Celebrated graphic novelist revisits deadly Kent State shooting at 50th anniversary

In ‘Four Dead in Ohio’ Akron native and author of ‘My Friend Dahmer’ Derf Backderf depicts lives of four Kent State students killed in 1970 in his new

by Lauren Dangel

We have heard the names, read the newspaper clippings and listened to that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young guitar riff. Many Northeast Ohioans have even seen the bullet holes in campus sculptures up close. However, the complexity of the lives underneath the surface of a 50-year-old narrative has been far less visible. 

On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on a crowd of unarmed students at Kent State University during a protest of the American invasion of Cambodia. They killed four students in the process. 

Acclaimed graphic novelist Derf Backderf (“My Friend Dahmer“, “Trashed“, “Punk Rock and Trailer Parks“) puts the focus on the four lives cut short in the first graphic narrative depiction of this tragedy, “Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio.” 

The book comes out Sept. 7, its release delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I spoke with Backderf about his research process and his goal in telling this story. Backderf first learned of the shooting as a 10-year-old Akron Beacon Journal paperboy, and the story has resonated with him ever since.  

He follows each of the four students, switching between their perspectives, from May 1 to 4, depicting their frustrations and hopes, and he puts a human background to the well-known list of casualties. Backderf begins his graphic novel with his own eyewitness account of Ohio National Guard presence in his hometown of Richfield. He then follows these same guardsmen along with the four students over the course of the first four days of May 1970. However, Backderf puts the lives of William Schroeder, Allison Krause, Sandra Scheuer and Jeffrey Miller at the center. The reader gets a sense of each student’s personality, goals, fears, and especially, their sentiment toward the National Guard’s presence in Kent.    

Periodically, Backderf provides context for certain groups, events, individuals and other factors that impacted Kent State’s political climate and the May 4 shooting. For example, he addresses the evolution of influence of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) on antiwar sentiment on college campuses, the mindsets and decisions of state government leaders, and the planting of FBI informants on Kent State’s campus. 

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Significantly, he does not hesitate to call out intentional misinformation from those in power. When Backderf acknowledges legitimate uncertainty and calls attention to lies from authority figures, he provides an exceptionally effective lens through which to remember these events and learn more about them. He highlights the differences among 20-somethings of the time, rather than portraying college students as united for one cause. 

The book provides an impactful display of a miscarriage of justice, and Backderf holds nothing back in depicting the friction between guardsmen and students and the brutality of the violence.   

What meant most to Backderf as he learned about the four students’ lives, he says, was “just what remarkable kids they were. I mean, all four of them were just these amazing people who would’ve gone on to do, I think, pretty significant things. And that’s the real tragedy of the story — is what we lost, as a society. There are so many assholes in the world; we can’t afford to lose the good ones, and we lost four good ones.”

Backderf committed to an extensive research process to tell this story faithfully. He gained perspectives from all angles of the story, on both sides of the rifles and beneath the surface of the narrative that has been visible for fifty years. Backderf interviewed witnesses to the shootings and people who knew the four who were killed. He also consulted Kent State University archives during his research process. Backderf explained he found the account of an unnamed guardsman particularly surprising. “The guardsman account was surprising in its bluntness,” Backderf says. “I mean, he describes these acts of brutality that [are] hard to justify in any way. I mean, bayoneting some 20-year-old girl in the back, that’s pretty hard to come up with an excuse for” — and yet, he says the guardsman revealed this with surprising confidence.

In 2020, youth activism is still visible. Media consumers hear from environmental activists such as Greta Thunberg and voices of support for gun control such as the Parkland shooting survivors. However, the critics of these and similar figures, some old enough to be their parents or grandparents are about as visible. I asked Backderf what the youth of today can learn from the story of May 4, and what their skeptics can learn from it, too. 

“It’s my belief that we’ve kind of circled right back around to 1970, in terms of rancor, in terms of divisive politics, in terms of ‘us versus them,’ and it seems like we’ve learned absolutely nothing on that journey,” Backderf says. “It’s my fear that we’re very close to another May 4. All that’s lacking right now in this country is people taking to the streets… Now the fight is all taking place online.”  

He adds, “The big lesson of May 4 is that when you threaten, truly threaten, the people in power, the price of dissent can be bitterly high.”  

As for the criticism of youth activism, Backderf says, “I don’t know that skeptics ever learn anything. That formula seems to be the same.”  

A half century on from tragedy, Taylor Hall now houses Kent State’s School of Communication Studies, of which I am a proud alumna. The power and presence of the events of May 4 were undeniable during each walk to class during my time at the university. The thought that these were students looking ahead from their 20s with a mix of hope and fear, just like me, was especially impactful when I would walk to my favorite class of my time at Kent State: Freedom of Speech in the United States. 

Backderf captures this punch to the gut in a faithful and blunt depiction. He pays tribute to distinct lives full of passion, hope and fear, not just a list of four victims.  

To read Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, call your local bookstore or the Akron-Summit County Public Library. The book is also available for purchase via publisher Abrams Books and on Amazon.

Lauren Dangel is a digital content writer and proud Kent State University graduate. She is also a football and hockey contributor for SB Nation’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish blog, One Foot Down.  

Photos: used with permission from Derf Backderf.