The Harlem Hellfighters
written by Max Brooks
illustrated by Caanan White
Why read comics? A lot provide escapism, that's true. But there's also something about the form that can draw you in, get you buried deep into it and then... holy crow, you accidentally learned something you didn't know. And you're burning to know more.
That happened last year reading The Fifth Beatle, and so this week for me picking up The Harlem Hellfighters.
If you know Max Brooks' name, it's likely because of World War Z (the brilliant novel, not the movie). And as Brooks has collaborated further on a few zombie books, it would be understandable if you picked this up thinking that it was just another chapter in that saga. (I like that Brooks has become one of those select few authors whose name has become a logo.)
But The Harlem Hellfighters is no fantasy. Though fictionalized, it's a true enough story about war, and our own shame as a nation in ignoring this chapter. Brooks himself says he's been fascinated by it since he was 10, turning it into a screenplay that nobody wanted to produce -- until now.
This is the story of the 369th Infantry Regiment, who fought in the trenches of World War I longer than any other American unit. Its members also had to fight for decades to get acknowledgement, because, of course, the 369th was "the colored unit."
Pardon the archaic phrasing there, but that's needed because of the irony Brooks points out -- the government organized this unit, gave them substandard training, and then denied them the same send-off other units got, in a huge well-publicized "Rainbow Parade." The excuse given the 369th? "Black isn't a color of the rainbow."
Though Brooks' narrator, Mark, is a fiction, many of the other members in the regiment are historically accurate, or that infamous "combination of characters." Still, they all ring true. And all speak with vastly different voices that feel real. (Even here, you can feel the influence of Studs Terkel on Brooks' writing.)
No longer a screenplay, this is a graphic novel, and though it's being sold on Brooks' name, it's Caanan White who makes the book speed forward, one that just can't be put down. Even in black and white, White's unflinching portrayal of the senseless gore and shock of war feels disturbingly visceral.
Horror is not the only emotion on display, however. You can see the young volunteers vibrating with nervousness and excitement each step of the way, and their physical relaxation in France when it becomes clear that the racism of the United States has stayed behind... for a while.
It's assured and cinematic, and yes, destined for the big screen. But it works incredibly well in graphic novel form, and though many graphic novels deal with history, the popularity of Brooks may very well expand what the general public can expect from them.
The Harlem Hellfighters is a highwater mark for comics this year, and you'd do well to pick up a copy.
(Of course we recommend Earth-2 Comics, Illusive Comics & Games, The Comics Bug, Hijinx Comics or whichever store is closest to you. But there is a handy Amazon link here as well.)