C.M. Butzer Discusses Gettysburg
One of the most remarkable graphic novels I have read recently is C.M. Butzer’s Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel. As someone who works with preservice and in-service literacy teachers, I am always looking for literary-level graphic novels that will fit well within the English Language Arts curriculum. Due to its reliance on primary sources and exquisite visual representations, Butzer’s nonfiction graphic novel is surely going to be on the top of my list to recommend to teachers.
But this graphic novel should not only be read in schools, but also read by anyone intrigued by the graphic novel format. Butzer has done astounding research and went to extraordinary visual lengths to pay tribute to this moment in our national history. One of the most amazing scenes occurs over the 18 pages that cover the Gettysburg Address itself.
Intrigued by this graphic novel as both an educator and a graphic novel enthusiast, I recently interviewed Butzer about Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel.
Most of your previous work seems to be in comics. How or why did you become interested in the graphic novel?
I don’t separate comics from graphic novels. For me, they are the same thing. It’s like comparing short stories to novels—I do think the phrase graphic novel is something publishers understand more easily (or something like that).
Your biography seems to indicate a strong interest in historical subjects. What particularly drew you to the topic of Gettysburg for this graphic novel?
I really enjoy learning about history and I don’t really focus so much on an era as I do focus on a theme. I’m drawn to people who have fought for equality at any point in history. Gettysburg was a product of this interest. In 2007, I had created a short mini-comic about the pre-American Civil War abolitionist John Brown. I was at the MOCCA Festival that year with Rabid Rabbit comic anthology and I met with James Sturm. Obviously, Sturm has produced some of the best historical comics out there and I wanted to show him my work to get his opinion. He gave it a look and told me he knew that there was a publisher that was interested in doing a book about Gettysburg and asked me if I would be interested. He then introduced me to his agent, Judy Hansen, who set me up with HarperCollins, and she now represents me. Eventually, the end product was this book. So, I guess you can say that John Brown drew me Gettysburg.
Who is the intended audience for this graphic novel?
Everyone, I hope, but I think it says nine and up on the back of the book. I try never to write “down” or write to a specific audience. I think that authors enter dangerous territory when they try to do that. I wanted this book to be an introduction for anyone to the story of Gettysburg in 1863. Most books on Gettysburg tend to either focus on the battle or the speech; in this book, I’ve tried to show that they are interconnected. Hopefully, after they read this, they’ll want to know more!
Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel is very well researched. Can you explain how you went about doing your research and then putting it into graphic novel format?
Researching the American Civil War is actually pretty easy. The war has been so well documented that it’s almost too much information to process. The battle itself has been recorded nearly down to the minute. As strange as it may sound, historically, it was not that long ago and there is an immense amount of primary documents and sources available to study. Since it is so rich in primary sources, I did my best to use those directly in the text and as inspiration for the drawings. I tried to make up as little as possible—for me, that is the beauty and the challenge of nonfiction comics: to preserve the content as much as possible through my interpretation.
Were there any particular graphic novels, films, or literary selections that inspired or informed your work?
Yes. Off the top of my head, the comic works of David Mazzucchelli, Joe Sacco, James Sturm, Jason Lute, and Vittorio Giardino have all inspired me both stylistically and as an author. All of these guys have pushed the medium to tell beautiful stories both historical and fictional.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is shown over 18 mesmerizing pages. Can you explain the purpose behind this decision?
I had a page limit of 60 comic pages set by the publisher. I’m not sure if I would have made it longer if I had more pages, but I had to work within that restriction. Drawing the speech was also quite a challenge in that I chose to interpret Lincoln’s words as opposed to just illustrating him saying them for 18 pages. Some parts of the speech were easy, for Lincoln either directly or indirectly acknowledges specific events or movements. Whereas other sections were more abstract and were clearly my interpretation of his words. Ultimately, I wanted to try to bring this hallowed speech to life.
What is your favorite part of this graphic novel? Why?
I think I would have to say the part of the book that focuses on the local people of Gettysburg. This is my favorite part because the actual citizens of Gettysburg are often the most forgotten and ignored part of the whole story. It’s easy to forget with such massive events as the battle and the commemoration that people actually lived there. It’s quite incredible to think what happened to this small town of a few thousand people when two massive armies met, fought for three days, and then left, leaving behind tens of thousands of casualties and almost no one to help the townspeople deal with them. So trying to give these people a modest voice was my favorite part of the book.
Was there a particular challenge about creating this graphic novel? Or, if not, did anything pleasantly surprise you about creating this graphic novel?
As I mentioned earlier, I had a page limit—that definitely was a challenge. Aside from that, I would say that this is my most successful attempt at creating historical comics. In my earlier works, I would really struggle with the use of primary sources and adapting it for the comic medium. Even in Gettysburg, some of the dialogue is a bit clunky due to the fact that I was using primary sources, such as letters or journal entries. The hardest part of creating books like this is staying true to the actual people and the events the best you can. These people lived in an incredible time, from the presidents to the gravediggers; they do not require any embellishment. I always kept in mind that this book was my interpretation of those events and not everyone will agree with how I have depicted them.
If you could talk to teachers who want to teach this graphic novel, what would you say to them?
First, I would say that graphic novels/comics are like any other book in the classroom. I know there is quite a bit of talk of the medium being a “gateway” to literacy. This can sometimes be a trap for comics. While it is true that comics can help struggling readers, we shouldn’t forget that they are not just a tool toward literacy, but its own form of literacy that requires learning. If teachers think of comics simply as a tool and not as literature, then I think they may have trouble using comics in the classroom.
Then I would talk about how this is my interpretation and that any historical account is just that—the event and individuals through the eyes of the author. This shouldn’t diminish the work but encourage the reader if they are interested in the material to explore the subject further. I would like to think my book is a good stepping stone into the American Civil War.
What’s your next project?
I’m currently reading a lot about Harriet Tubman with the hopes of creating a graphic novel about her. She was quite an incredible woman, amazingly much more dynamic and interesting than how she is typically portrayed. I also continue to be the editor and a contributor to the Rabid Rabbit comic anthology.