“THEY BRING back memories of what those times felt like. For me, they are a reminder. For you, they may be a unique history lesson told in comics reactions and punch lines.”
Those are the words of Bob Dole, noted veteran of war and politics, in his foreword for the new book “Cartoons for Victory” (Fantagraphics). Washington-based author Warren Bernard’s thoughtfully curated collection of World War II cartoons features legendary G.I. artists like Bill Mauldin (“Willie and Joe”), fellow giants like Eisner and Kurtzman, and such comic icons as Mickey Mouse and Superman.
“Cartoons for Victory” is a moving, time-transporting way to salute the troops past and present this Veterans Day, especially because, as editor Bernard notes, more than 90 percent of these cartoons and comics “have not been seen since their first publication.”
From that era of severe rationing, Bernard mines the times for an embarrassment of visual riches. He sets the stage by describing life on the homefront, painting the realities of consumer scarcity and citizen sacrifice. And onto this landscape, as the United States entered the war, was the dawn of the comic book (including the debut of Captain America famously delivering a haymaker right to Hitler’s kisser).
Cap’s creators, the twin Giants of Simon & Kirby, were also creating military comic books like “Boy Commandos.” In the meantime, “the funny papers” and the worlds of editorial cartoons and cartoon advertising also marched in time to war’s drumbeat. Dr. Seuss’s creatures helped sell war bonds, as did Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy and Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie (in the land of Daddy Warbucks, Annie talks up the junior commandos). From Looney Tunes (Bugs Bunny!) to the New Yorker (Charles Addams!), from DC Batman’s Victory Garden to Herblock’s swastika “black market” artwork, the sense of the nation’s unified cause inspires, and even employs, countless cartoonists.
Bernard’s book also digs deep into the weave of wartime’s social fabric, as cartoons illuminate such issues as racism and the effects of women in the work force.
As a stirring grace note, the book’s back pages spotlight star cartoonists who served, including not just the mighty Mauldin (his characters so beloved by the troops) but the Navy’s Hank Ketcham (“Dennis the Menace”), Cpl. Harvey Kurtzman, and Will Eisner and Al Jaffee, sergeants both.
From beginning to endpapers, this is a tour of art and duty well worth serving.
Elsewhere today, Comic Riffs also recommends:
* “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust” (Clizia)
If you ever question the power of a well-crafted political cartoon, here — through an emotional 200 pages — is a profound antidote to your doubt.
“Holocaust,” a deft, new collection from Rafael Medoff and Craig Yoe, not only taps the undeniable force of these dark yet illuminating cartoons, but also goes behind the lines to humanize the minds behind the work.
Such political-cartooning greats as Rollin Kirby, “Ding” Darling and the Baltimore Sun’s Edmund Duffy are on prominent display here, as well as early Seuss and future Post legend Herblock. But especially affecting are the personal stories of cartoonists Eric Godal and Arthur Szyk, both of whom lost parents to the Nazi death camps.
“Holocaust,” divided into 43 chapters with text as context, is especially valuable as a classroom-friendly educational work, as the scores of cartoons provide the most direct, affecting window into a world turned upside down.
* “Walking Wounded: Uncut Stories From Iraq” (NBM)
This moving new graphic novel, from Notre Dame professor/documentarian Olivier Morel and French cartoonist Mael (translated by Edward Gauvin), is about war’s physical and psychic wounds. At the core are the true stories of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans like Jason Moon and Jacob George, who are among the 30 percent of war-zone troops who eventually suffer PTSD.
This graphic novel itself is jarring in its impact, from the precision of its storytelling to the power of its art. Mael paints the weight of violence in oxidized ochres and rusts and reds, which is intercut by the haze of blacks and grays.
From battlefront to homefront, this story shines a light into the minds of warriors and the mental states of war’s patients. This is the stuff of what motivates young men and women to go to war — and what unsettles them, sometimes to the brink of suicide, after they’ve lived war’s horrors.
As Morel writes in the novel’s foreword: “This is a book that sublimates and transcends. It provides an account of how human beings can survive trauma so great that the medical establishment deems it insurmountable. But … it also addresses the subconscious elements of society, the unspoken values that make war possible.”
All with the force of riveting graphic detail.
* “Omaha Beach on D-Day” (First Second)
War, unfortunately, is keeping translator Edward Gauvin busy.
Gauvin has translated to English our fourth new war book this fall. The graphic novel “Omaha Beach” views World War II’s European theater through the lens, visually and narratively, of American war photographer Robert Capa, who covered five wars before dying at 40 when he stepped on an Indochinese land mine.
Capa’s Omaha Beach story is told by Jean-David Morvan and Severine Trefouel (with original text by Dominique Bertail). The black and gray-wash panels are exquisite not only in their photo-inspired precision, but also in their power to evoke the emotion of the historic moment. (Particularly awe-inspiring is a horizontal four-page fold-out of the beach being stormed.)
This is action rendered as graphically as the opening half-hour of Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” as machine-gun fire tears into the soldiers and men explode into each other’s arms. Capa’s famous photos, run in publications like Life, would visually define D-Day for millions of Americans. (Several years before he died, Capa became the president of Magnum Photos in 1954.)
This 55-page graphic novel is followed by text and photos that provide the sweep of historical context, as well as details of the life of Capa, whose mother refused to let him be buried at Arlington. (The reason: “So great was his aversion to war.”)
Capa is remembered fondly, too, through his famed line: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
“Omaha Beach” gets stunningly close because of Capa’s adherence to his own words. He lived for that closeness.
* “The Great War” (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Since his childhood, the Maltese-born Joe Sacco, the acclaimed author of numerous war-zone graphic novels, has been riveted by WWI. “The First World War has loomed large in my psyche since my schoolboy days in Australia,” where each anniversary of the Gallipoli landings are commemorated, writes Sacco, adding: “My fascination with the war in which armies clubbed each other for year after year over small bits of ground has never abated.”
Sacco penned those words in his Author’s Note for his 2013 book, “The Great War,” a highly engaging 24-plate illustrated panorama of “July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme.”
The wordless narrative history literally unfolds before our eyes, small bit by small bit of ground, as we witness British soldiers marching and maneuvering and fighting along the Western front, in this now gravestone-strewn corner of France.
(The British — largely the Devonshire Regiment — would sustain more than 50,000 casualties on this day, more than half of those within the first hour of fighting, according to a companion essay in this hard-cased package.)
Sacco, partially inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry, created a work that, nearly as much as comics can, conveys the scale of our veterans and their sacrifice.