Two of the books in new publishing imprint Dead Reckoning’s freshman lineup of titles essentially bookend the history of modern warfare. On one side is Trench Dogs, which explores World War I and the birth of industrial total war. On the other is The ‘Stan, an anthology about America’s ongoing, and apparently unending occupation of Afghanistan. Both books depict conflicts addled by outdated tactics colliding with contemporary obstacles – the carnage wreaked by new technology in WWI, and the hydra-like nature of insurgency in Afghanistan. And if they are to be taken as a mission statement of sorts for Dead Reckoning, both showcase the label’s overarching aim of affirming the humanity of soldiers while openly addressing the horror of war.
Since Dead Reckoning is an offshoot of the Naval Institute Press, the publishing arm of the U.S. Naval Institute, one might peruse these graphic novels with a suspicious eye. What’s the angle? Where’s the propaganda? The USNI isn’t part of the government or military, but a good deal of its leadership consists of retired Navy or Marine members. War comics have experienced a boom in first-person accounts and journalistic ventures in recent years, but comics coming from an “official” source will for many conjure images memories of Superman hawking war bonds and Captain America punching Hitler. But both Trench Dogs and The ‘Stan are aware of and in conversation with this history. They aren’t dashed-off efforts, but involve talented artists not previously known for working in this genre. Dead Reckoning, then, is asserting their seriousness as a comics publisher.
Trench Dogs is a nightmare view of war, posited as the antithesis of ‘40s propaganda comics. Author Ian Densford’s thick line work and muddy colors make the milieu as unappealing as possible. The world of 1914-1918 is rendered through anthropomorphic animals – the British are dogs, the French are birds, the Germans are pigs, the Americans are cats, etc. There are no main characters, or even named characters. The book is entirely vignette-based, following a rough timeline of the war but mainly devoted to exploring different theaters and combat situations. One scene will depict the mundane details of digging trenches, another aerial combat, and another high-altitude mountainous fighting. If it follows an identifiable individual for a while, it won’t do so for long, with them either dying or fading out of view eventually.
Densford’s cartoony models don’t soften the book’s handling of violence. Soldiers and civilians alike die in countless ways – at points the book seems like an encyclopedia of all the ways to be killed in WWI. People are blown up, stabbed, shot, gassed, bludgeoned, trampled, crushed, drowned, and more, all drawn in explicit detail. In one agonizing sequence, two French soldiers scramble as a gas cloud closes in on them. One realizes his gas mask has a breach in it, and in desperation steals his comrade’s mask to save himself. The other poor soul hacks and chokes, froth bubbling from his mouth and nose, his eyes bulging and skin blistering, his dying ordeal stretched out over three pages. One advantage of a simple drawing style is that it lets an artist caricature movement easily, and Densford utilizes this to horrific effect.
Trench Dogs begins and ends with full-page panels, otherwise rigidly sticking to a three-panel-per-page layout. It is a series of panoramas, which can pull out or zoom in to show sprawling battlefields and person-to-person combat alike. There are no close-ups, however; it never draws in closer than a medium view of a scene. Nor will a frame skew for the sake of dynamism. The overall effect is of a cold, remote view of the war. The official synopsis describes it as a “continuous camera pan,” which accurately conveys the effect. At times this is brilliantly evocative. There’s the gassing sequence, as well as a five-page scene in which a seriously wounded British soldier sprawls in the same pained pose as he lies in No Man’s Land before getting picked up and carried across the field, through the trenches, and into a medical tent.
While brutal and memorable at times, the book’s overall effect doesn’t quite bring all its elements together to a real point or an impactful statement about war. It takes the “War is Hell” adage as a continual sentiment, but doesn’t say anything beyond that. Since it’s working entirely with purposefully nondescript characters, it is so archetypical as to almost be abstracted away from any real emotional dimension. This generic treatment of humans extends to their expression as animals. Why, exactly, has it been done this way? To heighten the impact of the violence? Comparisons to Maus seem inevitable (the drawing style is even somewhat reminiscent of Spiegelman’s masterpiece), but that book made a conscious, complex effort to engage with the endless, ultimately unsatisfactory elements of categorizing human beings. Here, there is a postwar scene of a black soldier being lynched, but race is erased by the fact that they’re all identical cats. There seems to be no deep thought put into the conceit.
The ‘Stan also takes a roving view of war. Kevin Knodell and David Axe, both experienced war correspondents, present various stories from many different people who in some way participated in the first ten years of America’s war in Afghanistan. They range from American soldiers to Afghan interpreters to a former mujahideen. There are 17 chapters, each telling a simple anecdote in fewer than ten pages. Artist Blue Delliquanti freely mingles documentary-style talking heads, on-the-ground scenes, and action sequences. In sharp contrast with Trench Dogs, it mostly refrains from explicit violence, although it never sanitizes the visuals if someone is injured or killed.
The book’s view of the occupation is characterized but constant circumspection. It lets each interviewee have their say about their experiences, and in concert they attest to how in a war such as this, with no clear end goal, everyone mainly just seeks to survive in their own way. While there isn’t much narrative flow from one segment to the next, the final story, about Knodell dealing with PTSD back in America, puts a dark cap on the proceedings. It acknowledges the war’s lasting impact even after someone is technically free of it, and then wonders about the implications of this for a war with no apparent end in sight.
The stories in The ‘Stan won’t present much new to anyone who has paid attention to books, documentaries, and/or other comics reporting on Afghanistan over the lifetime of the conflict. It seeks to add to the conversation rather than revolutionize it. It’s more valuable for those with a special interest in the subject than anyone in search of stronger artistic statements. Dead Reckoning presents it as an indicator that they will not soft-pedal America’s current conflicts, and that they can stand on their own in graphic war nonfiction. As a debut effort, these books constitute a decent showing.