[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-War]: Hankins on Prorokova and Tal, 'Cultures of War in Graphic Novels: Violence, Trauma, and Memory'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Thu Aug 22 12:51:48 MDT 2019

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From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Date: Thu, Aug 22, 2019 at 8:25 AM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-War]: Hankins on Prorokova and Tal, 'Cultures of
War in Graphic Novels: Violence, Trauma, and Memory'
To: <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>

Tatiana Prorokova, Nimrod Tal, eds.  Cultures of War in Graphic
Novels: Violence, Trauma, and Memory.  New Brunswick  Rutgers
University Press, 2018.  237 pp.  $29.95 (paper), ISBN
978-0-8135-9095-0; $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8135-9096-7.

Reviewed by Mike Hankins (eSchool of Graduate PME, Air University)
Published on H-War (August, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

The field of comics studies has grown extensively over the past few
decades, and it makes sense that it would start to intersect with
other fields--in this case, military history. For students of comics
studies and the history of art and literature, this book presents
more of the type of analysis typical in those fields, applied to
specific works of sequential art that deal with wars, both historical
and current. For military historians, however, Tatiana Prorokova and
Nimrod Tal's collection of essays offers several new lenses through
which to explore wars in specific and general senses and should be
especially useful to military historians who explore memory and

Each of the eleven essays in the volume takes a specific work (or
group of related works) of sequential art having to do with war in
one way or another and uses various tools to analyze it. The book is,
therefore, more a product of art history than traditional military
history, but it offers a useful bridge between those fields. A brief
introduction attempts to bring these diverse chapters together,
asserting that "stories about the military are part of the modern
battlefield" and emphasizing that one of the major goals of the
volume is to "de-center" war narratives (p. 1). That means that the
volume aims to both eschew a traditional "center and periphery"
framework and focus on subjects that have garnered less scholarly
attention. Since many famous works of war comics are American and
focus on the Second World War, this book considers no material
related to that war and includes only a small sampling of US-related

Outside of this brief introduction, the chapters are centered on
their subjects and left to speak for themselves. Little attempt is
made to convey a broad argument about a relationship between comics
and war or about specific qualities of the comics medium. However,
several of the essays do touch on exactly that point. Joe Lockard's
"Nat Turner, Slave Revolts, and Child-Killing in U.S. Graphic
Novels," Kent Worcester's "Graphic Narrative and the War on Terror,"
and Prorokova's "The Haunting Power of War: Remembering the Rwandan
Genocide in _99 Days_," among others, all emphasize that there is
something unique about the medium of comics that allows it to explore
war narratives in ways that are different from literature, film, or
audio recordings. Like a film, comics unfold in time, yet, like when
reading a book, readers can move back and forth in that narrative at
their will or linger on certain images and text more than others.
Indeed, comics have a "grammar" in how images and text are presented
and juxtaposed in ways that can encourage readers to take certain
approaches in unfolding time in their minds.[1]

Worcester makes this point most clearly when he emphasizes that the
nature of comics allows for dense, layered narratives, that its
sequential panel structure is especially suited for the documentation
of history, and that comics are essentially democratic in that anyone
can make them with few barriers to production and distribution. His
assessment dovetails nicely with Yasmine Nachabe Taan's points in
"Blogging in Times of War: The July 2006 War in Lebanon and Mazen
Kerbaj Imagining the Unimaginable" not only that digital platforms
for distributing comics make the medium more democratic but also that
the comics form is easier to get around government censors in some
countries, and thus comics provide a way to look inside a conflict
that other mediums might not.

Each of the eleven chaptes has something worthy to offer, yet there
are a few standouts that warrant a closer look. One of the most
thought-provoking pieces is Silvia G. Kurlat Ares's "The Malvinas War
in Argentine Memory: Graphic Representations of Defeat and
Nationalism, 1982-2015." Ares shows how every aspect of comics, from
the narratives themselves to the art styles, carries political
weight. Ares asserts that these works are not searching for "truth"
but for "significance." She notes that the comics under discussion
"create something that blends testimony and fiction, interpretation
and explanation," depending on the point of view of the authors,
whether they are attempting to critique or support a government,
nation, or war, or some other idea, such as chivalry (p. 168). Iain
A. Macinnes shows a similar theme in his exploration of events as
distant as the Hundred Years' War. He compares the novel _Crécy
_(2007) by Warren Ellis against the very different series _Le Trône
d'Argile _(2006), demonstrating that each uses a modern lens to
interpret old events in ways that critique chivalry, nationalism, and
violence but in different ways and to distinct ends.

Lockard's examination of Kyle Baker's _Nat Turner_ series is one of
the most rewarding essays in the volume, placing Baker's work in a
continuum of comics that examine the Nat Turner Rebellion as well as
depictions of slavery and the American Civil War in general. Baker
purposefully challenges previous comics on these subjects (many of
which promote outdated and rejected Dunning school and Lost Cause
arguments). Lockard demonstrates how the juxtaposition of images
makes the comics medium uniquely suited for dealing with complex
issues, such as the killing of children during the rebellion--an
aspect of the history that different comics have interpreted in
distinct ways. A similar argument is present in Peter C. Valenti's
examination of Joe Sacco's comics about Palestinian children growing
up under Israeli occupation. Valenti argues that although these
comics clearly have a political point of view, the medium of comics,
which combines still images with unfolding time and images with
juxtaposed text, allows for narratives with a much deeper level of
nuance and sophistication than other media.

Harriet E. H. Earle's chapter, "'The Sky Is Darkened by Gods':
Spirituality, Strength, and Violence in Gene Luen Yang's _Boxers and
Saints_," is especially useful in exploring how comics can be
effective in presenting sophistication and nuance in historical war
narratives. Yang's work not only makes powerful use of surrealist
imagery and color to capture spirituality and emotional components
but also tells the story of the Boxer Rebellion from two opposing
viewpoints, juxtaposing them with themes of religious belief and
devotion. James Kelley analyzes how post-traumatic stress disorder is
depicted in _War Brothers _(2004), a graphic novel by Sharon E. McKay
and Daniel Lafrance. Similar to Earle, Kelley emphasizes how color
and the construction of panels can be powerful visual metaphors in
depicting and exploring the memory of traumatic events.

For the most part, the book does not examine mainstream popular
American comics. The closest that any of the essays get is Macinnes's
examination of _Crécy_ by Ellis, who has done much work for Marvel,
DC, and Image comics as well as an animated Netflix series. Worcester
also offers a brief survey of works dealing with the war on terror,
which includes many mainstream popular works, such as superhero
comics from Marvel, DC, and Image comics. It might have been
interesting to explore how mainstream popular comics deal with the
themes of war, either directly or allegorically, especially compared
with the works under consideration in the rest of the collection.
However, this would have been against the stated goals of the volume
and thus is hardly a critique, as Prorokova and Tal's work has
accomplished much and stands well as it is. If there is any critique
worth mentioning, it is that readers who are unfamiliar with the
works being discussed are at a significant disadvantage. Although all
of the authors do an excellent job of describing the comics they
analyze, including excerpts and illustrations of key moments, this
can hardly make up for readers who have not read these works
beforehand. With that in mind, this book might serve as a good
jumping off point for readers to find comics relevant to their work.

Although at first glance the volume appears to be a loosely connected
collection of essays analyzing the art styles of various war comics,
a closer reading reveals a thought-provoking work about the nature of
war, memory, culture, and the ways we tell those stories. As Ares
points out, comics can create unique narratives, but they are not
dispassionate, and they reveal as much about the author and the
culture that the author comes from as the conflicts they depict. The
volume is worth the price of admission for the Worcester, Lockard,
and Ares chapters alone, although the others have much to offer,
including the ones I have not touched on. Even if a military
historian finds their subject not covered in one or more of these
chapters, they are still useful for the analytical lenses they
demonstrate. Like most of the best scholarship, this volume provides
new ways to look at old subjects and points the way for future work.


[1]. These mechanics are explored in depth in Scott McCloud's classic
work _Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art_ (Northampton, MA:
Kitchen Sink Press, 1993), which should be considered required
reading for those entering the field of comics studies.

Citation: Mike Hankins. Review of Prorokova, Tatiana; Tal, Nimrod,
eds., _Cultures of War in Graphic Novels: Violence, Trauma, and
Memory_. H-War, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53519

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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