On Monday, May 4th, 1970, the National Guard opened fire on Kent State students peacefully protesting the Vietnam War. Thirteen seconds and sixty-seven shots later, four students were dead and nine more wounded. Derf Backderf recounts the weekend leading up to, and the events of, that tragic day. Rising political and social tensions, both in the state and nationwide, coupled with angry students and fed-up, sleep-deprived Guardsmen, created a ticking time bomb which exploded into Monday’s events.
Backderf (who also penned My Friend Dahmer, which Nancy’s reviewed) used interviews, eyewitness accounts, and archival materials to build the narrative, from multiple viewpoints. Most prominently, we see the last days of the four students who were murdered. We see what the Guardsmen, campus and Kent police, FBI, and other law enforcement agencies’ responses were throughout the weekend. We see reactions of Kent citizens (who were not college students) and beyond to a lesser extent. Though much is still unknown about the event, this is as comprehensive a picture as you can get.
The presentation of this book, through the difficult subject matter, is exceptional. The entire book is in black and white. Figures are long and lanky, outlined in thick black ink, evoking a ’60s and ’70s art style without being too distracting or hokey. Though it’s text-heavy, great care is taken with especially wordy sequences so that panels aren’t cluttered. Chapter breaks are given at the start of each of the four days chronicled here, and timestamps in especially important spots. At some points where maps and aerial view shots are needed, there are arrows indicating movement of people, and numbered labels to help put the sequence of events together. There is also an extensive notes section at the back Everything is laid out very clear, in black and white (forgive the pun), making this hard read a little easier to get through.
No doubt about it: this is a very difficult read. Though the events here took place in 1970, many elements still hold true today. Paranoia, clashing ideals of the young and old, misinformation and generalization of a population… sound familiar? Your morbid curiosity compels you forward to the tragic conclusion, hoping for answers that unfortunately cannot be revealed or provided, whether through willing silence or simply being lost to time.
The stellar presentation of the difficult subject matter has already put this graphic novel at the top of my 2021 best reads list. A hard read, and a hard won one. Required reading for all.
Backderf, Derf. Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio. 2020.