True to Life

April 2, 2009

Comic book characters often tend to be superheroes, monsters or other thoroughly fictional individuals. Two alumni from the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay Department are bucking that tendency with new graphic novels that focus on real-life figures from history: Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel (HarperCollins, 2008) by C.M. Butzer (MFA 2005 Illustration as Visual Essay); and Before They Were Famous: Babe Ruth (Aladdin, 2009), illustrated by Andrés Vera Martínez (MFA 2007 Illustration as Visual Essay).

The books are aimed at readers age 9 – 14 and focus on sometimes overlooked aspects of well-known people and events. Martínez illustrates text by Vito Delsante, taking biographical information about baseball legend Babe Ruth and using it as the basis for fictionalized stories from the player’s youth. Butzer’s book looks at the famous Civil War battle and speech that occurred at Gettysburg, PA, as well as the experiences of the local residents in the six months between those events. Butzer, who also continues to publish the Rabid Rabbit comics anthology that he began while a student at SVA, spoke to the Briefs about turning history into comic books.

What drove you to tell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg in the comics medium?
The year before last I was talking with James Sturm (MFA 1991 Illustration as Visual Essay) and was showing him a mini-comic I’d made about abolitionist John Brown. He said he knew a publisher that wanted to do a book about Gettysburg. Two weeks later I get an e-mail from his agent. She says HarperCollins wants to do a book on Gettysburg and asks, “Are you interested?”

I’m not really a Civil War buff, but I like history in general. I dove into an immense amount of research. It’s a heavily researched topic, down to the minute details. I knew I had to get everything right. Since this is such a well-documented period of American history, I didn’t have to make anything up. The dialogue and events, all of them actually happened.

What do you think this format communicates that a history book or movie version would not?
A graphic novel lets you sit down and really absorb what the artist wants to communicate about the subject. I don’t think other mediums can do what comics can do. It can capture things other mediums can’t do as well – for instance, there’s a portion of the book where I can really slow the tempo down in a battle. In a movie that’s hard to do that, and a book doesn’t show you the same horror on the characters’ faces.

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