There's a particularly expressive drawing near the front of Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martínez' Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts that sums up what's unique about this graphic novel. Martínez draws Hall — a trained historian and lawyer — at the New York Historical Society, reading the records of a 1712 slave revolt in the city. She has found that two women named Sarah and Abigail were both sentenced to death in the wake of the revolt, but the authorities delayed one of the women's execution because she was pregnant.
Sifting through 300-year-old documents, Hall finds that this woman remained in prison for years while the governor corresponded with officials back in Great Britain about a possible pardon. But was the woman Abigail or Sarah? Was she executed, or eventually released? The letters don't say. "I can't find her. I'll never know what happened to Sarah or Abigail," Hall realizes, throwing her head back and flinging up her arms in a gesture of agonized frustration. She's sitting at a table in a crowded reading room, but Martínez sets her apart from the other visitors at this moment by drawing her as a reverse silhouette — a white void in the midst of the otherwise busy scene. With this one choice, he conveys multiple emotions at once: Hall's grief, so consuming that it wrenches her out of the flow of everyday events, and her identification with her subjects, two women whose fates are invisible in the historical record.
It also expresses something that may never before have been depicted in a comic (or anywhere else, for that matter): What it feels like to do historical research. There are numerous graphic novels about history, of course, but the creators always focus on the historical events themselves. The battles, the journeys, the ceremonies, the action — that stuff is easy to draw. What's hard is illustrating the historical process: squinting one's way through sheaves of correspondence, scanning documents for any mention of a key name, and simply thinking a lot. From the outside, a working historian just looks like someone sitting at a table for hours on end. How do you draw what's going on in their mind as they sort, filter and finally assemble scattered facts into a meaningful story of the past?
Martínez manages to do just that — not just with his drawing of Hall's silhouette in the reading room, but with a dozen other ingenious gambits. Sprawling yet perfectly balanced, his two-page compositions wrap the reader up in Hall's thoughts. In one, she seems to peer through a worn document into a vast whirlpool in which sailing ships founder, perhaps carrying crucial letters with them beneath the waves. In another, as she stands before a desk covered with papers, her shadow splits into the image of two Ahogi — female soldiers from the pre-colonial West African kingdom of Dahomey. Martínez' pages can be a bit overcrowded at times, with snarls of hectic lines obscuring his clever effects. But his versatility is amazing. He draws all sorts of complex scenes — from the interior of a log cabin in Nebraska to an Ahogi cavalry charge (a frontal view, no less!) — seemingly effortlessly. In one spread, he even turns a cascade of text blocks into a compositional element.
Martínez' innovative techniques are crucial to Wake's success. Hall doesn't just want to tell the parts of the story that are eminently drawable — daring, desperate women attacking slavers in the streets or chiseling through chains in the holds of the death ships. Those stories are here, and they're gripping, but they make up only half of Hall's saga. The other half is her own struggle against the conspiracy of silence that's shut these women out of history. "As far back as I can remember, I've been searching for women warriors," Hall reflects in the opening pages. "Pickings were slim." That's partly because of who was keeping the records: governments seeking to "set policy, maximize profits and avoid costly revolts," she notes. As a result, she "must read the documents against the grain" to tease out scant bits of evidence about enslaved women's experiences — "assuming there are any documents to be found at all."
Hall's eloquence and frank emotionalism are transcendently realized in Martínez art, beckoning the reader inexorably into this story — even the parts that only take place inside Hall's mind. With its remarkable blend of passion and fact, action and reflection, Wake sets a new standard for illustrating history.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.