February 25, 2020

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Wartime graphic novel often cinematic in scope

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/5/2012 (2845 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THE history of the Second World War was being written in comics even before the war ended.

In the United States, Marvel's Captain America appeared in 1941 to join the fight against the Axis powers. In 1942, Johnny Canuck emerged as our own square-jawed muscular answer to the Nazi threat.

By the 1950s and '60s, such patriotic superheroes were giving way to less sentimental depictions of war and the counter-culture's use of comics to critique American involvement in Vietnam.

However, the Second World War continues to live on in the comics, or graphic novels, to use the elevated term. Those earlier fictional heroes are now being supplemented by non-fiction comic books about a range of wartime experiences, from Allied soldiers to concentration camp survivors.

Canada at War is a mundane though instructive title written by Ontarian Paul Keery and illustrated by Michael Wyatt.

Keery's background is in education. He and Wyatt have previously worked together on an illustrated young people's book, Maple Leaf Forever, about Canadian Confederation.

Like Scott Chantler's recent Two Generals, which uses his grandfather's memories to tell the story of the Allied invasion of Normandy, Canada at War is a historical non-fiction comic book.

Whereas Chantler's visual memoir is a highly personal account of the Canadian "everyman's" experience of the trenches, Keery and Wyatt take a broader approach to depict most of the major Canadian battles between 1939 and 1945 from a bird's-eye point of view.

As an illustrated history, Canada at War does on paper what many Second World War documentaries do on film: it uses voice-over narration to explain the decisions, actions and outcomes of such important events as the battle of Dieppe, the invasion of Sicily, and the liberation of the Netherlands.

The illustrations often seem cinematic because they echo familiar photographs and film footage. The story emphasizes the war's development of new transportation technologies, and so the many illustrations of tanks, planes and ships in action, combined with the insertion of maps, will remind some readers of classic NFB wartime documentaries.

At the same time, there is something very current about the visual style of Canada at War. The earthy colour palette is much darker and muddier than the patriotic optimism of those original wartime comics, and closer to the look of virtual warfare games. This sombre mood supports the book's repeated commentary on the soldiers' lack of training and equipment, at least in the early battles, and its graphic representation of the wounded and dying.

As a comic book, Canada at War does not seize many opportunities to exploit the form in new or interesting ways. Most disappointing is that its reliance on the voice-over leads to a surprising absence of individual characters the reader can follow, and who might humanize the larger events.

This leaves us with a military history very much from above, in the style of a typical wartime documentary. Unlike Two Generals, this book steers clear of personal memoir to tell a more official version of Canada's wartime efforts. It often reads like a textbook, but today even these use oral testimonies and social history to give students an emotional connection to the actual lives affected by war.

The lesson of Canada at War is of Canadian soldiers' bravery and perseverance amid harsh and brutal conditions. Some criticisms of the general's bad decisions or unnecessary loss of life do appear, but overall the narrative is triumphant and patriotic.

This is not a bad message. It is just a bit too familiar.


Candida Rifkind teaches Canadian literature and comic books in the department of English at the University of Winnipeg.


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