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posted September 24, 2008
First Second, softcover, 336 pages, September 2008, $24
9781596430969 (ISBN13), 1596430966 (ISBN10)
They're dying all the time now, the members of the United States' World War II generation. It's been 15 years since their sixth and final president left office. A full cycle of world history has come and gone since the one they helped end in the mid-1940s. It's hard to name a half dozen of their film and entertainment stars still with us. The men that directed the conflict are long gone, many for decades. A private that turned 18 in 1944 would be 82 in 2008, five years or so past standard life expectancy for someone born today and a full fifteen or so past what they were facing at birth. Of course, close to a half million members of that generation died as young men, killed in combat or a related circumstance fighting in Europe.
Emmanuel Guibert's compulsively readable book, translated for the US market by First Second and about as attractive as any long-form graphic novel you'll see this year, introduces us to one soldier of that great conflict. Alan Cope is a typical American soldier in that very little about what happened to him is as emblematic of a group experience as the media-driven, popular, collective post-War narrative would have you believe. The memories Cope seems to have of World War II nearly always involve fussing with banalities in the foreground and struggling to connect to everything meaningful he can sense just out of his reach: music, wine, people with the ability to touch his heart, towns and villages weathered by centuries into communities that make greater sense than the neighborhoods that spring up back home and lose people within them. Cope's only military mission of any import involves a little-known incident of historical clean-up seeing to the safe surrender of an enemy general after the thrust of combat had ended. His most poignant anecdote is of a soldier eaten by tank treads because for a few seconds the doomed man couldn't quite believe what he was seeing.
At about two thirds of the way through the book, you'll realize that Alan's War
isn't a proper biography, let alone a war story, although it can be seen to function that way if you squint your eyes and hold the book at the correct angle away from your face. There are tanks and German and Russians, after all, and even a story or two about moral drift. Don't believe your eyes, though; trust your inner ear. Guibert admits what you'll suspect on your own: that the comic is there to capture Alan Cope's voice. Cope's memory is thorough, even relentless in a sense. You don't remember with his kind of clarity without a willful application towards that end. Cope organizes his experiences in a logical fashion that favors people over events, that pushes for an immediate context for everything, and that illustrates through anecdotes instead of communicates through declaration. His wording is kinder than you'd think to those who cause him inconvenience, and even outright solicitous towards those things and people in which he finds value. In a remarkable, long wind-down, the reader gets to see some of the full awakening to self and spirit late in life that was a significant event for Cope, one suspects on a level with the war experience and the restless years after the war, years to which he attempts to reconnect with this new sense of purpose. It's as if all that time in between never happened. Maybe for Cope it didn't.