Henniker author adds to Freeman Colby story

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    Cover of "Freeman Colby, Vol. 2" Sarah Pearson—Courtesy of Marek Bennett

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    A panel from "Freeman Colby Vol. 2" Sarah Pearson—Courtesy of Marek Bennett

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    The cover of "Fannie Dawson" Sarah Pearson—Courtesy of Marek Bennett

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    A panel from "Fannie Dawson" Sarah Pearson—Courtesy of Marek Bennett

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    A panel from "Fannie Dawson" Sarah Pearson—Courtesy of Marek Bennett

  • A drawing of the author, as a rabbit, and Arthur Colby —Courtesy of Marek Bennett

Monitor staff
Published: 3/16/2019 8:23:35 PM

Marek Bennett was immediately drawn to the story of Freeman Colby. The artist from Henniker came across Colby’s 30-page diary in the Henniker Historical Society and instantly saw his next project. Colby, a school teacher from Henniker, joined the 39th Massachusetts Volunteers of the Union Army during the Civil War and his diary entries covered the time of September 1862 to April 1863.

“I thought it was kind of cool and I was really excited about the character,” he said. “I just got so involved with his story.”

The diary supplied Bennett with a first-hand account of Colby’s experience in the regiment, which he spent three years with. While only a small snippet of his time in the Civil War, it was full of details and stories that Bennett immediately saw in the form of a comic strip. At first, Bennett was just thinking it would be a few panels for his website. First it was one page, then a couple more panels, but it quickly began to morph into what would result in a 350-page graphic novel, The Civil War Diary of Freeman Colby, released in 2016.

“I didn’t know if it would make sense as a book,” Bennett said. “But he actually sat down and wrote out all these things and it tells a lot about his world views.”

The drawings were simple, following the detail described in Colby’s seven-month account.

The diary ends abruptly, and Bennett thought that would be the end of it. But a simple email from Colby’s great, great granddaughter opened the door for the return of Colby. Somehow she came across the book and sent a quick note. Turns out, the family was in possession of 80 pages of letters written by Colby during his time away.

In exchange for copies of his book, Bennett was given copies of the letters, which he tucked away in a folder as he was in the midst of a couple other projects.

“I said that might be useful some day,” Bennett remembers. “Because you get really close to the character.”

Then in late 2017, Bennett returned to that folder and started sifting through the pages of Colby’s writing. They were quick glimpses of his experiences, as Bennett described as what you’d see through a passing train’s window.

“My imagination kept coming back to how I could use those letters,” Bennett said.

So Bennett embarked on a research project. There was a wave of regimental history available, especially around the 50th anniversary of the Civil War’s end. Sure enough, he found one pertaining to the 39th Massachusetts Volunteers and got an idea.

While the first book stuck to Colby’s diary and what he went through, Bennett’s thoughts for a second installment would be using Colby as an avenue to tell the story of the regiment.

“With the first one, I wanted to honor his story,” Bennett said.

The Civil War Adventures of Freeman Colby, Volume 2, set for release in May, takes a much different approach than the original.

Not only does Bennett use Colby’s experiences portrayed in his letters, but includes other members of his regiment, as well as interactions he discovered in his research with other regiments during their travels. He even includes the likes of poet Walt Whitman and Sarah Lowe, a nurse working in a Washington hospital at the time.

While there is no evidence that Colby interacted with Whitman and Lowe, Bennett uses primary source text and images to intertwine the stories for his latest graphic novel.

“It’s much closer to the truth about different people’s particular experiences at the time,” Bennett said.

In his letters, Colby describes his time in a Washington hospital. During the same time frame, Whitman was known to visit hospitals in the nation’s capitol, so Bennett uses both happenings to bring the two together. While Lowe was stationed at a different hospital than the one Colby writes about, Bennett finds a way to have Colby end up in her care.

“She had a lot to say about being a nurse, being a woman in the Civil War and I wanted her in the book,” Bennett said.

With more sources and historical accounts used in the second volume, Bennett has spent more time editing and fact checking than the first, since he was drawing solely from Colby’s diary.

“It wasn’t a full story because he wasn’t writing every nitty gritty detail of life in a regiment,” Bennett said of the letters. “So I’m using him as a way to witness what his regiment went through.”

Unlike the first book, which Bennett admits he “just put it out there” and got a great response from, he always had the plan for the second account to be of the same accord.

When it came to his drawing, Bennett wanted to highlight what was truly happening and not add too much detail that would detract from the story.

“I didn’t want to improvise a lot of detail,” he said. “I wanted to keep the artwork as simple as possible.”

While the book is still a couple months from being made available, Bennett is in the midst of a kickstarter (which runs through Friday) that is aimed toward helping with the cost of printing. He’s been using advanced readers for feedback and sending sections to those who have already contributed to the project.

When Bennett first found Colby’s journal, he was working on what was supposed to be a travel journal about his time in Slovakia, where he immersed himself in the culture as an artist.

“It changed the way I looked at it and I had a much deeper experience,” Bennett said.

He figured it would be somewhere around 100 pages, but “it just grew and grew.” The end result was the 600 page graphic novel, SLOVAKIA: Fall in the Heart of Europe.

Bennett always has a few projects in the works, but is focusing on the final stage of his volume two release. He also does visits and residencies at schools and comics workshops.

For more about Bennett and his work, visit marekbennett.com.

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