Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Name:
Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!

21.3.05

Comics you should own (Arrowsmith)

I must keep pimpin' my contest! Remember - you must tell me why you want Scurvy Dogs in good old-fashioned pirate lingo! Nothing less will do!

I forgot to do link-stuff yesterday, so I apologize to those who have no time to surf the net and rely on me to do it. It will return next week!

If I start to think about the Terry Schiavo case, I'll get angry, so I won't. If I think about this, I will also get angry. Support the war or not, but when soldiers are making what appears to be snuff films (read the article if you don't believe me), I get angry.

So I thought I'd fire away on another edition of the Award-Winning "Comics You Should Own" segment here at Delenda Est Carthago. Okay, I haven't won any awards. The Pulitzer people will feel my wrath!

Since I now have a backlog, here are some other comics you should own and why. Remember, someday I will be your supreme leader, so you might want to stock up!

300 by Frank Miller
1963 by Alan Moore et al.
Alias by Bendis and Gaydos
Amazing Spider-Man #229-230 by Stern and Romita Jr.
Amazing Spider-Man #238-251 by Stern, Romita Jr. et al.
Animal Man #1-32 by Morrison, Truog, Milligan et al.

Now, I add another!

Arrowsmith by Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco
DC/Wildstorm/Cliffhanger, 6 issues (#1-6, cover dated Sept. 2003-May 2004 - really July through March)

This is (so far) the most recent of the comics you should own, but that doesn't diminish its worthiness. It's a wonderful comic book, the kind of comic that all creators should strive to do, in that it tells a self-contained story that doesn't rely on years of continuity (there's a time and a place for that) and it explores other uses of the comics medium besides superhero stories. Comics are a fabulous medium for fantasy tales, a fact that some creators have appreciated more than others (Busiek is one; his other contributions to the genre include A Wizard's Tale and now, Conan), and it would be nice to see an audience grow for this kind of book, since anyone can appreciate this story, not just hard-core comics fans.

The story is straight forward enough: World War I fought in an alternate universe where magic is real and useful in a war. The participants are the same, despite being referred to by the countries that exist in Busiek and Pacheco's world: Albion (England) fights alongside Gallia (France), Lotharingia (Brussels/Holland) and Muscovy (Russia) against Prussia (Germany), Tyrolia-Hungary (Austria-Hungary) and the Ottoman Empire (the, well, Ottoman Empire), while the United States of Columbia (wonder who that could be?) stands on the sideline. In issue number 1, a troll refers to the "Peace of Charlemagne," which apparently set the boundaries of Europe for something like 1000 years (Lotharingia is named, presumably, after Lothar I, Holy Roman Emperor from 840-855 and Charlemagne's grandson - Carolingian history rules!). Into this mess comes a young "American," Fletcher Arrowsmith (groan at the pun if you must; I did), who volunteers for the Overseas Aero Corps, an elite unit that uses the flying power of dragons to fight dogfights in the skies over Europe.

This is all stunningly rendered by Pacheco, whose art has matured leaps and bounds from his early (decent) work on the X-titles. From the fiery Prussian troll that attacks the Gallican lines in the first few pages to the destruction of a Prussian town by giant green-flaming salamanders, the magical stuff in Arrowsmith is unbelievable. Pacheco also excels at the quiet moments, drawing wonderful human emotions in Fletcher, Grace, Rocky the troll, and all the other characters. This book is worth is for the art alone.

Busiek hits all the standard "war story" notes, and it's in this where the book is weakest. When Saving Private Ryan came out, one reviewer mentioned how difficult it is to do war movies, since there's an inherent beauty in destruction (this is even more evident in The Thin Red Line - what a beautiful movie that was). Well, in a world where magical beings abound, it's even more difficult for Busiek to write an anti-war book, which is part of his point. In issue 5, when the OAC drops the salamanders on a Prussian town in a scene probably evoking the Dresden firebombing in WWII, it's a beautifully drawn tableau (blame Pacheco). When the rag-tag survivors fight off the Prussian assault in issue 6, it's majestic and stirring, even though people are dying. It's the nature of the beast, and despite Busiek's attempts to show that "war is hell," we're too amazed by the magical creatures and wonder at how he integrates them into a gritty narrative to be too disturbed by his anti-war sentiments.

Despite this, it's a good story. What makes this an interesting book rather than just a nice-looking one with a decent story is the way Busiek uses the fantastic as a metaphor. The crucial scene in the book actually comes in issue 1, when Fletcher talks to his father about the war and his desire to volunteer. His father says it's not his war, so why should he have any part in it? He says:

"And this flyin' nonsense - even more foolishness. What's it make that a man could eat, or use, or sell? Nothin', that's what. 'S a reason why magic don't work around cold iron - it's unnatural. Nothin' sensible men should put their trust in."

Fletcher tells him that some men are using magic to fertilize fields, cure sicknesses, and other things, and Martin Arrowsmith explodes in anger and says:

"They're just puttin' good men outta work with these 'miracle methods.' They'll see, when it backfires on 'em ... This new commercial wizardry may be all th' rage in the big cities - but it won't catch on here."

Martin never shows up again, but he provides the book with its dramatic tension, one that Busiek explores subtly throughout the whole work. World War I, obviously, is a moment in time when the "modern world" was created - the era of the gentleman-soldier was over, small armies and "noble" fighting were gone, and the age of the meat-grinder army was at hand. What Busiek is doing with the magical angle is highlighting the tension between the old generation and the new - Martin doesn't like all this new-fangled magic stuff (even though it's been around, apparently, a long time) and doesn't think it will catch on. Fletcher, meanwhile, with the endless optimism of youth, throws himself into the magical world with abandon. It's only after he has experienced it first-hand does he start to question his decision. However, he, like the rest of the world, can never go back - Pandora's Box is open. At the end of the book, Fletcher realizes, like the people on the Manhattan Project, that some things might be better left unexplored.

Busiek has always been a bit of a nostalgic writer - he wrote the JLA/Avengers crossover, for crying out loud! - and here, his nostalgic yearnings are channeled quite well. He never thumps us with a "things were better in the past" vibe, allowing instead his characters to discover that progress doesn't always mean "better." Fletcher never wants to return to his home, despite the horrors of war that he experiences. Fletcher, unlike Busiek occasionally, understands that we cannot go home, and he must force his way through to a better future instead of striving for a bucolic past. Magic (and war) has remade the world, and Fletcher needs to make the new world a good one.

Busiek varies a little as a writer - some of his stuff his okay (Avengers, some stories of Astro City) and some of his stuff is excellent (Marvels, the rest of Astro City). In Arrowsmith, he creates a world that allows him to play to his strengths - a "common-man" view of great events, a large cast, each with a well-defined personality, and a sense of wonder about the world. Arrowsmith succeeds because it takes a standard Busiek weakness - nostalgia for a lost innocence - and subverts that to tell a fable about growing up. It's a grand adventure story, and it works as one, especially when paired with Pacheco's fabulous art. But it is elevated by the subtext, which makes it a mature reflection on war, innocence, and the future.

4 Comments:

Blogger Kevin Melrose said...

Great entry, Greg. I really enjoyed Arrowsmith, too.

I seem to recall plans for a second volume, but I don't know whether anything will come of it.

22/3/05 2:55 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Busiek said in the last issue that as soon as Pacheco was done his Superman/Batman arc, they'd do another one. We'll see - Busiek has all those health problems, so who knows how much work he can do these days.

22/3/05 3:25 PM  
Blogger David said...

Another great retrospective, Greg. I really enjoyed Arrowsmith, from Busiek's totally believable world-creating, with all its attention to detail, to the delightful art of Pacheco. I'd like to see a second arc too.

And, congrats on being asked to contribute to Comics Should Be Good. Look forward to reading your analysis and thoughts in the future.

23/3/05 7:56 AM  
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