Better Angels: A Kate Warne Adventure dramatizes the remarkable true story of Kate Warne, the Pinkerton detective who foiled a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on the eve of his inauguration. Blending madcap adventure with historical drama, this lively graphic novel delivers a timely story about heroism and resistance during a time of political disunion.
Kate Warne has already become one of Pinkerton’s most valuable operatives when she’s dispatched to 1861 Baltimore, where secessionists are rumored to be planning a presidential assassination. Taking on a pro-slavery persona in order to infiltrate the conspiracy, Warne soon meets her match in the form of real-life Confederate spy Rose Greenhow. Like Warne, Greenhow is a widow who defies the gender conventions of her day in service to political goals. But where Warne is committed to preserving the Union, Greenhow’s racist ideology has made her a committed defender of the slaveholding South.
This book hews fairly close to what little we know of Warne’s life, though there are certainly elements of historical license. As the Pinkerton Detective Agency’s first female detective, Warne uses gender roles to her advantage, slipping past her opponents by adopting unassuming personas such as fortune teller or society woman. Warne’s exploits, and those of her all-female team, have a Delilah Dirk zaniness, with familiar spy tropes (disguises! gadgets! explosions!) playing out against a historical backdrop. George Schall’s elegant artwork features a muted Victorian color palette and beautifully rendered period settings and costumes.
Author Jeff Jensen doesn’t shy from the painful history that animates Better Angels. Warne and the women around her—including an eminently likable Mary Todd Lincoln—are depicted as plucky heroes, but there are no simple victories here. Through the Pinkertons’ efforts, Lincoln’s assassination is merely deferred; Baltimore is dragged from the brink of secession but remains a city of enslavers. The book also poses questions about the meaning of Warne’s heroism against a backdrop of inequality—though I wish some of its analysis had gone a little deeper. Warne’s boss, Allan Pinkerton, is depicted as an opportunist motivated by greed and clout as much as patriotism, but this novel still read like good press for the Pinkertons, an agency that would later carry out decades of violence against organized labor. The sidelining of Black characters also feels like a missed opportunity; the sole Black Pinkerton, Kew, voices her discomfort with watching Warne effortlessly move through white supremacist circles, but Kew herself is an underdeveloped character, her name a throwaway James Bond joke.
Better Angels is an enjoyable adventure story that serves as an engaging introduction to Kate Warne and her legacy, and it’s an earnest, if flawed, attempt to wrest heroism from a disturbing period in American history. A winning cast of characters and strong production values make it worth considering for adult and young adult collections.
Better Angels: A Kate Warne Adventure
By Jeff Jensen
Art by George Schall
BOOM! Archaia, 2021
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Brazilian, Trans
Character Representation: American