Despite not being as long or as seminal as other epic works such as Craig Thompson’s Blankets, Alan’s War by Emmanuel Guibert is probably the longest I’ve ever taken in reading a graphic novel. It’s just so rich and dense, with so much information packed into every page and panel, that you can’t just breeze through it. Nor should you—this is the story of a man’s life, and what a life it was.
Alan’s War is the story of Alan Cope, a young man from California in the ’40s who like many young men his age back then, found himself drafted into the army and sent overseas to fight in World War II. “Fight” being a very loose term in his case, as he was drafted late into the war, and by the time he finally got sent to France, the war was mostly over. So he finds himself moving from place to place, performing mostly administrative and cleanup work, learning a lot about Europe (and life) in the process. He ended up living there after the war, which is how he met Emmanuel Guibert, the comic artist who took their conversations and transcribed them into this beautiful book. Guibert is not a speaking presence in this graphic novel; Guibert was the audience then as the reader is now.
Guibert chose to keep his dialog and pacing as true to Alan’s original delivery as possible. As such it is very comfortable, measured, and occasionally contradictory. Guibert notes these contradictions in the introduction, but they do not detract from the story one bit. I found it very easy to follow, even when Alan’s account gets sidetracked as he tries to sneak in smaller anecdotes and bits of information into the narrative, and even with all the people Alan met it was relatively easy to keep them straight, though I found myself at times flipping back to try and remember who he was talking about.
The book is actually a collection, as the novel was originally published in three volumes back in France. The first volume or chapter, covers Alan’s training and stateside experiences, while the second chapter is his travels through Europe. The final chapter is more of an epilogue, as Alan basically goes through a laundry list of what happened to him and all his friends: some moved away and he lost touch, some he was reunited with, and others died. As a resident of the 21st Century it’s fascinating to see how Alan was able to track down people without the Internet, using only letters and phone calls and coming up pretty successful most of the time. He even wrote to Henry Miller at one point and got an answer regarding the whereabouts of a couple of dear friends.
The narrative shines in this graphic novel, but the art is also beautiful to behold. Many panels may seem empty, but what few elements Guibert does put in them convey so much information. His facial expressions are charming, but the real standouts are his landscapes. Some are almost indistinguishable from photographs, the detail being so rich.
I really enjoyed this book; it was funny and charming, and provided a look at military life that was more humble and less violent than the portrayals we’re used to getting. Guibert is right in that Alan Cope was a natural storyteller, though he sells himself short: Guibert is excellent as well.
Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope
by Emmanuel Guibert
translation by Kathryn Pulver
lettering by Céline Merrien
published by First Second (New York, 2008)