Propaganda takes part in Alan’s War
by Emmanuel Guibert
Alan Cope was just eighteen when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and he was immediately drafted into the army. From Fort Knox to New York, to the battlefields of France and the final push from Patton into Czechoslovakia this graphic novel tells us the story of Alan’s War. But if you go into Alan’s War expecting a real boy’s own experience of wartime, you’re due to be disappointed. For a book set around the memories of a soldier in WWII, Alan’s War is remarkably devoid of warfare of any sort. This book charts the remarkable luck of Cope in his short service, as he manages time and time again to be where the action isn’t. As such, it consists of a beautifully rendered series of reminiscences about the quiet times between the fighting, quiet times that made up 99% of Cope’s wartime experiences.
(Training at Fort Knox and more of those friendships that young Alan Cope forms throughout his army life and beyond. Art by Emmanuel Guibert.)
Alan’s War starts with his draft and his training at Fort Knox. Within a few pages you have a feel of the book as Cope takes time to flesh out the character of his fellow soldiers as they experience basic training together. Between the tales of his comrades, there are interludes of the strange events that Cope remembers; nearly being killed during tank training by a falling tree, the terror of foxhole training where his foxhole just isn’t deep enough as a tank rolls over him, learning to use a rifle launched grenade that’s almost impossible to aim. These little interludes are mere punctuations to the main thrust of the story though, where Cope details his relationships with his fellow soldiers. There are many times throughout the book where you feel Cope’s feelings of friendship for his fellows will spill over into something physical, but it never does. Cope is just a naturally open and friendly person, who attracts friendship from other men as easily and naturally as he does women, it’s merely the circumstance of the war that means the majority of his closest friends we meet are men. And throughout Alan’s War, these stories of his friendships with other soldiers and people he meets in Europe are what make Alan’s War a singularly affecting and beautiful book.
(One of the few truly chilling moments in Alan’s War, as Alan watches a young German go under the wheels of his own tank, shocked into immobility by the sight of US tanks flying the white flag on their mission into Prague. Art by Emmanuel Guibert.)
Once in France, at the very end of the war, Alan’s War gets no more eventful. Even his inclusion on a mission for Patton to act as part of a deep scouting unit pushing into Pilsen, Czechoslovakia and taking as much ground as possible from the Russians. They were to meet a German general and escort him to Prague where he would convince the General in charge to surrender to the Americans. His one important mission accomplished without a shot fired, Cope’s war is over.
(Alan’s War ends on a typically low key note. From Alan’s War by Emmanuel Guibert)
Alan Cope tells his tales of wartime and beyond with the voice of an old man who’s had plentiful chance to look back over his life and reflect. Throughout Alan’s War you catch that feeling that Cope maybe wanted a little bit more from his war, wanted a little more adventure and excitement. He’s relieved that he never saw much action, but at the same time a little regretful. What does come through in Alan’s War is the camaraderie and instant friendships that form in difficult and transitory times. Cope’s recollections of the men he served with are full of great love and affection, of shared times throughout the war and beyond. The stories here all focus on the people of the moment rather than the events of the time and Cope’s voice in the telling is remarkably clear, his memories very exacting and his portrayal of both people and events come with an authentic ring of truth.
Alan’s War tells a truth of the war and the men who fought not constrained to each moment or each event. It tells the quiet war seen by the majority of servicemen. It captures all of those feelings of friendship, fear, boredom, excitement and real life that these ridiculously young men faced through their war. This is not the war you see in the movies, this is an authentic retelling.
The book was constructed by Guibert after five years of contact with Cope up until his death and initially saw print in three parts, collected here and published in English for the first time. Book 1 details the two years of Cope’s military training, Book 2 covers his posting in France during very end of the war and Book 3 rushes us through Cope’s years after the war. Because of the manner of it’s telling; with Cope and Guibert chatting, Cope telling Guibert his stories and Guibert assembling them into a narrative to illustrate, Alan’s War reads in a staccato fashion at times. There are moments of sheer wonder, beauty, misery and joy throughout, but occasionally,just occasionally, Guibert just fails to make something work, skipping too quickly onto the next memory. It’s reportage rather than story telling, and that rather deadens the emotional impact of the piece. But these slips are rare and the emotional intensity that sits underneath the stories is almost always there, testimony to the ability of both men as storytellers.
It’s such an impressive book in content and most definitely in execution. Guibert’s artwork, all subtle ink washes and a distinct concentration in the art to focus on the figures rather than backgrounds, indeed many panels feature a character study against stark white background. This may be Guibert’s style, but it also plays well with the narrative of Cope, preferring people over events in his retelling. And I should really spend a moment praising Guibert’s artwork. It’s poetic, beautiful, stunning work capable of capturing every aspect of the story, from the intense horror of the war to the intensely personal moments that fill this book. Utter brilliance.
(That final panel; beautiful. Art by Emmanuel Guibert from Alan’s War)
For more insights into Guibert’s artistic style there’s a great video clip at the First Second website (and here on You Tube) that details how at least some of the story was drawn using a technique of marking out a picture with water and then allowing the inks to flow across the page, the art almost miraculously drawing itself. It’s well worth seeking out.
My only regret on closing that final page is that Cope’s later life is dispatched relatively quickly, yet it’s this later life that saw Cope become a true philosopher, looking back objectively over his life in such a manner as to allow us the wonderful story. It would have been fascinating to read more of his later life, but he chose not to share that with us. Instead he concentrates on the earlier time of his life and gives us something genuinely special. Alan’s War may well be one of the most affecting books you’ll have the pleasure of reading all year.