The Sons of Liberty, Book I is the first installment in Alexander and Joseph Lagos’ 2010 graphic novel series of the same name. Book II came out last year, but I haven’t gotten to that one yet. The premise is that two slave boys in colonial America acquire superpowers via experiments into electricity performed on them after they escape from their master, a Virginia tobacco farmer. The boys are Graham and Brody, and they come under the tutelage of fictionalized Benjamins Lay and Franklin in 1760.
The book is unusual for several reasons. There aren’t a ton of graphic novels set in the Revolutionary period, nor does Random House put out all that many graphic novels, for that matter. But it provides a great opportunity to take a quick look at a rather unpleasant chapter in American legal history: laws having to do with slavery.
One of the main antagonists in the story is a slave catcher by the name of Cole Walker, who does not appear to have been based on an actual historical figure. This is actually something of a problem. There weren’t any “free states” before 1776, so this wasn’t nearly as fraught an issue as it would prove to be in the nineteenth century. The thing of it is, Walker seems to be acting as if he had powers which did not really exist until the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793 (not to be confused with the much harsher Fugitive Slave Act of 1850), almost a generation and two national governments after the events in this part of the story. It’s not clear to me that slave catchers who had no other vocation really existed much before the early-to-mid nineteenth century. At that time slave catching appears to have been done by sheriffs and other officials rather than private individuals. Even the ones that did exist in the eighteenth century wouldn’t have had the legal authority to apprehend any black person they suspected of being a runaway slave.
But whether they intended to or not, the authors have captured something accurate about the phenomenon of runaway slaves in the eighteenth century, namely that trying to get back to Africa was not as unrealistic a goal as it sounds. Why? Because they didn’t really have anywhere else to go, particularly not from as far north as Virginia. Slavery was legal in all of the colonies, and it was not until the 1780s that any of the states began to gradually abolish slavery. Even Canada had legal slavery until Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. The Underground Railroad wouldn’t even exist until the nineteenth century. Some slaves did flee towards Spanish Florida, which offered freedom to any slave who was Catholic or converted to Catholicism, and this did serve as the motivation for the Stono Rebellion in 1739. But Graham and Brody are in Virginia, apparently not all that far from Philadelphia,* so running south wouldn’t have been a terribly attractive option. There are records of slave owners in Virginia taking out classified ads about escaped slaves, many of which mention the escapees either heading south or heading for a boat. Those were really the only two alternatives, other than simply passing for a freeman, which is what Graham and Brody ultimately settle on. But until that situation worked itself out, trying to get on a ship and go back to Africa was one of the more plausible options available to them.
Regardless, being a fugitive slave was a dangerous proposition, even in the eighteenth century. And given that this is a fairly clear alternate history, one could simply posit that the conflict over slavery took a different form in this version of the story. But by the time tensions over slavery got to the point that they seem to have in The Sons of Liberty, the US was only a few decades, not over a century, from the bloodiest conflict in its history. But given that the real Ben Franklin had only just started down the road towards abolitionism by the mid 1760s, whereas this one seems already a fairly committed abolitionist, we may just be seeing the authors engaging in a bit of creative anachronism to serve the plot.
As a graphic novel, the work isn’t precisely a stellar example of the type. There are some pretty unfortunate font choices that make certain parts difficult to read, something the authors seem to have picked up on halfway through, as this changes for the better. The action scenes are also a bit hard to follow. But the concept is interesting enough that we’ll be back to take a look at the second book in a few weeks. Most of the major comics publishers tend to be a little leery of exploring issues as fraught and unpleasant as slavery, so it’s encouraging to see someone taking it on.
*The real Abingdon, VA is in far southwest Virginia, just north of Bristol, along the Virginia/Tennessee border, but it wasn’t settled until the late 1760s/early 1770s and wasn’t called “Abingdon” until 1778, so the “Abingdon” in the book is likely a fictional place, given its apparent proximity to Philadelphia.