It’s tough to bring history alive, particularly when all of the participants have been reduced to dust and bones by the inexorable flow of time. It’s even harder to make historical events interesting and vital to teenagers, as most any high school teacher of history can probably tell you.
With her popular webcomic The Dreamer , Lora Innes has undertaken both, writing about a modern-day teenaged girl who suddenly begins visiting the American Revolution whenever she sleeps. Her protagonist, Beatrice Whaley, finds herself drawn into the events of the British occupation of New York City, encountering the likes of Nathan Hale, William Howe, George Washington and Thomas Knowlton.
Meanwhile, in her daytime life, Bea struggles with the typical travails of a young woman, balancing the demands of schoolwork with her burgeoning interest in boys and other extracurricular activities. The two sides of her life begin to become entangled as the intrigues and romances she develops in the 18th century distract her from the “real world” of the 21st century.
Lushly drawn, The Dreamer is a visual treat, clearly designed to appeal to Innes’ core audience of young women with an interest in history. Once you accept the mechanism by which Bea is transported into the 18th century, the characters are well-developed, and, for the most part, believable. The increasing disruption of Bea’s “real” life by her sleeping adventures causes no small tension among her friends and family, and their incredulity as they learn the reason for her distracted state is well-depicted.
Aside from the unlikelihood of a young girl becoming enmeshed in the lives of so many notable figures of the age (the current story arc has Bea storming in to confront General Washington over the hanging of her good friend Captain Hale), the historical characters are exceptionally well-researched, and Innes depicts their complex and shifting motivations with obvious affection and care.
That’s not to say that the events depicted might not raise objections from scholars of the Revolution, as any fictionalized version of historical events is bound to do, but Innes puts a great deal of effort into bringing the 18th century to life for her readers. It is refreshing to see the famous – and infamous – figures of the Revolution depicted as the bawdy, wisecracking, flawed and brilliant men and women who they doubtlessly were.
Ultimately, The Dreamer should serve to engage modern students in the events of one small corner of the American Revolution, and will undoubtedly spur many readers to find out more about the period, and the remarkable people who inhabited it. More one cannot ask of any work of historical fiction.
Ms. Innes graciously agreed to answer a few questions about The Dreamer for the readers of the Journal of the American Revolution.
When I decided I wanted to tell a story about a girl who begins dreaming about America’s past, I set out to do some reading on the Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War, and then I thought I would pick one to write about. Instead, I dove into the Revolution and never left!
I became enamored with the people and stories of our nation’s founding. But more so, I realized that most Americans are illiterate when it comes to the Revolution. I get emails from new readers all the time who get interested enough in the story that they decide to research the characters on their own and are surprised to learn that so many of The Dreamer’s cast were actually real, historical figures.
That’s my favorite part of this project: watching people become inspired and interested in the Revolution to the point they begin reading about it outside of The Dreamer. It was a long war whose outcome was anything but certain, but most people don’t know that side of it; they only know quant images like happy drummer boys, Betsy Ross sewing her flag, and wooden-toothed George Washington.
The folks reading this website know that’s anything but an accurate depiction of this war, and I wanted to tell the story of the real struggle, from the ground level, to a generation who never learned it.
…and why a webcomic presentation of it?
When I was a teenager in the 90s, I discovered comics at a unique moment in comic book history. A large group of the hottest artists left Marvel and DC to embark on telling their own stories. They formed a new publisher called Image where they retained all rights to their characters. Image exploded and these men made a fortune. It left a big impression on me, as I dreamed of being a comic book artist one day.
The advent of webcomics opened a brand new avenue for anyone to try to make their own Creator-Owned comic books. The artists who started Image were already huge names in the industry, but the internet has given unknown creators a platform in which to reach an audience for relatively no overhead, without the aid of a publisher or a distributor.
It has started a new chapter in comic book history.
I knew that the story I wanted to tell—a book about history and a high-school fantasy adventure—was not what comic book publishers were traditionally looking for. Webcomics offered a way for me to find my own fans directly, without a publisher having to validate it first. So I launched The Dreamer on the internet on July 4, 2007 and very quickly a publisher found me.
I used to be fairly hard on myself for my research process because it felt sloppy and amateurish to me. I thought surely there was some sort of secret, all-encompassing database that historians had access to but I did not. In retrospect, that is silly, but I was new to research—coming from an art school—and I had absolutely no training in this area.
I began by reading biographies and books on relevant subjects written that were for young adults. I’ve found that history books for younger audiences tend to give sweeping overviews that are easy to understand and quick to read. Once I had something to hang my hat on, I began reading more specific, adult non-fiction works. From there, I began tracking down the sources mentioned in bibliographies, and you know the rest from there: it’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole of primary sources!
I live in Columbus, Ohio, and our library system has repeatedly been voted #1 in the nation. Using inter-library loans, they have been able to track down nearly every obscure and historical book that I’ve requested. I’ve taken several research trips to Colonial Williamsburg and New England and as The Dreamer has gained momentum, historians, docents and reenactors began connecting with me. These connections have been an enormous help in answering questions pertaining to their specific areas of expertise.
What inspires your artistic approach to the Revolutionary Era?
I haven’t tried to take any specific artistic approach, as in stylistically trying to make the art feel antique. I try to draw both the modern and historic parts of the story the same way so it feels congruous and each part feels as real as the other.
If anything, I would say that I’ve tried hard to fill the environments of the historic New York and Boston scenes with many details to make the reader feel like they are in a real, specific place. Many times in comic books, you can be vague when drawing the backgrounds which the characters inhabit, but I go out of my way to do the opposite.
I have a massive reference library of thousands of photos I’ve taken at historic sites and reenactments. This collection is organized by category (i.e. “18c Clothing,” “18thc Buildings,” “18thc Furniture,” etc.), and those categories are broken down into subcategories (i.e. “Children’s Clothing,” “Continental Uniforms,” “Hats & Hairstyles,” “Shoes,” etc.) so that I can quickly find the images I need while I’m drawing.
Several real historic places are featured in The Dreamer, such as Old South Meeting House, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the Beekman Mansion, and I’ve tried as hard as possible to recreate them with my art.
A fun aside, when Old South saw their building in The Dreamer, they let me know I had drawn the modern (current) podium, however, during the Revolution, a plain podium would have been in its place. It had been destroyed by The British during Boston’s occupation and told me no images of it survived, but they sent me images of contemporary podiums similar to what it would have looked like. As these things go, a friend of mine, Dr. Sam Forman, remembered seeing a sketch of the podium in question when researching the archives at Old South. Together, they were indeed able to track down an original sketch of the 18th century Old South Meeting House podium. Needless to say I did a redraw, and the historically accurate version will be featured in The Dreamer Volume 3 when it sees print this year!
What drew you in particular to the events of the British attack on New York?
I was interested in George Washington’s Spy Network, the Culper Ring, which was set up in New York City. When I began researching it, it pointed back to Washington’s earliest spy effort: Nathan Hale. Nathan Hale was a member of Knowlton’s Rangers who played a significant roll in the New York campaign. So I decided to start my story there so that events would lead up and culminate in the advent of the Culper Spy Ring, which is the point in which The Dreamer is currently.
The Dreamer starts in late August, 1776, less than two months after Independence. So it was a good starting point for the story, because it was the starting point of America.
How the heck does Bea ever get any rest in either world? 🙂