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RESEARCHING ‘MANNA’ PART 3: Graphic novels about the war

If you intend to create a graphic novel, study the works of other authors and artists in the medium. When I suggest you study graphic novels, I mean read self-contained works, not trade paperbacks collecting six issues of your favourite superhero story. You can certainly learn things from those works, but they are structured differently from graphic novels, which have more of a traditional narrative structure and do not presume that you have a pre-existing knowledge of the characters or situations. By graphic novels, I mean MAUS, by Art Spiegelman, A SAILOR’S STORY by Sam Glanzman, ERNEST & ETHEL by Ronald Briggs.

Books like that. The ones above are named because they all deal with the Second World War. In the pictures below are a collection of graphic novels I have collected on the war. It is by no means complete. Click on the images to bring up a separate post. Click on that for an enlargement. These books are all available either through major major retailers, or the secondary market.

SOME OBSERVATIONS…

One thing a number of these publications have in common is that they originated in Europe. I met a German representative from a distribution company a few years back who said graphic novels about the war are popular in Europe as the grand-children of the people who lived through it try to understand what happened then. I have found more of these books coming from Europe now than from America or Britain, which seemed to focus more on war narratives a number of years ago. Perhaps it is because the nature of the conflict was such that continental Europe is only now being able to examine the war as it was fought right there and the British, while bombed and terrorized by the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s U-Boats never endured enemy occupation outside the Channel islands and the Americas were largely untouched by enemy action except off the coast at sea. Certainly I’ve learned the experiences of those living on the continent was VERY different to that of my parents, who grew up in the British Isles.

Some stories focus as much on civilians as they do on soldiers. All of them, whether true stories like TWISTS OF FATE, IRMINA, A SAILOR’S STORY, MAUS, THE BATTLE OF ARNHEM- SEPTEMBER 1944, SIX DAYS, ALAN’S WAR and I, RENE TARDI etc., adapted from a novel like SUITE FRANCAISE, or adapted pieces inspired by historic characters or events like the Garth Ennis stories, LE GRAND DUKE, BEAR’S TOOTH, and VOICES IN THE DARK, brings new dimensions to our understanding of the war and jumps beyond the standard US vs THEM stories that were more popular years ago. When I look at anthologies or collected works like ACES HIGH, WAR STORIES, BLAZING COMBAT and BATTLE CLASSICS, I notice that the selections here stand out also for their balance of characterisation and action. ACES HIGH represents a complete run between its covers and thus we get to see some more traditional stories alongside the ones that explore moral issues in war, but I wonder from the selections in the Garth Ennis picks for BATTLE CLASSICS how many other stories not in the anthology appeared in that magazine fitting the more formulaic works that were popular years ago.

(I have one book here, ROSE BLANCHE, which is not a graphic novel, but rather a picture book. The images are so much part of the story, though, that I keep it with the graphic novels just the same.)

Please note in the photos I have two samples of contemporary comic strips from the war in my collection- JOHNNY CANUCK and JANE, the latter being a biography of Norman Pett, the strip’s creator and his model for the title character, Christabel Leighton-Porter. Both are gems: the former for the Canadian content and the latter for the cheekiness that pushed the limits of propriety for its day. I met a veteran of the Canadian Army’s campaign in the Netherlands a few years ago and we got to talking about Jane. He told me waiting for the next installment of strips to come out in the army newspaper was something that helped keep him going during that campaign. JUST JANE, the Lancaster bomber at East Kirkby in England, is named after Pett’s character. If you visit YouTube, you can find old Pathe newsreels of Pett drawing Leighton-Porter for the much anticipated next edition of Jane’s story. It’s a bit of a staging job, though, because more often than not Pett drew his model from the nude and added clothes- or removed them- later in the final panels. Very much of their time, neither character is well-known today outside historical scholarship and the fading memories of people who were there when the adventures of Johnny or Jane first went to print.

THE HOLOCAUST

Before Art Spiegelman created MAUS and brought comics and graphic novels to a whole new readership in the world, the Holocaust also appeared in comics. WE SPOKE OUT: COMIC BOOKS AND THE HOLOCAUST, edited by Neal Adams, Raphael Medoff and Craig Yoe, is a collection of stories from the pages of comic books where the Holocaust figures in the plot. One of the most powerful in it is Neal Adams’ own piece on the wartime experiences of Dina Gottliebová, (later Dina Babbitt). I bought the book so I could get a complete copy of the story and acquired with it a rich legacy of this horrific period in the history of so-called humanity. It provides a good foundation to accounts of the Holocaust in sequential art up to the publication of MAUS, allowing me to put some of the other books I have on the subject- like Joe Kubert’s YOSSEL, Dave Sim’s JUDENHASS, IRENA and AUSCHWITZ into a kind of context. The art in each is unique. The stories are powerful. Put together with the other books I’ve shown in this article and unrelated historical graphic novels I possess that are not covered here, (like George Pratt’s haunting take on the World War One character ENEMY ACE), I have gained an appreciation that artists in the genre have a freedom to be more expressive, abstract or illustrative with the art used to compliment the text here than they do in conventional superhero comics, where other expectations dominate the presentation of the work. Perhaps that is best, for I wonder how some of these stories would ‘read’ visually if they were presented in the same style as so many of those wonderfully action packed and dramatic tales from the big comic companies. WE SPOKE OUT gives us a glimpse of what they could look like, but I wonder if they would have the same impact if rendered exclusively in that style. I think not. I think the variety of art styles presented in all these books is what makes them together so powerful, for it reminds us that the filters we use when telling our stories don’t just stop working with the words we choose to put on the page. The images themselves carry as much of the narrative and need to be given careful consideration in their design and creation.

CONCLUSIONS…

In all graphic novels, there is often a tug of war between writers and artists regarding which part of the book gets prominence. Having met some famous writers and artists, I have heard about this firsthand. One writer said she felt lucky to have such great artists illustrating her stories, but knew not all writers could say the same. “If you can write and draw your story, you’ve got much better control over the content,” she concluded.

I can think you also have much more responsibility too, for a comic panel is not so big when you have to find space for both words and pictures in it. Creating any sequential art, especially one that focuses on strong story telling, is a delicate balancing act and is not for everyone. So, in closing, think carefully about the story you want to tell and the best way to do it. I have a number of friends who would much rather read MANNA as an illustrated novel than a graphic novel. At this point, I’m not entirely sure they’re wrong. What may emerge in the end could be a hybrid like Terry Moore’s STRANGERS IN PARADISE, which uses prose, sequential art, and mixtures of the two to tell its story. Another good example would be Sydney Padua’s THE THRILLING ADVENTURES OF LOVELACE AND BABBAGE.

At the time of writing, I’m thinking the hybrid might be the answer…

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