I picked up this impressive-looking graphic novel last year from its artist and author, Nate Olson, at Wild Wild West Steampunk Convention, where he was selling it along with his art. It's a supposedly faithful graphic novel adaptation of the award-winning non-fiction book by Mark Lee Gardner that shares the same title, but adds a subtitle: 'Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West's Greatest Escape'. In other words, it's a true story but it's an action-filled one that ought to translate well to a graphic novel format.
And it does, from the opening page of an empty train track by a river, where a solitary figure sits in wait. It's 1876 and Henry Lewis Chouteau, a watchman for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, is waiting for the number four express train. Four men take him captive, grill him on procedure and have him give the warning signal for the train to stop, before boarding the train with bad intent because on-board are two safes containing a serious haul for them.
What follows is told chronologically by different voices, starting with the express messenger, John B. Bushnell, who puts a counter plan of his own into motion which fails pretty much instantly. This story is clearly well-researched down to the minutest detail, unfolding with police report precision. The sure and steady way it moves forward in time gets more and more ominous, as nobody's been hurt yet, merely threatened, and the art aids that to no small degree. It's night and these pages are lit by oil lantern.
The colouring by Nic Chapuis is so evocative that we can almost feel it flickering at us as the gang break into the safes and eventually ride into the darkness with $10,000 in cash, one of them crying out, "Tell Allan Pinkerton and all his detectives to look for us in Hell!"
Here, we briefly jump out of chronological order, to explain that. The Pinkertons had been seeking the James boys and the Younger boys for a while, but had only managed to kill and maim some of their family members, along with complete innocents, in a string of poorly staged raids. The police weren't much help either, gaining critical information but then stupidly slipping it to the press, so providing the gang with a major heads-up to get out of Missouri.
They head up to Minnesota in search not only of new game but of revenge and we follow each step of their progress, with neat little snippets called out for historical attention. There's a great page where Cole Younger gives a little girl a ride on the horse he's exercising. Her name means nothing to him, but Miss Horace Greeley Perry would grow up to be a journalist and the editor of a paper in St. Peter, MN, where she would write about the Youngers.
Eventually we get to Northfield, a quiet little town south of St. Paul with only one bank, which they plan to rob, and we're right back to an increasingly tense focus on detail and an expanding cast of characters. Even if you aren't aware of the history, the inclusion of the Northfield Raid in the title of the source book ought to tell you that something serious is going to go down here and it surely does, with the town fighting back because it's their money in the bank's safe and, like most banks of the time, it's uninsured. Before long, "Division Street, 80 feet wide, had become Hell's shooting gallery with the outlaws the targets."
I love the detail here and I love the art. We don't just see what happens, we know why it happens the way it does. We know why this man refuses to play ball with the bank robbers and why there's irony in that one shooting one of them dead. We discover who shoots who in every instance, why some died and why some were merely injured and even a little bit of the background to how it all went down this way. And the art is dynamic and colourful and shifts a lot from wide shots to close-ups, as the frame requires. We get to see the big picture, sometimes a huge picture, but we're in the middle of this raid, caught up with the townsfolk in the gunfight.
My favourite part of this book is surely the two pages that document the immediate aftermath of the robbery, after the surviving outlaws escape the town and its people take stock of what went on in Northfield. We hear from new widows and street gawkers, as the dead outlaws were left in the street where they fell. We hear from students locking themselves inside their dormitory with axes for a few days and a druggist collecting a bullet fired at him from the street as a memento. These two pages are incredibly resonant and they remind us in no uncertain fashion that bank robberies aren't just about the moment, whatever the legends say.
There's a lot more of this sort of detail to come, as the rest of the book is taken up with the search for these outlaws, an effort which draws men from Minneapolis and St. Paul. There's an inevitability in how this unfolds, as it was the largest manhunt in U.S. history up until that time, but it's also a tale of incompetence and missed opportunities, of glory seekers and frustration. Again, it features the voices of many, all sourced from copious research. Many of these voices are authentic, the words actual quotes from those involved, whether outlaw, policeman or bystander.
I enjoyed this immensely. It's a fascinating slice of American history, a bloody chapter that's very much of its time but also perfect for adaptation into a visual medium. It's been told many times on screen, of course, whether big or small, and probably many times in comic books too, but I'm not an expert on them. This is my first experience of it in graphic novel form and it's a thing of beauty. ~~ Hal C F Astell