Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy


By Nathan Hale (Abrams/Amulet Books)
ISBN: 978-0-4197-0396-6 (HB)

Author/cartoonist Nathan Hale has a famous namesake and has been riffing on him, with great effect, for nearly a decade now. I don’t know if he – and his familial collaborators – have any genealogical connection to the American undercover operative and war hero of the same name, but the lightly comedic cartoon history books – such as Alamo All-Stars, Big Bad Ironclad and more bearing their shared name – are a sheer, educative treat. They make some pretty tough and harrowing material palatable and memorable by mixing fact and happenstance with a witty veneer of whimsy. You might also want a peek at more of his general fiction fun stuff like Rapunzel’s Revenge, One Trick Pony and Apocalypse Taco

Debuting the series in 2012, One Dead Spy sets the scenario on a surreal yet jolly note as September 22nd 1776 sees a dim but jolly executioner and British Army Provost bring an earnest young man to the Hanging Tree on Manhattan Island. The eager crowd of spectators soon leave after learning the day’s entertainment is not the arsonist plaguing the district but only a spy. Moreover, even he can’t be dealt with promptly because no one’s brought the official orders…

With time to kill, Hangman and Nathan Hale strike up a conversation: discussing last words, possible regrets, sandwiches and – eventually – just how a meek school teacher became America’s “first” spy. As is duly noted, Nathan Hale really wasn’t a very good one…

The delay is then further extended by a bizarre event involving a magic tome (“The Big Huge Book of American History”) that shows him all his nascent nation’s years to come – a key factor in future volumes – and Hale becomes a revolutionary era Scheherazade, spinning yarns to extend his last moments on Earth…

Rendered in welcoming, comfortable but fact-intense muted color and monochrome cartoon strips with beguiling overtones of the Horrible History books, “unlucky” Hale’s own unremarkable life unfolds, tracing the build-up to and key moments of the War of Independence through his acquaintance with figures such as George Washington, Ben Tallmadge, Henry Knox,

Major battles like Bunker Hill, Winter Hill and the siege of Boston are demythologised and legendary figures such as Ethan Allen (and his Green Mountain Boys), traitorous Major Robert Rogers and Colonel Thomas Knowlton are reassessed. It was Knowlton who convinced the obsessively honest and utterly out of his depth Hale to take up the shameful role of clandestine information-gatherer in his one and only espionage mission…

And as this book closes with the promise of more gallows’ yarns to come, there-even an illustrated section offering ‘A Little More Biographical Info About…’ Hale Knox, Knowlton, Allen, Benedict Arnold, Rogers, Stephen Hempstead, Benjamin Tallmadge and the actual execution of our spy star as well as map of North America showing which nations owned what in 1775; a full bibliography; a Q&A feature and ‘First to Defy, First to Die!’ – an 8-page mini-comic tale of African American Revolutionary and former slave Crispus Attucks who died during the 1770 Boston Massacre.

Charming, wittily informative, extremely funny and delightfully compelling, Hale’s cartoon tales detail incredible exploits that will enthral you and your kids and – like the other volumes of this wonderful series – ought to be a treasured part of every school library… if we ever have those again…
Text and illustrations © 2012 Nathan Hale. All rights reserved