Graphic novelist and artist Derf Backderf will release his new graphic novel, “Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio,” in April 2020. The book retells the story of the four students who were killed by the National Guard on Kent State’s campus on May 4, 1970.
“I believe history is at its best when it’s personal,” Backderf said.
Writing for national and international audiences who are not familiar with the history of the shootings, Backderf tells the story from the four victims’ perspectives and highlights their hopes, dreams and fears.
“I felt by focusing the stories more on the people who were swept up in that event, it drives home what a horrific crime was committed here,” he said.
Backderf grew up in Richfield, Ohio and was only 10 years old when the shooting happened, but a remarkable scene affected him deeply and he has carried it with him ever since.
In late April 1970, the National Guard was sent to his hometown to crush a Teamster strike at the truck depots by the turnpike. “It was a shocking sight for me to see my hometown invaded by the Guard,” he said.
He said he saw soldiers with rifles and bayonets lined the main street of the town and faced off against the strikers — men he knew, the fathers of many of his classmates. “When the school buses drove past the soldiers, the drivers ordered the kids to lie down on the floor of the bus,” he said.
A few days later, the same National Guard unit was rushed to Kent and some of those soldiers opened fire on the protesters on May 4.
Using his memories and his background in journalism, Backderf completed the novel in four years, including research, writing and artwork.
He interviewed people who witnessed the shooting or knew one or more of the four people who were shot “because that gave me that first-hand perspective that is so vital,” he said.
The digital archive of the Daily Kent Stater was also one of his sources, not only for the lead-up to the shootings and the campus politics of the time, but as a window into student life in 1970.
“Not just the stories, but the ads, and announcements, even the classifieds,” he said. “It was a moment in time that is hard for an outsider to accurately portray.”
Paying attention to details was another part of the process. Backderf said he learned what it was like to be a guardsman when he bought a vintage Vietnam gas mask from eBay to experience how it feels like to walk with a gas mask on a hot day for hours.
“I wore it while mowing my backyard one day. Luckily, a terrified neighbor didn’t call the cops,” he said.
Backderf also discovered communication through the mask is clear from around 30 feet away.
However, he considers the artwork the most challenging part of the novel.
“This is the toughest drawing I’ve ever attempted,” he said. “Crowd scenes, night scenes, military hardware, soldiers, a complex narrative — it was a monster.”
“Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio” is Backderf’s fourth novel. He plans to write a comedy novel to recover from the Kent State tragedy.
“I’ll keep making them as long as I’m breathing,” he said.
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