Graphic Novel Review: Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad!
"Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad!" (9 out of 10 stars) Nathan Hale. Hardcover graphic novel, 128 pages. Published by Amulet Books, 2012.
Nathan Hale has been one my favorite local (Utah) authors and artists for several years now. I first met him at a booksigning in suburban Salt Lake City, and casually followed what he was working on since then. "Casually followed" sounds healthier than "stalking."
Hale's current series takes stories from American History and retelling them in a funny and informative way: "Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales." The first in the series is One Dead Spy, the account of Nathan Hale's namesake, um, Nathan Hale. The second book, also published in 2012, is Big Bad Ironclad!
Big Bad Ironclad is of course a Civil War tale, about the sea battle between the Monitor and the Virginia (when I was growing up, we called that one the Merrimack), two of the first ironclad ships. The premise of this series is that each story is narrated by heroic spy Nathan Hale, delaying his own execution Sheherezade-style by telling stories from American History to his own Hangman and a British Provost. Hale (the author) plays with the idea of Hale (the spy) as an omniscient historian, who's able to tell stories that haven't happened yet, and he's balanced out by the Hangman, who's brutish but loves cute little animals, and the Provost, who reminds me of a stuffier Sam Eagle from "The Muppet Show." But...British.
A brief prologue does a good job of introducing the Civil War, and even though the ironclad battleis really only one small episode within the larger conflict, the book manages to give perspective to the war. We meet Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet, we learn about General Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan to cut off the South from any outside support, and meet Gideon Welles, Lincoln's "Father Neptune" and Secretary of the Navy. These people put the ironclad plans into motion, and does so in a quick, straightforward way that is easy for kids and teens to get aboard with.
The graphic novel format keeps things moving quickly, and lets Hale play with words and images--Gideon Welles' assistant Gustavus Fox is rendered as a cute little fox, and Confederacy naval leader Stephen Mallory is shown as a "sharkface," although Hale does point out that he's not a villain so much as a leader of the opposition.
Interspersed with the main story about the building and battle of the Monitor and Virginia is the story of William Cushing--a guy I hadn't ever heard of, but a navy officer who ends up becoming the prototype for Navy SEALS. His adventures punctuate the already exciting war story, and are able to provide a continual thread that gives us insight into the other things that were happening away from the ironclads.
Big Bad Ironclad includes biographies of the major characters in the story (so that kids can find out that Stephen Mallory wasn't really known as "Sharkface"), a bibliography that includes resources on the Ironclads, the Civil War, and some of the major characters in the book; a "Corrections Baby" page that addresses some historical discrepancies, and a Civil War timeline that points out where Will Cushing was at various points in the conflict. One of my favorite "extras" is at the bottom of the timeline, where we're shown how to build our own Monitor from a few "plastic bricks." As a die-hard LEGO fan, I was pleased to see that. This is the second of five Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales books currently in stores, and the sixth is coming this spring. It can't be soon enough.