Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


for August 20, 2006


Arrowsmith: So Smart in Their Fine Uniforms

cover2004 - available in soft cover

Written by Kurt Busiek. Drawn by Carlos Pacheco. Inks by Jesus Merino.

Colours: Alex Sinclair. Letters: Richard Starkings and Comicraft. Editor: Scott Dunbier.

Reprinting: the six issue mini-series (2003-2004), plus the eight page preview story.

160 pages

Published by Cliffhanger, an imprint of Wildstorm (a division of DC Comics)

Cover price: $14.95 USA

The mini-series, Arrowsmith, collected as the TPB Arrowsmith: So Smart in Their Fine Uniforms, is set within the popular sci-fi/fantasy genre of "alternate reality". It takes place during the first World War -- 1915, to be precise -- but in a world that is both very like, and quite unlike, our own. For instance, hero Fletcher Arrowsmith comes from the United States of Columbia -- the United States of America being somewhat less united than it is in our world. More to the point, it's a world where magic is commonplace, and Trolls and elves walk the streets, and where when you join the flying air corps...there are no planes involved.

The story follows the familiar route of young Arrowsmith leaving his family farm to join up with a volunteer air corps -- his country not yet officially involved in the European conflict (just as in our reality the United States entered only toward the end of the war). He trains in the magic of flying, makes friends, enemies, meets a gal. He goes off to war and experiences the hardships that none of his training could have prepared him for.

Yes, it's all very familiar...and therein lies the problem.

Fletcher himself is a rather bland, nondescript hero -- there's nothing distinctive about him in look, abilities, or personality. The fact that he jumps to the front of his class seems mainly a plot device rather than because we have any sense why, or in what way, he should prove to be an air ace. Don't misunderstand. He'd be a perfectly acceptable, generic hero...were he in service of an exciting, twisty plot.

But the plot, too, is equally generic. Writer Kurt Busiek basically takes a generic "coming of age in the crucible of war" story, dresses it up with the concept of magic, and does very little else with it. Supporting characters are equally blandly defined -- often, as it turns out, because they'll get killed off. There's no overarching story arc, or plot, no enemy master plan to be thwarted, no arch foe to be bearded. At one point, Fletcher remarks to a character how he expected their relationship to mirror a storybook cliche, but it didn't...but the fact is, it basically did.

Obviously, it's a little awkward to consider a story like this when, like me, you've read a lot of books and comics, and watched a lot of movies. Maybe to a younger reader, less aware of the familiarity of it all, it will be more powerful, more dramatic. Although, with occasional bits of gritty violence, and a brief scene involving nudity, one assumes Busiek isn't really aiming at too young a readership.

Carlos Pacheco's lavish, detailed art is stunning to look at, and he takes to this world quite well, mixing an authentic period feel in clothing and buildings, with the fantasy element of dragons and spells. But I suppose if I had a quibble, it's that, like the story, there's a certain blandness when it comes to the details. Fletcher himself is not always easy to distinguish in a scene -- this despite Pacheco trying to give his characters different hair cuts and the like. But Fletcher remains sufficiently bland and ill-defined, as Pacheco uses a slightly cartoony, Spartan style in defining features, so that he doesn't necessarily stand out in a scene.

The story is meant to follow the usual path of a naive, up beat hero, eager to join the adventure, only to then learn about the true, ugly horrors of war. That's sort of there, but not fully. Pacheco and colourist Alex Sinclair maybe needed to work harder to create a visual look that shifts more dramatically over the course of the saga. Likewise, Busiek himself doesn't create enough of a contrast between what are supposed to be two extremes.

War stories -- even war comics -- have been around for ages, and despite the innovative magic angle, Busiek has to recognize that such a story still has to stand out as a story in its own right, and the characters as interesting characters. Arrowsmith isn't bad, per se. There are no lapses in logic, no errors in character consistency. There are some striking visual sequences, and some cute ideas involving magic. Heck, as a Canadian I enjoyed seeing a Canadian flag draped over a character's coffin (albeit we only learned he was Canadian -- or this reality's equivalent of a Canadian -- when we see the flag, not in any earlier scene or dialogue). The story tries to be philosophical, without saying anything too radical. Yes, Fletcher discovers his side can be just as prone to atrocities as the enemy, but this remains more a war is hell story rather than an anti-war story. As a whole, it fails to really excite.

The editorial columns in the original comics hype this as just being the first mini-series, even detailing plans for the next story arc -- but subsequent comics have yet to appear. In the world of modern comics, where hit talents like Busiek and Pacheco can find work piling up on them and deadlines looming, it could be the subsequent adventures of Fletcher Arrowsmith are just waiting a publishing window. Or it could be sales of the original story arc weren't what they were hoping for and the whole idea was shelved.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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