Graphic Novel ‘Nat Turner’ Selected for 2010 Text and Community Program

Posted: January 29, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: January 28, 2010 at 4:49 pm

By Art Taylor

Entertainment Weekly called it “a hauntingly beautiful historical spotlight.” The Washington Post praised how the “intricately expressive faces and trenchant dramatic pacing evoke the diabolic slave trade’s real horrors.” And now students across the university will have the opportunity to discover for themselves Kyle Baker’s graphic novel “Nat Turner,” an account of the 1831 slave rebellion that has been chosen for the 2010 Text and Community Program.

Text and Community marks a collaboration between the English Department and other departments and organizations across campus. Each spring, the department chooses a single book and encourages professors from diverse disciplines to include it on their syllabus, promoting the opportunity for students throughout the Mason community to view one work from a variety of perspectives.

This year marks the first time a graphic novel has been chosen. Though the book incorporates newspaper headlines and excerpts from the jailhouse conversations of the rebellion’s leader, “Nat Turner” is largely wordless — driven by rich, sepia-toned images that evoke the era; capture the tense, terrible drama of an event that left 55 whites dead; and delve into the complex legacy of a man considered a villain by some and a hero by others.

“For today’s students, who have grown up with so much more exposure to visual images, reading a graphic novel such as ‘Nat Turner’ that is almost entirely pictorial in courses where the students are mostly assigned verbal narratives offers a special opportunity to discuss this new trend in storytelling,” says professor John Burt Foster. “And, of course, the fact that this event is part of Virginia history adds special relevance to the book.”

Professor Amelia Rutledge adds, “Baker’s ‘Nat Turner’ will enrich many readers’ consideration of textuality, encountering, as they will, the ways verbal and visual elements interact to produce the novel. Learning the grammar of the visual text is one step toward a rigorous analysis of productive verbal and visual interaction.”

Numerous events are planned as part of the 2010 Text and Community, including a visit by author and illustrator Kyle Baker later this spring. As in previous years, the department has planned an essay contest for students, and films and discussions on slavery and 19th-century American history will help provide context for engaging with the book.

This article originally appeared in the English Department newsletter Not Just Letters.

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