In 1847, during one of its innumerable westward expansions, the United States sent its army into a disputed area of Mexico. Facing recalcitrance in its bid to absorb California, the budding imperial power set its eyes south, and at one point, a minor slaughter (for there’s no other accurate word for it) took place in a small pueblo town called Churubusco. The only difference between this and hundreds of other massacres was that the town was home to a small group of expatriate American immigrants and deserters—most of them originally from Catholic countries like Ireland, Italy, and Spain.
That’s all the background you really need about The Battle of Churubusco, a retelling of the story by Franco-Italian cartoonist Andrea Ferraris. It’s a dramatic work, not a history; the details are spelled out in brief introductions and epilogues, leaving the story to speak for itself. There are long passages of silence, and the reader is left to fill in the historical and political context if needed; while it’s clear where the author’s sympathy lies, it seems to be for personal reasons of his own invention. (Ferraris makes this clear, to his credit, and admits to making up his protagonist out of whole cloth, as well as his motivation, since most of the desertion seemed to be for religious and class reasons.)
The protagonist in question is Rizzo, a young Italian scout helping to guide his fellow soldiers to Churubuscu, which many of them believe to be a fiction designed to waste the Army’s time. Born in poverty and raised in misery, he is haunted by dreams that echo throughout his past, present, and future. In command of his unit is a shrewd and intelligent captain; also present is Gibson, a hateful, bullying creep who insults and torments the kind-hearted Rizzo until he can’t take any more and switches his loyalty.
If this all sounds like the stuff of a classic Western film, that’s because it’s designed to be. The whole thing is cinematic in the extreme, practically begging you to imagine it on the big screen with a John Ford type behind the camera. (There’s even a scene where the tough, steely Mexican señorita on the side of the rebels drags a wounded Rizzo through a massive thunderstorm gathering on the horizon which will make you positive you’ve seen this movie...even though there’s no movie.) Everything from the way Ferraris illustrates the stark southwestern vistas to the way he mixes his archetypical characters together is well-crafted pure genre nitroglycerine.
The narrative holds up extremely well, although there’s rarely a plot turn you can’t see coming from the very start of the book – indeed, we see the results of the battle for Churubusco in its first few pages with the details reeled out in reverse, another classic genre trope. Rizzo and company are probably the weakest part of Churubusco; a well-drawn stock character is still a stock character, and no one in the story rises above that level. Rizzo himself is at least given a little background, but it’s mostly for color, and the Captain is a total cipher. Gibson is perhaps the worst of the lot, a cartoon villain whose only defining characteristics are that he’s a hateful, bigoted Anglo-Saxon who, of course, tries to rape the only female character in the book the first time he has a chance. He’s not that interesting, and worse, he’s no necessary – everything that happens in the story could happen without him.
Still, that’s a pretty minor headache in what’s otherwise a pretty superbly crafted plot. Every story beat in Churubusco may have been drawn from an advanced screenwriting class, but hey, it’s advanced for a reason, right? Every scene follows the next with amost mechanical precision, and if the emotional action is a bit obvious, at least it’s present. It’s not hard to figure why Ferraris tells his story in this way; he comes from two decades of work for Disney in Europe, where he picked up the storytelling skills that are on abundant display. The observation that this is a graphic novel that plays in every respect save the presence of a soundtrack exactly like a movie isn’t to say that it is a movie you wouldn’t want to watch.
It helps that Ferraris is a tremendous draftsman. The book is rendered in charcoal, alternating between washed-out grays and blacks and lightly colored passages for the flashbacks; it is extremely European and extremely effective. The characters have grizzled faces and gangly bodies that match the barrenness and hostility of the surroundings. Nothing is really alive here; everything is dead, or dying, or waiting to die. He doesn’t play up the futility-of-war angle much (to be honest, he doesn’t play up anything much; aside from a brief flirtation with purity-of-the-doomed-rebel sentiment, this is not a book in which to search for deep meaning), it’s there for anyone to find as Rizzo drifts from one act of brutality to the next. Ferraris’ plotting as well as his art are soaked in professionalism, and the striking visuals engage even when the skeleton of the story starts to creak. (Watching the American soldiers scuttle like stick insects across the blasted pueblos of Mexico suggests that he might be the perfect artist for a graphic novel adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.)
Taken in total, Churubusco does exactly what it sets out to do and does it extremely well. It’s not a great history or a successful character study, but as a Western tragedy it’s very effective and cruelly beautiful. How hard it hits will depend largely on the reader’s tolerance for genre, and that’s a service in itself. The precision and function of its design disallow it from transcending what it is, but they also ensure that it works terrifically well within those boundaries. Its ambition fits a medium, it’s just not the medium in which it takes place. Like its subject, its craft is a thing of beauty that was never meant to last.