Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy cover

Nathan Hale (artist of the recommended graphic novel Rapunzel’s Revenge) tells true tales of American history in the new Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series, aimed at kids looking for excitement and humor. The publisher promises “history’s roughest, toughest, and craziest stories in the graphic novel format”, and that’s what Hale provides.

The first, One Dead Spy, focuses on the author’s namesake, Nathan Hale, a Revolutionary War spy famous for the quote, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” The attitude is very modern, with Hale and his hangman bantering before he’s killed and a meta-textual history book showing up to demonstrate to Hale the importance of his last words. It’s also entertaining in its sprightly refusal to take anything seriously.

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy cover

I found myself feeling bad for laughing at a story narrated by someone’s who about to die, but Hale does his best to drag us away from that part of the story, not showing us the finale. He does remind us, though, that the only famous spies are the ones who got caught. By the second book, the characters are joking about Hale’s pending death, with an almost “1001 Nights” feel to the way he says, “well, I can tell you that other story, but only if you’re not ready to hang me yet.”

The book falls firmly into the category of “using comics to educate while entertaining”, although it puts much more emphasis on the entertainment. It also subscribes to the Great Man approach to history, where biographies of a few key men are considered sufficient to understand other time periods. (I don’t recall seeing any women anywhere in either of these books.) In addition to Hale, this volume includes information about Henry Knox, a former bookseller who loved guns and became Chief of Artillery, with mini-bios in the back for other key figures. Plus, an eight-page minicomic at the end tells the story of Crispus Attacks and the Boston Massacre.

The boys this book is aimed at will greatly enjoy the Hangman character, who’s ignorant, goofy, and only wants a sandwich. The third narrator, in addition to him and Hale, is a British soldier who provides someone to argue with.

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad! cover

The second book, Big Bad Ironclad!, moves to the Civil War. The three narrators return, still waiting around to hang Hale while telling tales of future history. This time, it’s all about the naval battles — trying to build a blockade, capturing ships, fighting coastal forts, and developing new technology with the metal-plated ships known as “ironclads”. William Cushing, a prankster and hero, gets plenty of focus, as does the grumpy John Ericsson, Swedish inventor.

The hardcovers are handsome, solid and comfortable to hold. Each is printed in grey and one other color. One Dead Spy uses red; the nautical Big Bad Ironclad! uses blue. They’re also long reads for younger readers, since pages might have as many as 15 panels, yet Hale keeps it all readable. And the second book has a running joke about toilets; I think Hale knows his audience.

The series has a companion blog with background information and character sketches. The author also has a cute unpacking post for the release of the books at his blog. Two more books in the series will be out in summer 2013. (The publisher provided review copies.)

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