I’m not ashamed to admit that a lot of my history lessons, of late, have been through graphic novels. I find that lately a lot of authors are using this medium in order to tell the world their stories and although most are a blend of fact and fiction, there’s no denying some of the irrefutable truths about our past. Such is the case with author Max Brooks (World War Z) latest endeavor The Harlem Hellfighters. It’s an exhausting and brutally real account of a world, unlike our own, but was once very real.
In 1919, the 369th infantry regiment marched home triumphantly from World War I. They had spent more time in combat than any other American unit, never losing a foot of ground to the enemy, or a man to capture, and winning countless decorations. Though they returned as heroes, this African American unit faced tremendous discrimination, even from their own government. The Harlem Hellfighters, as the Germans called them, fought courageously on—and off—the battlefield to make Europe, and America, safe for democracy.
Having seen a lot of movies that cover such topics, it’s approach wasn’t a huge surprise. Most African Americans are well aware of the struggles our boys went through to become soldiers back in the days and because of this, I found it tremendously difficult to hone in on the books true voice. As a forty year old black male, seeing and reading about the indignity the 369th infantry faced on the front lines and abroad, was like watching a Netflix film. Been there done that. Not a lot of new ground to be broken here, but I will say this, it is a great read for someone completely unfamiliar with this part of history and other stories of black infantry’s in American wars, but for me, I was a bit disappointed in the lack of clever dialogue. Unlike Max’s masterpiece, World War Z, THH is a graphic novel through and though, what I mean is, flash was substituted for substance. It’s very thematic in it’s approach and although he claimed that this was a labor of love that he’d been sitting on for decades, it didn’t quite feel that way for me. To me, THH would have been better as an actual story and not a graphic novel. This is one of those rare cases when I feel like turning this story into a graphic novel, dumbed down a very important part of American history. That being said, I understand his reasoning for doing it. One, to make it appealing to a young demographic and two, to pitch this as a film, which incidentally, Sony Pictures has already picked it up and Caleeb Pinkett and James Lassiter under their Overbrook company, will produce it. You can checkout that story here.
There are some good things about this story like the illustration by Canaan White, whose work with Marvel is unparallelled. His art takes this story one step further with “in your face” violence, and believe me, the story wouldn’t have been nearly as good without it. While reading, I was often times reminded of Dave Gibbons work in The Watchmen. Canaan incorporates a lot of the eye-bulging and entrail-flying, that I saw in that beloved 80’s graphic. On the downside, I did find it hard to follow the characters and yes, I know, not all brothers look a like, but they kinda did in this graphic or at least their stories were so inconsequential that the marriage of character and art got slightly blurred from time to time.
I know I’m coming down on this book HARD, but it left me half cocked. I’m sure when it’s turned into a film they’ll fill in some of those holes left by Max, but as for the read, it’s worth it. The story does tend to go off in different directions a lot though. It felt as though Max desperately needed to squeeze these historical tidbits in, but forgot to focus on the characters. Honestly, the book felt like I was watching Forrest Gump. Especially the pages where Max and Canaan are telling us about the role blacks played in every war. It was kinda funny.
I recommend this book for it’s art more than the story, but as I said before, it’s a stellar read for the uninformed.
If you are interested in some other World War graphic novels we reviewed CHECK THESE OUT!
ONWARDS TOWARD OUR NOBLE DEATHS: http://wp.me/p2ge4g-CG
ALAN’S WAR: THE MEMORIES OF G.I. ALAN COPE: http://wp.me/p2ge4g-zh