There’s a growing number of graphic novels about war – books to teach kids about real war and its consequences, as opposed to the flashy bloodfests regularly dished out by action films and video games. Perhaps one of the best of these graphic novels is Dogs of War by Sheila Keenan (author) and Nathan Fox (illustrator). War service dogs are profiled in three different wars, giving kids a focused, approachable way into an understanding of what war is about. Another microcosmic look at one of the myriad ways of experiencing war is examined in Gaijin: American Prisoner of War by Matt Faulkner. The art work in this one is really stunning – far more accomplished than what you’ll find in most graphic novels. It’s the story of Koji, a boy living in San Francisco in 1941 who’s sent to a Japanese American internment camp. His situation is complicated by the fact that he’s half white and half Japanese, dislocated no matter where he is. My 9 and 8 year old were really taken aback by the notion that an entire group of innocent people could really be taken to a prison camp like this in the United States: “Mum, did this really happen?” “Mum, is this boy real?” My favourite of this group, however, is Scott Chantler’s Two Generals because, while its style is much simpler than Gajin’s, Chantler uses the graphic novel format to cinematic effect, and the writing is more sophisticated. There is so much to appreciate here: the touches of humour, the “band of brothers” relationships, the details that reveal the many different moods and scenes of the battlefield, and, in particular, Chantler’s assertion that personal stories about the war experience (the main character is his grandfather) must be told and told again, handed down, “lest such delicate personal lines be lost among the broader strokes of history.” A book like Canada at War (Paul Keery and Michael Wyatt) does a solid job of showing what kind of role Canada played in WWII, just from an information standpoint. But for artistry and craft, it’s far outstripped by Gajin and Two Generals.
But my son Roy’s favourite by far is Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood from the historical graphic novel series Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales. At first I was a wee bit uncomfortable to hear Roy chuckling while reading this book about WWI – as topics go, it shouldn’t really be a knee-slapper. And animals to stand in for the different countries’ soldiers? Really? But Spiegelman did it with Maus for grown-ups, after all, and Roy thought it was a fantastic approach. Hale seems to have struck the perfect balance between gallows humour, kid humour, factual information, and gravitas. Roy read this one several times over a period of three weeks (the length of our library loan), and often went to the computer to check details such as which countries dug tunnels at the front. I was particularly impressed with Hale’s use of Ares (Greek god of war) to symbolize the snowballing insanity and brutality of the war as it ground on; the god grows larger and more maniacal by the year, stirring his giant stew pot of dead men.