Monday, May 1, 2017

Rebels by Brian Wood

Let's talk about the American Revolution, shall we?

At some point in elementary school, every American learns all about Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty and the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre and the Minutemen and George Washington and Valley Forge and Betsy Ross (who did not exist) and Bunker Hill (which was really a battle fought on Breed's Hill) and the Crossing of the Potomac and, well, I could go on and on and on.

(If you are of a certain age you learned a lot of this by watching the movie Johnny Tremain which I think I saw a million times, or at least it felt like I did.)

Brian Wood wanted to explore the notion of just what being a patriot meant during the revolutionary war period. But he didn't want to go with the big names like Washington and Franklin, he wanted to know what it was for like the men and women on the ground. So, Wood created a limited comic book series which is now collected in a trade called Rebels, and it is incredible.

Seriously - best thing I've ever read on the American Revolution.

In the opening series Wood tells the story of "A Well-Regulated Militia" which focuses on the hard choices of one young farmer who starts out defending his New Hampshire home against the British and then joins the larger effort under Washington. Ethan Allen plays a big part here and the Green Mountain Boys (who you may not have learned about). The story is about how not obvious (or easy) it was for the men who chose to leave their homes. We always think of America as one nation — we might be regionally focused but we are one country. Back in the 1770s that was not the case at all so fighting for another colony was a very big deal. Wood brings that choice to life in the this series in a way that I have not seen elsewhere.

There are also stories about Native Americans and how their wars against each other found them fighting on the opposing sides of the French and British during the French & Indian War (the lead-up to the Revolution), there is a story about a fearless young radical in Boston, about a very unfortunate British soldier (conscripted, confused and stuck) and a very (really far too short) piece about a former slave who sides with the British against the Americans in exchange for freedom.

My favorite story though is the one that rips apart the Molly Pitcher myth: "Goodwife, Follower, Patriot, Republican". This story about a camp follower, who assists her husband and then, in the heat of battle, takes his place when he falls to keep the cannons firing, seems like a dramatization of the Molly Pitcher legend. But then it takes a dramatic turn when she pursues a pension years after the war. The way this woman — this hero of the revolution — is treated by a bunch of smug men is positively infuriating. It sheds significant light on the work women did in combat even before this nation was a nation however, and is a comic that everyone should read.

I love Rebels. This is exactly the kind of writing that we need more of to get people excited about learning American history. All of the art is outstanding: realistic, intense and often very poignant. Rebels shows what comics can do with a subject that seemed to be fresh out of new ideas. Thanks, Brian Wood—this book is outstanding.

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