A review by Bill Cooke for Gears of Biz.
We all know the story by now. Lin-Manuel Miranda read an Alexander Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow on vacation, and the rest was history. He wrote the smash-hit Broadway musical Hamilton, which has transcended the stage since its release in 2015 to become a cultural phenomenon. And it seems everyone has been capitalizing on the show’s success, from the many Hamilton exhibits that have opened throughout the country, to the Hamilton books that have been finding their way to shelves in a steady stream. But for Jonathan Hennessey, who has been a graphic nonfiction author for more than a decade, the idea of trying to live up to the musical’s well-deserved hype was never the main goal.
“My graphic novel can’t possibly compete with the musical,” Hennessey tells Bustle. “It can aspire to be as good, innovative, and different a graphic novel as Hamilton is a Broadway production. But that’s a degree of difficulty almost no one in their whole careers will ever achieve.”
Instead, Hennessey, and illustrator Justin Greenwood, focused on telling as much of the historically accurate story behind “The 10 Dollar Founding Father” as they could. For fans of the stage show who are looking to dive deeper into the real history that inspired it, Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History Of An American Founding Father is just what you need on your TBR.
“The times in which Alexander Hamilton lived were as unique as he was. Think about it: from a childhood in the tropics of the Caribbean, to the battlefields of the Revolutionary War, to a bygone New York City that’s almost unimaginably different from our modern conception of it. Comics have rarely taken us to these places and events. There was so much to explore. And there was such a great challenge for Jason and me in making sure those events and places were represented accurately and well,” Hennessey says.
But with traditional biographies typically running at near 1000 pages, how did Hennessey decide what of Hamilton’s fascinating life was most important to include in the less forgiving space of a 168-page graphic novel?
“I was compelled to include the attitudes and episodes of the real Alexander Hamilton that might make one skeptical of him. The stage play rushes past his youth, and entirely leaves out Hamilton’s role in darker events from American history like The Newburgh Conspiracy, The Pennsylvania Mutiny, The Whiskey Rebellion, Shay’s Rebellion, and the schemes of several northern, New England states to secede from the Union in the very early 1800s,” Hennessey says.
Another unique thing about the graphic novel when compared to the musical was Hennessey’s insistence on facts verses dialogue, something he believes is crucial to telling Hamilton’s story in the fullest way possible.
“It’s key for a nonfictional Alexander Hamilton book at this time to do this: to challenge Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical from becoming the document of record of the man’s life and legacy,” Hennessey says. “To be fair, neither Miranda as a playwright nor his colleagues as producers ever intended to do such a thing. But the play has taken on a life of its own. Because for many it’s such a powerful experience. And emotions about it can occlude and distort the history behind it.”
Some things you won’t see here as a result? The possible love triangle between Angelica, Eliza and Alexander; the emotionally hard-hitting focus on Alexander’s eldest son Phillip’s death; or Aaron Burr as the compelling, morally ambiguous cautionary tale. In turn Hennessey focused on letting the history speak for itself.
“About 70-80% of everything spoken as dialogue in this book actually comes from a primary source. That is, most of the dialogue is made up of direct quotes cited from people who were participants in or eyewitnesses to history. Much come from Hamilton’s own letters, written from or to him,” Hennessey says.
But what of those who would rather not delve into the actualities of history, favoring Miranda’s brilliant fictionalized account instead? Hennessey still thinks there is something here for them, if only just as a study of the genius maneuvers Miranda made to tell his story.
“For the hardcore Lin Manuel-Miranda fans, I invite them to dive into the version of Alexander Hamilton that is more supported by historical facts. In doing that, there is at the very least a much deeper and sophisticated experience of appreciating the play they already love so much to be had,” Hennessey says. “They’ll really get on intimate terms with the challenges the musical faced—and the tough creative choices that Miranda needed to make in the name of music and stagecraft. It’s like getting close up enough to a master’s painting to see the brushstrokes.”
Alexander Hamilton by Jonathan Hennessey, $12.54, Amazon
Interestingly, too, Hennessey is following in Miranda’s footsteps with very similar goals behind their respective Hamilton stories: to show people in our modern America how far we have come…and yet how far we have still to go.
“In this politically rocky period, [it’s] urgent for Americans to develop informed opinions about how and why we came to have the government we have. The one Hamilton helped make,” Hennessey says. “I think millions of us right now are questioning even the most basic precepts about what government is and what it’s supposed to do. And on the other hand, there are thousands scheming and working to rewrite the story of America. And they’re doing that for their own ideological ends. In all this whirling, it’s crucial to have the facts. To have an accurate picture of the storied past that all sides are using to shape the present.”