Monday, April 14, 2014

Opening Contract - Alan's War

With last week’s column I talked about the idea of war as ‘hell’, a stygian conflict that damns those around it.

This week’s column focuses on a book that is the flip side to that coin – Alan’s War by Emmanuel Guibert.

Alan’s War is the ‘graphic memoir’ of Alan Cope, an American GI, in the latter days of World War 2. French cartoonist Guibert had met Alan randomly one day in the mid 90’s, on a small island off the French coast. They got talking, and before long Alan began to describe some of his experiences during the war. Guibert proposed they portray Alan’s memories as a graphic novel. The result is a poignant and emotional coming of age story set amidst a Europe at war and, afterwards, one in recovery.

The opening panel of the first chapter of the memoir is a wide, landscape panel depicting Alan riding a bike whilst delivering papers. In conjunction with the caption the panel gets across a sense of Alan’s youth. It connotes a simpler, more innocent time, not just in Alan’s life but America itself. After Pearl Harbor, everything changed.

Guibert depicts the landscape in dark hues, suggesting the dusk that Alan goes on to describe, but also serving to cloak the panel in a kind of abstract Rockwellian gloss. But when we contrast the black with the white silhouette of Alan on his bike it adds another layer. At this moment, America had yet to send its troops overseas, and the clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are far off into the future. This is a world of black and white, good and evil. But it’s probably the last time it’ll be this way.

The use of negative space (particularly white) is something Guibert uses again and again throughout the book and it has its first use in this opening panel. In his introduction to the book, Guibert states:
“Trying to be scrupulously exact would have constantly slowed me down in my work. So I allowed room for blank spaces and elliptical portrayals, so that my drawings too might evoke a memory.”
By reducing aspects of a panel or moment to abstractions Guibert, as intended, can more effectively evoke memory and imagination in the reader. Your mind fills in the blanks automatically. What Guibert is doing here is bringing the unconscious and unrestricted magic of the gutters into the panel itself.

If we move to the second chapter and its opening panel we can see Guibert utilising this technique again, this time in a more extreme manner. This panel depicts Alan standing on the left hand side of the panel, a kit bag slung over his shoulder. The rest of the panel is white space, accompanied by the caption of Alan’s whereabouts. Not only does it focus the readers eye on Alan and his bewildered expression, but it emphasises how alone and far away from everything familiar to him he is right now – lost in a white void of unfamiliarity.

I’d wager it’s no accident the second chapter begins on the day Alan stops becoming a teenager – his 20th birthday, which also happens to be the day in which he sets foot into a foreign country for the very first time. From this day forward, everything is a new experience for him – a blank slate. His experiences in the conflict ahead are what will become his defining years, shaping him for the rest of his life.

It also hints at the larger picture, with the black and white nature of the world up until now has beginning to shift. As Allied forces begin their sweep across Europe they would discover new, unthinkable horrors of war, and the results of madness and genocide.

Chapter 3’s opening panel begins like the others in that it marks a shift in location and Alan’s age. This time the landscape and arechitecture are rendered in a more traditional and detailed manner. Alan is growing up, the experiences of war, a foreign land and life itself are starting to fill in the blanks of his understanding of the wider world. Gone are the shades of black and white, and the loneliness of new languages and customs. Instead his perception is flush with all the intricacies one begins to appreciate with age when finding their way into a land and culture that’s alien to them. Guibert also begins to expand on the detail that each panel contains as Alan’s story progresses.

There’s one panel towards the end of the third chapter that portrays the hallway and landing inside a villa that sits in the Hollywood Hills. The depiction and sense of time and place is beautiful in its detail and execution. Alan’s understanding of the world develops alongside its visual depiction. It’s an interesting technique that I haven’t really seen used before, at least not to this degree. This is also shown in the final chapter by Guibert bringing in non-comic elements to give the narrative, and a sense of Alan’s life, even more texture. These take the form of sheet music, photographs and even letters.

Alan’s War differs from the majority of fiction and non-fiction surrounding World War 2. He sees the horrors that war spews out into the world (one sequence involves a German soldier being crushed under a tank off panel), but if he was affected or plagued by them Guibert doesn’t show it. Instead, the first panels in each successive chapter give us an insight into Alan’s growth and maturation, and this is the key to the whole book in my opinion.

The book’s final scene depicts dusk setting over Alan’s home in France. Alan isn’t in any of the shots, but the artifacts of a life lived, of a wealth of experience and feeling, are. The shading and detail in the panel are a far cry from the abstractions of the book’s opening shot of a youth biking across a landscape before the coming dawn of war. Alan’s War is a memoir, a record of a life lived, but it’s also about a man transformed by war, changed for the better by his understanding of the those around him, the world at large and his place in it – a place far far away from Pasadena, California.

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