Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Kents #1

Bleeding Kansas Part 1

John Ostrander
Penciller: Timothy Truman
Inks: Michael Bair
Letters: Bill Oakley
Colors: Carla Feeny
Colour Separations: Digital Chameleon
Editor: Peter J. Tomasi
Cover Art: Timothy Truman
Cover Date: August 1997
Release Date: 04/06/1987

In present-day Smallville, Pa Kent uncovers a buried trunk containing letters and heirlooms from his ancestors. As he investigates the finds, he writes a series of letters to Clark informing him of the story of Kents as he uncovers it...

Silas Kent, patriarch of the Kent family in Boston, Massachusetts, is an abolitionist and active in the underground railroad, supported by his sons Nathanial and Jebediah. He relocates himself and his sons to Kansas, intending to send for the rest of his family once he and a group of like-minded people have founded a society there. He takes his printing press with him. Upon arrival, the group is confronted by Luther Reid and his band of pro-slavery Missourians. Although conflict is avoided on their first meeting, the threat of reprisals casts a shadow over their endeavours.

In August 1854, the town of Lawrence is founded, and the Kents make their home there. In November of that year, elections are rigged and disrupted by the Missourians in an attempt to deprive the abolitionists of representation, and tensions rise again when in the Spring of 1855, Luther and his enlarged posse attempt to disrupt elections with a cannon. Silas is instrumental in seeing Luther off, but this, along with the anti-slavery printing from his press, make him a target.

In reaction to the impending pro-slavery legislation, Silas republishes the US constitution on the front page of his local paper, stirring up anti-slavery protests. One night, he is shot in the back and killed. Nate and Jeb confront Luther, who denies having Silas killed. Luther then enlists the help of a Southern sheriff to help destroy the Kents and Lawrence.

John Ostrander's sprawling 12-issue epic The Kents is brave project. It's a Western comic, published in an age where true Westerns have fallen out of favour, despite, as pointed out by Ostrander in his editorial contained at the back of the issue, the themes of a Western being found throughout fiction. It is also a serious historical comic, rooted firmly (as suggested by the title) in the Bleeding Kansas era of American history.

The book is permeated by cameos of real historical figures. In the first issue alone, Harriet Tubman, Charles Robinson and John Brown appear. Unlike in later issues, where the plot turns Bill Hickok into a major supporting character, these cameos feel natural and unobtrusive, serving to ground the series further in the real life events that occurred.

If this first issue has a flaw, it is that the main characters of the series, brothers Nate and Jeb, receive little page time. There is a lovely scene set during the emigration, where Jeb's curiosity, intelligence, and desire to understand further the events that have uprooted his life come across as positive character traits, despite the journey that these traits would lead him down throughout the series. And although I like pitting a character named Luther against the Kents, the appearance by John Henry Lane (despite the wonderful naming coincidence) feels like over egging the naming pudding, inviting more comparisons with the traditional Superman status quo than are intended by the series.

The art is beautiful. Everyone in the series feels real, from the interpretations of the real-life figures down the more caricatured designs such as Luther. The threats of weapons, such as the numerous guns levelled at Luther throughout the issue, are powerfully conveyed without ever assigning a morality to them - the guns, no matter who wields them, are presented as deadly tools and nothing more.

Ignore the 'S' shield on the cover - other than the names, this is a gripping stand-alone historical Western saga.

The Geeky Bits:

Estimated Diamond Preorders:  46,470.
Diamond Sales Chart Position: 47
Best-selling Comic Of The Month: Uncanny X-Men #346

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