A few days ago, I found and ordered on Amazon, the comic book: “Epic Battles of the Civil War – Volume 4: Gettysburg“. I’d seen this particular comic come up (somewhat jokingly) in conversation among some of Gettysburg’s heavy hitters, and I just had to check it out. The book was the result of a collaboration back in the late 1990s between the Historical Souvenir Company and Marvel Comics, so there’s an expectation that it would be well-produced. Sadly, it’s a bit of a jumbled mess.
The 48-page book starts off with an overview of the campaign – it doesn’t get to the first day of the battle until page 12 – and when it does, it does a pretty poor job of conveying the flow of the battle. It’s just panel after panel of guys in dialogue. Sometimes they discuss battle plans or results, other times the panels are telling a human interest story, but through short chunks of dialogue that aren’t well-explained. I know the Battle of Gettysburg pretty well, and I have trouble following what’s going on. There are 2 maps in the entire book, and neither one has any troop positions laid out on it. Maps are critical to understanding the flow of any battle, and aren’t comic books supposed to be for visual people?
The hastily-inserted human interest stories – things like Jennie Wade’s death, or Sarah Broadhead’s “mess of beans” – not only break up the flow of the battle, they make the whole thing read more like a collection of facts than an actual story.
And it gets worse when there are things that are suspect in those “facts”. For one thing, the book continues to perpetuate what Garry Adelman calls, The Myth of Little Round Top – we’re told in General Warren’s voice that it was “the key to the Union’s entire position”. General Sickles is portrayed – as is the popular myth – as being cool, calm, and collected after having his leg blown off. The somewhat questionable story of Lt. Bayard Wilkeson cutting off his own leg with a pocketknife is presented as fact. General Heth is shown expressing his desire to General Hill to go into Gettysburg looking for shoes – a story that he almost definitely made up later to make himself look better. And while it gets points for mentioning the oft-overlooked fight at the East Cavalry Battlefield, it completely misses the point of that struggle (it wasn’t because Stuart was supposed to secure the Confederate left – he was trying to attack the Union rear).
There are other things that are visually wrong. In the frame showing the leg story, General Sickles and his aide – both Union officers – are shown in grey coats. During the late-night council of war on July 2, one of Meade’s generals is shown wearing 3 stars (a rank which not only hadn’t been issued to ANY general at that point, but would have obviously out-ranked Meade himself). There is a woman wearing a 12-star flag with 13 stripes (starting and ending with white ones) on her blouse. Come on.
My favorite “typo” in the book comes during the description of the argument about whether to attack the Union position on Culp’s and Cemetery Hills that happens between Confederate Lt. General Richard Ewell, and Confederate Major General Isaac TRIMBLE:
I’ll admit: at first, I thought this was a mistake. I only knew of General TRIMBLE being present at the battle, but it turns out that I was wrong. After a little research on the Internet, I found out that there was a Confederate General Trible (even though his name is correctly spelled “Tribble”):
This is the junction where my Civil War nerd side starts to collide with my Star Trek nerd side. I deeply apologize that you had to witness that.
Seriously though, all of these seemingly little things come together to make the comic historically hazardous for the casual reader who knows very little about the battle. Something like this could be a great introduction for people who “don’t like history”, but instead it reinforces many misconceptions and muddies the telling of the story.
The only thing that keeps me from completely dismissing it is that, much like the old Gettysburg movie has for my generation, maybe there are a few people out there who would casually pick this comic up and have it spark an interest in the battle that propels them to learn more. I won’t hold my breath, though.