"Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming

We're finally on our own

This summer I hear the drumming

Four dead in Ohio

Four dead in Ohio"

Ohio, Neil Young, 1970

JEFF Miller was 263ft away when the shooting started. A bullet ripped through his mouth and out the back of his skull, severing his spinal cord and caratoid artery. The 20-year-old was dead before he hit the ground.

Another bullet hit Allison Krause, also 20, in her armpit, cutting a path through organs and arteries. Sandy Scheuer was shot in the neck, severing her jugular. She was just 19. Bill Schroeder, also 19, a member of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps which prepares officers for the American military, was shot in the back.

Four students killed on May 4, 1970. Nine more were shot and wounded that day, all at the hands of the National Guard. This was America. At Kent State University in Ohio. A name that still resonates down the years.

It is now 50 years since the shootings. An event that marked the end of the 1960s in America as much as Altamont. It was a culmination of a decade of huge political upheaval in the United States fuelled by the civil rights marches and student protests against the Vietnam war and the subsequent pushback by authorities and politicians, all of which ended with blood spilled on a university campus.

It was a tragedy that was the result of a misunderstanding. In America in 1970 many in positions of power believed that armed revolution was in the air, led by militant revolutionaries like the Weathermen. But the reality of Kent State is that some of the students shot that day were not even protesting.

Five decades on, the graphic journalist Derf Backderf has revisited the events of that day. Growing up in the area, he was 10 when he saw the Guardsmen in the streets of his town Richfield because of a teamsters' strike. A few days later, those same men were on the Kent State campus.

The events of that day are a catalogue of political and military incompetence and incomprehension that in the end led to the murder of innocent students. "It's a story I've carried around with me my entire life," Backderf says. "It has fascinated me since the day it happened. In these parts, growing up near Kent State, it's part of our cultural DNA."

Backderf, who lives in Cleveland, Ohio, has written two previous works of graphic journalism, My Friend Dahmer and Trashed. "This is how I tell stories," he says simply. In Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio he revisits the events before, during and after that day. Here he talks about the shootings and their legacy.

What prompted you to revisit what happened at Kent State so many decades later?

It's a great story, that's the bottom line. Moving, dramatic, suspenseful, and it ends with an emotional gut punch. I felt it would make a good book. It's never really been told visually before, not as this kind of narrative, so that was an opportunity. Those are things I look for when I chose a project.

Do the events of that day feel in a way like unfinished business for the United States?

Definitely. No one was held accountable for the massacre at Kent State. The governor who ordered the crackdown was re-elected. Twice. The officers were all promoted. No Guardsman was convicted for shooting unarmed students. It was a travesty.

There is clearly an enormous amount of primary and secondary research that has gone into this book. How did you go about it?

Believe it or not, my degree is in journalism. It's just basic reporting here. Start with interviews, then dig into archives and court transcripts, and so on. I also worked at newspapers for 25 years before I started doing books, so it's pretty routine. I guess it's a little unusual in the comics field.

Where those you spoke to willing to talk? What is the weight of these events on them?

Most who I approached were. Some were reluctant. Others didn't want to talk, or just didn't respond to my inquiries. The massacre profoundly affected them all. Fifty years later, the students of 1970 still feel its impact, as if it happened yesterday. Many of those interviews ended in tears.

America in 1970 was a deeply divided country, but one of the things that comes across from your book is that most of the students at Kent State were students, not student revolutionaries.

I think the best history sets the record straight. Politicians and apologists spun the truth to suit their purposes, starting with portraying Kent State as a radical hotbed, which it was not. The cover-up stuck and many of those lies are still believed. My goal was to depict this event as it really was.

Law enforcement was terrified of a student uprising. How much were they scared of something that only existed in their own minds?

Paranoia is a major theme of the story. It was the mood of the country in 1970, flowing down from Nixon and his ilk, all the way to small-town officials like those in Kent, or to the Guardsmen. We see that today with the obsession on the right with Antifa, which doesn't even exist. At least in 1970, violent radicals like the Weathermen were a real organisation.

But the paranoia conjured up a threat that wasn't really there, and that led to tragedy. There's a valuable lesson there.

How much of a part do you think undercover operatives played in what happened?

Well, that's one of the big unanswered questions. There were a lot of undercover FBI on campus that weekend and we don't know precisely what most of them were up to. The CIA likely had operatives there, too, and their activities are still classified. I don't believe any of the agencies orchestrated the massacre, as some believe, but to have them stumbling around in such a volatile situation was a recipe for disaster. It was incredibly reckless.

The National Guard on duty at Kent State were exhausted and afraid. How big a factor was that in what happened?

It played a role, for sure. The governor [Jim Rhodes] and his Guard commanders didn't give a crap about the men, or about the students. All they cared about was a show of force and political grandstanding.

But essentially what happens is a catastrophic failure of leadership.

True, but don't forget there was also an element of malevolence. A few soldiers decided, for reasons still known only to them, to open fire into a parking lot full of students. There are a lot of villains in this story.

The governor wanted to showboat to his base and win an election. He bears a lion's share of blame, but he didn't pull the trigger on those guns. The guys who did committed murder and have lied about it since that day. Many have taken those lies with them to the grave.

And in the end, this is an attack on kids. We need to remember that.

Most of the 13 kids who were shot were shot in the back, or in the side as they dove for cover. Almost all of them had books in their hands. And they were so young, 18, 19, 20 years old.

In everything you have learnt about the four young people who died what struck you most?

How exceptional they were, every one of them. They would have had wonderful lives and made a difference in this world. That's our loss.

What was the impact of the Kent State shootings on the US at the time?

Earth-shaking. It changed everything. The massacre was the climax of an era of mass unrest and profound change in American society. All of these great forces that had roiled the nation throughout the 1960s came inexplicably crashing together on that grassy hillside in Kent, Ohio. Afterwards, the protest movement was basically spent. The partisan clashes died down.

America went right to brink of civil war and Kent State showed us what that would mean, in terms of blood and loss. America wisely recoiled back then. Now, 50 years later, here we are again.

Is there still a demand for justice? Or has it been largely forgotten?

Many of the students of 1970 still cry out for that, but the consensus is that justice will never be gained. I think most just want the truth. Why did those Guardsmen open fire, and who gave the order to do so?

What is the legacy of Kent State?

Not what you think it would be. The legacy, from the authorities' perspective, is that trillions of dollars have been spent over the decades to develop and deploy a vast array of non-lethal armaments to better control, or to crush, civilian protests. The Guard at Kent State had only combat weaponry.

The legacy of Kent State for modern protestors, on the other hand, is even more depressing. In 1970, the protestors never dreamt they'd be shot by their own government. They didn't even think the Guardsmen's guns were loaded. Even as bullets whizzed past, students were yelling out that they were only blanks. Today's protestors have no doubt that troops and cops will shoot them. That naivety vanished forever at Kent State.

But still protestors take to the streets by the millions. I find that courage inspiring.

In the age of Black Lives Matter protests can you see parallels between then and now?

Oh, good God, yes. The similarities are chilling. It's as if we've circled completely back around to 1970, and apparently learned nothing along the way. I felt, when I started this project four years ago, that the story of Kent State was relevant. I had no idea it would be this relevant.


Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Derf Backderf, is published by Abrams ComicArts, priced £17.99