"Just remember this," a friend told me a few years back when I told him I was thinking of making a World War II comic. "The Nazis won." It's almost impossible to take intellectual provocations in good faith these days, but that one really did make me think. You can't take it literally, of course, but it's hard to deny that the old US of A has two offenses on its record that punch in the same weight class as the Holocaust, and the less said about the yellow bracelets that the Trump regime is forcing undocumented immigrants to wear these days, the better. Still, everyone knows that we're the good guys and the Nazis were the bad guys, and the reason they know is the vast amount of popular entertainment the American media machine has churned out since Big Two that characterizes the war as an ultimate conflict between righteousness and evil. If we were the good guys once, the implication of these fables goes, then we'll always be the good guys - and so World War II, though decades past, lives a parallel existence in a kind of eternal present, never more than a click of the remote or a scan of the bookshelves away, forever ready to be called upon as a bolster for a violently expanding empire's claim to moral righteousness. But even a broken clock set to military time is right once a day.
The first bar that any new WWII comic must clear, then, is comfortingly low (though that still doesn't stop most of them from nutting themselves on it). Can this story function as a moral bludgeon against critics of the United States' foreign policy of military-backed economic imperialism? If the answer's no, congratulations: your comic may deserve to exist! So far so good for Son of Hitler, the new Image graphic novel from artist Jeff McComsey and writers Anthony Del Col and Geoff Moore. Taking the relatively novel approach of depicting the lives of people in whose homelands the war was actually fought, the book, like its titular dictator, nonetheless squanders an intriguing setup with a series of increasingly poor decisions and a frustrating difficulty in understanding its medium.
Part of the reason it's tough to escape the WWII-story trap of glorifying US military adventurism is because that's what the familiar template for a WWII story is. In a perfect world, of course, earlier entries in the genre a story exists in wouldn't affect its contours one way or another, because the only good reason for a story to get made is legitimate inspiration. But we're talking about mainstream comics, in which the most likely cause for a shift in a writer's style is a decision to switch streaming services. A frustrating amount of scenes in this comic are visibly indebted to Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds - not outright ripoffs so much as dramatic set pieces that don't seem to have had more than that one input fueling them. And this in a world where pretty much every public library has a copy of Ivan's Childhood on DVD! But oh well, better to choose that one than a Clint Eastwood movie or something.
I'd like to stay with Inglourious Basterds for just another second though, because for a name director with as underdeveloped a visual sense as Tarantino, the set pieces in that movie are pretty well put together. Not stunning, but highly functional, doing everything they need to do to set up the mechanics of their action scenes before things begin detonating, laying out everything about an interior floorplan that an audience is going to need to know ahead of time. In this comic McComsey struggles again and again with doing the same, and in a medium much more conducive to schematic views and architectural precision than movies can possibly be. McComsey has an interesting drawing style, something between Steve Dillon and Philip Bond, and flexes the same white-highlighted, straight-from-pencils approach that Connor Willumsen was recently hailed for in Anti-Gone. But his ability to create a comic in which one panel leads smoothly to the next is sorely lacking. Characters appear in-frame as if from nowhere, claustrophobic-seeming shots open onto vistas of open space that make it uncertain if a scene change has taken place, and whenever actual physical action occurs (which, for a war comic, is pretty rarely) following who's doing what and to whom is a severe difficulty that robs the book of just about all its impact and vitality.
McComsey's approach should take as much blame for this as his actual facility with the medium. Using white acrylic and pencil on tinted paper is advantageous in that it allows him to delineate both dark and light areas - but few strong light sources are employed at any point here, muting the dramatic effect such a choice could allow. More problematically, the white highlighting is not handled with nearly as deft a touch as the pencils are, giving everything a washed-out smeary look that further destabilizes the shaky foundation generated by McComsey's inexpert blocking. Imagine trying to follow a conflict taking place inside a house by peeking through its windows - and now imagine that the windows haven't been cleaned in a few years. There you go.
Then again, I don't want to chalk too much of Son of Hitler's failings up to its artist when the writers' grasp of how to manipulate the comics form is in clear need of some sharpening. The book opens with a terse interview between British intelligence and a group of German prisoners, and Del Col and Moore make a show of the party's negotiating of the language barrier that stands between them. The Nazi soldiers' dialogue is first rendered in German, with a British agent who knows the language translating for her superiors, and thereby for us. When the bosses leave the agent switches to German, and in order for us to follow it the dialogue is written in English, but placed in the <brackets> that are comics shorthand for "foreign tongue". It's a nicely pulled off little trick. Then the story's action switches to German-occupied France, and the brackets, the translations, and the rendering of the original language all go out the window. Who's speaking French? Who's speaking German? It's not indicated. Everything's written in plain English. Which would be completely fine, but for the pains the writers have just gone to in order to point out that this comic is too smart to throw all of its many European characters into the same linguistic bucket. Except that it actually isn't. German-language dialogue reappears at a few points much later in the book, never in a logical or even explicable manner.
That sense of a comic that's been doing more thinking about its reception than its construction only increases after the opening bumble. The book's big twist is that the character we follow for two thirds of the book in the belief that he's Hitler's illegitimate son is actually just some random dude, with the real son already well ensconced in the Third Reich. But it drops with a clang, seeing as the top-secret intelligence we're shown to confirm our hero's filial identity at the beginning of the book is literally some sketches Hitler did of the kid's mom in his doughboy days. Didn't anybody tell the British service (or the writers) that dude was a shitty artist? Oh, but they've "checked and double checked everything," so it's gotta be true. If only that stupid app that matches your face to a classical painting had been around in the '40s to show old Blighty what uncertain ground it tread!
It's cool though, because in the book's pulse pounding conclusion Hitler ends up... wait for it... dying in his Berlin bunker in late April 1945! This bold alternate history's, uh, alternate history ends up delineating a world where exactly nothing is changed from our own, despite the existence of the Fuhrer's love child. And again, that would be OK if getting there wasn't such a drag. At least Hitler's real kid didn't end up being the father of Donald Trump after escaping to America, which I was thinking had like a 60% chance of happening. When such an eleventh-hour twist is very much on the table, it speaks clearly to the quality of what you're reading.
How to sum up a book that fails even to sum itself up very well? Gosh, I dunno. Son of Hitler isn't something any asshole off the street could have made - there's a standard of professionalism being met (not competence, professionalism) that I'd imagine will put it across the finish line with a large percentage of the audience for such a book. And it's not howlingly tone deaf or offensive like I figured it would be when I saw the title. Mostly I just wondered why anyone bothered - which, coincidentally, is the same thought I have when America's defeat of violent nationalists in World War II gets used again by violent nationalists to justify their violent nationalism. Some trains just keep a'rolling through it all, and lazy comics are very much a part of that group.
At least they get here on time!