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The Manning Trial's Graphic Novelization Gives Color, Humanity to Legal Greyness

Clark Stoeckley's 'The United States vs. Private Chelsea Manning' is a necessary primer.

Image: cstoeckley.com

In this wild and disruptive age of digital monopolies, mass surveillance, whistleblowers, and Internet Freedom Hipsters, admitting you’re not well versed in the United States v. Manning trial might as well be blasphemy. Clark Stoeckley’s graphic novel of the courtroom drama, The United States vs. Pvt. Chelsea Manning, then, is practically a godsend.

Whether or not you agree with Manning’s actions, there is no denying her historic importance. As the first whistleblower (years before Snowden) known to digital natives, Manning set off the United States government’s persecution of WikiLeaks and changed the public conversation about the wars in the Middle East, the importance of digital rights and the rights of whistleblowers, and even how to properly cover a trans woman in the press. Wading through Alexa O’Brien’s extensive database of the Manning trial or the transcripts from the Freedom of the Press stenographers, however, is a dry and boring chore that no one but the most dedicated Internet Freedom Hipster has time for.  

Combining O’Brien’s database and the transcripts from the Freedom of the Press foundation with Stoeckley’s own courtroom sketches however, made reading the trial infinitely more accessible. It’s such a simple concept, and yet no one had ever turned a trial into a graphic novel before.

Chelsea Manning is real life superhero so a comic style graphic account seemed fitting” said Stoeckley in an interview. When he first started drawing the proceedings though, Stoeckley admits he “was a mess of a courtroom sketch artist” as he had never done it before, having “abandoned  drawing long ago to pursue conceptual performance art.” He describes picking up the pencil and sketching the drama in the courtroom as “a duty” given that cameras were not allowed in the courtroom.

Stoeckley’s drawings themselves are simplistic and sharp but detailed enough to capture the essence and personality of the witness or lawyer speaking, or chart or photograph displayed in court. It took Stoeckley a few visits to Fort Meade before he was able to settle on this style, and roughly “six months into the pretrial I had the ‘ah hah’ moment and decided to add speech bubbles,” he said, and “from that point on I drew with the intention of illustrating a book.”

One particularly touching set of panels in the graphic novel, where a visual representation of the court proceedings really added to the text, were drawings of family photos of Manning with her older sister Casey Manning, who cared for her when their alcoholic parents could not. The purpose of these family photos being displayed in court was to give a portrait of Manning’s childhood, but to the reader, it pulls quite hard on the heart strings, especially in conjunction with Casey’s testimony.  

The storytelling in the book is sparse, naturally progressing with the evolution of the courtroom drama, which ranges from the government denying Manning’s witnesses to Judge Lind making the rare concession to the defense. Stoeckley said he tried to be as “objective as possible throughout the book” to everyone involved but couldn’t deny his bias to Manning, which shows in the portrayal of Specialist Jihrleah Showman as the trial's villian.

I asked Stoeckley why Showman and not, say, Adrian Lamo, who informed the military of Manning’s whistleblowing to WikiLeaks, was portrayed in this way. He explained the damage Lamo did to Manning was already done, and Manning herself was ready to move beyond that and address her motivation for why she leaked documents in the first place. Showman’s testimony was incredibly damaging to the defense, explained Stoeckley, and came across more like a “personal vendetta when she started making statements in court that hadn’t been put in writing” trying to prove that Manning was a spy and lacking any “allegiance to America.”

Lamo, however, ended up benefiting the defense because his testimony revealed Manning’s “intent as good. His appearance in the book is brief, as his questioning, which was incredibly quick and straightforward and involved answering yes or no questions based on chat logs. Manning’s lawyer Coombs examined Lamo like this, explained Stoeckley, because Coombs had already learned of Lamo’s tendency to “twist words and answer things in a difficult way.”

As a whole, The United States  vs -- Pvt. Chelsea Manning isn’t the most comprehensive account of the trial, and at times leaves the reader with more questions than answers. It’s a good jumping off point though, and taken at face value, the graphic novel is a historical document that makes moist an otherwise dry and hard to swallow chunk of text.