Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy
Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad!
By Nathan Hale
Amulet (an imprint of Abrams)
On shelves now
If you should find that you share your name with a Revolutionary War Hero you have various ways of making use of that fact. You could join Revolutionary War re-enactors on a regular basis and field unceasing questions about whether or not that is your real name. You could start writing historical fan fiction or fun alternative histories. Or you could follow in the footsteps of one Nathan Hale and write the number one funniest and best-written history-based graphic novel series on bookshelves today. The choice is yours. Honestly, I think you’d be better off going with that third choice, but bear in mind that not everyone is as good at Hale at doing what he does. With the debut of “Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales” we encounter a melding of fact and fiction that will please history averse children and only mildly annoy adults who cannot figure out where to put the darn thing on their shelves.
The first two books in the series have been released simultaneously and I find I cannot talk about one without the other. Though I slightly prefer Big Bad Ironclad to One Dead Spy, I can hardly jump right in and talk about the sequel before I talk about its predecessor, can I? Besides, if I hadn’t even seen Big Bad Ironclad! I’d still be talking up the wonders of book #1 in glowing hyperbolic terms. So to sum the two books up . . .
In One Dead Spy our hero Nathan Hale stands at the gallows alongside a hangman and a British Provost Marshall mere moments before he is to be hanged by the neck until dead. Suddenly he is eaten! Eaten by a big book of American history no less. After being spit out he now knows the entirety of American history and is willing to tell everything he knows. The first story that needs to be told, however, is the tale of Nathan Hale himself. And if along the way he happens to tell the stories of folks like Ethan Allen, Henry Knox, and other big and colorful characters all the better. Like a Colonial Scheherazade, Hale is spared by the childish and endearing hangman and the blowhard Provost Marshall, just so long as he keeps weaving together new tales.
Big Bad Ironclad is actually even stronger than its predecessor. By this point Hale has expanded a bit and isn’t restricting himself to mere Revolutionary War stories. We’ve skipped forward to the Civil War, which makes for kooky stories galore. I’m sure I’d heard the story of the Merrimack and the Monitor but never in such glowing terms. Hale rightly seeks out and brings to light the story of William Barker Cushing, a prankster who used his pranking skills to help win the war for the Union, as well as a cussing Swede and other interesting folks involved in the Civil War’s naval battles. Also, by book #2 Hale is giving himself a little more literary leeway. A character with the last name of Fox is presented as a walking talking fuzzy animal, acknowledged as too crazy to be accurate, but giving the book a bit of that old kid-friendly zing.
These two are, alas, cursed books. Historical graphic novels tend to be. I blame the fact that for years some of the worst, ugliest, most didactic comics out there were those created to “teach” the kids history. Historical comics are often the dregs of the comic book publishing industry. So the fact that there are now comics that are not only beautifully drawn but smart, funny, and often containing better historical facts and information than whole chunks of school textbooks out there is going to throw a couple teachers and librarians for a loop. “Hazardous Tales” follows in a fine tradition of Center for Cartoon Studies series that included Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow, Houdini The Handcuff King, and others. And like those books librarians will have a darned time figuring out where to put them on their shelves. Are they nonfiction or fiction? If nonfiction, do you put them with the other Revolutionary War / Civil War titles or do you give them a call # and put them in the graphic novel section? So many questions. So few answers.
I say that this series bears some similarities to other historical graphic novel series, but the fact of the matter is, and let’s face it, they’re 500% more fun than any of their competitors out there. The fictional trope of Nathan Hale telling his story to the child stand-in hangman and grown-up/authority figure stand-in of the Provost Marshal gives him the perfect Greek chorus. Against the hangman’s silliness and the Marshall’s pomposity Hale has the perfect dual comic foil. Add to that his storytelling style. I was reminded instantly of Steve Sheinkin’s hilarious King George: What Was His Problem?: The Whole Hilarious Story of the American Revolution, a book that acts as an ideal companion to One Dead Spy. Like Hale, Sheinkin sought to find those aspects of the Revolutionary War that would speak to child readers. And if they just happen to be exciting and amusing, so be it. Pair the two together for the best unit on the late 1700s any 4th through 6th grader ever saw.
The sheer amount of research that went into this book is impressive. Impressive too is the backmatter which tends to consist of biographies of the major players (with paintings/photographs where available), a Bibliography of pertinent sources (illustrated into its own story, naturally), a discussion of primary sources, debatable historical facts found in the “Correction Baby” section, and in the case of One Dead Spy, a bonus story. Currently public schools in most American states are wrangling with a new form of teaching called Common Core. With its increased emphasis on reading more nonfiction texts one cannot help but notice that this book would make for a rather ideal companion to many a school unit. Just sayin’.
And I mentioned they were funny, right? Not chuckle softly into your tea funny either. I’m talking snort milk out your nose funny. There is a section in Big Bad Ironclad in particular that is so well done, so hilarious, and so ridiculous that I keep going back to it just for fun. It’s a simple explanation of why two soldiers sent to repair the Merrimack and bring her north from Virginia instead ended up participating in burning it and its shipyard to a cinder. Hale draws the sequence like a gigantic board game. When the two meet the Commodore he ignores their orders to take the ship insisting that it’s safest at the shipyard. They mention that Virginia might secede. The next sequence reads, “Virginia will not join the South!” “Sir! A telegram! Virginia has joined the South!” Then everything goes swiftly downhill with the mad-eyed Commodore yelling “BURN! SINK! BURN!” Oh, it’s a hoot.
Both books in the series employ the cost-saving one-color technique many graphic novels utilize today (Babymouse, Fangbone, etc.) which allows the publisher to save costs while luring kid consumers who eschew pure black and white. The quality of the publication, however, is far higher than most graphic novels for kids out there. Thick pages and a strong binding guarantee that no matter how many reads the books receive they’ll stand up to a pounding. Hopefully they’ll be discovered too. If you sell them to the kids who loved Hale’s work on books like Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack as well as history lovers and comic book lovers in general, Hale could find himself with a significant following. Fingers crossed that he includes more historical women in his future books as well. After all, this series may be a slow burner, but trust me when I say that it’s worth discovering for folks of every age. Love `em, love `em, love `em.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- King George: What Was His Problem? by Steve Sheinkin
- Laika by Nick Abadzis
- Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm
- Thunder From the Sea: Adventure On Board the HMS Defender by Jeff Weigel
Other Blog Reviews:
- 100 Scope Notes
- Good Comics for Kids
- Back to Books
- Sharon the Librarian
- Comics Worth Reading
- 2nd Grade Reading
- (Library Lass) Adventures in Reading
- Graphic Policy
- One Dead Spy is included in New York Public Library 2012 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing list.