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Fresh takes on Great War

Comic artists delve into stories of Harlem soldiers, trench poets

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/8/2014 (2012 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Two heartrending new comic books have joined the First World War centennial commemorations taking place this year. One of them tells the little-known story of African-American soldiers fighting some of the toughest battles of the war. The other is an anthology of sequential art adaptations of First World War poetry, including well-known poems by Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves. Together, they show how reality-based comics can breathe new life into historical events and make us feel as if we are right there next to the soldiers.

In The Harlem Hellfighters, writer Max Brooks and illustrator Caanan White collaborate on the forgotten story of the 369th Infantry Regiment, the first African-American unit to serve with the American Expeditionary Force overseas. Nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters by the Germans and composed of young black men from the United States, the West Indies, and Africa, they faced enormous discrimination from their own army and government. Yet, they returned to roaring New York crowds in 1919, among the most decorated American units of the First World War. Their regimental marching band was also famous for boosting morale and brought the new sounds of American jazz to Europe.

Max Brooks is a California-based writer and screenwriter known for his zombie stories The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. Caanan White is an African-American comic-book illustrator celebrated for the realistic details of his Second World War comic Über.

Getting this story into print was a long struggle — only recently has the Great War gained as much attention in popular culture as the Second World War. Brooks explains in his author's note that it took the intervention of actor LeVar Burton (Star Trek: Next Generation, Reading Rainbow) to bring it into print. Sony has now picked up the film rights, and Will Smith's production company is overseeing the adaptation.

The Harlem Hellfighters tells a partially fictionalized version of the men's story, from enlistment in Harlem to training in South Carolina to the trenches in France. It focuses on a small group to convey the experiences of the whole regiment, many of which are harrowing. Readers are plunged into the chaos and fear of trench warfare, the brutality of racist violence, and the trauma of what came to be known as shell shock (now called PTSD). The dense black-and-white comics sequences are well-paced and the dialogue and characterizations are believable.

We also see connections between what the men experience in the war and what their parents and ancestors experienced under American slavery and its aftermath. The political message of this stirring story is clear: the senseless and mass violence of the First World War needs to be understood within the longer history of European imperialism and militarism.

This is a complex, riveting, graphic war narrative that doesn't sugar-coat the injustices of racism and the horrors of trench warfare, all the while telling a heroic story of bravery and brotherhood.

Above the Dreamless Dead is a beautiful collection of comics in diverse styles, each one an adaptation of a First World War song or poem by the Trench Poets. Sometimes referred to as the War Poets, these mostly British and American soldier-writers helped to launch modern English poetry by rejecting romantic, honourable versions of war for more realistic, satirical, and even cynical representations. Their stark descriptions of bombardments, mustard gas, and dismemberment shocked Edwardian readers into a new kind of reality.

Chris Duffy is a New York-based cartoonist and comics editor who edits the monthly SpongeBob comics series for United Plankton Pictures. His previous bestselling books, Nursery Rhyme Comics and Fairy Tale Comics, also collect some of the biggest names in cartooning through adaptations of literary works.

In Above the Dreamless Dead, Duffy draws on the talents of 20 established and emerging artists, including Kevin Huizenga, Anders Nilsen, Stuart and Kathryn Immonen and Carol Tyler. They adapt poems some readers may know, or at lest remember from English classes (Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen, Peace by Rupert Brooke), and others that are less familiar reminders of the everyday experiences of soldiers (A Private by Edward Thomas, Dead Man's Dump by Isaac Rosenberg).

This collection is divided into three sections: The Call to War, In the Trenches and Aftermath. Canadians may be disappointed that John McRae's In Flanders Fields didn't make the cut, but the poems are well-selected to convey a range of experiences and attitudes, and the cartoonists are superbly matched to their material.

Whether read from beginning to end or dipped into at random, this collection will appeal to readers already familiar with the Trench Poets. It will also reinvigorate their works and illustrate their ongoing relevance for new readers.


Candida Rifkind teaches Canadian literature and graphic narratives in the English department at the University of Winnipeg.


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Updated on Saturday, August 23, 2014 at 9:08 AM CDT: Formatting.

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