Comics are uniquely suited to tell nonfiction narratives in a way that can reach students who find textbooks dull and boring. It has been wonderful to see publishers like Zenith Press devote more resources towards historically accurate graphic novels like The Battle of the Bulge by Wayne Vansant. In this book, Vansant goes into great detail about the last major battle of World War II, in which Germany made one last effort to turn the tide of the war against surging American forces in the Belgian forests of the Ardennes. This well-researched book gets a lot of things right, but there are some missed opportunities that prevent it from reaching its full potential.
As the artist of Marvel’s war series from the 1980s, The ‘Nam, writer and artist, Vansant, is well-versed in depicting warfare in the comic format. The colored pages are laid out with three to six panels per page, peopled by distinctive characters that resemble actual historical figures. Vansant takes care to depict every weapon and vehicle with historical accuracy and there are detailed drawings of many of the vehicles in the back of the volume. There is limited use of speech bubbles or dialogue, as most of the action is described in prose that appears near the top of each panel. The best parts of the book invite readers to learn why certain decisions were made, which leaders had conflicting ideas, and the consequences of their decisions. Vansant gives a respectful, balanced portrait of battle; the Germans are depicted as soldiers fighting a war, not as evil subhumans. When atrocities occur, they are realistically depicted on both sides of the conflict.
That being said, the book has its drawbacks. There are only a few maps included, and additional maps with arrows indicating troop movements could have greatly enhanced the narrative. Many of the panels are too static; there are numerous panels of talking heads, and even panels with action scenes or airplanes that do not create a sense of movement. Everything seems to be standing still. In a medium that often uses perspective or layout to depict movement, this seems like a missed opportunity. I also wonder if the effort to make the violence safe for grade school students doesn’t rob the story of some visual stimulation, but again, these are depictions of real people and it is important to take care in presenting them.
While I could see this book in the hands of an advanced 4th or 5th grader, its detailed content makes it a better fit for middle or high school libraries or the teen section at a public library. The reader who will appreciate this book the most is one who likes to look at the details of battle: what the tank names are, who led which regiment, and which troops fought one another. However, history lovers who are interested in larger social movements or ideas may be left cold by this book’s straightforward approach.
The Battle of the Bulge
by Wayne Vansant
Zenith Press, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: Juvenile (12 and up)