War comics are, to put it mildly, not my thing, really. They’re rarely pleasant and often painful and very, very easy to do badly.
That said, I’ve read some really great war comics. DMZ is, in some sense, a war comic, and The Other Side was simply excellent. And so far, I’m truly enjoying Garth Ennis’s Battlefields books at Dynamite. You can read Caleb’s review of The Night Witches here and mine here, but the one that I think stepped it up even further is Dear Billy.
This is going to be spoileriffic, and I really think you should read it before you read what I have to say about it, so please only click below if you already have read the first two. Pretty please?
Dear Billy is the second Battlefields book to center a woman’s story, and it does so even more directly than the Night Witches, focusing on the story of a nurse in the Pacific during World War II.
It starts off with a trope that I can’t stand, as I’ve mentioned–the woman raped and damaged beyond hope. But where it takes that trope leads to a very interesting place.
Ennis draws his character into a relationship with a wounded soldier, creating parallels between the trauma of being injured in a highly personal manner in battle with the trauma the nurse went through. Her assault and near death was a war wound as much as the soldier’s, and this setup makes what happens next even more fascinating.
Because the nurse–the woman who is supposed to heal wounded soldiers–declares a war of her own. She reacts instinctively to one wounded Japanese soldier in her care, and smothers him with a pillow. Once he’s dead, she realizes that she can get away with it, and she keeps going. Two out of three comics are out, and it’s absolutely anybody’s guess where these characters are going to end up.
There are so many angles to this that are worth noting. The parallels between wounded nurse and wounded soldier–the soldier gets to go back to war, and in some ways to have his revenge, while the nurse is expected to turn around and try to help the same people that hurt her. The creation and interrogation of male and female roles–man as soldier, attacker, then as traumatized victim, and woman as victim (as usual) but then taking things into her own hands.
There’s the absurdity of fighting a war against an enemy and then being expected to care for that enemy when he shows up in your hospital, and there’s the story of the things we keep inside, that are too dark to share with anyone.
It’s a story of how we create monsters out of people, and the damage that does to us, particularly when those monsters are an entire race of people, dehumanized and fit to kill. But mostly, it’s a story about the absurdity of war–as all the great war fiction truly is.