Graphic Novel Reviews—American Widow and Alan’s War
A member of the Online Film Critics Society, Peter writes for Twitch, the Financial Times, and Rue Morgue. A contributing editor at Metro magazine, and a columnist on blockbuster movies for Screen Education, he also blogs on pop culture at School Library Journal: http://blogs.slj.com/connect-the-pop/. Get too-frequent updates about comics, books, movies, and TV via Twitter: @Peter_GutierrezView all articles by Peter Gutiérrez
Two first-person accounts of critical moments in U.S. history—the aftermath of the September 11 Attacks and the final year of World War II—demonstrate what can happen when graphic novels wed documentarian detail to deeply personal stories…
Given the title and subject matter, I hardly expected American Widow to be a whimsical tale, but nor was I prepared for such a one-note approach. At times I wished that author Alissa Torres, whose husband leapt from the World Trade Center’s North Tower, would throw a change-up at the reader—not in terms of tone, which would be tricky, but in voice or mood. To be sure, scattered throughout are flashbacks that recall moments of happiness in the life of Luis “Eddie” Torres, and over the course of 200 pages, there are a handful of spreads that feature a more poetic presentation, either elegiac or surreal. But for the most part, American Widow comes across as the kind of over-long, hyper-detailed e-mail one launches at a bureaucrat or a former friend or colleague who deserves to be the object of such venting. Reading such a missive can be an educational experience—and certainly American Widow is that—but it’s hardly a recipe for a gripping narrative, let alone a moving or cathartic reading experience.
(cover art courtesy of Random House)
That’s not to say that Torres’s complaints, especially where the Red Cross’s Kafkaesque and Byzantine ways are concerned, aren’t warranted. It’s just that the storytelling devices are so repetitive, the themes so well known to the reader (e.g., the callousness of the media), and the delivery so flat so much of the time, that the effect is deadening without being devastating. Showering and gazing at herself in the bathroom mirror one morning in December 2001, Torres thinks, “With millions in all of those 9/11 charities, we’re the season’s choice recipients.” And in the next panel: “But when the season ends, so will all that goodwill. Those too sad and dazed now won’t receive anything later.” It’s that voice, part Sunday-magazine columnist and part earnest essayist, that largely drains American Widow of whatever artfulness it manages to muster.
Unfortunately, artist Sungyoon Choi’s work does little to liven up the proceedings. To be fair, the script seldom gives her the material to exercise much originality, but even so, her limited palette of facial expressions and her tendency to literalize everything that the printed text conveys, creates a kind of anti-synergy: the two creators’ weaknesses seem to exacerbate each other. Somewhere in American Widow is an incisive critique of America’s response to tragedy and the shocking turnarounds the public is capable of when dealing with its victims.
Not so with Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope. Although I’m generally leery of using the term “masterpiece”—what if it comes back to haunt you down the road?—this is one instance where I feel confident applying it. Alan Cope, as the plainly stated title implies, was simply an ordinary U.S. soldier who went to Europe in 1945 because he’d been drafted. Neither a war hero nor a clichéd “innocent abroad,” Cope is just sensitive enough, just observant enough, and just honest enough to be utterly captivating as a narrator.
Perhaps what’s most extraordinary about him, though, is his memory. Roughly fifty years after the incidents that inform Alan’s War, he described them in detail to French artist Emmanuel Guibert, and together their words and pictures are sublimely evocative: you hear the classical piano, feel the warmth of a friend’s smile, see the tall trees bending in dark Bavarian forests. That such experiences unfold against the largest conflict in the history of the Western World is, well, not exactly beside the point, but close: you get the feeling that the Cope-Guibert tandem would be a compelling guide regardless of the setting and circumstances. (A fact which bodes well for the succeeding volumes in this collaboration, which detail Cope’s childhood in the Depression and his later years respectively.) And interestingly, what makes Alan’s War transcend the merely good to the undeniably great, is the same thing whose absence in American Widow relegates that title to the “nice effort” category—a strong and supple voice that is also courageously self-reflective. Indeed, if there were any justice, Kathryn Pulver, who translated Cope’s words into English (the expat’s transcriptions were in French), will win some kind of award for her work here. She makes Alan’s War as intimate as if the reader were Cope’s confidante, not Guibert.
Ah, but then there’s the art. With a simplicity of line and a brilliant economy of storytelling, Guibert’s efforts recall Hergé—except Hergé, to my knowledge, never did such exquisite pen and brush work or achieved such transporting effects. Indeed, by the time you finish Alan’s War, you might very well be of the opinion that a gentle wash of grayscale is the most beautiful color in the rainbow. If you don’t believe me, browse through a few sample pages here. And after you do, don’t be surprised if you end up adding Alan’s War to your wish list for the upcoming holidays.
(art © Emmanuel Guibert, used with permission of First Second Books)
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