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Arts & Culture

Ohio Native Peers Back At Kent State Shooting In New Graphic Novel

An excerpt from 'Kent State: Four Dead In Ohio' by graphic novelist Derf Backderf.
An excerpt from 'Kent State: Four Dead In Ohio' by graphic novelist Derf Backderf.

Fifty years ago, the Ohio National Guard killed four unarmed Kent State students during a peace rally opposing the expansion of the Vietnam War. While it triggered massive outrage on campuses across the country, a Gallup poll the next day found nearly 60% of Americans blamed the students.

Now, a half-century later, graphic novelist and Ohio native Derf Backderf has written “Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio," a work of narrative journalism mixing re-created, painstakingly-drawn scenes with facts and figures that contextualize the tensions of that week.

Backderf’s throughline, though, is the story of the titular four who died.

“By learning about these kids, and seeing their hopes, fears, dreams, how they interacted with each other, how they moved through their day, in many ways so typically a college kid… when they’re cut down, it packs a wallop," he says. "And you feel it. And that’s what you want good history to be like. You want it to be felt."

Backderf himself was a 10-year-old living in nearby Richfield at the time of the shooting. In the book’s prologue, he writes that seeing the Ohio National Guard outside a local truck drivers’ strike was what made the unrest and news of the wider world real to him.

“I know that sounds obnoxiously precocious, 10 years old, but it’s true," he says. "And that led me to being a high school journalist, led me to getting a journalism scholarship to Ohio State and going on to being a political cartoonist. So I see a straight line from Kent State to my early career. That’s why I’ve carried this story with me. I have this personal connection to it for what it sparked in me."

The cover of 'Kent State: Four Dead In Ohio' by Derf Backderf.
Credit Abrams Books
The cover of 'Kent State: Four Dead In Ohio' by Derf Backderf.

Originally, “Kent State” was slated to be published on the shooting's anniversary on May 4. While the COVID-19 pandemic delayed that plan, the book’s themes of dissent and unrest, protest and government response have only become more relevant in the past four months.

“It’s chilling. It is absolutely chilling," Backderf says. "I hope that 'Kent State' serves as a cautionary tale and gives people pause. Because that’s what I intended it to do. You have to know: When you threaten those in power, truly threaten them, their response can be deadly.”

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