History may be written by the winners, but it’s often drawn by whomever is able to wield a pen. Cartooning and graphic memoirs like Maus and Persepolis have been able to deliver particularly subversive takes on some of history’s most despotic regimes. This fall, Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press is publishing a pair of comics in this mode, each translated from the French by two-time Governor General’s Literary Award winner David Homel. Both books deal with life during wartime, although their specific forms achieve very different results.
The Case of Alan Turing is a graphic biography that charts the life of the British mathematical genius who cracked the Nazi’s Enigma code during the Second World War, and in doing so laid the groundwork for the first computer. Turing’s story hit cinemas two years ago in The Imitation Game; this biography covers fresh ground in its use of newly declassified documents that detail the inner workings of Turing’s lab at Bletchley Park. Turing’s fate is tragic; while his efforts brought about a swifter end to the war, he was later tried and sentenced by the very government he fought for because he was a homosexual. The tale is one of a rebel, whose status as a gay man and outsider propelled him against authority within the secretive world of British code-breaking camps.
As a piece of comic art, The Case of Alan Turing is straightforward. It’s published as a bande dessinée – the brand of oversized European comics albums in the mode of Tintin. Illustrator Éric Liberge’s style favours photorealism, with a muted colour palette appropriate for the wartime austerity it depicts, and his panels click along with a familiar rhythm. Amid this apparent realism, Turing’s psyche is brought to life by imagery layered into each panel’s background: whirring gears; numbers and letters; floating fish amid mathematical equations. Yet despite these flourishes, the final effect remains too cerebral, restricting the whole endeavour to the realm of a somewhat interesting history lesson.
Such a Lovely Little War, Marcelino Truong’s memoir of his life as a young boy in Saigon, is a notable contrast. In his alt-comics-style retelling, we’re offered a ringside seat to the conflict with the Viet Cong in the North and the growing American military presence in the South. Truong’s Vietnamese father becomes translator for the prime minister; his French mother grapples with bipolar disorder while raising her small children. Throughout, young Marco just wants to mess around: staging gladiator battles with bugs and acting out war games with his siblings. Truong casts the larger conflict against the intimate details of his family life, with coup d’états butting up against the overheard bickering of parents.
Unlike The Case of Alan Turing, Truong’s book doesn’t read like good “comics.” The ratio of words to pictures tips too far in the direction of the former, and with relatively few panels per page, the moment-to-moment energy of the sequential art staggers. But in the end, this doesn’t matter. The book has such overwhelming heart that the reader is liable to forgive its shortcomings. Truong’s art has an appealing simplicity – it’s deceptive, drawing the reader into the idiosyncrasy of each character’s expression. This artistic presence, this human touch, makes Truong’s world – the explosions from within and without – so much more immediate.