At first glance making comics out of the Constitution might seem impossible, or at least a bad idea. All too often the impulse to make comics a medium for education results in a lackluster, didactic product that no one, especially its designed audience, would want to read. It’s as if the authors already assume they need to water down the original into something less challenging. So needless to say, I approached this adaptation of the Constitution’s complete original text by Nadja Baer and artist Nathan Lueth with more than a small amount of skepticism. It was a very pleasant surprise to see my fears unfounded.
Baer makes many smart choices in her adaptation. First, she begins with showing the historical context. She includes excerpts of historical writings as letters and dialogue and introduces us to the people involved in the United States politics of the day (particularly James Madison), illustrating some of the situations and events that led to the gathering of the constitutional convention. While doing so, she also interjects interesting factoids in their own caption box, which continue throughout the text of the Constitution itself. These become touchpoints that add interest, easily identified by the Historical Find title set off in an old English-style of lettering.
This sort of prologue also gives Baer a chance to highlight the concerns of the delegates and the issues facing them as they begin their debate. There is humor in her presentation, as she frames these as “Round One: Small States vs. Large States,” dealing with how to represent the states (all equally, versus based on population), and “Round Two: North vs. South” where the issue of slavery and how it affected popular representation and taxation was addressed. After this context is established, this allows Baer to present the text of the of the first Article itself, again set off from her regular narration by a formal serif font. The only modification of the actual text are asterisked footnotes showing where the original writing has been changed by later amendments.
The humor again comes to the fore as the visuals associated with the articles lead to some fun iconic representations for easy association. The members of the House of Representatives show its variety, usually being one of three figures: a typical colonial-era gentleman, a dapper African American dressed in a top hat and clothing from the Victorian Era, and a Hillary Clinton-esque female in a modern business suit. The Senators, male and female, are dressed in togas. Any time the House or the Senate is referred to for the rest of the book, you will see one of these iconic figures.
This leads back to the history of the convention in “Round Three: Monarchists vs. Democratic Republicans,” where the then-justified fears that any president may become a de facto king come to the fore. Again Baer smartly pulls from historical writings and transcripts of the convention to highlight the issues before turning to Article II, dealing with the presidency. This time around, the whimsy continues, as the President is a steampunk woman, complete with a monocle and gear jewelry, and the Vice President a steam-powered robot. This steampunk vibe actually permeates all of the Articles’ sections, gears evident in the panel layout and and incorporated into each figure’s wardrobe. This only emphasizes the feeling of being able to peer into the inner-workings of government, a rather nice touch.
The rest of the Constitution’s text is handled in much the same way, with the Judicial Branch being depicted as an armored steampunk take on the mythic feminine figure of blind justice. As with the previous sections, the articles about the states and about taxation are peppered with the iconic figures, as well as real examples from history, now only briefly interjected with historical quotes and opinions as the delegates debate each issue. Which, of course, sets up the need for amendments and “Round Four: The Federalists vs the Anti-Federalists.” As the text of the actual Constitution finishes, we are once again in the historical narrative, showing the issues that lead to Madison framing the Bill of Rights, and explaining how integral those amendments were to the states’ ratification of the Constitution itself. They are briefly outlined before the book closes with the preamble itself, which acts just as well as a closing as it does as an opening.
Nathan Lueth’s art is one of the reasons why this graphic novelization works. He has a clean, straightforward style that lends itself to gentle caricature, making even the most curmudgeonly figure from history appealing. And again, the choice to cast the characters and layout of the Constitution text into the steampunk mode works very well.
So yes, the graphic novel of the United States Constitution is a surprising joy to read. It is visually appealing as well as being anything but dry or uninspired. It should be available in every library, perfectly suited for either the juvenile or young adult non-fiction shelves. If more educational comics were like Baer’s and Lueth’s work, perhaps graphic novels as an educational tool and an art form could finally escape that ‘dumbed-down’ stigma they’ve labored under for all too long. In fact, it’s the opposite, more of an expansion of the original. This is a smart work, for smart people. Or for students that want to get smarter.