by Andy Wolverton
The Warren Commission Report: A Graphic Investigation into the Kennedy Assassination – Dan Mishkin, Ernie Colón, and Jerzy Drozd (Abrams ComicArts)
According to WorldCat, over 2,500 books have been written about the assassination of John F. Kennedy in the past 50+ years. A few of those have even been graphic novels, but as far as I can tell, The Warren Commission Report: A Graphic Investigation into the Kennedy Assassination marks the first time the actual Warren Commission Report has been examined in graphic novel form.
With the overwhelming amount of information already available, the creators of this graphic novel assume that the reader knows the basics of the assassination and its aftermath, beginning with the first shot fired on November 22, 1963 in Dallas. The narrative travels through a series of eyewitness accounts, interspersed with actual text from the original Warren Commission Report (printed in yellow text boxes). As the eyewitnesses tell their stories, the reader is taken through something of a “You Are There” type of narrative (more on this in a moment). The graphic novel is divided into short chapters detailing specific portions of the story and speculations on exactly what smaller events may have occurred.
Although creators Dan Mishkin (Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld and Dungeons & Dragons Classics), Ernie Colón (The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation and Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography), and Jerzy Drozd (The Front: Rebirth) explore various theories, the graphic novel is not another conspiracy theory book. It asks legitimate questions, presenting information as it was known at the time, and balancing it with later discoveries (many of which are just now coming to light as more and more documents are becoming declassified). Might readers seem skeptical that a graphic representation of a text document is somehow manipulative? You might as well say that any representation — articles, books, documentaries, etc. — is by its very nature manipulative, since some type of editing decisions invariably must be made. (Remember, we’re talking about adapting a nearly 900-page document into a 160-page graphic novel.)
In an article for Esquire, Mishkin states, “The major goals of our book are to show how the different interpretations of the events surrounding Kennedy’s death arose and why the disagreements about the facts persist; to illuminate the times in which the assassination occurred and which were the context for compiling the official narrative; and to explore the influence of the Warren Report on the years and decades that followed. Whether we lived through those times or not, we’re all living with the consequences of how the Warren Commission conducted itself.”
The work is visually effective, usually focusing on how one action (or series of actions) flows from one to another, as in eyewitness accounts of the actual shooting, Oswald’s various movements, the medical efforts and examinations, and more. Rarely do we see static images, and even when we do, Mishkin’s text keeps driving us forward. What may seem a somewhat scattershot approach is instead an attempt to convey the multifaceted nature of the story and the ease in which confusion can — and did — occur. One of the more interesting visual aspects is in how Oswald is portrayed. He’s the only character drawn in black-and-white. We’re not sure if he’s supposed to be seen as a ghost-like figure, or perhaps as a phantom we’ll never fully comprehend.
Although the book is a compelling read, it does present opportunities for unintended confusion. Since most of the men in the book wear similar-looking suits, it can be a bit challenging to tell several of the characters apart. The creators also use a storytelling technique that is somewhat difficult to pull off, but is nonetheless admirable: for much of the story, scenes or events are narrated by a person remembering the past. The narrator is usually depicted in those scenes from the past, yet speaking (through speech balloons rather than text boxes) in the present. For example, early in the book, a policeman recounts entering the Texas School Book Depository building. We see him in the past, walking through the front door saying, “I was kind of scanning, you know, the rooms, and I caught a glimpse of this man walking away,” clearly recounting a past event. Again, this is an effective technique as long as it’s consistent, but in several panels, characters’ speech balloons are describing the past event and speaking to someone in that past scene. This situation has the tendency not so much to create confusion as to slow the narrative down.
Yet this technique, as well as the entire graphic representation itself, broadens our understanding of these events in a way that is unique to comics. In the same Esquire article, Mishkin states, “The distinction between simplifying and clarifying is hugely important. Comics have a great capacity to bring light and understanding in a way that dense prose can’t always do — and it’s hard to get denser than the Warren Report. Images have the power to fix important details in the readers’ minds and allow them to see the relationships between those details more clearly. When the facts are in dispute, as they are in the case of the Kennedy assassination and the findings of the official investigation, being able to hold on to that clarity and those relationships is even more crucial.”
As a librarian, I frequently talk to people about the importance of non-fiction graphic novels, especially those who may know reluctant readers. I’ll never forget how reading Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb became a light bulb moment for me: I’d never really grasped how atomic energy worked until that book’s representation of words and images combined to create understanding. It’s entirely possible that The Warren Commission Report: A Graphic Representation into the Kennedy Assassination may do the same for readers who may not understand the complexities of the event.
That’s not to say that the book is limited to becoming only a teaching tool or a springboard to reading more about the Kennedy assassination, although both are valid reasons for reading it. In its own right, The Warren Commission Report: A Graphic Representation into the Kennedy Assassination is an effective, compelling read.