The Washington Post

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Harlem Hellfighters’ is a powerfully vivid reminder of WWI valor

“The Harlem Hellfighters,” by Max Brooks and Caanan White (Broadway)

IN THE BACK of his new book “The Harlem Hellfighters,” bestselling author Max Brooks notes some of the real history that forms the basis of his riveting graphic novel about an undersung all-black infantry regiment from World War I. There staring back at us across time, among the gallery of true heroes, is Henry Lincoln Johnson. He was born in Alexandria in 1897, and buried just miles away at Arlington Cemetery 32 years later. And during his short life, he showed valor and courage as the first American of any race to receive the French Cross of War.

All these years later, his descendants are still waiting for a Medal of Honor.

It only took nearly 75 years, after all, for this great hero of the Great War to receive the Distinguished Service Cross, in 2003.

If Brooks’s new book receives acclaim and attention — and it certainly is on the right track; Sony and Will Smith just optioned the film rights — Johnson may yet get that Medal of Honor.

“Harlem Hellfighters” is a gripping tale that blends narrative invention and amalgams with such true figures as Lt. James Reese Europe, the then-popular bandleader who helped introduce Europe to jazz, and Eugene Jaques Bullard, a much-decorated veteran of both World Wars before dying as a Rockfeller Center elevator operator in 1961.

Brooks tells a riveting story that is well-paired with the graphic grit of gifted illustrator Caanan White, whose high-contrast black-and-white art is as muscular and intense and physical — like a nod to Joe Kubert — as the soldiers it depicts.

The 369th regiment fought racism while training in South Carolina, then fought prejudice overseas as it was attached to a French division because it was restricted from fighting alongside its white American counterparts. The Hellfighters achieved respect and glory and, ultimately, received a New York parade of millions upon their return.

“Was it all for nothing?” Brooks asks in his book, next to a photo of the soldiers. “Only if we’re forgotten.”

“The Harlem Hellfighters” is a recommended read, if first to let them not be forgotten.

To read Comic Riffs’ full review of the new book, just click HERE.

Illustration by Caanan White, from “The Harlem Hellfighters.” by Max Brooks and Caanan White (Broadway)


Writer/artist/visual storyteller Michael Cavna is creator of the "Comic Riffs" column and graphic-novel reviewer for The Post's Book World. He relishes sharp-eyed satire in most any form.
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