Comic Book Interview: Justin Murphy Talks Cleburne Graphic Novel – Part One
It goes without question that artists and writers are constantly inspired by the real world. Unfortunately, it also goes without question that war is often the aspect of reality that inspires the imagination of creators the most. Look through your history and you’ll find that the 2nd Horseman has had a hand in shaping the images you see, your options for employment, even the existence of your native language was in some ways determined by victory or a loss a long time ago. In short, the culture that we have today is built on the conflicts of yesterday.
Because of its power to mold our present and influence our future, war has been a driving force in the world’s fiction. Crossing genres and mediums, battles seem to be as necessary to powerful stories as it is have ink and paper. While most comic books and fantasy stories depict war as flashes of light and movements of color that people of all ages can enjoy, there are some creators willing to explore the genuine nature of destructive conflicts. In the past few decades many comic book companies have produced titles that deal with World War II, Vietnam, and the current Iraq conflict. However, very few creators have dealt with America’s Civil War.
The reverence associated with the Civil War does not exist because of the numbers who died or the eventually outcome. While most conflicts with the United States echo in the public’s consciousness, the Civil War still screams in our ears. This conflict divided a nation and over a hundred years later still influences the countries political geography.
This is why an interview with Cleburne‘s artist and author, Justin Murphy, merits a place at Scifipulse.net. Murphy’s graphic novel provides a glimpse into the complexities of a war whose legacy still influences the United States and its popular culture.
Nick Yanes: I keep reading that Cleburne tells the story of African-Americans who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Is there any other information that potential buyers should know before purchasing a copy?
Justin Murphy: The facts about “black confederates” are still debated to this day. Some historians say there is no truth to it and it is merely a myth, while others say they served unofficially by the tens of thousands. The truth is somewhere in the middle. What I found through my research is that there were some slaves and freed men who did indeed fight in small engagements, but how many and to what extant no one really knows. There are some eyewitness accounts that are pretty interesting and certainly challenge our preconceptions.
Ultimately, Cleburne is not so much about African Americans fighting for the Confederacy, as it is the idea of it, and what that idea ultimately cost the South’s most promising military leader. It is the story of a true underdog who challenged the institutions of the very society he fought to defend.
Cleburne also features one of the bloodiest and most horrifying battles of the Civil War. At the Battle of Franklin, there are over seven-thousand casualties and six Confederate Generals are killed (more than any in the history of world warfare). It’s incredibly gory and not for anyone under thirteen.
Nick Yanes: What, if any, works – comics, books, television, films – inspired you to write Cleburne?
Justin Murphy: As far as films and television, Ken Burns’ Civil War, the North and South mini-series and the movie Glory all inspired my interest in the Civil War. I was only 15 years old but I became consumed by the subject. The more I started to read the more I realized how little of the real Civil War is taught in the average American high school.
As far as comics, I was a big fan of Marvel’s The Nam back in the mid-eighties. It was the perfect war comic and all the issues by Michael Golden were flawless. His stuff still amazes me to this day. It was then I realized that comics could be more than just superheroes (not that there’s anything wrong with them, I read Spider Man back then too).
Nick Yanes: Cleburne seems to be deeply involved in U.S. History; do you have any formal historical training (i.e. college)?
Justin Murphy: While my degree is in Computer Art & Design, I have taken some Civil War and American History electives. But I do not have degree in History and truthfully you can only learn so much from school. The true learning began with every book I read and every documentary I watched, and I now have almost twenty years under my belt. The countless hours spent studying the subject probably could have earned me three or four more degrees.
Another aspect of my education on the subject is more hands-on. I was one of those crazy guys who put on a uniform and fought in re-enactments. I did this for about five years, wore both blue and gray, and was amazed at how much I learned. No history book can teach you how to load and fire and musket, you have to actually do it. No history class can give you the idea of what a battlefield full of smoke smells like or the sound of artillery, you have to be in the middle of it. Re-enacting is a very visceral experience and I’m sure that is why so many people spend their weekends (and their paychecks) doing it.
Nick Yanes: Stories dealing with the Civil War usually portray Northerners as only good and Southerners as only bad; if the story presents Southerners in a positive light, it usually glosses over slavery. Does Cleburne fall into the dichotomy or does it challenge previous views of Confederates?
Justin Murphy: Patrick Cleburne made a very prophetic statement when he said, “the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; our youth will be trained by Northern schoolteachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, and our maimed veterans as fit objects for derision”.
If it is true the victors write the history then I believe we have a responsibility to find out the facts for ourselves. I wouldn’t say all stories are unfair to the South however. While far from perfect films, Gettysburg and Gods & Generals are more than fair to the Confederate point of view, but it would be too simplistic to say that point of view is merely “pro-slavery”. I think it’s impossible to “gloss-over” slavery, because the idea of one human being owning another is so appalling that modern-day readers see through any attempt to do so. What many today do not know is that there were a large number of Confederate officers and enlisted men who were opposed to slavery. Every one of General Cleburne’s regimental commanders put their names on his proposal to free and arm the slaves. This was a huge career risk for them and they would not have allied themselves with him unless they strongly believed in his idea.
So what then were they fighting for if not to preserve slavery? The truth is many Southerners felt they had no choice but to defend their home states, and others were fighting against what they believed to be an over-reaching Federal government (a problem Americans are still dealing with today).
What I can say about Cleburne is that it tells the truth. It shows racism, but it also shows heroism.
Nick Yanes: How did you do research for this project?
Justin Murphy: Aside from reading a lot of books, I took a two-thousand-mile road trip through three states, and to the actual locations where the story takes place. It was kind of like location scouting for a movie. I would call each city ahead of time and let the historical societies know I was coming. They would then arrange for me to meet someone who would show me around, which was usually an old lady (please note: every little town has an old lady who has all the historical records and knows everything! If you’re doing research, find out who she is. It will save you a lot of time). Armed with a camera and a digital camcorder I took tons of pictures and video. Sadly, some sites no longer remained and I had to do some digging at the University of Alabama Archives Library.
Some notable sites I went to were Kennessaw Mountain, Dalton, Georgia (site of the actual house where Cleburne gave his proposal to the Confederate high command), Missionary Ridge, Spring Hill, Mount Pleasant Church and of course Franklin, Tennessee (where the climactic battle in my story takes place). On the way home I stopped by Demopolis and Mobile, Alabama; both sites where General Cleburne courted his love interest (yes there is a love story and no I didn’t make it up just to attract female readers). The plantation in Demopolis, where Cleburne first meets Susan Tarleton, is no longer there and if it weren’t for an obscure article I dug up at the Archives Library I would not even have known what it looked like. The article described it as Gothic Revival, so I took some shots of some gothic homes in the area that were still standing, and created the plantation based on that information. I call it “filling in the blanks” and it is a necessary part of historical writing when incomplete information is available.
Nick Yanes: Most American History texts for schools and entry level college courses leave out African-Americans fighting for the Confederacy. Are you trying to comment on this overlooked aspect of the Civil War?
Justin Murphy: I’m aware of the political-incorrectness of such a subject and I’m also aware of the sensitivity of the issue. Some historians and educators may speak out against this book and accuse me of fabrication, but I’m ready for them. The truth is I’ve probably spent more hours studying the subject than they ever will. As far as speaking at schools, I will admit it can be difficult to stand in front of a classroom full of black students and try to explain why they should care about someone who (they’ve been told) fought for a government that wanted to keep their ancestors enslaved. It’s an uphill battle and I don’t blame them for being a little suspicious. There’s very spotty evidence for black confederate soldiers, but the proof is still there in the eyewitness accounts, and the concept seems to capture public’s imagination. That is why I have used the image in so much of my advertising.
One thing skeptics tend to counter with is, “they were just going along and did not really feel any loyalty to their homeland,” or “they were just Uncle Toms who were simply uninformed and didn’t really know what they were doing”. First of all I find those statements insulting to their humanity. The truth is they knew exactly what they were doing and many were loyal Confederates. If you go and look up some early post-war photos of Sons of Confederate Veterans reunions you will black faces intermingled with the white faces. Several of these black vets are even proudly holding Rebel Flags. Why were these men coming to these reunions year after year if they did not feel a sense of pride and loyalty? War bonds men together no matter what color they are; it’s just common sense. Nobody thinks much about politics once the bullets start flying.
I have given a few talks at some local schools, but I focused mainly on the aspects of creating graphic novels and only covered the subject of Cleburne briefly. It is my hope that, after publication, the story will speak for itself, and then I can answer any further questions that readers might have beyond what the book has already covered. I’m trying to tell a good story first and foremost and have to be careful not to push any Confederate agenda. I don’t really care what people think about the Confederacy, as long as they recognize the heroism of men like Patrick Cleburne and others who fought for it.
Nick Yanes: I can imagine that many readers, me included, would like to know your position on the Civil War. Do you believe it was fought over slavery, economics, or states’ rights? Do you believe that your views on the Civil War affected how you wrote the story?
Justin Murphy: I believe the Civil War was fought over slavery, economics, states’ rights, preservation of Union, Southern nationalism, secession, the Constitution, industry, agriculture, high-tariffs, Yankee-hating, Rebel-hating, stubbornness, political incompetence, sectionalism, adventure, a change of pace, escape from boredom, and the list goes on. I believe if you asked the average Federal or Confederate soldier why they were fighting you get different answers from all of them. To satisfy our short attention spans, the Civil War has become a cookie-cutter conflict and has been dumbed-down and simplified by the educational system.
It is far more complex than just pro-slave versus anti-slave. When the war broke out the average Northern soldier cared nothing about slavery one way or the other (and neither did Lincoln) and the average Southern soldier owned no slaves. Slavery was a moral issue, and that is why it has become the focus over time. It’s the most interesting reason and teachers have to do something to keep the kids awake in class. Issues like states rights, sectionalism and tariffs are just not interesting. The war changed our country politically and socially, and the death of slavery was the most radical of those changes, but remember slavery was not even an issue at the start of the war and only became one after Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.
Is Cleburne biased? Of course it is. Every book you read and every movie you see is biased in some way because they are all created by individuals. This notion of total objectivity is nonsense, and anyone that says otherwise is a liar. Everybody has something they want to say and their views will shape how they say it, no matter how hard they try to be impartial. I can only write from my experience, my research and my point of view. Furthermore, I’ve tried to write from General Cleburne’s point of view, so yes, my view of the Civil War(and his) has affected how I wrote the story. How could it not?
Nick Yanes: Before moving to Iowa City in August of 2008, I had lived in Florida my entire life. As a matter of fact, I received my Masters from Florida State in spring of 2008. As a result of living in the South (North Florida) for a few years, I know that the Civil War continues have a powerful influence on that region of the country. So I’m curious, have you received any reactions to the content of the story yet? If so, what?
Justin Murphy: First of all “go Gators!’ Just kidding.
The Xeric win was a little surprising. I was curious to see how a panel of judges in Massachusetts, who usually prefer alternative-type books, were going to react to the subject matter. I never met them and don’t know who they are, but it was very validating to receive their support. Whatever it was they saw in the book it must have made a positive impact.
Face it, those interested in the Civil War, and especially Confederate history, tend to be conservative white people. But ironically, the few negative reactions I have received so far have been from Southerners. It’s as if there’s some kind of guilt they’re trying to get rid of and they feel the need to be intolerant toward all things Confederate. On the other hand, I’ve had several Northerners respond to the material favorably and with fascinated curiosity. It’s still too early to judge how black readers (North or South) will respond to Cleburne. It is my hope they will see it as a necessary chapter in African-American history and one that deserves some recognition.
I will be attending the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco this November, so it will be interesting to see how Cleburne is received in a much more liberal environment.
Nick Yanes: Are you at all worried about people criticizing you for the content of Cleburne?
Justin Murphy: I’m counting on it. You can’t please everyone and I will have some detractors. Some may call Cleburne Confederate propaganda, while others my label it anti-Southern. The divisions on this subject are quite extreme. In trying to please one group you end up offending the other, so I have tried not to focus on a particular audience. The most important thing is to tell a great story, and I believe I have done that. Besides, if I were worried about what people thought I never would have tackled a subject like this. Mutant turtles and men flying around in tights don’t seem to offend anyone, and they make a lot more money. But controversy sells too, so let them criticize. It will be good for book sales.
Nick Yanes: In addition to writing Cleburne, you also drew it. What are your biggest artistic influences?
Justin Murphy: I don’t care what anyone else says, Michael Golden is one of the greatest and most technically skilled comic artists ever. I can only admire his work from a distance and could never equal it. He’s my biggest and only real influence. Other favorites include Guy Davis (from his Realm days), J. Scott Campbell (love Danger Girl), Greg Land, Brian Bolland, Bernie Wrightson and Adam Hughes. There are so many great artists out there; I could go on and on. I don’t draw like any of these guys, but I love to look at their work. Like most artists I’m my own worst critic. There’s always a need to improve.
Look out for part two of this fascinating interview with Justin Murphy – the same time next week at SciFi Pulse.