The Kents
John Ostrander, writer,
Timothy Truman &
Tom Mandrake, illustrators
(DC Comics, 1999; collected
from the mini-series, 1997-98)

I didn't plan on reading The Kents, a 12-issue DC Comics mini-series on the lives of Kent family ancestors in Kansas in the mid-19th century. Keeping Superman, the ultimate do-good superhero, interesting on a monthly basis seems difficult enough; what possible interest could there be in an account of his adopted family's mortal forebears?

I'm not sure what moved me to pick up a copy of the collected series, but I'm glad I did. Anyone with even a mild interest in the U.S.'s Civil War era should do the same.

Writer John Ostrander did a tremendous amount of research to put this series together. Set largely in the 1860s, it follows the Kent family patriarch and his two eldest boys as he moves to Kansas to support the North's efforts to bring Kansas into the Union as a slave-free state. The effort was successful, but Kansas became a keystone in the tumultuous years that followed.

The two boys, Nate and Jeb, went in separate directions once their father was killed by pro-slave factions and the region moved inextricably towards war. With the Kents fighting on opposite sides of the war, they had the opportunity to rub elbows with an incredible number of the larger-than-life characters of the day, including Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Frank and Jesse James, Cole Younger, John Wesley Hardin, George Custer, Bloody Bill Anderson, William Quantrill, John Brown, Sen. Jim Lane and more.

The Kents' fictional story gives a real feel for the events and emotions that dominated that dark period of American history. They and those they knew gave a personal face to the complex issues of slavery, racism, Native American issues and the law of the gun.

To snag readers of the Superman books, the story is couched as a series of letters between Pa Kent and his otherworldly son, Clark, regarding a trunk full of letters and journals from those years unearthed on the Kents' Smallville, Kansas, farm. Much of the tale is narrated by excerpts from those letters and journal entries. So Superman never makes an appearance in the book, and his alter ego, Clark Kent, makes only a few passive cameos.

Perhaps an error of the book is the similarity between the likenesses of Clark Kent and the 1860s protagonist, Nate. That might make sense if there was an actual blood connection between them, but given that Clark's DNA came from Krypton, not Kansas, should eliminate much family resemblance.

Otherwise, I have no complaints about the art. Timothy Truman, who drew two-thirds of the series, seems most at home in the American West, and his experience there serves him well in this Civil War setting. Tom Mandrake, who drew the final third, did a less impressive job, but it only suffers in comparison to Truman's excellent work.

I usually don't have much to say about the letterer of a series, but Bill Oakley helped capture the feeling of journals and letters by providing each character with a distinctive font style, so each had a quickly recognizable "voice" in the tale.

I didn't plan on reading The Kents. But once I started, I didn't want it to end. And the weight of history it unearthed stayed with me long after I finished.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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