Sunday, December 13, 2009

Review: “Alan's War: The Memories of G.I. Allan Cope”

Emmanuel Guibert
First Second

When it comes to World War II stories, I've always separated them into two basic categories; stories of the victims of the concentration camps and stories of the soldiers.  The former I find fascinating, the latter...not so much.  Full disclosure here -- I'm an English teacher, and nearly every year of my career I've taught a novel told from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor.  Reading such gut-wrenching stories with my classes sometimes four times a day, there was a time in which I could recite whole passages of Elie Wiesel's Night from memory.   My students, who had themselves had suffered some pretty awful family traumas, found inspiration in the spirit of the prisoners of the concentration camps.  Unfortunately, novels that were classroom-appropriate and detailed the soldiers' stories were often bogged down by military jargon, making them impenetrable to my students (and admittedly, myself).  What I find unique about Alan's War is it's accessibility. Writer Emmanuel Guibert, through conversations with Cope, presents a soldier who understands his audience.  Military strategy is broken down into simple terms without trivializing the missions Cope and his company embark upon.  Couple this accessibility with the fascinating encounters between Cope an an eclectic cast of characters, and I've finally found a WWII soldier's story that I can sink my teeth into.  Oh, and did I mention that Alan's War is a graphic novel?  The best of this medium uses art to explicate what the written word cannot, and Alan's War does just that, with cinematic flair.

Written and drawn from interviews with Cope over a five-year stretch, Alan's War humanizes WWII without stumbling into war story tropes (i.e. the bloodthirsty/incompetent/father-figure leader & his rag-tag group of fresh-faced and naive soldiers).  Instead, Guibert literally paints a picture of the simple lessons a young man learns in the army.  Cope, a naturally gifted student, quickly ascends the ranks of the United States Army, but never loses the awe for the seemingly endless (and often fruitless) missions that take him all over Europe.  Throughout Alan's War Cope meets simple Swiss families and world renown poets, has friends disappear for years only to reappear in the strangest places, and revels in the few quiet moments he is allowed to enjoy as the War comes to an end.  Guibert's chooses which moments to illustrate quite well.  Though cross-sections of tanks and overhead illustrations of battlefields would not be out of place in the typical WWII story, Guibert forgoes this in favor of beautiful watercolors of French countrysides and shadowy back-lit trips in train-cars.  As the war comes to an end and Cope and his company sleep in requisitioned houses throughout Europe, it is the quiet moments that Cope seems to enjoy most, and it is those quiet moments that Guibert paints so well.

As his journey begins, Cope decides that it is his adventure alone, and for that reason there is no need to fear wherever the war might take him.  And it is here that Cope seems to explain just what is most appealing to me about this story -- that Alan's War, as the memories of one modest, thoughtful soldier, is a different story than I've read before.

NOTE: Take a look at Guibert's artistic process below.  Amazing!

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