Illustrated by Damon Smyth
Review by Tess Tabak
In this powerful new graphic novel, David F. Walker presents Frederick Douglass’s story in a compact narrative that young readers and adults alike can enjoy. With illustrations by Damon Smyth and short lessons that contextualize the history around Douglass’s life, this work will give readers a broader understanding of the end of slavery, and the events leading up to it.
Best known for his work on superhero comics like Luke Cage and Cyborg, Walker does justice to this real life hero’s story. In our Q&A with him, he discussed the importance of telling stories like this, and the need for black heroes, both fictional and historic.
I think Walker’s graphic novel, geared towards young readers, is crucial in making Frederick Douglass’s story accessible for kids. Last year, I was tutoring a 7th grader on the Civil War. I asked him when slavery had ended in America– he answered, with a straight face, that “racism ended in 1980 when Martin Luther King ended slavery”. He believed that, after months of covering slavery in school and despite living in one of the most diverse cities in America. Reading Douglass’s first memoir with him was a painful experience. Not only did he struggle over almost every single word of the text, he had no context for when the events happened. Slavery (and the 20th century, apparently) was a far off fantasy, an abstract myth.
Walker’s words, and Smyth’s images, bring life to history. Walker carefully constructed a narrative by combining Douglass’s three memoirs. He’s fictionalized some events that there are no record of, such as Douglass’s meeting with Harriet Tubman. Even though some of the dialogue and narration is written in the style of Frederick Douglass rather than quoted directly from the source, the book is very carefully researched. Walker mimics Douglass’s style so well that his writing seems invisible; I forgot at points that I wasn’t actually reading Douglass’s memoir. “The journey that I call my life has been one of suffering and celebration. I have been kept in chains and I have conferred with presidents.”
Walker includes several pages throughout with historic overviews containing illustrations (and a handful of photos) from primary sources. These contextualize what was happening in broader America at the time. There’s a lengthy list of references at the end, making this a good starting point for students writing research papers on Frederick Douglass.
The nature of the graphic novel form makes this inherently more readable for a young audience. Smyth’s drawings are colorful, dynamic, and eye-catching. The text is broken into short blocks with illustrations that aid understanding, even if kids miss the meaning of a word or two. With young readers in mind, Smyth toned down the violent nature of some of the events in the book, such as when Douglass’s aunt was beaten brutally.
Adults can enjoy this book as well. At just under a hundred pages, it’s a very quick read, and unless you’re a history buff, you’ll learn a thing or two. For example, I didn’t know the details of how Douglass escaped from slavery or any of the details of his personal life. I also had never really thought about the fact that Douglass lived up until the start of the 20th century: a reminder that slavery wasn’t really so long ago.
If you have kids age 13 and up, make sure to get a copy of The Life of Frederick Douglass into their hands. But give it a read yourself, first.
The Life of Frederick Douglass will be released January 8, 2019 from Ten Speed Press.
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.