by erin thursby
Recently a new graphic novel in the historic genre, called Cleburne, reached my desk. Intrigued, I gave it a read. Not only is it professionally produced, it was published by the local company Rampart Press right here in Jax!
It’s an illustrated historical fiction account of Southern Civil War General Cleburne’s last year of service to the South, peppered with tidbits from his personal life.
I’m a fan of the graphic novel because comic books frustrate me. I’m always waiting for the next copy to finish the story. While that anticipation can be delicious, it’ also maddening. I prefer to wait until a series is put into graphic novel form, so I can digest the story as a whole. Graphic novels now touch on every genre of fiction we have available in books—hence Cleburne, part of the historical graphic novel niche.
Battle scenes are both splendid and gory. We see troops lined up in their uniforms, noble men on noble steeds, but we also see entrails and the faces of men peeling away in cannon fire. Colorist J. Brown is to be congratulated on his depiction of changing light and its effect on colors. Night scenes are convincing and compelling in their color, and it’s clear what time of day it is from the quality of light and shadow. Inkers don’t always get the credit they’re due, but I found Al Milgrom also did a first rate job by not being too heavy handed. It’s not surprising that he’s a vet of the comic scene. The cover was done by a completely different artist. Many graphic novels have covers that diverge in style from what’s inside the novel—and this is no exception. The coverwork here was done in full by Steve Chorney. While the cover is eye-catching and mysterious, it always bothers me when the art is drastically different on the inside. But it’s a haunting and beautiful cover on its own.
As to the plot, it’s a year-long portrait of a man that shows we can’t reduce the boys in grey to KKK members or villains in a morality play. Cleburne wasn’t born in the South, he was born in Ireland. Slavery (and, by default, state’s rights) was the central issue upon which the war hinged, but here was a man who didn’t believe in slavery and yet fought for the South. He was the first to propose that slaves fight as full, free soldiers on the Southern side—not in the stead of their masters. He wanted to abolish slavery in exchange for this service. Unfortunately, most Southerners, who had dealt with slave uprisings in the past, were afraid to put a weapon in a black man’s hands. Cleburne argued that if the slavery issue was dead, they could amass more allies, more numbers, and win the war. He also thought that the slaves would fight for their freedom no matter which side they were on as long as freedom was promised.
In the intro, author and penciler Justin A. Murphy says that he’s “not an advocate of what has been coined as ‘revisionist history,’ but when certain historical facts are ignored, even though there is evidence to support them, then isn’t a revision in order?” The author isn’t out to glorify the South, but he wants us to realize that there were good men on both sides who believed in their cause.
Although the author draws from factual accounts, letters and documents, it’s a fictionalization of the events as author imagined them. Facts and documents don’t always tell us about the emotions behind them, about what was said over cigars or during a dance with a pretty lady. Murphy does a good job of illustrating that emotion.
The novel’s a bit gory for small children, it’s written with a wide audience in mind, from about eleven to adult. Ultimately it induces the reader to become curious about the history of this little-known general. The author graciously adds historical quotes about the general, historical documentation and research, so that the inquisitive reader can feed their hunger for knowledge.
Go to for more info on where to find this locally-produced graphic novel, or just call your local comic book store.