This is an unusual graphic novel, comparing the battles of World War I to the interior battles of soldiers and nurses fighting dysentery and other diseases.

The story begins at a casualty clearing station in France, where an Australian nurse is checking in sick and injured patients. Sister Annie attends a soldier with acute diarrhea and the doctor diagnoses dysentery. During the rush of tending to patients and sending them off to various points for further treatment, the soiled cloths are spilled and readers get a close-up view of the microorganisms called Shigella Flexneri, seeking new places to breed. Annie and her fellow nurses eat together and survive a gas attack, but the shiga are advancing… into Annie’s digestive system. Ill from dysentery, as the microorganisms, bacteria, and viruses battle within her, the war continues outside with soldiers fighting and dying on the front lines and in the hospitals.

Detailed back matter adds information about the terms and historical events referenced, from the lives of nurses at the front to the different bacteria in the digestive system. The creators are also profiled, along with their credentials and experience.

The art is black and white, fine ink drawings. Injuries and diseases are shown, but not in graphic detail and the faces of the nurses and soldiers are drawn with individual character but not caricatured. The primary action pictured is among the microorganisms in the digestive system. Shiga are pictured as little furry logs, chattering and zipping around. Viruses are robotic, chanting their motto of defense as they struggle to mutate and fight off the invasion. The stark black and white of the art illustrates the desperate life and death struggle of the soldiers and the organisms, fighting to survive another day on the battlefield in France and in Annie’s gut.

This isn’t likely to appeal to a wide audience. The medical and scientific terms are carefully explained, but it’s still a challenging and complex read. Despite the effort to make it appear an action-packed adventure, it doesn’t have a great deal of emotional appeal. However, it’s a fascinating look at how microorganisms and the digestive system work and also offers a glimpse into the atmosphere of the trenches and hospitals of World War I. This is most likely to be of interest to teens and adults with an interest in medical history and World War I.

The Invisible War
By Ailsa Wild, Dr. Jeremy Barr
Art by Ben Hutchings
ISBN: 9781541541559
Lerner Graphic Universe, 2019
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)

  • Jennifer

    | She/Her Youth Services Librarian, Matheson Memorial Library


    Jennifer Wharton is the Youth Services Librarian at Matheson Memorial Library in Elkhorn, Wisconsin where she maintains the juvenile and young adult graphic novel collections and was responsible for creating the library’s adult graphic novel collection. She is constantly looking for great new comics for kids and teens and new ways to incorporate graphic storytelling in programming. Jennifer blogs for preschool through middle grade at JeanLittleLibrary and has an MLS from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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