Even before cracking its pages, it’s impossible not to marvel at the strange hybrid that is The Harlem Hellfighters. The topic—a fictionalized account of the real experiences of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment in World War I—is certainly book-worthy, be it fiction or nonfiction. The soldiers of the 369th encountered plenty of bigotry and hatred from their own countrymen before gaining the opportunity to fight in the trenches alongside the French.
The author, Max Brooks—son of Mel, and author of World War Z and other zombie literature—has by now enough of a track record that he could get pretty much any book published thanks to name recognition alone. Illustrator Caanan White has honed his depictions of the military by working on the World War II-era series Uber.
And for the story to be delivered as a graphic novel? Well, the medium has certainly come of age during the last decade.
No, none of these alone would make The Harlem Hellfighters all that unusual. But story, author and medium combined?! That’s a strange combination. It’s also probably a necessary one, if the goal is to preserve the truth behind it for generations long removed from the War to End All Wars.
It’s a riveting tale. Brooks packs an impressive amount of exposition into the word-limited panels of the graphic novel, balancing the big picture with the small as he juggles and moves a large cast of characters through what the reader recognizes as the “paces” of a war novel—the enlistment, the training, the setbacks and, finally, the battlefield. From the first pages, it’s a harsh, savage tale. Brooks and White make sure the words and images throughout simmer with a barely restrained fury—the fury of war, the fury of bigotry, the fury at the senselessness and violence of both. These are lessons it feels as if we’ve been taught—as readers and as viewers—over and over again. Maybe, some day, if stories like those of The Harlem Hellfighters are told often enough, it’ll be a lesson we actually learn.