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Arts & Culture

Derf's Graphic Novel About May 4th Delivers an Emotional Wallop

Few of the dozens of books written about what happened at Kent State May 4, 1970 have the emotional impact of John Backderf’s graphic novel Kent State, Four Dead in Ohio.

The Cleveland-based comic artist, who goes by Derf, spent two years researching and another two years drawing the book.

Derf depicts the final days of the four students before they were shot down on a campus parking lot 50 years ago.

Like his previous graphic novel My Friend DahmerKent State has a personal connection for Derf.

"The Ohio National Guard was in my hometown of Richfield, before the events of May 4th," he said.

"They were camped actually right across from my elementary school. I'd be staring out my classroom window as these jeeps and trucks passed by, and it completely freaked me out," said Derf.

cover of kent state book
Credit DERF BACKDERF
Derf's graphic novel 'Kent State' is set for official release in September due to delays caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

The guard was intervening in a bitter struggle between the Teamsters and the many trucking companies located in Richfield.

Derf was an Akron Beacon Journal paper boy in Richfield.  "So I was delivering those papers, looking at the headlines about four dead at Kent State, and realizing that it was the same soldiers that I had seen in the truckers' strike."

"So I've carried this story with me ever since," said Derf.

Forces collide at Kent State
Derf said that many people have the perception that Kent State was simply a protest that got out of hand, and the shootings were an unlikely accident where kids were killed.

"That is not the story," said Derf.

"There are so many threads and so many secret machinations going on in the background," he said. "And these great forces all came crashing together, inexplicably, on that grassy hillside by Taylor Hall."

Those forces include Nixon's war on student protests.

"It really hasn't been discussed a lot, the vast secret war between the Nixon administration, his intelligence agencies, and the radical left, particularly the anti war left in 1970," said Derf.

"It involved sweeping constitutional violations, illegal wiretaps, smear campaigns, and so I think that played a huge role in what happened at Kent State," said Derf, "particularly in generating the paranoia that  took over everyone in the state, and the town, and certainly in Washington."

The personal lives of the four
More than half of the book revolves around the day to day lives of the four students who were killed. The meticulously detailed historical events are told through their eyes.

The personal narrative includes the budding relationship between two students,  Jeff Miller and Sandy Scheuer, in the days before they were both gunned down.

The irony is remarkable. "The tragedy of it," countered Derf.

"One of Jeff Miller's friends told me that if you knew them both, it wouldn't be a surprise because they were so much alike."

The book includes a few evenings they spent together gettting to know each other, moments all the more poignant for the reader knowing they both are fated to die at the book's conconclusion.

Derf said, "there're a lot of quiet moments in the book, that's where you find the humanity in the story."

The book also follows one of the guardsman.

picture of guard firing
Credit DERF BACKDERF
Derf uses the lexicon of comics to create a powerfully moving telling of the tragedy of May 4th.

"He gave his account anonymously," said Derf. "It's in the May 4th collection and it's a great account, full of details over the course of these four days."

The guard member is present at every part of the story, said Derf. "He was in Richfield, and he took part in all the actions at Kent State, and he was one of the shooters."

Derf says "Kent State" tested his skills as an illustrator.

"This was a very, very challenging book to draw," he said. "You've got crowd scenes, you've got night scenes, you've got military scenes, you've got night, military crowd scenes... these things are just really difficult to draw."

The turning point
Derf said the tragedy of May 4 could have been avoided if officials had acted differently on May 3.

"This is the pivotal moment in the entire story, because the students were really frustrated with this martial law that's been imposed on them," he said.

But he said, the night of May 3 and the peaceful campus protest, "was an opportunity for the authorities, particularly the guard, to ease tensions, to ratchet it down."

"Instead," he said, "they attacked."

The guard carried out a brutal sweep of the off campus area, and of campus.  "They bayoneted people and  clubbed people and they arrested people, and they gassed people from above," he said.

"And that was the pivotal moment when the whole thing flipped on its head."

"It became less about students versus the war and became students versus the guard," said Derf, "and the stage was set for disaster."

Derf depicts scenes that have never been seen before.

"This is the power of comics," he said.

"We have photos of the moment when the guard turns, that iconic moment," said Derf. "And we have a few minutes later, we have images of the carnage. But we don't have what happened in between."

"I can create those images," said Derf.

"I don't spare any of the violence because I thought it was important for people to really understand just what happened here," he said.

Derf's images depict what it's like when bullets over an inch long go tearing through a parking lot full of 500 students, "fired from a weapon so powerful it can send one of those bullets clean through a two foot thick tree trunk. This was a very violent event."

The release of Kent State, Four Dead in Ohio and Derf's book tour have been postponed to September due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Editor's note: Editor's note:  The graphic novel Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Cleveland comics author Derf is offficially being released today. This story was originally published on April 28, 2020.