On April 30, 1970, 10-year-old Derf Backderf was riding in the car with his Mom about 20 miles away from Kent, Ohio. From his backseat window, he saw the Ohio National Guard march into his hometown to quash a trucker strike. Four days later, on May 4, 1970, those same Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on peacefully protesting students, four of whom were killed while countless others were critically wounded, paralyzed and scarred emotionally. These four days in May are masterfully brought to graphic life through Backderf’s words and illustrations. Like in his books My Friend Dahmer and Trashed, his ability to investigate and bring forward untold and forgotten stories as part of the bigger, more knowable truth is a testament to his ability as a writer and an illustrator.

Over the course of the first four days in May, tensions were ramping up both on campus and in the city of Kent. Protesting against Federal overreach and corruption was nothing new at Kent State, and this particular time saw students peacefully protesting the US invasion of Cambodia who were seen as neutral in the Vietnam War. The local residents of Kent often clashed with the more liberal, radical student residents, and this time was no exception. As the protests became more organized and attended, the National Guard was called into Kent by the Governor, which was followed up by curfews and the threat of declaring a state of emergency in the town. Then, on May 4, with tensions at their highest, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on the peacefully protesting students and massacred them. Four students, all of whom readers get to know so well through Backderf’s adept storytelling and research, were killed that day: Jeff Miller, Allison Krause, Bill Schroeder, Sandy Scheuer. Many more were wounded, paralyzed and traumatized. In the aftermath of the tragedy, polls showed most Americans blamed the students for their own murders.

The tale of these students, town, and its residents is fully fleshed out through the meticulous detail Backderf brings to the story. Through the intensive and exhaustive research and interviews that Backderf used to fully expose readers to the tragic history of that date and the days preceding, all can see the horrific events that not only occurred on May 4, but what led up to the tragedy, as well. He details the research he did at the Kent State University Library where the archives of that tragedy now reside. Working with library staff, Backderf details his specific requests for photographs and the angles he needed to see. Every time, he thought they wouldn’t be able to fulfill such a specific request, but the librarians always found him the photo he needed. His illustrations are beautiful, as always. His precise black and white line drawings are incredibly detailed while his lettering is perfectly placed amongst the often chaotic scenes he is drawing. This is a very text-heavy graphic novel, but the words and illustrations work perfectly together throughout.

The killings at Kent State as well as the local and national government response that led up to them echoes so many of the events the United States is witnessing today. This book is an important and beautiful testament to the lives lost and irrevocably changed forever by those 67 shots. For fans of Backderf’s previous works Trashed and My Friend, Dahmer as well as the March trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio
By Derf Backderf
ISBN: 9781419734847
Abrams ComicArts, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 15+

  • Traci

    | She/Her

    Traci has been a graphic novel selector and collections coordinator for kids and teens in libraries in Arizona and Oregon since 2005. She served as the chair of YALSA's Great Graphic Novels for Teens selection committee, and served as a member of the Great Graphic Novels for Teens blogging team. She previously coordinated the Oregon Young Adult Network’s Graphic Rave list, OYAN’s yearly list of the best graphic reads for teens. Traci is a member of ALA, YALSA, and GNCRT. And, she achieved her greatest dream ever by serving as a judge for the 2019 Eisner Awards.

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