Reviewed by Niels Strandskov
Rumbling out of the past, Alan's War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope charts the life-altering changes wrought by World War II in the story of one ordinary soldier. The graphic novel cruises through the engagingly prosaic and occasionally fantastic recollections of its protagonist, a fresh-scrubbed California boy sent to do the mopping up as Europe emerged, brutalized but hopeful, from its great cataclysm.
Alan Cope's war was perhaps more typical than he realized. Like thousands of other enlisted men, Cope, who died in 1999, saw little action, and only dimly grasped the horrors that the war unleashed on the rest of the world. Trained first as a tank crewman and then as a radio operator, he winds up riding an armored car east to Czechoslovakia at a breakneck pace in the war's final weeks. The mission, to establish an American presence in Eastern Europe before the Red Army can nail things down, is eventually undone by the Yalta accords. En route, Cope and his buddies go through the motions of soldiering in an almost empty rural landscape. But it is navigating the Army bureaucracy, and with it the still-unfamiliar paths of adulthood, that provides the bulk of the story's frustration and excitement for the smart, friendly, amazingly lucky youth.
In the interviews with cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert from which the text of this work was derived, Cope's frequent asides of "maybe you won't believe this" preserve a sense of wonder about his place in the continent-spanning madness that shaped his life. Guibert's spare, slightly hazy depictions of the last days of World War II, often confined to the immediate space around a figure, show a naive, often hapless young G.I. — one who skirts death and dismemberment with a kind of beginner's luck that usually lands him plum assignments in the company of older, more worldly mentors.
The war itself provides only the first half of Cope's narrative, however. For the rest of the volume, Guibert shows the demobilized Cope developing a life based partly on his youthful religious convictions, later increasingly oriented toward the promise of a rebuilt Europe, and the intensity of the memories and connections he formed as the war drew to a close. Although Cope eventually married a French woman, the connections which are most central to his story are not romantic or erotic, but based instead on his comradeship with fellow soldiers and his generosity to various Europeans he meets on his travels.
Guibert's preface recounts his chance meeting with Cope, when the comic artist stopped to ask directions on a small French island and met an American who had largely gone native. From that meeting, a fast friendship developed, and Guibert became Cope's graphic Boswell. Thematically, chance meetings play a large part in Alan's War. Perhaps the most significant for Cope was the one that led to his friendship with Gerhardt and Vera Muench, a German musician and his American poet wife who provide much-needed intellectual stimulation (and atheist skepticism) in Cope's life; the Muenches' travels through post-war expatriate circles bring Cope in contact with other notables such as Henry Miller. The contrast between the much-older Muenches' peripatetic bohemianism and Cope's own half-exile as a nondescript civilian Army employee on U.S. bases in Europe could hardly be more pronounced. Yet, just as with his improbable friendship with the much younger Guibert, Cope's interactions with the Muenches allow us a chance to see the Cope-who-might-have-been — adventurous, urbane and eager to move into a liberated world.
Guibert repeatedly highlights the youthful Cope's brushes with homosexuality, and it bears consideration that G.I. Cope is never particularly shocked to find out that a friend or associate is gay. While much of his casual description of these scenes may entail the benefit of hindsight from a more enlightened age, the resolute humanity Cope displays reminds us that gay liberation in this country was not only won on the Stonewall sidewalk, but also in the sleeper-cars and living rooms of several generations of Americans who made a conscious choice not to bash, or harass, or exclude their gay friends and relatives. Of course, Cope was also for most of his life an expatriate, and though he never explains his exact reasons for staying in Europe, his allusions to American disappointments seem to hover around a distaste for moralizing and religion.
Guibert's version of Cope's story is charming and sometimes hilarious but most often imbued with a languid melancholy that contrasts sharply with its subject's usually straightforward approach to life. Much of Alan's War takes place in nights of confused Army maneuvers, or in the magical crepuscle that sees foxes cavort over the remains of a dinner party; movie marquees illuminate simpler streets of a young, desirous age. Guibert's soft outlines and chiaroscuro black-and-white coloring keep many of Cope's reminiscences glued in a past that is only tenuously connected to the present. Guibert's style is a good match for Cope's essentially decent nature. At times, this tends to undercut the seriousness of some incidents. Guibert's depiction of an attempted rape, for example, shows three indistinct figures in a bed in the first panel, then one figure punching another in the second. The actual stress and fear inherent in the situation is glossed over by the illustrator's loose shadings.
Alan's War stands apart from most other war comics. The bellicose ferocity of Sgt. Rock is certainly absent, as are the grueling recountings of The Nam. Nor is this book likely to rewrite historiographies of World War II in the manner of Art Spiegelman's epic Maus. Despite the many unique chance encounters that made Alan Cope a thoughtful, engrossing storyteller, his story becomes powerful for its chronicle of what it was like to participate in a mass activity as just another grunt, unusual only to the degree that he maintained an open mind to the various possibilities the war afforded. War is many things, but Alan's War underscores that for all its horrors, it is not least an opportunity for growth and change.
Niels Strandskov has a bachelor's degree in cinema and media culture studies from the University of Minnesota.
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