Comics in book format, or graphic fiction as it is now preferred, has come a long way from Sunday funnies and child-specific diversions, and even from the underground “comix” of earlier decades which pursued adult themes but with limited press runs and distribution. The comics — sorry, graphic fiction — format today is mainstream, admired as literature, and favored by a discerning audience, which has allowed writers and artists the creative freedom to push the medium’s possibilities. One graphic subgenre of note is graphic non-fiction, particularly the autobiographical works by the likes of Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco, and Chester Brown. These books have realized expanded themes coupled with refined expressive qualities unique to the medium.
The Warren Commission Report: A Graphic Investigation Into the Kennedy Assassination is a second volume by publisher Abrams ComicArts using the graphic format to present, in effect, a non-fiction essay, contextualizing and summarizing complicated, highly-charged, controversial historic events. The first book, published in 2006, took on the events of September 11, 2001, also through the frame of the official government report, the 9/11 Commission.
There’s a lot to admire about this book, particularly the fine work of veteran artist Ernie Colón.[The first three pages feature a brief montage of the events leading to the formation of the Warren Commission. The clarity and economy of image in this passage is an excellent demonstration of graphic fiction’s unique ability to depict a scene unfolding with sparse visual detail. Similar montages have introduced network news retrospectives of the assassination over the years, but they tend to lack the empathy achieved by the careful creation of images by a graphic artist. Colón makes excellent use throughout of echoes and representations of familiar photographs and newsreel imagery retelling an event so ingrained in visual culture.
As a whole, the book skillfully relies on these elements to cover a lot of ground and information that never overwhelms despite its volume. This information offers a lot of space for the reader’s own participation with the text.
A decision to present the alleged assassin Lee Oswald as a literally colorless figure (black and white, not color inked in contrast to everything else) accentuates possibilities specific to the graphic format. Oswald’s biography as presented here is almost impenetrable, replete with absences and mysterious activity with motivation that, lacking clarification, seems ultimately unknowable. Presenting such a cipher in this manner gets that point across in shorthand, which doesn’t require textual- or narrator-based iteration and reiteration.
To his credit, even as he acknowledges having been swayed by arguments in favor of the Warren Report’s conclusions, author Dan Mishkin delivers a presentation of such conclusions in a reasonably objective fashion. He takes care to note where substantive criticism of the evidence exists. While the official investigating agencies and government bodies are always given the benefit of the doubt, they are not considered infallible. The text provides room for attentive readers to understand the basis of conspiratorial viewpoints.
Also to his credit, Mishkin does not aim insults at anyone who would criticize the official version. This is in contrast to features often seen in the work of some Warren Commission supporters, particularly the unwisely lauded Vincent Bugliosi, whose Reclaiming History (2007) became just the latest establishment-approved prosecutor’s brief, ostensibly to prop up the credibility of the Warren Report.
On the other hand, the author does hint at a long favored rationalization as to why there has been a consistent plurality of public disbelief in the Warren Report’s conclusions. Here the graphic novel uses Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, an analysis of very real tendencies to engage in overt paranoia concerning perceived dangers or threats. Hofstadter mostly associates this trend with the right wing of the political spectrum. From time to time, these tendencies produce extremely damaging assaults on the democratic system.
As Hofstadter notes, there is no real correlation between largely evidence-free witch hunts like the McCarthyist trials in the ’50s and substantive critiques of the Warren Report, such as Sylvia Meagher’s Accessories After the Fact (1967). The former was largely generated by overly broad ideological fixations and a failure to comprehend difference, while the latter was generated by a close textual analysis comparing the Report’s conclusions with its correlating volumes of evidence. Using Hofstadter to accuse the Commission’s critics as simply paranoid is not only intellectually weak, but it also cuts across this volume’s concession, one that mirrors some of the Commission’s own staff lawyers: often, the Warren Report’s conclusions were undercut by its own collected evidence. Many of its assertions had no evidentiary basis at all.
Rather than reach too far in an effort to explain the public’s longstanding resistance to the Report’s conclusions, everyone might be better off with a simple admission that the “official story” relies entirely on a sequence of events that are possible but not very likely. This refers to not just a few causal dependencies; many events the Warren Report relies on are not impossible, but they strain credibility — the single bullet theory alone has at least six variables. Anyone who has ever enjoyed Sherlock Holmes or other detective fiction would undoubtedly find enough to be skeptical about when going through the Report.
This is especially salient in light of the strange fact that the hapless Oswald was declared the lone assassin within a few hours of his arrest, long before any evidence could be linked to him. At no time in the shocked aftermath of the shooting was the possibility of other suspects actively considered, in spite of numerous concerns. For example, many of the Dealey Plaza witnesses thought the shots originated from in front of the President. The Dallas doctors described an entry wound in the throat. The Zapruder film, which was viewed by investigators within a few hours of the event, showed a fatal shot, which appears to originate from the front. No one sees the Zapruder film for the first time and thinks they are witnessing a “jet effect”.
At the book’s conclusion, Warren Commission member Richard Russell is quoted saying “They’ll be debating this thing for a hundred years.” That is probably true. The Kennedy assassination retains its fascination because it still appears first as an unsolved murder mystery, and second as a historic fault line with consequences that are still being worked out. The JFK Records Act, instituted as result of public reaction to Oliver Stone’s 1992 film JFK , mandated the release of nearly all records related to not just the assassination but to Kennedy’s presidency, producing an unprecedented trove of information from a key transitional phase of the Cold War.
Academic research has only in the past decade begun to come to terms with this data dump, producing a more nuanced and informed, if not outright revisionist, appraisal of the Kennedy administration. Although this graphic volume’s publication date is exactly 50 years after the Warren Commission’s Report was released, the issues it presents are still relevant, even to an audience far removed from the assassination.