Comics Time: Alan’s War


Alan’s War

Emmanuel Guibert, writer/artist

First Second, November 2008

336 pages


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You immediately judge Alan’s War against two separate non-fiction genres: World War II books and graphic memoirs set against major historical backdrops. You’ll find it a low-key affair when stacked up against either. Culled from “The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope,” as Guibert’s subtitle puts it, Alan’s War is as different from, say, Ken Burns’s The War as the possessive proper noun is from the definite article. As a matter of fact, Alan is barely in the war; the vast majority of his recollections are of times before or after his entry into hostilities, such as it was. To hear Alan tell it, he appears to have been involved in combat only one time and never saw his attackers. The most horrific incidents he recounts both took place during Germany’s surrender. It’s not D-Day or Iwo Jima by a long shot. Nor is it Maus, where Vladek’s experiences spoke directly to the central horror of the war. Nor even is it Persepolis, where Marjane’s forceful personality made the conflict with Revolutionary Iran feel a lot more direct than events actually bore out. Instead it feels a lot more like Siberia, a sort of meandering, matter-of-fact presentation of a gentle soul who couldn’t help but butt up against a cataclysmic world-historical scenario. In Siberia’s case the inhumanity of the totalitarian USSR was really just another challenge for Nikolai Maslov’s depressive personality; in Alan’s War, life in the Army simply pushes Alan in a different direction but still is primarily viewed through the lens of the friendships it enables him to form. We come to see that interpersonal relationships are the way Alan learns about himself throughout his long life, culminating in a spiritual and philosophical “rebirth” late in his life owed to acquaintances he made in occupied Germany. This particular narrative throughline is obviously constructed by Guibert’s editing of Alan’s story, which begs perhaps the most interesting unanswered question in the book, that of Alan’s possible homosexuality. The frequency with which Cope’s reminiscences star friends and fellow soldiers coming to terms with their own identity led me to wonder whether that was the one act of self-examination the kindly intellectual was never quite able to perform on himself. In its way Alan’s War is an compelling little book, its idiosyncratic protagonist going a long way to humanize art that is occasionally static and obviously photoreffed in the way that those rotoscoped credit card/financial adviser/whatever they are commercials that subtract a bunch of lines from a person’s photo can look, but is just as frequently endearing in its simplicity.

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