The Masked Bookwyrm's Graphic Novel (& TPB) Reviews

WAR... (Page 1)

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cover by Keiji NakazawaBarefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima 1987 (HC & SC TPB) 300 pages
a.k.a. Hadashi No Gen

Written and illustrated by Keiji Nakazawa.
Black & White.

Originally serialized in the Japanese comic magazine, Shukan Shonen Jampu (1972-1973)

Additional notes: published in a small format, almost digest-sized; various introductory commentaries

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Suggested mildly for mature readers

Published by New Society Publishers

Barefoot Gen tells the semi-autobiographical story of its author, growing up in Japan during World War II, in the doomed city of Hiroshima, in the months prior to that city being devastated by the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Young Gen is like any normal, rambunctious boy of any culture, and any time. Not a bad child...though not quite good, either, he gets in and out of trouble, both looking out for and looking down on his little brother. On one hand, it is a universal paean to childhood, on the other hand, it's a vivid recreation of wartime Japan in all its absurdity (old veterans teaching civil defence courses in how to use bamboo spears against the enemy on the cusp of the nuclear age) and its hardship (enduring air raids, hunger, and sinister secret police).

I'm not that familiar with Japanese comics -- manga -- a narrative medium that has been thriving in Japan for years, and which has started to take North American comicbook fans by storm in the last decade or so. So my review is as much filtered through my adjustment to the style as the substance.

In Japan (supposedly) comics are considered a legitimate art form, read by adults as readily as any normal book, and Japanese magna deal with adult themes and subject matter. And yet, there is also a curious cartooniness, a juvenileness to the presentation which is, at first, disconcerting, but becomes oddly effective as you get used to it. The figures are drawn in a cartoony way -- when angered, their teeth are gritted exaggeratedly, or sweat beads will literally fly off a character's forehead like something out of a Walt Disney Comic. When a character strikes another character...he'll fly across the room in a way reminiscent of any superpowered battle in mainstream American comics. But it's this very cartoony juvenileness that can make the work effective, as you find yourself lulled into its slightly safe world of caricature and exaggeration. The contrast with the reality of the story, the political themes, can serve to actually strengthen those themes, not weaken them, precisely because the style is so rudimentary, so pure. The heart of the scenes hit you immediately. And the pacing is likewise tight and focused.

With that being said, it can still be a bit distracting when contrasted with, often, more realistic American and European comics.

Gen's father is an opponent of the war, and this stance has led to him and his family suffering a degree of ostracism in their community -- the family having difficulty even getting enough to eat. Meanwhile, over the course of the story, Gen's older brother joins the air force. Through these characters, Nakazawa explores war time Japan, and shows its philosophical and cultural diversity -- a diversity, and complexity, absent from a lot of Hollywood war films.

And this is not the popularized Japan of Western media -- full of ninjas, and honour codes. The ccharacters here act and talk, laugh and rage, very much like their counterparts would in any western country. Though Gen's good guy dad's "tough love" approach is more like child abuse -- though whether sending his sons flying across the room is intended as an accurate depiction of disciplinary measures, or is simply part of the cartoony exaggeration, is hard to say. Indeed, if the characters were Western, and done in a less cartoony manner, it is doubtful one could quite move past some of those scenes!

Interestingly, although there must definitely be an inferred anti-war subtext in a story in which we spend time with characters who, we know, will be devastated by the American bombing of Hiroshima -- a pain that the author must feel -- he doesn't pull any punches in his portrayal of Japan either. The very fact that Gen's father opposes the war emphasizes the inherent helplessness of the citizenry -- they can't be blamed for the war of their government, but neither could they necessarily put an end to it, either. "A handful of rich men started this war for their own profit, without even consulting us citizens! What do you mean 'for my country'?" the father rages at Gen's older brother after the lad vows to fight for "my country".

Eventually the story builds, inevitably, to that fateful day in August, when the bomb fell. You can find yourself hoping Nakazawa will cop out a little, offering a sanitized, happy ending. But he doesn't. The ending is particularly powerful -- although the author doesn't dwell too much on the physical horror, the "gross out" factor that no doubt would be a part of the real destruction. There is some of that, but it is diluted somewhat by the cartoony style. As such, the emotional horror and tragedy is more forceful precisely because we can't hide behind a visceral revulsion. Gen survives -- in fact, the character is followed in subsequent stories -- but not all the characters do. It's an uncompromising ending that, maybe, doesn't offer any easy solutions to war -- Nakazawa stops short of condemning the American attack, or even nuclear weapons. But it forces the reader to not be so cavalier when contemplating such trite, casual terms as "collateral damage". A "collateral" death is still a death. And for a Western audience -- though the story was originally publishhed in Japan -- it provides a very human face, a very familiar, very comprehensible face, for the "enemy".

The "enemy", as portrayed by Gen and his family, truly is us.

Original soft cover price: $__ CDN./ $10.95 USA.

Blazing Combat 2009 (HC & SC TPB) 208 pages

coverWritten by Archie Goodwin, with Wally Wood. Illustrated by John Severin, Joe Orlando, Reed Crandall, Alex Toth, Wally Wood, Eugene Colan, others.
Black & white. Letters: Ben Oda, others.

Reprinting: Blazing Combat #1-4 (1965-1966 - originally published by Warren Publishing)

Additional notes: old interviews with writer/editor Archie Goodwin and publisher Jim Warren; covers.

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Fantagraphic Books

Blazing Combat is one of those folk legends that crop up in any artistic field (comics, TV, etc.). One of the first projects attempted by Warren publishing after the success of Creepy Magazine, it followed a similar formula of being black & white, magazine sized, with (nominally) more mature subject matter -- and taking its nod from 1950s giant, EC Comics. But whereas Creepy was modelled after EC's horror comics, Blazing Combat was modeled after EC's war comics. Each issue boasted an impressive line up of artists, drawing short, 8 page stories, but the magazine lost money and was cancelled after only four issues.

So why is it a legend? Well, it's in the "why" of the cancelling. See the accepted story is that it was killed by politics. Because what distributors were expecting from a comic called "Blazing Combat" was a boys own adventure series about yankee pluck besting foreign hordes in stirring odes to heroism and valour. And sure, there were a few stories that fell into that category. But there were a whole lot more that didn't: stories of the grim pointlessness of war, of death and dishonour, of shell shock and pathos, stories that didn't just question the value of war but even, on occasion, the soldiers themselves. And this was, apparently, a big no no, particularly with the Vietnam War just kicking into high gear -- and Blazing Combat even did stories aboout Vietnam, with that same sense of melancholy ambivalence! So military bases refused to carry it (presumably a big target demographic for the magazine), distributors refused to distribute it, and it was cancelled.

Yet decades later people continued to speak highly of the series, some claiming it was among the best stuff Archie Goodwin ever wrote. Some of the stories have been reprinted and collected over the years, and now Fantagraphics has released the complete run in a single collection.

And ain't it nice when, after all that hype, something really does justify all the hype?

Because Blazing Combat holds up surprisingly well -- much better than I frankly expected.

Part of the appeal is precisely the mix of impulses -- the adult themes of politics and psychology with traditional, even simplistic, unpretentious comic book story telling. After all, these are more than forty year old comics, and though technically published without "Comics Code" approval, they're pretty tame by modern standards -- barely seeming much different, in explicitness, from what you might have read in Sgt. Fury or Sgt. Rock comics from the time. And the 8 page stories are pretty brief, often little more than vignettes. Some attempt ironic twist endings, ala a horror anthology, while others are barely more than shaggy dog stories, more about capturing a moment, or a flavour, than telling a story. Yet it's precisely because of the brevity that many of the stories pack the punch they do. The ideas and plots aren't belaboured, nor have time to get repetitious.

I'm reminded of Garth Ennis' recent War Stories series, in which he too attempts to deal unglamourously with the grit and brutality of war. But though Ennis' tales are more explicit, using modern style gore and profanity, I can't say they're better. Goodwin's much shorter pieces show that sometimes you can say more, with less. Another contrast is that though both men show an undeniable sympathy and compassion for the men in the field, Goodwin doesn't let that blind him to the fact that soldiers are people -- and that means they can be good, bad, and inbetween. Goodwin is willing to recognize that sometimes, even the men on the front lines weren't paragons. They know fears and doubt and bigotry, and some emerge as the villains of the piece (usually contrasted with another, more virtuous soldier).

What emerges is a decent variety of material. There are stories set amid historically researched chronicles of real battles, from the Civil War to Vietnam, and stories celebrating the pluck and courage of soldiers triumphing over enemy forces. There are also little, bitter tales, of dark moments and dark deeds. There are also quiet tales, psychological tales that almost have their biggest impact on you after you close the book and let it settle into your brain. Some of those, ironically, emerge as the most memorable, such as "MIG Alley" about an ace pilot who loses his nerve, or "Holding Action" with its memorable final panels of a soldier casually lighting a cigarette while, in the background, another is dragged into an ambulance. Another much talked about story is "Landscape" which is often cited as the one that most offended militarists with its quiet portrait of a Vietnamese farmer caught between the opposing sides, and its searing final images.

You know the collection is going to offer you more than you might have expected with the very second story -- "Aftermath" -- about two soldiers in the Civil War, which seems to be heading in one direction...then takes a bitter turn that says all there is to say about war and the human beast.

With all that being said, there are plenty of filler tales, too. Stories that aren't bad...but maybe aren't anything special, either.

But then we get to the art.

It isn't simply that Blazing Combat boasted a lot of top talents -- it's that these were top talents working at very near the top of their game, some delivering work even better than I expected from them! Maybe the short format, and quarterly deadlines, allowed them to devote more care to the pages. Maybe the black & white format meant they were able to experiment with techniques denied them in a regular colour comic. Maybe they were just excited by the edgy material in a medium dominated by men-in-capes and comedic teenagers. As I say, not only are these great artists delivering some of their best work, but they often seem to be stretching and experimenting even from story to story -- look at the different techniques Reed Crandall uses in the stories he illustrates, ranging from meticulously detailed line work in some, to painted grey washes in others. Most of these stories aren't just black & white because no one coloured them -- the art was meant to be seen in black & white, as the artists make use of greys and shading that would be lost in a colour reproduction. Perhaps the weakest of the art is Joe Orlando -- ironically, a holdover from the EC Comics era and so, no doubt, seen as a nice link to the comics that inspired Blazing Combat. And it isn't that Orlando is bad -- his storytelling and composition is quite good. But it still looks the most like, well, like regular comic book art.

What's perhaps most noteworthy about this collection, is there's scarcely a rum story in the batch. As I said, there are certainly lesser stories, stories that pretty much are what one might have expected -- or the distributors were hoping for. Sttraightforward tales of gutsy soldiers out gunning the enemy. But settled on your shelf, there's hardly a tale that can't withstand a re-reading somewhere down the line, either for the script, or the art. And there's a variety to the material, not just with the shifting visual styles (though all employ a realist look -- if an anthology like this were done todday, presumably the realist stories would be the exception, with cartoony and manga flavoured visuals dominating), but shifting time periods, with anything from cowboy and Indian battles to world wars to Korea and Vietnam in the offing...even a throwback to the Greek battle of Thermopylae (the same battle Frank Miller later turned into the cash cow, 300) and a post-apocalyptic sci-fier. And though most are American-centric, occasionally Goodwin will focus on British or even German characters. There's even "Lone Hawk", a story about real life Canadian air ace, Billy Bishop, that, like the better stories, kind of zings you with a denouement that is understated even as it's profound.

Of course, I can be cynical. I mean, whether Blazing Combat was really the victim of conspiratorial forces...or whether it just makes a good story -- who knows? Even publisher Jim Warren, in an interview, suggests that no one ever officially owned up to an attempt to kill the mag. It's not as romantic, nor as dignified, but it's quite possible the poor sales...really were poor sales. I mean, the comic biz is full of titles that crash and burn. And the very things that make the stories weather the test of time as well as they do, might very well have turned off readers just looking for a little escapism on a Sunday afternoon. I mean, everything can be spun according to the "vision" of the teller. In the introduction to an interview with Archie Goodwin included here, it credits Goodwin with securing Marvel the comic book rights to "Star Wars" which, though technically true as Goodwin was ed-in-chief at Marvel then, my understanding was it was Roy Thomas who pushed for the acquisition. It's also then stated that the Star Wars comic "probably saved" Marvel Comics -- hyperbole which smacks a bit of an editor/interviewer eager to spin things so that Goodwin emerges as a creative and commercial visionary.

But whether Blazing Combat was a martyr on a cross of artistic integrity...or simply a comic that didn't quite click with a paying audience, doesn't change the fact that, collected here in its entirety, this is a strong anthology, full of great art, and stories, that on occasion, in their short, eight pages, will linger with you as memorably as any epic graphic novel, motion picture, or prose novel on the subject of war.

War is hell...but sometimes the chronicling of it can be art.

Original hard cover price: $28.99 USA
Soft cover price: $ ___ 

The Enemy Ace Archives, vol. 1 2001 (HC TPB) 220 pages

coverWritten by Robert Kanigher. Illustrated by Joe Kubert.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Our Army at War #151, 153, 155, Showcase #57-58, Star Spangled War #138-142 (1965-1969) - in the case of issues with multiple stories, only The Enemy Ace stories are reprinted here.

Additional notes: intro by Joe Kubert; covers.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1 (some stories more)

Published by DC Comics

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the Enemy Ace series -- particularly given these issues are froom the "simpler" 1960s -- was that it's kind of a "mood" series. That is: its strength and effectiveness lies as much in the haunting atmosphere as anything.

The concept was a kind of unusual conceit. War comics were familiar staples of the comic racks (if not as ubiquitous as super heroes), generally focusing on WW II American GIs like Sgt. Rock and Sgt. Fury (and perhaps reflective of a general 1960s nostalgia for WW II that also resulted in a number of TV series). Casting around for something different, writer Robert Kanigher went back to an even earlier conflict -- WW I -- and lifted his sights up out of the battlefields by focusing on the world of air aces and aerial dogfights. And even more unusually, he chose as his hero an enemy combatant: a fictional German aviator named Hans Von Hammer -- the Hammer of Hell (obviously inspired, at least superficially, by the Red Baron).

Part of the idea was to explore the ambiguity of war by telling the story from the other side -- a counterpoint to all the German villains appearing in most war comics. Some reports even suggesting it was a personal exercise for Kanigher (and artist Joe Kubert) who were both Jews and so not exactly accustomed to sympathizing with German soldiers (though Von Hammer represented a pre-Nazi Germany). Of course the fact that the story was set during the first world war, which the United States only entered toward the end, meant that Von Hammer rarely, if ever, faced off against American pilots. American readers might flirt with the moral ambiguity of sympathizing with a German hero shooting down British, French, even Canadian, opponents -- but they might have balked at seeing him shoot down Americans.

And then to top it all off, the series was deliberately -- as I mentioned at the top -- a mood pieece.

Von Hammer is a stoic, introspective loner who is regarded sceptically even by his own men as an almost inhumanly efficient killing machine. Or, alternately, he's slavishly adored by sycophants. With no one who can truly understand him, the only friend he finds is an enigmatic wolf with whom he wanders the woods around his air base between missions -- only the lone wolf, Von Hammer thinks, can truly appreciate his situation. The issues themselves often come across as parables, or fables, more than straight war/adventure stories -- which, admittedly, was true of a lot of Kanigher's Sgt. Rock stories too. Only moreso here.

A lot of the plots are pretty simple -- and pretty repetitious. It opens with Von Hammer engaged in some aerial conflict where he might encounter an enemy pilot, their duel resulting in a stalemate. Then an interlude on the ground, or a sojourn with the wolf. Then back into the air for a climactic dog fight -- usually the two foes saluting each other even as Von Hammer sends his opponent to his death. All the while Von Hammer ruminates on war, and honour, the futility of it all, romantically de-romanticizing conflict (thinking how the sky is the killer of them all!)

All of it hauntingly rendered by Joe Kubert. Joe Kubert is, of course, a comics legend (heck -- he founded his own art school!). His sketchy, scratchy style is far removed from the hard lines and hyper-detail of many modern comics, yet it's evocative in ways so many other artists aren't. Evocative of place. Eocative of mood. His evocation of war and battlefields manages to be both beautiful and gritty all at once (aided, of course, by the colourists' subdued hues). His Von Hammer is a lean, aquiline aristocrat. Yet despite the simplicity of lines, there are subtle details (like a paling of his face around the eyes, conveying the effect of constantly wearing goggles). And Kubert's depictions of aerial combat are hard to beat -- or even rival. His composition can alternate between dramatic and kinetic as planes swoop down on each other (some panels can almost induce vertigo) even as in other panels it's all presented in straight forward long shots -- but rarely is it confusing or unclear what's occurring. While the landscape below forms a distant and elusive reality for these knights of the air.

Which, of course, is at the heart of the series -- the romanticized view we have of WW I air aces. Though the reality was anything but, I think writers tend to look back on the WW I air battles as the last gasp of man-to-man conflict. 20th Century jousting knights upon airborne steeds. On the battlefields below it was all mud and chaos, anonymous armies shooting at foes they can't even see clearly. But in the skies individual fighters fought individual foes, recognizing each other by the markings on their planes -- even getting close enough to see each other's faces.

And that's the thing about Enemy Ace. It is a kind of, well, war pornography. On the surface it is meant to be the antithesis of a gung ho war adventure, being instead of melancholic series of grim faced warriors who rarely cheer even their own victories, cognizant of the cruelty and inhumanity of war. But even that is, let's face it, seeking to romanticize war, to see nobility and heroism in it even as it professes to debunk myths of nobility. As I mentioned earlier: this very de-romanticization is, itself, a form of romanticization.

But that isn't really a criticism -- because I do like the Enemy Ace stories. I like allowing myself to be drawn into the mood, the haunting ambience, the otherworldliness of it all. I'm just self-aware enough to realize that, in its own way, it's cathartic escapism, letting you lose yourself in this distant time.

If there's a weakness with the stories it is the repetition -- one story not especially different fromm the next. I was reading this book off and on over a few weeks and actually found myself forgetting my place and re-reading an issue. Sometimes only realizing I had read it before simply because an image, or a panel, would be familiar. The plots themselves can kind of blur into each other.

As the issues collected here progress, there is some attempt to recognize that and move beyond it. Toward the end there are a few interconnected stories (involving a recurring French nemesis, The Hangman). Or an eye toward continuity with an issue that ends with Von Hammer arriving at a funeral -- unrelated to the issues' plot -- that then is dealt with in the next issue. Although sometimes Kanigher's attempt to breakaway from the usual proves unsatisfying, like an issue involving a bully among his own men, most of the story taking place on the ground -- but it's a rather simplistic tale.

Obviously, these are 1960s comics -- and Kanigher was never the subtlest when it came to dialogue or motivation, or the cleverest when it came to plotting. But between his fable-like (and fatalistic) scripts and Kuber's elegant, haunting visuals, Enemy Ace is one of those old series that is still regarded highly. And all these years later, it's easy to see why.

Indeed, it's a mark of Kanigher and Kubert's talent and vision that though the character has occasionally been revived by other creators for occasional specials and one shots, it's usually to unsatisfying effect.

Cover price: $ __ USA

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