Educators and researchers: let’s all heave a collective sigh of disappointment that this is not truly a work of nonfiction. Max Brooks testifies that he conducted a lot of research and worked on this story for a long time, both before and after he decided to make it a graphic novel, yet it’s still historical fiction. However, that is no reason for this book not to stand tall, drawing attention to a complicated chapter of American history and its unjust treatment of black men.
The story of the Harlem Hellfighters—the African-American 369th infantry regiment that served in the French trenches during World War I—is presented in a clear three-act structure: before, during, and after the war. Each time period highlights a different series of challenges for the Hellfighters: struggling to get by in America, being treated as second-class citizens in uniform, being undermined by bureaucracy on the front lines, and looking back with grief after the war is over. A scene that left a strong impression on me depicted the soldiers being abused by white people in the streets of Spartanburg, only to be rescued by white soldiers. While they are saved from further mistreatment, the Hellfighters’ pride is no less damaged for their subjection to white whims.
While it is not a nonfiction text, The Harlem Hellfighters is nonetheless packed with realistic details like the difference between American and French rifles, as well as the fact that the soldiers were trained for the former and given the latter. Having written extensively about the pseudo-realistic struggle in World War Z, Brooks is more than capable of detailing his characters’ lives, but do not expect any of the humor from his Zombie Survival Guide here. Instead Brooks and White teach one big, sobering lesson in the tragedies of war and racism with all the trappings of chaotic combat and horrific violence, including their effects on the individual soldiers portrayed therein.
Despite the book’s successes, there is one potential barrier to entry: the artwork. Although I’ve been reading manga since I was a teenager, I needed time to adjust to the black-and-white panels. After the first fifteen pages, things seemed to flow more easily, but this book really needs a colorist—is Nathan Fairbairn available? His coloring saved Scott Pilgrim for me. There are also several combat scenes in which the soldiers’ identities seem to matter less than the impact of the battles themselves. This may or may not be intentional, but it doesn’t make the battle sequences easier to follow. However, these minor criticisms do not deter me from recommending this book for anyone interested in trench warfare and American history, especially a chapter so sorely overlooked in the public consciousness.
The Harlem Hellfighters
by Max Brooks
Art by Caanan White
Broadway Books, 2014