The Harlem Hellfighters
Parental advisory: the comic reviewed here tells a story of war, and therefore contains violence. I realize that this, my second review for this site, makes me two for two with advisories for violence. Sweet, sweet violence. But only three doth a pattern make, so I’m good.
The Harlem Hellfighters is a comic by Max Brooks, who some of you may know from other things he wrote previously (Google!). Although he shows no hint of the comedy bent that his father, Mel Brooks, has made his calling, he has inherited Mel’s top-notch writing skills. Also, nepotism. It helps.
As a white male I can find it hard to be educated about the contributions and deeds of my fellow Americans who happen to be of African descent, and this is because the system is run by Whitey and it sucks. Usually when I do find out some tidbit of info on the subject I am surprised that this information has never been publicized, as it is often highly laudable or just friggin’ cool as all hell. This comic covers all three of those bases in one tasty morsel; education, laudability, and coolness.
The 369th Infantry Regiment’s tale is one that has been, until now, known by few and told by fewer. This is a crime, for it is a story of martial ability and glory that any fan of military history would thoroughly enjoy and be grateful to learn. The 369th was an all-black fighting unit that served their country honorably in WWI. They fought battles both on the field and off, in the tradition of human warriors spanning back to the beginning of time. Their race and country of origin hampered their ability to receive their just laurels due and that blows both because they were from the USA where we are supposed to know better (but clearly we don’t) and because deserving men got cheated for stupid reasons.
Part of the allure of this comic is going through this process with them, as they perform admirably in service to a country that never embraces nor even thanks them. These men were playing the long game, doing what they did for future generations, not only of black people, but for the benefit of the entire American society which could use a little more égalité. This is effectively communicated through the writing, and serves to increase your appreciation and admiration of them. I’ll admit I was also a little jealous that I don’t have their vision nor the strength to carry said vision out. This was balanced, however, by my smug feeling of superiority at being a modern man who gives praise where it is due regardless of race and therefore I rule, WWI era white people! Of course that last part makes me kind of an idiot because who am I fooling, but I have a point: the story, the plotting and characterizations, made me feel things, not always neat and not always deserving of merit, but deeply and in the way the authors intended. The book is weaving a spell, one for adults who can ponder their own subtleties, and it hits the notes it reaches for perfectly.
This comic is in black and white. I might be understanding history wrong, but I’m reasonably sure that, films and television notwithstanding, the world has always been in color. So, although this story takes place in WWI, it represents a stylistic choice and does not mirror the reality of the times, but I don’t know because I wasn’t there and you can’t prove it. Often there is a thematic or creative reason for skipping the coloring process, sometimes a financial one, but I’m not sure I understand the choice here. I’m a big fan of great coloring, and I can see where a rich palette would enhance this story greatly. That being said, the pencils are excellent and the scenes as drawn capture the mood and action very effectively. Like a movie’s storyboard, the panels seem to convey a greater finished product, a moving image of reality parceled out frame by frame. It’s quite effective.
Like many stories based on historical events, this story includes some famous personages from history as cameos. This is double-dipping in the subject matter because a few completely bad-ass figures who (whom?) my history teacher neglected to mention make appearances here which are superfluous to the plot but serve to, once again, educate my ignorant white ass. Their appearances made me get all learny on them and Google came through. This is another plus for Max Brooks.
The violence is glorified in the usual American media way, and proto-Nazis are the bad guys so it gets the society stamp of approval. The action is done in a kinetic style, so it sweeps you up into the events, mirroring the actual realities of trench warfare as much as can be reproduced in a picture book. If you like action, you will be thrilled with the combat scenes and how they are presented. Not much seems to be held back, and so come prepared to be exposed to some brutal truths as characters are given distinct personalities, allowed to take form in our minds, and are then ripped away by the meat machine that was the trenches. In the end, the art is done in such a way that it affects you both with appreciation for its dynamic energy and a sorrow at the realization that this represents real people who once met in France and perpetrated these actions upon one another. Not many comics both titillate and educate using violence as a vehicle. It’s a delicate task, but the creators pull it off here, to their credit and the reader’s betterment (it’s a word, Ma!).
In closing, I highly recommend this book to a wide swath of readers. It’s for the army guys, the action fans, the history buffs, and those who wish to learn more about their fellow Americans who happen to be black. It is a wild ride, and one that will enlighten you. Best part about it is that it is true. Mostly. You know, as true as a story can be and still be good. Let’s just go with true. A true story. The end.
Harlem Hellfighters is a 4 1/2 out of 5!
(Half a point deducted for historically inaccurate color. Everyone knows WWI was in sepia tones.)
Writer: Brooks, Max
Artist: White, Canaan
Cover Artist: White, Canaan
Format: GRAPHIC NOVEL
On Sale April 02, 2014
Publisher The Crown Publishing Group
Diamond Id: JAN141046
*Images Posted with permission from The Crown Publishing Group from The Harlem Hellfighters – © 2014 by Max Brooks