April 15, 2010

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Birth of a Nation

Written by Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin
Illustrated by Kyle Baker
Three Rivers Press

In an unnamed year that sure looks familiar, the struggling city of East St. Louis tries to make a difference in a close election. The trouble is, due to some interesting interpretations of legislation that disenfranchises the large African American population, they're not allowed.

In comes a controversial President that looks awfully familiar as well, and the Mayor of East St. Louis isn't going to take this lying down. But what can you do when even the civil rights leaders go away in search of a winnable cause?

Enter a wealthy man with a plan--form your own country and start over! Soon, East St. Louis is the Republic of Blackland, and a rather familiar set of political figures can't figure out how to take the new nation down. While the former Mayor tries to put a country together, the United States forms its response and the rest of the world interferes from the sidelines.

Can the new republic survive surrounded by hostile forces on the outside and threatened by familiar corruption on the inside? Only time will tell as things race to a climax in this satire.

This is one of those books you know immediately you're either going to like or hate. McGruder is best known for the Boondocks, and as Hudlin notes in his introduction, if you're reading this book, you probably already know that. The Boondocks pushed the boundaries of a newspaper strip on a regular basis and liked to push buttons on both sides of the racial divide that folks might prefer leaving alone. I'm not as familiar with Hudlin's non-Marvel work, so I can't speak for him as well as I can for McGruder, but I know he's not afraid to be controversial, either.

Thus, if you like your comics bland or hate the idea of a "funnybook" being racially political, do yourself a favor and steer clear of this one. Even if you came here as a "comic snob" looking for Kyle Baker (Hudlin's words), this is not the book for you. You'll just get angry and use this book to justify your own feelings.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's move on. This book was originally supposed to be a movie, and it shows. Baker is using a storyboard style, as he has with several of his other comics, and there is no attempt to make this look like a graphic novel. The script often reads like the plot of a screenplay, and the pacing fits a roughly ninety minute movie with breathers between the comedic and serious sections. Hudlin says they couldn't get this to be a movie, which is a shame because it would have been a good one.

It's also a bit of a shame that our co-authors didn't try harder to adapt this to its new medium or allow Baker to do so if they weren't interested. There are too many times when it shows that this wasn't written to be a comic, and it hurts the story. Set pieces often feel like just that, a piece, and the alternation between summary and banter are awkward. It feels a bit like they were just tossing this out there, hoping maybe it would attract enough support to get the movie back off the ground. (Given how many comics-to-movies we've seen lately, that's not a bad idea. I'd certainly rather go see this than, say, Kick-Ass.)

Despite having one hand tied behind its creative back, this is still pretty good. Hudlin and McGruder's send-ups of the George W. Bush Administration, including Colin Powell's inability to get anyone to care about what he thinks, are spot-on. They take each major player's character flaws and exaggerate them to just the right point. Their Bush stand-in is a mixture of muddled thinking and confusion, and it fits the story just right. The original and the avatar's inability to get words correct provides great verbal wordplay in the comedic bits.

On the other side, our two authors also create stereotypes of the wealthy African American, the gang thug that thinks he is the real power behind East St. Louis, the strong ties between religion and elderly blacks (the flag ends up with Jesus on it because old people controlled the committee), and other little touches that show they were looking to satirize both sides.

Some times, things get a bit heavy-handed. An East St. Louis native pilot is treated in the worst way possible by the American Military and some of the actions and comments by the Bush folks and in other areas are a bit ham-fisted. Both McGruder and Hudlin can lay things on a bit thicker than they need to at times (Hudlin turning Doom, a gypsy, into a racist made no sense and wasn't needed, during his Black Panther run) and that's definitely on display here.

It's hard to get satire just right, though, so I can forgive them some faults. When you have a person say that "The good Christian people of Mississippi don't take too kindly to secession," you know you're on to something good. Other great moments are having the gang leader turning his "troops" into soldiers, people ragging on the selection of Prince as the anthem-maker, and the Colin Powell stand-in's comment that he might need a job in the new nation if things don't work out for him with the US Government. Moments like those will carry you past a few bumps that might have worked okay in a movie but feel forced on the page.

Kyle Baker's artwork here reminds me of Mad Magazine and Sergio Aragones in particular. His designs are almost like the real people being made fun of, but not quite. There's a lot of focus on faces and comedic posing, and their legs and arms are basically stick figures. He loads up on little details, which can easily be overlooked if you aren't watching for them. He even manages to fit in multiple perspectives and camera angles despite working around whatever text McGruder and Hudlin opt to share. I've seen Baker try all sorts of art styles, and he never fails to deliver. This book is no exception.

Birth of a Nation is not for the faint of heart and honestly probably best for those who already are familiar with (and share) Hudlin and McGruder's politics. Hudlin uses his knowledge of East St. Louis to ground the satire in a firm foundation. Despite being a bit forced here and there, the story works. I really wish they'd tried to adapt Birth of a Nation to the comic medium a bit better, but if you want to see a well-done parody of the first years of the Bush Administration with great artwork, this is the book for you. Fans of any of the three men involved in this project will not be disappointed.