THE RECENT SURGE OF INTEREST in graphic novels, with roots in the Underground Comix of the 1960s has not particularly caught me up, much less made me a fan. Reading the first two in a series of ten called Barefoot Gen, by Keiji Nakazawa, first published in 1972, has shown me the power of the genre.

The graphic black and white expression of shell-shot and roaring airplanes is all one would expect in such a book.  Boom! Pow! Whap!  The story-line — following Gen, a sort of Japanese Huck Finn, not on a river but in the ruins of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb — shows not only details of the destruction but the attitudes and actions of a wide group of people.

As Art Spiegelman says in his 1990 introduction some of the cartoon violence between kids and family members will strike western readers as disturbing.  Yet, if that is so, how does the much more graphically shown images of arms separating from shoulders, bodies floating in boiling rivers strike us?

Volume one shows the stress under which Gen’s family lives, in pre-bomb Hiroshima.  Most of the neighbors, even in August, 1945, are patriotic Japanese still hoping, if not fully believing, military propaganda that the Americans will be defeated.  Gen’s father’s expressed anti-war feelings bring opprobrium not only on him, but on the whole family.  Neighborhood children taunt and bully Gen and his younger brother, Shinji.  The boys fight back, proclaiming their own fierceness making childish calls for defeat of the enemy.  The oldest brother joins hundreds of young high school and college men going for a few weeks flight training to fly ‘kamikaze’ missions against American ships.  He fights with, and is disowned by, his father when he goes.

Anti-Americanism is shown –an old woman cursing the airplanes overhead, boys throwing stones at a dead POW after the bombing.  Japanese bigotry towards Koreans, brought by force to work in war industries, is also touched on.  The cruelty in the Japanese army — a young soldier being beaten by a “spirit stick” is portrayed. Japanese selfishness towards “the homeless beggars” from the bombed city takes panel after panel.

Extreme hunger stalks the pages.  When chopsticks can stand up in the bowl of rise it is a feast-day. Normally the rice-water gruel is too thin.

The comics format also encourages the use of spirits of the dead appearing, kids singing songs to keep their spirits up and a father’s fury at a war.

Volume Two  “The Day After” is much darker than the first. I wouldn’t recommend starting with it. If you think you have imagined what human beings can do to others, you have not.  Gen is unable to save his father and sister from beams they are trapped under. His younger brother is missing. He undertakes several expeditions on foot to find a bit of rice for his mother who gave birth just after the bomb fell, and to find the bodies of his dead family.  Gruesome drawings of a girl looking in the mouths of the dead in order to identify her mother by her fillings, and others of maggots crawling in the dead flesh of still living people are difficult to view, even if only “cartoons,” and especially since accurate.   More panels of Japanese-on-Japanese resentment and cruelty are interspersed with lessons on Japanese manners and customs trying to maintain themselves in a world turned upside down.

The closing panel, as Gen and his mother and infant sister strike out on their own, in the rain, reads:

“The atomic bomb created hell for the dying, and hell for the living.  The bitter tears of the survivors fell throughout the land.”

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The author Keiji Nakazaw himself survived the bomb.  Coming out of primary school he happened to be sheltered by a thick concrete wall.  Those not in its shadow were reduced to ashes by the 5,000 degree heat.  As in the novels, his father and brother were killed, crushed by debris; his mother gave premature birth, to a daughter who died withing months of radiation poisoning.  Though he drew cartoons from an early age it wasn’t until he moved to Tokyo in 1961 that he began to publish longer, cartoon mangas.  The death of his mother in 1966, after seven years of radiation sickness, pushed him into full focus on war, the bomb and the effect on the Japanese people.  In 1972 he began Hadashi no Gen / Barefoot Gen, the novels we can read now.

Translated at first into English by a volunteer group of Americans and Japanese, the novel have now been published in French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Norwegian, Indonesian, Tagalog and Esperanto. The English, done by a small committee, is of comic-book simplicity, much of it in thought and speech bubbles.  Occasionally the translation of colloquial Japanese seems a bit odd — a grandmother in 1945 saying “keep giving them a hard time.”  The power of the images however, is what keeps our attention, and does so without fail.

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It turns out that other authors from other nations have also explored graphic novels as a way to portray war.  I haven’t read these, and while some look to follow the ancient tropes of masculine men showing pecs and courage others take on the very real, often hidden costs of war — perhaps a gift for a young person thinking that a stint in the armed forces is a low risk career choice.

Goddamn This War! by Jacques Tardi and Jean-Pierre Verney

I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner Of War In Stalag 2B, Jacques Tardi

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, by Shigeru Mizuki,

The Unknown Anti-War Comics!  by Joe Gill(Author), Craig Yoe(Editor), Pete Morisi(Illustrator

Palestine By Joe Sacco

Of course Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2007) led to the latest rise in popularity of such work.  Although not about war throughout, the coming of age story is during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s.

Another, recently much talked about, and recommended to me, is Maximilian Uriarte’s 2016 The White Donkey: Terminal Lance. U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There was an early Anti-Vietnam War graphic novel by Julian Bond and even Neil Young has anti-war tropes in his Greendale.

A very little known precursor of these, with no text at all, is Si Lewen’s The Parade.  Art Spiegelman, author of Maus, wrote an appreciation of the author and the work in The New Yorker, October 25, 2016. 

If you’ve read any of these, or others you can recommend, please drop a line.

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