When I Was 18, Uncle Sam Wanted Me to Fight Adolf

Posted by on February 8th, 2011 at 12:59 PM

‘When I was 18 years old, Uncle Sam said he wanted to heist me into a uniform and go fight with a figure called Adolf. So that’s what I did.’ - Alan Ingram Cope

Alan Cope is still doing his newspaper rounds in Pasadena when the war truly starts for the United States of America with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Cope gets drafted and enters the Fort Knox training programme to emerge as a tank driver. On his twentieth birthday, February 19th 1945, he lands ashore at a war-torn  Europe.

Dutch publisher Sylvester is releasing Alan’s War in three parts in a hardcover format. Though many opinions and remarks are probably true for all volumes, the volume I read is volume 2 where Cope has already landed in Europe, driving his tank across the German countryside when the German capitulation is announced. His travels with his company leads to philosophical meanderings, meeting locals and often gazing over the defeated German soldiers.

In a surprising touch of synchronicity, I was just finishing the collected writings of Willy Peter Reese  entitled Myself Remarkably Estranged (originally entitled Mir selber seltsam fremd); Reese was a German soldier who fought in the biting cold at the Russian front with its violent encounters (with Germany often on the losing side) and whose writings survived the war – as opposed to Peter Reese himself – by sending his writings to his mother in Germany. In a lot of aspects, he is the anti-thesis of Alan Cope. Peter Reese is transformed into an almost unrecognizable human being. Where Alan’s War recounts Cope’s tales of friendships formed,  the humanity of the soldiers involved, meeting locals and eating rabbits together; Peter Reese recounts a tale of survival, of sawing off dead man’s legs to put next to the fire because you can’t take of a frozen corpses’ boots in the frozen wastes of the Russian front. Where Cope is almost a prime example of sobriety, Peter Reese drinks to forget both the horror of warfare and the biting cold.

By reading both books side by side, it shows off the cruelness of fate almost perfectly. Cope got drafted by Uncle Sam to fight Adolf, Peter Reese got drafted by Adolf to fight the barbarian hordes but it is obvious which one of the two got the better deal. If there is one thing that can be said for both men, it is that they were both soldiers and they both loved their countries.  Peter Reese died for it, Cope died of old age in 1999, one year before Emmanuel Guibert published the graphic novelisation of his tales.

Reading Myself Remarkably Estranged did have it’s impact on writing about Alan’s War. Words like ‘horror’ and ‘gripping’, basically any words trying to encapsulate the extremity of war seem to belong to that other book. The dual reading of both books rendered a split in my vocabulary. After all, Alan’s War volume 2 mostly takes place right after the capitulation of the Germans. Violence and horror seemed to be belong to the point of exclusivity of – and in honour of – Willy Peter Reese who wrote perhaps one of the most gripping accounts of World War II I ever read.

Anyway, back to Alan’s War. French writer and artist Emmanuel Guibert met Alan Ingram Cope in 1994 and after hearing Cope’s stories, Guibert decided to put Cope’s tales to paper. Together they succeeded in creating  a captivating graphic novel that resonates with its humanity. Guibert’s decision to keep Cope’s voice in the first person just like the viewpoint of the events recounted is solid and the book is one long monologue of Cope’s experiences in a ruined Germany, seen through the eyes of an 18 year old soldier who has not yet experienced neither the world or any combat action whatsoever; truely the eyes of an innocent.

Guibert’s style of drawing is remarkably simple for the figure work in the front while the background receives an almost photographic pointillist touch alternated with rough impressionistic outlines coloured in with either black gouache or black watercolour, emphasizing the impact the scene in progress. The black and white of the drawings – with some slight gray-scale colouring which I suspect are done by the computer utilizing textures – only support the directness of the tales told. Guibert expertly switches between light and dark, drawing the reader in when needed and cutting back, letting the characters breath when necessary. It bears the look of a form of rough photography, a memory Polaroid of the past.

Though Cope’s tales are interesting and honest, told with nuance and full of details of a soldier’s life; due to his arrival in Europe right before the capitulation of Germany, the interest of the tales told are more from an historical viewpoint than from any storytelling dynamics. Alan’s War is a string of tales told by the same person offering insight into a soldier’s life, into a people torn by war and into a world where all security has fallen down and needs to be rebuild.

Cope’s prose though can be a bit tedious and overly detailed but the combination of Cope and Guibert succeeds in elevating the stories to a higher level. Guibert’s visuals lift up Cope’s text and infuse some emotional resonance into the descriptive language that though emotional and revealing, gets sometimes stuck in its ‘telling mode’ of writing.  Cope’s open and plain recounting of his inner feelings and actions do manage to create a bond between reader and writer though but Guibert’s visuals bring it all to a point.

Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope Part 2 is published in dutch by Sylvester and in english by First Second.

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