Birth of a Nation
Written by Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin
Illustrated by Kyle Baker
Published by Crown Publishers, $25.00 USD
Broad comedy under the guise of pointed political commentary is what lurks in the pages of Birth of a Nation, the first graphic novel from Aaron McGruder, (creator of hit comic strip, The Boondocks), and Reginald Hudlin, (writer of all three House Party movies), illustrated by Kyle Baker. Based on an interesting and relevant premise, its humor can't make up for its formulaic approach to the material.
Aaron McGruder, while inhabiting the interesting role of political commentator that so many of our entertainers have found themselves in as of late, (although he's one of the more insightful ones,) has spoken about the ineffectiveness of traditional political activism in the twenty-first century, but has never suggested any alternatives.
Birth of a Nation could be viewed as a somewhat farcical first stab at what's to be done with the current state of America. In it, the citizens of East St. Louis, one of the poorest cities in the U.S, are denied their vote in a presidential election that was won by a margin of 187 votes, and their mayor, Fred Fredericks, responds to this, a perceived racial injustice, by seceding from the union, much to the chagrin of a clueless, Bush-esque president and his mostly evil administration. The core of the secession plan, and the plot itself, is an extremely clever banking scheme, and the rest of the story spins out from that. Unfortunately, aside from the re-appropriation of "Birth of a Nation," a landmark motion picture that portrayed blacks in an extremely negative light, the banking scheme is the only really insightful bit in the book.
As stated by Hudlin in the introduction, Birth of a Nation, was originally intended to be, like its namesake, a film. Written as a screenplay by Hudlin and McGruder, they couldn't get it made in Hollywood, and rather than waste a perfectly good script or wait for it to be produced into a terribly dated film, the creators turned to comic book artist Kyle Baker and made a graphic novel out of it. The problem with this book stems from its roots; it's so broad and formulaic that its existence as anything other than a movie reveals its limitations as a story. Crafted to appeal to the average film-goer, it's a political farce that won't offend unless you're a Republican.
Of course, the book, for what it is, isn't bad at all. The first half is very strong indeed, as the daily life of the citizens of East St. Louis is rough, poverty stricken, and apparently true. The protagonist, Mayor Fredericks, is introduced as he drives his van around town, along with his comic relief sidekick, encouraging people to vote in the election and picking up garbage bags left by the negligent sanitation workers. Throughout the book, Fredericks struggles with his role as a leader, trying to live up to the Great Black Leaders of the past, and he puts his life on the line on more than one occasion, but there is never a real focus on his personal struggles. He shows a little more depth than an action hero as he stands strong against the forces that would undo him. Although he never shows much depth, he remains likeable throughout the story. The other characters all have little arcs which are satisfying, but not exceptional.
The book satirizes the current political and social climate, and this is without a doubt the weakest part of the book. The parodies of Bush and his administration may have been funny if this was the first place we saw a war-hungry Cheney or Bush as a stammering idiot, mixing up common sayings as though he was Biff Tannen from Back to the Future, but it isn't. I expected a lot more from the McGruder, whose Boondocks has featured often hilarious send ups of the presidential duo and their cronies, most memorably portraying Bush and Cheney as the Joker and Lex Luthor, respectively. Closer to clever are send-ups of Black nationalists, alternative energies and their creators, and a funny bit about satellite defense. Still, there is good humor in the book, but most of it is situational, specifically the various citizens of East St. Louis becoming involved in the birth of their nation, as well as the outside sources Fredericks turns to keep his country afloat but the caricatures fall flat every time.
Part of the responsibility for the marginal quality of this book must lie with the artist, Kyle Baker. His previous work is enormously impressive, but the caricatures, something he typically excels at, are particularly lacking, as is the rest of the art in Birth of a Nation. Although the art seems consistent with Baker's recent work, far removed from the minimalist realism and elegant caricaturing of his older books, this work seems sketchy and rushed. Reminiscent of Sergio Aragones, with its thin, squiggly lines, but without the charm, it looks as though Baker drew the book with a ballpoint pen as quick as he could and spent most of his time creating color effects with Photoshop, which are so outrageous they become distracting. His art is in the same vein as his recent output, but is nowhere near as good as what he is capable of; it's capable, but not much more than that. Baker is credited merely as an "illustrator" on the project, so perhaps he was brought on as a hired hand and didn't put his all into a work that he didn't have a creative stake in.
For some folks, broad humor, likeable casts, and happy endings are exactly what comics, as an industry and creative medium need to give it legitimacy and help it break into the mainstream, and these days the union of comics and cinema is stronger than ever, with decompressed "widescreen" storytelling and movie options on just about every comic of note. (Perhaps McGruder and Hudlin were hoping that the Birth of a Nation graphic novel would be a shortcut to get the screenplay into theaters.) But for those of us, who hold comics in higher regard than even movies, we expect more from our graphic novels than just an abandoned film treatment.
-- Jef Harmatz
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