Review: ‘Alan’s War’ by Emmanuel Guibert
Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope
By Emmanuel Guibert
First Second, November 2008, $24.00
French cartoonist Guibert met Alan Cope in 1994 on a small island off the coast of France, where Cope was living in retirement and Guibert was visiting on vacation. The older man gave the young man directions, and a friendship bloomed. Soon, Cope was telling Guibert the stories of his service in the US Army during WW II. The two expected to turn those stories into comics – and it’s not clear how much of this book had Cope’s direct input and corrections – but Cope died in 1999, partway through the project, and the final book bears only Guibert’s name.
But Alan’s War is very much Alan Cope’s story, in his own voice – it’s extensively narrated in Cope’s voice, with pages and pages of text that appear to be directly from Guibert’s notes and conversations.
Cope was born in 1925 in Southern California, and grew up in Pasadena when that was still a quiet area of orange groves. (Guibert says in his introduction that he has another set of notes and stories from Alan, about his childhood, and that he expects to turn those into a companion graphic novel some time in the future.) In February of 1943, Cope turned 18, and was immediately drafted – there was, of course, a war on at the time.
[[[Alan’s War]]] is divided into three sections, each originally published as a separate book in France. The first covers Cope’s time in uniform on American soil – he went over by train immediately to Fort Knox, but then stayed there for more than a year and a half, first learning to be part of a tank crew, then going to radio school, and eventually becoming a radio instructor. He was clearly good at all of these things – though we are getting the story from him directly, if that matters – but the upshot was that he stayed stateside for some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. There are plenty of entertaining stories in the first section, but they’re not essentially wartime stories; they could have happened to any conscript soldier at any time, since they’re all stories of training and friends on the base and going into town.
So Alan missed D-Day – and, then, when the order came that all soldiers with eighteen months or more or service stateside had to be shipped into a combat zone as soon as possible, he was a tank/armored-car soldier, so he ended up going to Europe. He arrived there, at the end of the first book, on his twentieth birthday, February 19, 1945. It might not have looked that way on the ground where Cope was, but that theater of the war was nearly over – the Germans had been shoved back in the Battle of the Bulge the month previous, Soviet troops were fighting their way to Germany through Poland, and Dresden had been firebombed the week before. The war in Europe had less than three months to run, and Cope had been spared both the previous horrors of the war there and the current horrors of the war in the Pacific. (If he’d been sent the other way – if he were a rifleman, for example – he could have been at Corregidor or the liberation of Manila.)
As it happened, Cope was part of a small group sent on a blitzkrieg-ish mission, supposedly by Patton. The second part of Alan’s War details his time in-theater, mostly spent traveling east as quickly as possible. But this was in a column of armored cars, on back roads, so “as fast as possible” still wasn’t very fast. As his column sped through France and Germany all the way to Prague in Czechoslovakia, Cope came under fire a couple of times, and actually fired his weapon (a rail-mounted machine gun; he was his car’s gunner) in anger once. Cope saw a bit of Europe in those three months, but mostly at high speed or in the typical Army way (backwards and sideways, as when he spent the night of the liberation of Paris in a troop train in a cut just outside the city, forbidden to leave – and they steamed in the other direction immediately afterward). These stories are necessarily brief snippets, but some of them have real power – Cope’s words and Guibert’s transformation of them into comics capture the atmosphere of the end of a war, when things are winding down but are still surprisingly dangerous.
And then the third section covers the next few years in Cope’s life, as he settled into postwar life, first as a soldier in Germany without a war to fight, then briefly back in California, and finally back in Europe as a civilian employee of the Army. Cope’s narration and Guibert’s introduction both say that the intention is to avoid his adult life, but this section ranges as far forward as the ‘80s, and gives at least a piecemeal view of Cope’s life in Europe after the war. It’s possibly that Guibert only went that far into Cope’s story because he was already gone – the third part was created well after Cope’s death – but it does create a disconnect, as Cope’s words say that he’s not going to talk about his life after the war, and then the book has a hundred-and-twenty page section entirely about Cope’s life after the war.
So Alan’s War has a telescoping structure – the first section covers roughly two years, the middle about three months, and the last part depicts Cope’s life in depth for the next three years or so, and more generally for thirty or more years after that. The second part fits most firmly under the title [[[Alan’s War]]], and the third the least – in the first, there is a war going on, but Cope hasn’t really been exposed to it yet. (In the terms of an earlier war, he hadn’t seen that elephant.)
Guibert turns the war stories of an old man into an entertaining graphic novel, but it’s hard to avoid thinking that Alan Cope’s war was really quite banal. He wasn’t part of any of the major events of the war, and never really saw combat. He might have shaken Patton’s hand, once, but that’s as close as he came to any of the major figures of the war. Even as a grunt’s-eye view of WW II, Alan’s War is a sideshow at best, the war stories of a man who all but missed the war.
But none of that was Cope’s fault – he was drafted, and did the best job he could at what the Army stuck him in. He was lucky and smart, both traits any soldier needs if he wants to survive. And Guibert has taken Cope’s stories – the only stories Cope had to tell; the ones about his real life – and turned them into an entertaining graphic novel. If it turns away from really showing us what kind of man Cope was, particularly as an adult, then it’s only doing what Cope wanted. But, perhaps, if Guibert had been willing to push Cope a bit further, it could have been something more.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like to submit books for review should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.