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I came to Kurt Busiek’s writing somewhat late, never actually having read any of his superhero work, but falling crushingly in love with his Astro City stories when I began collecting the trades, which in turn lead me to go back and collect Marvels, the book that brought photo-realistic artwork and untraditional superhero storytelling (not to mention Alex Ross) to fame and popularity in the mid nineties.

I loved Busiek’s writing, because no matter the impossibility of the material, namely men and women flying around in tights, his stories were always firmly grounded in the man sans the super. Marvels was told by one man, showing through his eyes the way the world changed with the introduction of icons like Spider-man and the Fantastic Four. Astro City uses superheroics merely as a backdrop for Busiek to set his characters against, never really relying on crafting a single superhero continuity, but telling multiple stories with the city as a character that the protagonists have to contend with. You can even tell in the way the collections are…er- collected: Family Album is a collection of shorter pieces, focusing on the theme of “family” and how it affects, or vice-versa, the world of superheroes, while Tarnished Angel, following only one protagonist throughout, is more about the journey of redemption than a retired supervillain. I was happily amazed at how good Busiek’s writing was, so I went to find his other, more mainstream work.

And boy did I hate it.

Most of it is for Marvel, and everything from Avengers to Untold Tales of Spider-Man just bored me to tears. I’ve never had much love for Marvel characters outside of the X-Men, and without more character driven stories to entice me, Busiek’s mainstream work left me underwhelmed and uninterested; suffice it to say, I’m not Fanboy enough to enjoy JLA/Avengers.

But one title did catch my interest: Avengers Forever, a maxi-series where Rick Jones (Marvel character hanger-on and go-to-hostage) was able to change reality and a whole bunch of Avengers had to help him out. I mention this because that book was where I saw Busiek collaborating with current artistic partner Carlos Pacheo, doing great artwork on well-constructed scripts. They have renewed this pairing with their recent work on Wildstorm’s Arrowsmith.

The year is 1915 and more and more reports are coming from Europe of war and the desperate need for troops to fight back the Prussian and Tyrolian-Hungarian hordes. As their armies spread further into and around Europe, the hordes use vampire squads and fire giants to break through Allied lines and weaken the magically bolstered defenses of the Gallic and Britanian forces. The news even reaches the small town of Herbertsville, Connecticut in the United States of Columbia, and the even smaller ears of Fletcher Arrowsmith, who is more than willing to volunteer and seek his destiny in the Overseas Aero Corps, learning the spells to fly and becoming an elite airman.

Despite his father’s stark lack of approval of fighting a European war, Fletcher sneaks off and enlists. What follows is Fletcher’s journey as he learns about being a wizard, and about the true and harsh terrors of war, losing loved ones and possibly hope along the way.

Alternate history is a hard genre to write well. While we’ve all read (and loved, if you were me) What If? comics, reading about the alternate lives of our favorite heroes when one thing was changed (Daredevil raised by Kingpin, Spider-man never gets bitten, etc.), those were situations where only a minor detail of history was changed. When you delve a little deeper and change something on a larger scale, like making magic real and viable in our world, the entire world is affected, not just a single character. How would the settlement of North America have gone if the Native Americans could summon giant bears and ogres to attack colonists? What would the Civil War have been like with flying dragon cavalry? It’s much harder to write that kind of world, and we often see it fail rather miserably in comics, with books like Alternation and Steampunk.

Busiek clearly did a mountain of research on the book, even tapping (the non-dirty kind) and thanking author Lawrence Watt-Evans for helping to flesh out the 1100 years of socio-economic history of his alternate world. You wouldn’t think that a trench warfare scene that features a fire giant, pixies, and French soldiers could seem authentic, but it does, due in part to Busiek’s decision to leave the dialogue French (Gallic) soldiers or German (Prussian) written in their native tongue, letting the actions tell the story as easily as the words might.

The details show in the drawing up of new maps, as the countries we’ve come to know and argue with at U.N. meetings have all changed. The U.S. is the U.S.C, and is maybe half the size it is now, while France is Gallia (probably stemming from it’s old Roman name Gaul). Russia appears divided into Novgorod and Muscovy, while Polonia occupies Poland’s usual continental seat. It quite literally is a whole new world, and Busiek has not stopped exploring it; in fact, he has barely touched on the changes of this world, as he spends most of his writing time on Fletcher and World War I. All of this “guess which country” is merely background for the real story, and if the background is this detailed, the story is usually just as good.

And it is. Busiek is writing a good war story, despite the fantastic elements, and has created a true Joseph Campbell-esque hero in Fletcher Arrowsmith, and to add to that, he is also capturing the feel of World War I while making it his own war. The controversy over even entering WWI was a very large hullabaloo in the U.S. then, with many seeking to stay out of the war as it concerned only Europe and not U.S. interests. This is as true of Fletcher’s world as it was in ours, as demonstrated by his father’s forbidding Fletcher to join up. More than one American lad lied about his age to enlist, filled with notions of glory and honor, believing that there was something more relevant than the tangled system of international treaties that spawned this war. Busiek does a great job of setting up Fletcher for the awakening his character must go through: i.e. learning that war is never glorious, just bloody, as he witnesses atrocity after atrocity befall friend and enemy alike.

Some of those atrocities occur as a direct result of dangerous use of magic, which continues to echo WWI, as the great leaps in weapons technology that were made (machine guns, chemical weapons like mustard gas, barbed wire trenches) resulted in the highest known death toll at that point in history. The wizards concocting dangerous new magics are analogs to the scientists of the time period, and Busiek uses them to comment on the historical mistakes that were made. The feeling of disillusionment that WWI created, the one that spawned the likes of Hemingway and the rest of the Lost Generation writers, is felt throughout the book. Yet Busiek never loses sight of the bigger story while telling us Fletcher’s personal tale.

Carlos Pacheo is one of those great artists that isn’t known for a certain style like Michael Avon Oeming or Sam Kieth; he’s just a damn good, solid artist. He’s not flashy, but he is perfect because he fits whatever book he happens to be penciling. All the human characters of the book are simple, straight-forwardly drawn. There’s no exaggeration of facial features, only minute details that help us distinguish characters and expressions of emotions. Normally, I would call this facial sameness, but here, the art seems to have a purpose or two: the first being that the reader has to look carefully at the artwork, making him or her slow down and pay attention to infer the meaning, and it also seems to contrast against the non-human characters and their more overstated character designs.

Pacheo really put work into character design for the various creatures of this magic world: rock trolls, ogres, fairies, red caps, dragons, salamanders, etc. Each one is detailed and well drawn, and possessed of some odd realistic qualities that allow them to fit-in next to the humans in a panel and not seem out of place, merely different. His architectural work is expert and on par with Bryan Hitch, as is his use of splash pages and panels when Pacheo is demonstrating some of the more powerful affects of magic in this world. Pacheo is one of the under-sung talents of the industry, and well worth repeat viewings.

This is a great book and much deserving of your time and cash. For $14.95, you get the first six issues of the series along with the eight-page preview that was solicited. It’s rare enough that you find good alternate history storytelling outside the likes of Harry Turtledove, but even less likely is finding good war fiction coupled with it. And honestly, this isn’t our World War I: it could go either way with all that magic artillery flying (sometimes crawling) around, and I can’t wait for the next volume.

So Smart in Their Fine Uniforms (Arrowsmith, Book 1)

Robert Sparling

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