Book review: “The Harlem Hellfighters” by Max Brooks, illustrated by Caanan White (2014)

The Harlem HellfightersThe Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Max Brooks is the author of “The Zombie Survival Guide” & “The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks,” “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War,” Dynamite’s “Raise the Dead,” and IDW’s “G.I. Joe: Hearts and Minds.” He continues to further his work and interests with his latest release “The Harlem Hellfighters.” Instead of creating a traditional book depicting the unsung, heroic events of the Harlem Hellfighters, Brooks teamed up with artist Caanan White and created a standalone graphic novel that not only tells a masterful series of anecdote, but illustrates it for audiences as well.

“The Harlem Hellfighters” tells the tale of the 369th African-American Infantry Regiment during the first World War. The graphic novel opens with African-American New Yorkers being conscripted into the war effort and follows them as they progress through bootcamp into training and onto their eventual contribution to the French Army during the war. “The Harlem Hellfighters” places emphasis on the blatant racism, bigotry, and abuse that these young men suffered through along their way and throughout the war. Despite these near-debilitating setbacks, the 369th became one of the fiercest (and ultimately most-decorated) units in World War I, subsequently becoming known by the Germans as the Harlem Hellfighters.

Interestingly enough, the United States forced the Harlem Hellfighters to train with broomsticks in only several weeks worth of training (opposed to the months that white troops received); this forced the black troops to write their own government as pretend rifle associations in order to be properly supplied. At the time the United States government had a shortage of rifles because they were giving away so many of them for free to rifle associations across the United States rather than supplying their own troops. This is just one such case of obvious racism in the military during World War I.

These aforementioned examples provide a level of detail that are layered throughout the novel. Acute facts, verbiage, and historical accuracies are sprinkled throughout a rich narrative that includes real people along with amalgamations of individuals and fictional characters. This makes for a great read— Presenting historical fact and knowledge in an entertaining way. The plot is gripping (but not overbearing) and it hits close to home in the terms of current social and political struggles. The cadence of the novel can be a bit jarring at times; it seems to jump sporadically, which made it hard to follow, but taken in the context of chaos and war, the style fits the topic perfectly.

Caanan White’s artwork compliments Brooks’ plot line wonderfully— It is vividly realistic and depicts the horrors of war and racism in tandem and equality. The artwork is in black and white, which adds to the story. The lack of color harkens to a spyglass look into history. It fits more comfortably than the coloration of modern comic books. High gloss and bright colors would have detracted from the overall atmosphere of “The Harlem Hellfighters.” White’s work realistically showcases the polarity of social change, war, racism, and history. In the end, this methodology aids in the overall quality of the work presented.

“The Harlem Hellfighters” is well-worth the read. It tells a story that is oft forgot and not widely known, which on its own makes the graphic novel deserve a read through. The story is highly detailed and accurate, and even though it can jump at times it still presents an enjoyable story woven throughout a historical narrative. The artwork is phenomenal and adds so much more ‘oomph’ to an already stellar tale. I highly recommend anyone interested in war history to take a gander at “The Harlem Hellfighters.”

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