I never thought much about war comics as a genre, but after reading the first two volumes of Brahm Revel’s Guerillas (as well as Nate Powell’s Any Empire, reviewed earlier), I realize how much I’ve been missing. Guerillas examines what it means to be a man as opposed to a boy, a man as opposed to an animal, and a living man as opposed to dead meat. Set in Vietnam in 1970, a young American soldier, out of his depth and far away from home, finds himself depending on a pack of ruthless, specially trained chimpanzee soldiers for survival.
The first volume sports a tantalizing cover image: a small chimpanzee dressed in fatigues, smoking a cigarette and holding a machine gun. If your first thought upon reading this description is “hot dang, that sounds ridiculous – this I gotta read!” then you will not be disappointed. However, you may also be pleasantly surprised by Revel’s substantial and thoughtful storytelling and artwork.
The story shifts back and forth between Private John Francis Clayton’s travels with the chimpanzees, who allow him to tag along because he is able to light their cigarettes, and a squad assigned to help an odd German scientist locate the rogue group of apes. Revel does an excellent job distinguishing his characters from one another. Individual humans and apes have distinct visual features and recognizable body language that fits their personalities. Dialogue is also strong, although some of the characters are written with heavy stereotypical accents, such as the German scientist, that I found distracting. While it makes sense that characters from different backgrounds would have different speech patterns, it doesn’t always translate well into writing. Revel is more successful with the chimps, who communicate clearly and distinctly without ever speaking words.
The artwork is black and white with gray highlights, and strikes a good balance between detail and simplicity. The style is cartoony enough to allow for exaggerated action and speedy reading, but also supports a believable and often beautiful jungle setting, as well as facial expressions that emphasize the humanity (and lack of humanity) in both human and chimpanzee characters.
Text and image often work in parallel, mirroring and distorting each other in surprising ways that add meaning to both. In one example, the text has Clayton reflecting on how, for his father, war represented a “way out” of a tough home life during the Great Depression. These words are presented with an image of a helicopter carrying a corpse away, depicting what Clayton currently witnesses: another way out. Similarly, Clayton’s observations of his enemies reflect his thoughts about his father: both willing to sacrifice themselves for something they believe in, while John can’t remember ever really believing in anything.
This is not for kids, if the smoking chimp and machine gun on the cover hadn’t tipped you off already. The violence is brutal and graphic and the people do realistically terrible things to each other. Those who are at all sensitive about violence towards animals should probably keep away. For other older teens and adults, however, this is a fine story that may also spark interest in learning more about the Vietnam War and creepy primate experiments. It is clear that Revel has done his research, and this helps to ground what could be a very silly premise in realistic events and settings. This doesn’t make it any less absurd, but it is an absurdity that can be found in real life events and their consequences.
Guerillas Volume 1 was released in 2010, with the second volume slated for release in July. That’s a long time to wait between volumes, but the quality and substance of Revel’s work is worth the wait. The series is planned as a trilogy, and I have no doubt that the complete story will be as well-crafted and intriguing as the fist two volumes have been.
Guerillas, vol. 1-2
by Brahm Revel
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781934964439
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781934964996
Oni Press, 2010, 2012