Book review

Max Brooks' 'The Harlem Hellfighters': felled by a formula

A tale of the first black American regiment to serve in World War I misses its chance to be a great graphic novel


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In the author’s notes of the new graphic novel “The Harlem Hellfighters,” writer Max Brooks — the author behind the best-selling novel “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War” — discusses what proves to be his new work’s greatest flaw: It began its life as a film screenplay, and it never emerges from that shadow.


“THE HARLEM HELLFIGHTERS”
By Max Brooks and Caanan White
Broadway Books ($16.95)

Mr. Brooks, along with artist collaborator Caanan White, unfolds the relatively unsung story of the 369th U.S. Infantry in 200-plus pages of stark black-and-white artwork that, much like the script itself, could have benefited from spending more time fleshing out the gray areas in the narrative.

The soldiers of the 369th Infantry formed the first black regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. They closed ranks in response to President Wilson’s call to arms for Americans to ensure “the world must be made safe for democracy,” and faced unmitigated obstacles from their own segregated army before ever occupying foreign trenches.

Their victories in the face of indignities are deserving of far higher recognition and are the stuff of which Hollywood epics are made. All too often, however, these epics follow a formula over-reliant on standardized characterization and hyper-inflated production values.

Mr. Brooks’ movie-script approach to “The Harlem Hellfighters” is similarly reverential but formulaic, substituting character types for actual characters, and focusing on chronology to the exclusion of much emotional heft. It’s writing done in broad, expansive strokes, and it reads like an illustrated screenplay.

We are straightaway introduced to a stock group of fictional recruits — the Strong One, the Smart One, The Angry One, the Everyman — and the reader can practically envision the plotline checklist of where each one will end up by story’s conclusion.

In one scene, famed real-life band leader Lt. James Reese Europe is depicted reveling in the midst of battle and tossing off lines of dialogue that feel calculated to eventually be read by an A-list action star.

Mr. White’s artwork is furiously intricate, although often overwrought, with an aesthetic more appropriate to one of DC Comic’s “NEW 52” titles. He has quite obviously done his period research, and there is painstaking visual detail in his world of the 1910s.

The upside to his cinematic sweep is that the battle scenes feel charged with energy and movement; the downside is that everything reads more like glorified storyboards than artwork fully utilizing its own medium. Depth too often becomes lost amid indistinct line work that would have benefited from an infusion of color.

In all of Mr. Brooks’ and Mr. White’s praiseworthy earnestness to offer tribute to their subject, the creators have overlooked narrative choices that undercut their own message.

As depicted in the book, the members of the 369th Infantry were denied a chance to participate in a send-off parade for the rest of New York’s National Guard — the Rainbow Division — under the reasoning that “black is not a color in the Rainbow.”

However, when the creators later show us the victorious black troops returning home to a parade of their own, the previously used celebratory image is duplicated line for line, except with the Caucasian faces redrawn as African-American. In a tale that decries the hypocrisy of separate-but-equal policies, was any thought given to this being a literal example of such? Because once you’re aware of it, the choice is awkward.

Mr. White’s meticulously rendered landscapes do capture the surreal quality of the trenches and battlefields of the Western Front; maybe it is because of this that Mr. Brooks apparently can’t stop himself at one point from inserting a nod to his most well-known prose work by having the main protagonist compare the victims of battlefield shell-shock to zombies.

Likewise, “Harlem Hellfighters” exists in an uncanny valley of storytelling. It looks as if it should be a great graphic novel, and has the topical qualities of one, too, yet it has more in common with the filmed version of Mr. Brooks’ “World War Z” antagonists: It runs at breakneck speed, covers a lot of ground and grabs you by the throat, but ultimately never quite comes to life.


Marcel L. Walker is a freelance artist/writer, and the creator of the comic book “Hero Corp., International” (Magnificnet Marcel@gmail.com, www.marcelwalker.com).

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