World War II is making headlines again. A 94-year-old man, living just a few miles from me here in Minnesota, has been revealed as a probable war criminal. Michael Karkoc was an officer in two Nazi-led Ukrainian military units. He was on the scene of, and perhaps directly responsible for, massacres of civilians as well as the deaths of anti-Nazi guerrilla fighters. Had Karkoc’s connection with these units been known, he would not have been permitted to immigrate to the United States in 1949. Yet one of these groups called itself the “Ukrainian Self Defense Legion,” and Karkoc has been proudly active in Ukrainian-American organizations since his arrival. This disconnect between “defense” and brutal offense, between civic pride and shame, is mind-boggling. When Karkoc —asked about his wartime work for the Nazis—replied, “I don’t think I can explain,” I think he was speaking more truth than he knew.
Some graphic literature shows how much talent it takes to analyze and describe the many layers of wartime experience, particularly inside a conquered country. A recent trilogy of graphic novels about World War II France succeeds in powerfully communicating this experience. Similarly, a brand-new duology stuns us with its look at an earlier conflict inside war-torn China. These novels are brilliant successes because—even as they provide answers about specific wartime experiences—they raise further questions in our minds about human nature, beliefs, and values. Get ready to ask yourself, “What would I have done?” as you read about these past struggles. Count yourself lucky if you do not have to ask the question some people worldwide face every day, in ongoing and emerging conflicts: “What will I do?”
One possible answer is “resist the enemy.” French life after defeat by Nazi Germany is the focus of the Resistance trilogy (2010; 2011; 2012), written by Carla Jablonski, with art by Leland Purvis and color by Hilary Sycamore. The wrap-around covers of its volumes, viewed in sequence, show central character Paul’s growing towards adulthood as, between 1942 and 1945, he defies the Nazi regime. Resistance: Book 1, beginning three years into France’s occupation, depicts 13 year old Paul aiming a slingshot at a Nazi soldier. On the cover of Defiance: Resistance Book 2, 14 year old Paul has moved on to acts of sabotage, puncturing the tire of a car guarded by an armed Vichy policeman. The cover of Victory: Resistance Book 3, shows 15 to 16 year old Paul committing more physically-dangerous sabotage, destroying an overhead telephone line with a wire cutter. Yet braving physical danger is only one of the challenges facing Paul, his younger and older sisters Marie and Sophie, and his Jewish friend Henri.
What to think and whom to trust are constant worries, as Paul Tessier’s family copes with the absence of their father, a prisoner of war still being held by the Germans, and the presence of occupying German soldiers in their country town. When the Nazis begin to round up Jews, these questions become life-and-death issues not only for Henri but for Paul and Marie, who decide to hide him. Can they trust their aunt who, like some other French people, was anti-Semitic long before the Nazis arrived? Has Sophie grown too close to the German soldier she has been dating, supposedly to find out Nazi plans? Will their schoolmate, whose father is a Vichy police officer cooperating with the Nazis, knowingly or unknowingly betray them? Are they in danger even from members of the French Resistance, who in Book I fear that Marie’s childish outbursts will reveal important secrets?
The series’ creators make great storytelling use of Paul’s own artwork. His charcoal drawings, shown as sepia-toned sketchbook pages, set scenes and speak volumes. At one moment of great tension in Book I, a single page displays not only inserted, small panels with full-color close-ups of Paul and Marie’s frightened faces, but mid-distance shots of villagers going about their daily routines while looking suspiciously at each other. A mid-page panel— outlined as a ripped-out page from Paul’s sketch book—is filled with the charcoal-drawn faces of his angry, distrustful classmates. This sketched image unites the page, where no words are used or needed to communicate Paul and Marie’s fearful suspense. At other points in the trilogy, sketchbook images also represent some of Paul’s on-the-spot ideas and reactions, as he thinks in visual terms.
Other effective visual elements in this series include using the same shade of blue to “color-code” flashbacks to Nazi violence. Speech balloons which overlap panels unite them with added urgency, as does varying the size and arrangement of panels on pages. The perspective from which we see scenes also shifts effectively, with some overhead views permitting readers to see action along an entire street or within an entire room. These elements support crisp dialogue that in subtle as well as plain-spoken ways communicates the impact of war in occupied France. At the start of Book 1, Madame Tessier still thinks that she can hold onto parts of her old life. She tells Paul to “Put on shoes. We’re not refugees.” Later in this volume, 10 year-old Marie naively echoes her mother’s reassuring phrase. Yet by the end of Book 1, after the Tessier siblings have gotten Henri safely to Paris, they have lost this false sense of safe distance from the worst wartime events. In that volume’s final, double page spread, they are riding a train, from which they see scenes of Nazi occupation. These bleak, wordless panels conclude with two stark word balloons. A serious Marie notes that, “This really isn’t over, is it?” Paul, equally solemn, replies in a balloon dropped down into his sketchbook image of their train, “I think this is just the beginning.” Author Carla Jablonski has effectively summed up and set the stage for the next parts of the trilogy.
These second and third books depict Marie’s growing disillusionment with the Vichy government as well as further acts of sabotage, rescues of downed Allied pilots, and confrontations with Nazi troops. There is action aplenty for readers here! All the while, though, the Tessier family continues to deal with the brother-and-sister, parent-and-child, and schoolmate, sweetheart, and neighbor interactions that, in peacetime, would have been the focus of their lives. These relationships add luster to the trilogy’s concluding pages, as Paul watches the sparkling lights of Paris, now liberated from the Nazis. We have come to know Paul and his community, to understand why in an Author’s Note Jablonski distinguishes written history, with its “definite winners and losers, friends and enemies, loyalities and betrayals” from “History as lived [which] is anything but clear … filled with missteps, confusion, mistakes, and choices ….” Jablonski’s crisp, thorough introductions to each book and concluding Author’s Notes help readers understand the complex situations and choices confronting people living in war-torn, occupied countries—situations that bring out the worst as well as the best in some of us. The information specific to WW II France is immensely useful here, particularly for teen or tween readers who may be less familiar with its central figures and events.
I wish author/illustrator Gene Luen Yang had included comparable introductions or notes for his stunning new graphic duology, Boxers & Saints (2013). In these volumes colored by Lark Pien, Yang—creator of the award-winning American Born Chinese (2006)—does an unforgettably good job of depicting teenagers who choose warfare, unlike Jablonski’s characters, whose resistance is a reaction to war imposed upon them. Boxers & Saints is set in 1900 China, a period in which some Chinese revolted against foreign influence, especially Christian missionaries, in their country. These Chinese “Boxers” fought for their own ways and religion and considered Chinese converts to Christianity, Yang’s “Saints,” to be their enemies, too. I think Yang’s powerful narrative and compelling images will keep readers engrossed in the story, but “at-hand” background information about this distant time and place and about traditional Chinese culture would have been useful. For instance, it is just assumed that the reader knows about women’s inferior position in that culture and our association with supposedly weakening “yin” energy as opposed to male “yang.” So is some knowledge about acupuncture, the history of the Chinese empire of the time, and Chinese religion and literature. Yet the internet and libraries are available and Yang does provide a “Further Reading” list. I believe intrigued readers both young and old will find any information they need, wanting to understand more about Yang’s compelling characters and the disturbing, sometimes mystifying events in their lives.
The covers of these volumes reflect the unusual storytelling choice Yang has made. Proclaiming that “Every war has two faces,” these books when placed side-by-side line up half-head shots of the main characters, Bao and Vibiana. They unite to form one powerful image of youthful distress and determination. Boxers tells events from Bao’s viewpoint, both before and after the teenage boy joins this revolutionary movement. Saints covers the same events from Vibiana’s viewpoint, beginning even earlier with her hard life at age 8, before she converts to Christianity and becomes one of the teenaged “secondary devils” the Boxers attack. Ironically, the two just miss bumping into each other once and are connected by several incidents well-before their eventual, fateful meeting. Early in the book, younger Bao thinks the angry-faced girl he glimpses is fascinating, and briefly daydreams about marrying her. Real life events stop such daydreaming. Readers may well think that this pair of strong-willed individuals is a fated couple, kept apart by circumstances outside their power as well as by choices they make.
A desire to belong and be respected, a way to escape a terrible home life, and a community that offers both along with the fellowship of shared beliefs and values: these are all reasons sometimes given nowadays for teens joining gangs. They are also a large part of what motivates Bao and Vibiana to join their opposing religious camps. Both young people experience visions related to their religious beliefs. Bao sees and hears traditional Chinese gods, dressed as he has seen these figures portrayed on the stage of travelling opera companies. He believes these gods enter and protect Boxers as they fight for justice. Vibiana sees and hears a glowing Joan of Arc, both before and after this 15th century French girl becomes the maiden warrior canonized in 1920 as St. Joan. These brightly-colored visions, eye-catching against the more muted tones of daily life in the books, may be interpreted in several ways.
The visions of Bao and Vibiana may be authentic religious experiences, or they may merely be the imaginings of excited, eager-to-be-special young people. No one else seems to see these visions, and in fact they do not by themselves physically protect anyone. As his fellow Boxers are slain, Bao sees their god-like figures departing from the corpses. Yet Yang’s images continue to show great respect for traditional Chinese beliefs even as he goes on in Saints to detail Christianity. This is evident in one stunning, full-page image close to the end of Saints, where Vibiana is praying to Jesus Christ for guidance. Her vision of him resembles the way Guan Yin, the Chinese goddess of compassion, is often shown: surrounded by an array of 1,000 compassionate hands, each displaying an eye of compassion. The crucifixion wounds of this golden, glowing Christ have also been transformed into compassionate eyes. Yang does not scoff at the power or authenticity of religious belief. In fact, in an interview he has noted that 87 Chinese Christians slain during the Boxer Rebellion were canonized—declared “saints”—by the Catholic Church in 2000. Fictional Vibiana is one of these martyrs, her faith shown to be stronger than Bao’s.
Both Boxers and Saints are populated by secondary characters and situations that capture and hold our attention. Even during war, life has some funny moments. These include the dentist’s son who brings pulled teeth to use as toy soldiers when playing with young Bao and the Christian acupuncturist who ‘cures’ young Vibiana’s angry face by making her laugh. Some of the Boxers bawdily tease teenage warriors for thinking with their “turtle heads” whenever women are around. Then there is the unexpected tenderness shown by some fierce fighters, such as Boxer Mei-wen. This leader of the women’s Red Lantern brigade nurses injured Saints as well as Boxers. It is clear that for Yang, regardless of his work’s two-volume format, war has many more than “two faces.” And some of these are truly terrible.
There are villagers on both sides who, along with European soldiers, are more interested in loot and rape than religion or patriotism. But the worst violence comes from individuals who believe their cause is righteous. A full-page panel in Boxers, dominated by multiple, capital-lettered cries of “KILL!,” reflects the angry shouts of Boxers ready to attack Peking and conveys the horror that is to come. Bao commits a war crime comparable to any act attributed to Michael Karkoc. Reminding himself of the atrocities Christians supposedly commit, Bao sets fire to a locked church filled with women and children. All die horribly. Bao’s hesitation before this savage slaughter contrasts with how easily some European soldiers later kill any Chinese who they think is not Christian. Despite Gene Luen Yang and his publisher’s division of his story into two volumes, Boxers and Saints are both just as nuanced and complex about war-torn life as any of the three volumes of Resistance. Yang has said that he created these books so that they could stand along as separate works or be read in any order. While I agree that he has achieved this, I believe a reader would gain most by first reading Boxers and then moving on to Saints. Experienced together in this way, the duology is indeed more than the sum of its parts.
We are, sadly, still in the midst of learning and relearning history’s lessons about war-torn nations. The truths about Michael Karkoc’s actions in World War II Ukraine, an occupied country, are still being examined, with many people still insistent that there could only possibly be one truth in this matter. And in China just this past month, the Chinese government sent soldiers to the western province of Xinjiang to prevent Muslim Uighars, an ethnic minority group there, from observing the fast days of their holiest holiday, Ramadan. Thirty-five people were killed last month in this ongoing conflict. Perhaps it is time to turn to the latest headlines, choose just one of the many conflicts around the globe, and ask ourselves those awkward questions, “What would I have done?” “What will I do?”