Comics

'Rebels' Argues for Freedom As Pop Culture

Rebels is the book I was waiting for Brian Wood to attempt. Since long before Local, since before Northlanders since even before DMZ. It’s the story of the American Revolution, told in a way that only Brian Wood can.

They shouldn’t have been statesmen.

They shouldn’t have been warriors, leaders, founders of not only a new political economy but new political thinking that would light the world for the next two centuries and beyond.

They shouldn’t have been these things, the odds were stacked against them in a way that almost no odds were stacked against a single group. Not for any time in living memory before, and really not for at least 17 decades hence (well not quite 17 decades, when was Operation Overlord?).

They were dilettantes, winemakers and tobacco farmers, thinkers, merchants, dreamers, locked far away across an ocean in a place where their occasional rumblings would never tilt the balance of world powers, never disrupt the global economy of he 18th century. Well, all these farmers and merchants did was invent the global economy for the decades and centuries to come. All they gave the world was the idea that freedom should be popular culture.

Everything that can be said about the nation’s Founding Fathers, it’s never going to be enough. You’d run out server space before you run out of words to describe the full ramifications of their impact on human history. And that’s really what makes the territory that writer Brian Wood, artist Andrea Mutti and colorist Jordie Bellaire cover in their new Dark Horse series, Rebels, so exceedingly difficult. The men who animate our nation’s founding aren’t really men, they’re ideas, or more yet, they’re ideals. Their faces appear on money, how much more mythological can you get? And rightly so.

But one of the first and smartest moves Wood makes as a storyteller is to remind us that unlike with Old World history, primarily the history of individuals (conquerors and kings like Alexander of Macedon or socially discounted artists who eventually rise up in the pecking order like Geoffrey Chaucer or Leonardo Da Vinci, Old World history’s still primarily the history of the star-studded for the starstruck) is to evolve the story of Rebels to be the story of the ordinary masses.

The story of Washingtons and Jeffersons and Franklins make for great world history, but their story isn’t the story of what makes America America. That latter story is the story of how quickly an idea can catch fire and spread throughout a land and then the entire world. It’s a story that can be summed up in just two words, “Self Evident,” the same words that appear on the original contract between a people and their government. It’s the story, in other words, of the ordinary people who at first find themselves swept up in and then actively participate in the grandeur of human events.

One of the great cultural shifts with the birth of US history was the idea that history can be the story of us—of the ordinary and everyday people who find themselves caught up in and moved by and eventually come to participate directly in great events. And that’s where Rebels begins, with the ordinary farmers of Vermont, battered and bullied by, in equal measure, the British war machine and the British Imperial government.

The work of telling the story, of actually framing the grand historical events and ideas and personages is fraught with difficulty. Focus too much on the ideals and the story bleeds into the mythological. Focus too much on the individual narratives that comprise the broader story and the story of the ideals are marginalized to the point of becoming nothing more than a history textbook. For Wood then, it’s not only a matter of finding that one story that’s best to not only describe but animate historical events, but also a question of finding those moments in that tale that bring out the best version of ideal and personal narrative blended together.

It’s this aspect of Wood’s and Mutti’s storytelling that makes the opening sequence so poignant and so incredibly powerful. You’d think that maybe beginning with 1776 would be the right move, in terms of narrative. Why not? It’s exactly when the starter pistol went of for the Revolution. Or maybe, if you were a little more far-reaching in your narrative view, you’d want to start the story a few months earlier or maybe even as early as 1775. This is after all the big show, the spectacle, the very thing people are paying for to get in to see.

But Wood doesn’t make that obvious choice. Instead, just for a few pages, he dials things all the way back to 1768, to protagonist Seth Abbott as a young child (14 maybe, but no older than 16) learning to shoot for the first time. For the two pages prior we’re treated to six panels that perfectly map Seth’s day-to-day life on a farm in the Vermont land grants. A cabin in the woods close to nature, a taciturn, stern but also kind father. A mother who teaches Seth to read by way of candlelit bedtime stories. Chopping wood, carrying water, tracking through forest. An ordinary life in the 18th century, but also a good one. There’s a Walt Whitman-esque beauty to Wood’s prose.

We enter the story properly when Seth is learning to master the rifle, perhaps even taking his first shot. But already the stakes are high. This isn’t an ordinary father-son bonding ritual where missing a shot simply means no deer for dinner. This is young Seth in a gillie suit, his father by his side, guiding him to take the shot. It’s a tense moment. The Redcoats are here to enforce the illegal forced vacating of privately owned land in the New Hampshire grants. Seth’s father leads a small band of farmers, and if Seth should miss this shot, there’ll reinforcements called for, there’ll be raids, there’ll farmers throughout Vermont paying the price.

What Wood encapsulates beautifully is the idea of personal growth, even amid the most trying of circumstances. This is really the story at the heart of Rebels as much as it is the story at the heart of the American Revolution.

It would have been easy enough to tell the same story eight years later in 1776, with Seth aged in his early 20’s. But think of what narrative impact would have been lost. As a young boy lining up his first shot, when the stakes are far higher than just meat for the dinner table, Seth’s story becomes America’s story. They shouldn’t have been statesmen, but they became statesmen, and they mastered their world, and gave us ours. And in the same way, Seth doesn’t completely understand the dynamics of the adult relationships at play, and the real risk of not making the shot.

But that tale of early mastery, of forgiveness and of consequence at an age where you’re too young to understand the finer points but old to enough to grasp the ramifications of your action, that tale is the heart of Brian Wood’s craft, and it’s what makes Rebels so completely special—the tale of a young boy mastering a fraught political landscape, is also the tale of a fledging nation standing up for universal human rights. Standing up for the idea that human freedom should be popular culture.

There are other great literary trends in Wood and Mutti’s Rebels. This isn’t the “empty” landscape of writers from a time when America was already an established idea, writers like Fenimore Cooper or Emerson or Thoreau or even Whitman. Wood and Mutti’s Revolutionary-era American landscape is inscribed with political violence. What Wood is able to communicate beautifully and render almost at a visceral level is the idea that the situation the farmers of the New Hampshire grants finds themselves in is not one that developed by chance. It is a landscape constructed by British political violence.

Shift your thinking, this isn’t so much the beauty of the natural landscape you might find in a Western, this is closer to the blinking, uneasy, savage wilderness you’d expect to find in a work like Apocalypse Now. That’s the beauty and the power of Wood’s writing. And as a corollary of that, the political violence is both the root of and the cause of the Redcoats to enact military violence against the people of New Hampshire and Vermont. And against this, Wood moves the ordinary farmers like Seth Abbott, who fight, even more than with their muskets, with ideas. That all men are equal under law, that the truth of these rights are self-evident.

But arguably the most poignant technique Wood offers as a storytelling is one that’s almost uniquely adapted for the historical romance—a style of prophetic storytelling. Here’s the most cogent example of that technique from the first issue. It’s the first moment of Seth and Mercy Tucker’s blossoming romance. They touch hands for the first time, and walk a ways through the woods to farm where Mercy will hide Seth. And we see this play out in images and in dialog.

But in the captions, in the “voiceover,” is where Wood really evolves the technique. This really is Walt Whitman territory, or mid-phase Scorsese from around Goodfellas through Casino, and now, the kind of movie storytelling Scorsese returned to with The Wolf of Wall Street. In the voiceover captions, even as we see Seth and Mercy hold hands for the very first time, Seth narrates the future that will unfurl just as sure as it has already happened. They do fall in love, they have a small ceremony to mark the occasion, “done quick but proper,” as Seth narrates, and after that, the war for Independence.

Imagine this same technique used a different way. Imagine Seth were to encounter George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, to encounter them before their glories and before the grandeur history will impart to them. To see them as they are in the present moment, and at the same moment, unfurl in captions the historical grandeur we all know will come. Can you think of a more perfect way to tell a tale we all already know, and yet now, need to be made to experience?

In our time, over the course really of the last seven years or so, we’ve grown accustomed to the idea of small scale economy in comics. It isn’t the 1970s anymore. We’re not a generation that finds itself crawling from the wreckage of Senate Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency, hearings that nearly banned comics as a medium entirely. But we’re also not a generation that faces flagging ambitions for comics becoming a mass medium, the way it was during wartime. Instead, we’ve come to accept our status as fans. That as fans we gather around certain works, and that if we’re lucky these works might “transcend” they might reach other media, and eventually burst onto the big screen or make it big as a TV show on HBO. But Rebels leads us back to a very different kind of popular culture. To the kind of world where comics can immediately enter on an equal footing with other mediums, and, can enter honestly as art.

* * *

Rebels is published by Dark Horse and release on April 8th. Please enjoy a sneak peek which includes covers and some interior and promo art.

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