This epic graphic memoir spans oceans and generations, with a narrative as engrossing as the artistry that illustrates it.
In his preface, renowned French graphic novelist Guibert (co-author: The Professor's Daughter, 2007, etc.) explains the bond he shared with the much older Cope, who had served as an American soldier during World War II and left his native country to return to France in the aftermath. "He spoke well; I listened well," writes Guibert. "Save two or three, his anecdotes were nothing spectacular. They evoked only very remotely what movies or books about the Second World War had taught me. Still, I found them captivating, because of the accents of truth they contained. I could literally see what he was describing." Now the American reader can as well -- (the first volume of the collaboration was initially published in France in 2000, the year after Cope's death). As the title suggests, this is one man's war memories, filled not with tales of larger-than-life heroism but with the chance encounters, tragic absurdities and small kindnesses experienced by a sheltered young soldier of uncommon intelligence, as recollected by an older man who has come to take stock of his life and reconsider the values by which he has lived it. He comes to question himself, his country and humanity in general, while retaining a humanitarian warmth and a deep appreciation for the arts.
The narrative voice is captivating, and the black-and-white illustrations are often stunning, whether capturing the grandeur of Big Sur and the giant redwoods of California or showing the destruction of European villages by soldiers who shared a common bond of humanity with the civilian "enemy." The Veteran's Day publication befits a volume that underscores the resonance and legacy of war.
Thankfully for readers, Guibert promises a prequel volume on Cope's childhood in California, in testament to "the storyteller in him that I was drawn to-his personality, his style, his voice, and his astounding memory.
In 1994 a chance meeting between comic artist Guibert and an American expatriate living in France, Alan Cope, sparked a friendship that continued until Cope's death in 1999. During that time Cope shared the story of his experiences during and after World War II, and Guibert added illustrations to those tales. The result is this volume, a comic memoir of a man's life. Unlike so many memoirs, Cope wasn't unbelievably famous or heroic or, frankly, much more than ordinary, and therein lies the magic.
His tales have a literary quality about them that aptly highlights the drudgery of a soldier's life, the "hurry up and wait" attitude of much of the war. Guibert's illustrations of thick ink lines over paint perfectly flesh out the anecdotes. Unfortunately, the collection begins to lose its impact after Cope's departure from the Army. Guibert packs too much into the last third of the book, making the end seen rushed and too crammed full of information. Even with that failing, this is still a fine collection of war memories. Alan Cope may have been an ordinary guy, but Guibert was right to recognize the extraordinary nature of the everyman.
Relating the experiences of Alan Cope as a graphic novel memoir, Guibert (Sardine in Outer Space) adopts a conversational tone that makes readers feel as if they are overhearing the G.I.'s memories of World War II, both humorous and poignant. Guibert met Alan Cope "by chance" in 1994, when the former G.I. was 69 and Guibert was 30, and Cope began to relate his experiences to the graphic novelist. We watch Alan grow up on the page just after he is drafted in 1943 at the tender age of 18. Having only ever ridden a bicycle, the first thing Alan learns to drive is an army tank. Elements of the book may remind older readers of Catch 22, as when Alan's crew must wait two months after their arrival in Europe because the army has "misplaced" their weapons and vehicles.
Guibert uses this format to great effect, emulating the soldier's feelings of claustrophobia, for instance, when a 300-pound fellow soldier is sleeping above him. And when Alan attempts to descend from a barn's hayloft and discovers too late that there's no ladder to support him, Guibert divides the panels and employs the page turn to build optimal suspense leading up to the soldier's fall. The artist also evokes the awe-inspiring views for this young American seeing Europe for the first time ("We don't have villages like that where I come from. They were charming--tree-lined streets, fields, farms . . . everything was different and fascinated me, you know?") and, having returned safely home, viewing General Sherman, the largest tree in Sequoia National Park ("You know, you can't begin to imagine that tree until you've seen it, and you can't quite grasp it when you do. You just feel it, that's all"). Guibert leaves the tree's trunk colorless, allowing the audience to use their imaginations, with Alan's words as the launch point. Graphic novel fans will also appreciate the ease with which Guibert shifts between Alan's flashbacks and foreshadowing. The narrator comes across as a laid-back fellow who gets along with even some of the tougher members of his unit, and he accepts the homosexuality he detects among several of his fellow soldiers. His placid temperament helps to explain how easily he makes friends with Germans after the Yalta accords, especially his influential friendship with German composer Gerhart Muench and his American-born wife, Vera, a poet. This friendship becomes a kind of measuring stick for Alan's growth. Gerhart, being older and more worldly, attempts to guide Alan (on his "calling" as a minister and his choice for a wife), and although they have rifts, they overcome them. Much of the memoir reaches into Alan's post-war life, but what will be of most interest to older teens is Alan's candid view of his military training, the war itself and what he discovers about human beings' commonality more than their differences.(Jennifer M. Brown Shelf Awareness)