Review: Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio

Kent State Four Dead in Ohio

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, Derf Backderf. New York: Abrams Comicarts, 2020.

Summary: A graphic non-fiction account of the shooting of four students at Kent State University, focusing on the students who died, and the sequence of events leading up to the shooting, and the dynamics within the National Guard Troops sent to suppress the student demonstrations.

Today marks 50 years since the shootings that took the lives of four Kent State students and wounded nine others, some disabled for life. I grew up about 35 miles from Kent in nearby Youngstown. Sandy Scheuer, a student walking between classes, grew up in Boardman, a Youngstown suburb. She was a sweet, apolitical, speech pathology major until one of the shots severed her jugular. She bled to death in minutes. I was a high school sophomore at the time. We walked around school the day after utterly stunned.

The others who died were Allison Krause, Jeff Miller, and Bill Schroeder. This new graphic non-fiction work by Derf Backderf traces the last days and final moments of these four students, from May 1 to May 4. It also covers the events surrounding the shootings. It begins with the announcement of Richard Nixon of the expansion of the Vietnam conflict into Cambodia, and the student reaction, including extensive rioting at Ohio State, a debacle for then governor James Rhodes, running for Senate. with a primary election coming up that week. Backderf profiles the Ohio National Guard, portraying these “weekend warriors” as coming into Kent from a tense standoff between teamsters and “scab” truckers in nearby Richfield. Short of sleep and already on edge from fear of snipers and other attacks, they arrive in Kent confronting students who have gutted a number of downtown businesses, and set an ROTC building on fire. Furthermore, a swirl of rumored threats put them on further edge.

Bill Schroeder was an ROTC student, likable yet a serious student with increasing doubts about the war. Jeff Miller, a transfer student loved the Kent bar and music scene but was increasingly upset by the war, and the Guard presence, having been gassed and eluded helicopter surveillance to get back to his home. Allison Krause, a politically engaged student also had encounters with an increasingly hostile Guard, and was amid the demonstrators. Both Schroeder and Scheuer were in a parking lot more than 400 feet from where the shots were fired. The closest students were at least 150 feet away. Backderf’s accounts of these students corresponds to others I’ve read.

While Backderf’s focus is on the students, he does explore radical elements with the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weatherman that had been on campus, but apparently cleared out before the student demonstrations on May 4. Unfortunately, Jeff Miller’s red headband, matched descriptions of the headwear of some of the radicals. Backderf also gives attention to a suspicious photographer, Terry Norman, apparently working for the FBI or another agency. Backderf note that he was armed and in the middle of the demonstrations on May 4. He also explores the possibilities of significant government infiltration of the campus prior to the shootings.

Two things stand out in the account of the shooting. One is the origin of the shooting. Backderf, like others, cannot come to a definitive conclusion, beyond focusing on Company G, and the reported huddle that occurred in the minutes before they opened fire. All the Guardsman were “locked and loaded” meaning that had live ammunition clips in their semiautomatic rifles, with a round in the firing chamber. Guns were reloaded  with new clips afterward and no one was ever held accountable for the shootings.

The other thing that “graphically” stood out was the portrayal of the deaths and wounds of each student, including portrayals of entry and exit wounds, along with text describing the damage rendered by each bullet that struck a student. The force of an M-16 gunshot can fatally wound at 2 miles. One round penetrated a plate of steel in a sculpture. I have seen the bullet hole. Casualty numbers do not convey the terror of those moments, how the students who died never had a chance, and the utter waste of what occurred.

Although this is a graphic work, it is not fiction but an attempt to render the history of these events graphically. The artist spent time onsite, and his renderings of places, including Kent’s downtown bars are accurate. He interviewed people close to the four students and spent extensive time in other interviews and in the Kent archives. The back matter includes extensive notes detailing Backderf’s research.

On this 50th anniversary, amid a time of a country in a health crisis, an economic crisis, and already facing deep divisions, this book portrays how demonstrations can go horribly wrong. Violent words can accelerate to property damage and attacks on others. Sometimes, the forces called to intervene are not adequately prepared or properly led. Political officials at every layer of government can de-escalate or exacerbate tensions by their words and actions.

The subtitle of this work is “Four Dead in Ohio,” quoting the words from “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, released later that summer. At the conclusion of performances, these words are followed by “how many more?” I hope this work, conveying the history of what happened to the Kent State students will renew our commitment to “no more,” even as occurred in the summer following these events. Some of us will never forget, some of us need to remember, and some of us may need to learn from this history to avoid repeating it.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review galley of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Month in Reviews: November 2014

November marked my first foray into the world of graphic novels, another volume in Morris’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a George MacDonald fantasy and a thought-provoking book on Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” There were a number of good theological books in this month’s list as well including an excellent book on dogmatic aesthetics from a young theologian, an extremely helpful book on spiritual direction, a concise book reflecting the latest scholarship on the life of Paul and a provocative book on death before the Fall. So here’s the list:

1. Birmingham RevolutionEdward Gilbreath. Gilbreath briefly sketches the outlines of King’s life but focuses on the events at Birmingham, including the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, that led to the writing of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

2. Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris. This is the second volume of Morris’s three volume biography covering Roosevelt’s years as President, from the assassination of McKinley, to the Panama Canal, to setting aside millions of acres of National Parks and Monuments.

KingTheodore RexAestheticsLiving Paul


3. Dogmatic Aesthetics, Stephen John Wright. Wright, a young scholar, proposes a framework in Christian theology for aesthetics ground in our doctrine of Christ. Throughout, he dialogues with the theology of Robert Jenson.

4. The Living Paul, Anthony C. Thiselton. This is a concise treatment of the life of Paul reflecting recent scholarship and dealing with questions of Paul in relation to Jesus as well as Paul’s view of women.

5. Spiritual Direction, Gordon T. Smith. A thoughtful yet practical introduction to spiritual director that looks at the roles of both director and directee.

Life of mindSeasons of MistSpiritual direction

6. Season of MistsNeil Gaiman. Volume 4 of his “Sandman” series and my introduction to graphic novels with this story of Lord Morpheus descending into hell to rescue a former lover he had consigned to Lucifer’s domain.


7. The Life of the Mind, Clifford Williams. This is another concise book that makes a good case for the intrinsic worth of thinking well, how one begins to cultivate the mind and tensions for Christians in the life of the mind.

8. Beginning with the Word, Roger Lundin. Lundin, an English professor, explores the radical doubt of modern literary theory and how a Christian framework might provide a basis for meaning and belief.


9. The Princess and Curdie, George MacDonald. This is the sequel to the Princess and the Goblin in which Curdie is given a special gift and employs it to attempt to rescue Princess Irene, her father the King, and his kingdom from a conspiracy of councilors and servants with malicious intent.

10. Death Before the Fall, Ronald E. Osborn. An impassioned and well-written argument dealing with both biblical literalism and a theodicy of animal predation, suffering and death, for those not accepting “young earth” creationism. The author spends the first two-thirds of the book on the issue of literalism, only the last third on the title them itself.

Looking over the list for the month, I’m reminded again of the idea that with so many good books, I just don’t have time for bad ones. I hope these reviews are helpful to you in finding something good or maybe a good gift for Christmas!

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists

The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists
The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Why do you read all those comic books?” “They are not comics, dad, they are graphic novels, and maybe you should try one before knocking them.” “OK, so where should I start?” It was a dialogue more or less like this that led to reading Seasons of Mist, Volume 4 of the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman. My son thought this among the best of graphic novels. I’d read American Gods earlier this year and liked it so he thought this would be good for me to try.

I have to say after reading this that I’m not sold, but at least I’ve had a taste, and I might be willing to have another taste. But don’t look for a number of reviews of graphic novels. I think I’m going to stick to print, perhaps for the reason that the story I imagine in my head is always more interesting than the one someone can draw.

The story in brief is that the family of Dream, or Lord Morpheus, convenes a council at which Dream is called out for sentencing his lover, Nada to Hell. And Dream concludes that he is in the wrong and prepares to attempt to liberate her, risking going up against Lucifer, who is seeking revenge for a previous raid on Hell. The surprise revenge is that Lucifer empties Hell, permits Dream to cut off his wings, and gives him the Key to Hell. The remainder of this volume deals with the consequences of turning loose the inhabitants of Hell on the earth, rival gods and other supernatural beings only too glad to liberate Dream of the Key to Hell, the final resolution, and what happens to Nada. (I won’t spoil this for those not in the know.)

The most interesting character in all this is Dream, not in the sense of a character you like but one who is complex–intelligent, cruel and tender by turn, and capable of surprising both his rivals and the reader. Many of the other beings tend to be snarky, coarse, crude or silly. As in much of literature, the character of Lucifer is among the most interesting and Gaiman takes this in some unique directions.

Perhaps the most interesting idea in all of this is Gaiman’s exploration of the nature of Hell and the idea that the eternal punishment is one that its victims actually want as payment for their sins and that the bonds of Hell are ones that are self-inflicted. All this is particularly interesting in light of the reconstituted Hell at the end.

Intentional or not, Gaiman’s cosmology strikes me as somewhat gnostic, with a distant and removed Creator and various intermediary supernatural beings and demons who intersect with and shape the affairs and destinies of people. Like American Gods, he draws on the gods of mythologies from around the world. Frankly, I find a Christian cosmology far preferable, as interesting and quirky as some of the “gods” and supernatural beings are. But this is fiction.

I have no point of comparison with regard to the artwork. The “inkers” are supposed to be among the best. I do note the use of different palettes to correspond to the mood of a particular part of the story from pastel to pastoral to vivid reds (particularly in Hell and conflict scenes). The grays and blacks that are characteristic of sections in which Dream appears seem appropriate.

All told, I’d have to say that if lent other examples of this genre, I’d read them but I’m not going to begin buying or downloading them. This was a story that kept my attention, explored some interesting ideas, and created a peculiar universe, albeit not one I’d enjoy living in.

View all my reviews