haiku, where every single word matters, because you’re choosing so few words. Then there’s a lot of author’s choice built into everything that you do on every corner of every page.

Harmony: We’ve talked a little bit about Revolutionary City, I suppose we should explain for folks who might not be familiar with the program, this is a two-hour, sort of live-action revolutionary programming that Colonial Williamsburg does in its Historic Area, where costumed interpreters act out scenes and conflicts of the Revolution, from the very personal level to a much larger scale, just to put that whole thing in motion.

Bentley: Right, and what really attracted me to it, just being a person standing on DOG Street, Duke of Gloucester Street, was that you have costumed people coming up next to you and saying, “What do you think about that? Don’t you want the security of staying with the king?” Or somebody else will come to you and say, “Well, he hasn’t done anything for us, he treats us as second-class citizens.”

So, that feeling of really being a part of the story was the whole reason for Rev City, and that’s what I tried to bring into the comic book. I have 26 titles of my own that are pretty straightforward history. But with this, I’m taking a new approach. It’s actually called a “choice comic,” because at the bottom of each page, the reader can choose whether they’re going to side with the patriots or side with the tories.

So it’s not that you’re going to get to page 23 and suddenly you’re going to change what happens at the Battle of Yorktown, but you as a common America in Virginia, in Williamsburg, you the reader are put in that scene and you can choose who you agree with and who you disagree with.

Harmony: Why do you like comics for history?

Bentley: Well, I like them particularly for Colonial American history, which is my thesis in college, because there are so few visual images of the Revolutionary Era. You know, textbooks have gotten a lot slicker, a lot bolder, a lot more colorful. But they still have the same three oil paintings of the Boston Tea Party, you know?

We have very few portraits of the founding fathers, but I can take what I have read in a giant, thick, boring, grown-up history book, and use some of the current archaeology, and I can match it with some of the other things people are doing, and turn it into something that’s visual: something that’s accessible for the modern American reader.

Harmony: So with a comic, this medium allows you to do something that traditional mediums don’t. You talked about having to select fewer words, because comics, I guess, are really, it’s about images.

Bentley: It’s a mix of words and pictures and it’s a certain alchemy that I really love. If you put too many words in, you sink the pictures. It’s possible to drive the reader away. But, by the same token, if you just have a bunch of splash pages with these bold images and don’t give enough wording to support those pictures, then it’s just a bunch of posters. They might look nice, but they’re not that informative. My parents were both teachers, so I take the teaching aspect of my work very seriously. I want it to be very well-balanced.

Harmony: How, when you think about it, what do you reject as something that wouldn’t work, and what do you choose as something that’s going to play really well?

Bentley: Usually the first thing I draw in a person is their face. That’s where all the emotion is. You’ll see through the Revolutionary City comic that I’ve taken what are many scenes of people standing and talking to each other, and really zoomed in on some faces. There are certainly dramatic moments in Revolutionary City.

I love the scene with Benedict Arnold in front of the Capitol, where he’s screaming and yelling, and the crowd is shouting “traitor!” That’s fantastic, and that’s on the cover of the book. But in each scene, there is some real human emotion. If I can zoom in on the face to show that, I think I can convey that to the reader.

What gets a little harder is showing a full shot on Duke of Gloucester Street, because there are so many fantastic details. That’s really what took a long time with the project was to try and put people on Duke of Gloucester Street, and compete with all those beautiful images that people associate with Colonial Williamsburg.

Harmony: You say you take the teaching aspect of this very seriously. What do you want to teach with this?

Bentley: I want people to be excited about the ideas that the founding fathers expressed, that still relate to us today. It’s really easy in today’s schools, under all the testing that they have to go through, for the kids to just spit out, “George Washington, father of our country,” or, “George Washington, Commander in Chief of the Army.”

There are very few facts that the kids are actually supposed to memorize. But of course, the tapestry is so much more beautiful than just “Thomas Jefferson Declaration of Independence.” So I’m hoping to bring along the little details that take these figures, and rescue them from the money, take them off the pedestal, turn them back into human beings and not just statues.

Harmony: Because history should be interesting, right? I mean there is conflict, there’s contradiction, there’s huge egos, there are spies, I mean …

Bentley: Absolutely, all the way up and down the line. You get away from the great men theory of history, and bring it down to the human, everyday level like Revolutionary City does. The drama goes all the way up and down the vertical aspect of history storytelling.

And, what I have found, getting my books in front of grownups, is that they have really enjoyed my approach to weaving the big picture and the small details together in a comic book. Because, they grew up with the same textbooks that I did. I happen to love them, because of the kind of person I am, but if I can take a really big, boring, thick history book and try and translate it for kids and grownups alike, they really respond to that.

I think choice has a lot to do with it. Most of us were given these same facts that the kids are given today, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago. It’s the same people that they have to learn; the same facts. So when somebody’s pushing that on you about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, you don’t – it’s like learning math. You, ah, ok, I know I have to learn this at some point.

But a lot of these grownups, when they can choose what history they learn, maybe Colonial American history isn’t that interesting to you, but you love women’s history, the women’s suffragette movement. You love WWII history, or you love Vietnam history, or you love the history of quilting, you know. Once you can choose what you’re going to investigate, I think it becomes much more interesting. I’m, just trying to spark that in people of all ages, and then let them carry it from there.

Harmony: Who, you touched on this a little bit, who do you imagine reading this comic? Who is your intended audience?

Bentley: I guess if you looked at the reading level, it would be high elementary. But I have no restrictions on the way I think. I certainly don’t dumb it down. I’ll watch the vocabulary when I do one of my history comic books, but I want the sky to be the limit. I want it to be interesting to you, to me, to other people who have gotten past the age of 18.

Because I think if it’s interesting to me, and it’s got those kind of lively details in it, that even if the kids don’t get that at age 10, they’re going to see some spark and some liveliness in there and learn what those little jokes are about, or what the detail is about. I think you’ve got to stay one step ahead of the kids. When you start worrying about dumbing it down to their level, then you find yourself one step behind them.

Harmony: Hm. You’ve given us a little friend, a new character in the revolution who carries us through this comic book. Tell us about the character that you created.

Bentley: John Lee Otter is my new character. For years, I have done a Chesapeake Bay blue crab, who covers a lot of colonial history. If you look at the watershed of the Chesapeake Bay, it goes through Philadelphia, it goes through a lot of Virginia. I wanted somebody who could carry the stories inward.

John Lee Otter allows me to get to those interior scenes, because North American river otters are all over. He also actually allows me to play a little bit older. Chester the crab, when he was created 14 years ago, was really meant for elementary school. John Lee’s going to be a little more middle school.

Harmony: What’s the advantage of a comic?

Bentley: Well, you can move through the story much more quickly. I’ve had a lot of teachers say that they love to use my books in the springtime when they get behind in their curriculum. It’s also bolder, it’s more colorful than a textbook or a chapter book. So I can bring details from all this other reading and give it quickly and boldly to a casual reader. If somebody grabs this on their way out of Colonial Williamsburg, and the kids are reading it in the back of the car for an hour on their way back to New Jersey, that’s the highest compliment I can get.

Harmony: Bentley, thanks so much for being with us today. Where can people find this comic book?

Bentley: You can find it at the Visitors Center, we’ll be doing lots of book signings, which will be on the foundation Web site. All of my books are available on if you just do an author search on my name.

Harmony: Fantastic, thanks so much.

Bentley: Thank you.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg, Past and Present this time. Check back often; we’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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