Jim Berry and Val Mayerik’s Of Dust and Blood is, first of all, noteworthy for being a historical comic. While historical comics and comics with a historical setting are more common on the global scale, most U.S. comics concern themselves with people in pajamas punching other people in pajamas. While only sixty years ago, superhero comics were in the minority on the newsstand, and even today, the medium is wide and varied, due to the contributions of independent publishers outside the mainstream, there remain genres that are underutilized in the U.S., the scarcest of which may be the historical comic, whether that is historical fiction, or historical re-enactment through sequential art. Nonetheless, good historical comic books, such as Maus and March, do appear. How does Of Dust and Blood compare with these celebrated graphic novels, and does it add value to the small shelf of comic book histories?
Firstly, Of Dust and Blood appears to differ from these other books in that Maus and March are representations of a still living history, describing times that are memories for living people. While I could point out that my grandfather’s grandfather was a young man when the events described in Of Dust and Blood transpired, and it has hence not truly passed out of the oral record of things that generation spoke to those that came after (which sets it apart from Frank Miller’s 300) the events at Little Bighorn have nonetheless passed out of the memory of everyone living, and the creators of Of Dust and Blood used a sizable bibliography to dramatize these events. And so, Of Dust and Blood has no biographical impulse, but instead is not unlike a passion play in its mission to make a living, breathing, history out of what has passed. It is less re-enactment than a recreation of this pivotal day.
The Battle of Little Bighorn aka The Battle of the Greasy Grass, as well as the events that led up to it, are narrated and witnessed by the creators’ fictional avatars, the U.S. scout Greenhaw and the Sioux Slowhawk. Which is not to say that Of Dust and Blood is historical fiction and any less an attempt of a true historical representation, as the longest speeches are still from General Custer, Chief Gall, and Sitting Bull, and Greenhaw or Slowhawk do nothing as notable as Crazy Horse’s ride. Greenhaw and Slowhawk are more or less impartial observers on this historical re-creation.
However, there is no clear cut protagonist in Of Dust and Blood, although the Native Americans come across as less villainous, though no less bloodthirsty, than Custer’s troops. The U.S. troops have ignoble motivations (“My every thought was ambitious, not to be wealthy, not to be learned, but to be great.”) and blackhearted methods (“Feel free…to capture…women, children, and the elderly…use them as hostages and human shields.”), and detail them in cold prose; the Native Americans have mythic motivations (“we are made of the spirit as much as we are flesh and bone”) and poetic methods (“Sing your strong heart songs. Sing your death songs. Hoka hey”).
Where Of Dust and Blood fails is that the tale is a very small slice of life–too small. History is not only a snapshot of a day’s events, and a faithful reconstruction of them, but an attempt to bridge to and from that event with a dramatic context. To deny this day its aftermath robs it of its vigor, and to look away from its historical prologue deflates the sense that The Battle of the Greasy Grass was a consequence, a tragedy with many causes not limited to Custer’s ambition, such as the political stage, the journalism of the day, and public opinion in the U.S. While there is some attempt in the supplemental material to give voice to these other factors, the story itself comes across like a lost film reel of a three reel movie. Which isn’t to say that Of Dust and Blood is poorly written or not well-realized; far from it, I found the dialogue authentic, the breakdown of act and scene to have power, and the pages to be fantastically rendered. While the graphic novel seems fragmentary, the piece that we have is beautifully realized.
Many people no doubt pledged to this Kickstarter based solely on the participation of aritst Val Mayerik, an industry veteran whose contributions at Marvel included Howard the Duck, Man-Thing, and more. However, you won’t see much of the Marvel style here, but instead a painterly representation in the landscape format that reminded me of classic Sunday comics such as Alex Raymond and Hal Foster. Mayerik establishes a rhythm between landscape action panels and more portrait-like close-ups of the principal characters, so that the reader’s eye alternates between galloping with the horses and hovering over the monologues. Simply put, these are outstanding pages that show a huge visual toolbox, and I can only hope that Val Mayerik gets the chance to draw more long form comic book stories. And in the case of Of Dust and Blood, I wish his contribution was even larger, and the book was twice this size.
Sometimes when you say a book leaves you wanting more, it’s a compliment–that is, you’re already wishing for a sequel. In the case of Of Dust and Blood, it’s less complimentary, and when I say that it leaves me wanting more, I mean that I wish the book was more substantial than it is. However, I wouldn’t feel this way at all if I was unmoved by Jim Berry’s historical dramaturgy as recreated by Mayerik’s outstanding pages. And if you are like me, while you may be left wanting more, you will also be glad that you read Of Dust and Blood.
Writer Jim Berry sent the review copy.