Washington’s Gay General
Two of the biggest trends in graphic novels over the past few years are graphic memoir (biographies and autobiographies in comic format) and non-fiction comics (particularly those about scientific topics or history). I love both, as I find them both educational and a terrific use of the combined textual/visual nature of comics. Nothing gives you a better way of sharing someone’s experience or understanding new material.
I thought Washington’s Gay General, by Josh Trujillo and Levi Hastings, was going to fall into the latter category. It’s subtitled “The Legends and Loves of Baron von Steuben”, described as “one of the most important, but largely forgotten, military leaders of the American Revolution.” He created essential organizational methods for the Continental Army, including training, and he was also gay, at least as we understand it today.
I knew this was going to be different when it opened with a meditation on who gets remembered in history and how some want queer people to be invisible. Before we find out about Von Steuben, we see Josh and Levi learning about him. This is clearly not a standard history; instead, it’s a search for inspiration and historical role models. Von Steuben accomplished amazing things while being flamboyantly himself, and the authors use his model as a jumping-off point for their own stories of coming out and acceptance. It’s an unusual blend of the two genres I mentioned above that makes this graphic novel feel like a friend sharing information they’ve found and are excited about.
There’s consideration of how we identify homosexuals in history, particularly those from eras before the word was coined. Then the book begins educating the reader on who the title personality was. Von Steuben brought Prussian discipline to a bunch of farmers, which allowed them to defeat the world’s greatest military power at that time. And he didn’t even speak English. Plus, he was an immigrant, which caused people to treat him differently.
Before that, back home, he was an ambitious soldier who wasn’t above bending the truth to advance himself. The question of how much of this is true and how much is wishful thinking or modern reinterpretation kept fluttering at the back of my mind. At times, that’s even foregrounded by the author’s narration. Perhaps the closest similar project I can think of is Drunk History, where someone tells someone else a story where the underlying bits are mostly accurate.
The book is gorgeously illustrated, in shades of black, white, grey, and an electric blue that gives everything an unworldly feel that also reminds me of the shadows created in a world illuminated by candlelight.
The back and forth between the reader, the authors, and the subject make the current lessons from long-ago history more obvious. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story, and what I’m most left with is the need for everyone to recognize themselves in our history, to see others like themselves. That’s what will stick with me, the comments about how important recognition is, not Von Steuben’s rather challenging life, with his debts and his (possible) young lovers.
(The publisher provided an advance digital review copy.)