Thursday, January 29, 2009

REVIEW: Alan's War

One of the best graphic novels I've read in awhile is Alan's War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope by Emmanuel Guibert (2008 from First Second Books). With some exceptions, many American graphic novel memoirs come from a new generation of talented cartoonists who are comfortable expressing themselves through comics. While many of these efforts are often praised for their frank honesty, they tend to also reflect the callowness and narrow experience of youth by being self-involved and introspective.

Alan's War, a biography translated from an original French release, to some degree shares much with these autobiographical memoirs in that it features a young man trying to find his place in the world. The main difference, however, is that the soul-searching in Alan's War occurs during World War II (and a brief period during the post war), when there were larger, more important things occurring in the world around him. And, as with more traditional memoirs, it is told in retrospect with the advantage of hindsight and the passage of time.

"The Greatest Generation" has received extensive attention in recent years, and been deservedly celebrated and honored. I suspect this is partly due to the yearning for an era when the world seemed morally less complex, as well as a desire to preserve the memories of a disappearing generation.

Alan's War, however, defies what most would expect from the memoirs of a World War II vet. For example, the subject of the memoir, Alan Cope, seems to have actually seen very little direct combat (though no doubt enough action to remember for the rest of his life) since he joined the service towards the end of the war and was in training for an extensive period of time before going overseas. Cope also appeared to be unusually sensitive and curious for someone of his age and generation, with a special love for music and the arts. Though not fully explained, this leads to a gradual disenchantment with America and his realization that he has a closer affinity to European culture and its way of life, which leads to his settling down in Europe after the war.

As a result, Cope is able to provide an atypical, intensely quirky and personal view of the second world war, a side not usually seen in literature about the Greatest Generation. His view of boot camp and training truly shows how much the military of the time was a citizen's army, and he speaks candidly about the intense friendships he develops with fellow soldiers, noted and emerging artists and thinkers, and European civilians, some of whom are pragmatic and accepting of the new world order, though remaining unrepentant deep down as Nazis. He recounts with vivid detail many of his personal experiences as a soldier.

The book is written and drawn by Emmanual Guibert, a French cartoonist. According to the introduction, Cope befriended Guibert during the 1990s, and after beginning to share his stories with the younger cartoonist, agreed to allow Guibert to record his memoirs in comics format. Cope died before the French edition appeared.

Guibart allows Cope to tell his story straightforwardly with little adornment but it's compellingly told. With its tender linework, the art is simple but powerful, and the gray wash evokes the era wonderfully for the reader.

Alan's War is a fascinating memoir that provides an alternative view of the wartime era from a uniquely self-aware and original individual.

Note: Alan's War was selected by National Public Radio as an NPR Best Graphic Novel of 2008.

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