Nanjing:The Burning City opens right in the middle of the action, with the Captain and Private Lu having just barely survived a brutal assault on Chinese forces by Japanese troops. They have decide what to do and quickly. Lu is injured and there is almost nowhere safe to turn in the city. Japanese troops are raping women and pillaging homes, brutalizing inhabitants young and old. The Captain advocates for leaving the city in attempt to meet up with remaining Chinese troops, while the younger soldier wants to make it to the safe zone inside of the city and seek the protection (and medical assistance) of Allied troops. The problem is, they’d have to pose as civilians and, if caught, would probably be in more danger than they are in in their present situation.
The stakes are high—life or death, and the setting is dark—people are starving and dying left and right, hunkering down in their homes with little more than a few grains of rice. But the soldiers are as desperate as the civilians they are fighting for and it soon becomes clear that they’ll have to form strategic alliances to survive and do what’s right.
Ethan Young does an excellent job of capturing the tension and terror of the situation, never missing a beat, letting up just long enough to introduce us to a new dilemma or allow a reflection on what the Chinese soldiers are fighting for both personally and politically. The Captain reflects on his son’s death; the young soldier yearns for justice. The Japanese are depicted as largely brutal and heartless, especially in their disgusting treatment of the city’s women. Of course, to feel worthwhile, there should always be a bit of nuance to a war story, and the Japanese general who is on their trail serves this function. He speaks Chinese expertly, is careful to show that he’s playing by the rules, and never acts without reflection. His attitude gives the reader just enough pause—could there be more to this battle than meets the eye?
Visually, Nanjing is excellent—the speedy clip of the story, visually distinct characters who won’t be confused with one another in blurs of action, violence and gun-fighting that move the story along but don’t go in for gratuitous gore. It is very much the story of the untold and small-time heroes of WWII in China, and doesn’t try to be much more than that.
Unfortunately, that’s the one problem with it too. Its main aim is to capture a spirit of unbroken Chinese pride in the face of terrible defeat. There is no question that the Japanese committed great atrocities in Nanjing, and to this day Japan has done very little to atone for them. Nanjing, in the story of modern China, has become a rallying point for Chinese nationalism. With this background, the cries of Chinese pride that erupt in this book—that the Chinese people are strong and the Chinese spirit will endure—feel particularly pointed. However, as someone with a moderate understanding of modern Chinese history, I read this book with the knowledge that soon enough China would be in the midst of its Communist Revolution, in which the country’s own leaders did arguably just as much to destroy the country as the Japanese did. As a moment in time, Nanjing may be a great rallying point for Chinese identity, but in its larger cultural context, its meaning takes on more shades of grey than Young is prepared to present here.
As a soldier’s story and as an action comic, Nanjing is great. It moves quickly, efficiently, even handsomely through a devastated landscape, presents simple but relatable characters, and captures major moral dilemmas of wartime in a few panels. As a political or cultural statement, it feels overly simplified. Though it could be a bit more thoughtful in historical context, it is absolutely worth a read and I hope Ethan Young does more work to bring such dramatic moments in Chinese history to life and further develops his individual voice as a storyteller.
Nanjing: The Burning City
by Ethan Young
Dark Horse Originals, 2015