After Henniker comic artist Marek Bennett wrote about his overseas travels and quest to find family roots in Slovakia: Fall in the Heart of Europe a few years ago, it hit him that comics were a way to transcribe any kind of nonfiction story — and there were so many more he wanted to learn and tell.
“In Eastern Europe, I was just trying to figure out what my great-grandmother’s story was, and what her story would have been if she had stayed there. And of course, being there, you start asking questions, and you discover all these stories,” Bennett said via phone last week. “I realized I knew very [few] details about the town I grew up in.”
At the time, he was on a Civil War kick, enjoying Mike Pride’s Our War and My Brave Boys, which chronicle New Hampshire Civil War stories, and trying to learn songs from the period on his banjo. So in search of more material, Bennett set out to the Henniker Historical Society’s library, where he found thick town books from the 1800s. Member volunteers showed him around between cataloguing old texts and handed over a few gray cardboard boxes filled with letters and documents.
Bennett came across a sheaf of papers with the title The Diary of Freeman Colby, and he realized he’d seen the name before — on a street sign on the other side of town, on Freeman Colby Road.
Bennett was drawn to Colby’s story within paragraphs. The former teacher described his pride at having kept control of a one-room Henniker schoolhouse, despite that some students were very large, and that lesser instructors had been known to flee the classroom via window. When Colby finally determined the payoff wasn’t worth the stress, he enlisted in the Civil War.
It had the sense of a memoir and lots of information.
“You can tell a lot about the character by the way he describes the classroom. There’s this sense of pride in his voice, and this sense of humor and courage,” Bennett said. “I could flip through the pages and saw it had the level of detail you needed to tell a story.”
Initially, Bennett thought he’d draw a couple Freeman Colby webcomics, but all the signs pointed to continuing. He began seeing Colby’s name everywhere, in town at the Civil War memorial and on a gravestone near his grandparents’.
“When I got five or six pages into the diary, I realized maybe I should just do the whole text, and really respect the text and not try to excerpt it,” Bennett said.
And so, Bennett’s illustrated version of The Civil War Diary of Freeman Colby, released this April, contains Colby’s own words and Bennett’s images. Any time Bennett made a change — adding a comma here, subtracting text there — he marked that image with a star so that, theoretically, you could go to the Henniker Historical Society to find the exact words.
“White out all the images, and you have his diary in my handwriting,” Bennett said. “I’m into this idea that these written texts can be interpreted to be relevant in our modern age, when everything is so visual.”
There were instances when Bennett did away with text because he felt pictures better conveyed certain scenes — like on page 212, when Colby puts his brother on the canal boat and sends him to the hospital.
“He doesn’t have the words to describe that feeling of being left alone, not knowing if his brother’s going to make it,” Bennett said.
At 300 pages, the book is thick and the black and white drawings are small, simple and full of information. The aim is for the reading experience to be more active than that with a traditionally illustrated book.
“With a comic, you’re being guided from piece to piece. But it’s not guided in the way a TV screen could show you one thing, then another — [with comics], the reader has control of the ultimate experience,” Bennett said. “I don’t want you to feel like you’re reading his diary and then looking at a picture. I want you to feel almost like there’s a voice-over, and you’re seeing this happen and unfold in front of you.”
Bennett is very active in the New Hampshire comics scene, hosting year-round workshops around the region, with topics ranging from history to how-to. He hopes others realize this is a legitimate model to tell stories and engage with history, and that by focusing on one tale, you’ll also imply the bigger picture.
“We like to think of the Civil War with these grand terms and big political ideas. … But you don’t need to tell every story. In fact, it’s too much to tell every story. If you can focus on one small story, one local story, then that’s somehow going to touch on every local story. Freeman Colby doesn’t set out to tell the history of the Civil War. … But by telling [his] story, he touches on some of the bigger issues,” Bennett said.