These graphic novels about war are some of my favorite comics. Something about the medium of comics connects me with the characters in a way that war stories in other formats have not. The art and storytelling in these books are amazing, too, which certainly helps. So give one of them a try!
Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang, with colors by Lark Pien.
The Boxer Rebellion in China between 1899 and 1901, through the eyes of two Chinese teenagers: a young man in the forefront of the anti-foreign, anti-Christian movement, and a young woman who converted to Christianity and whose home comes under attack.
Yang does an amazing job humanizing the real people caught up in the conflict, and showing how tragic the whole conflict was for everyone no matter what “side” they were on. This book is a meticulously researched masterwork.
DMZ by Brian Wood, with art by Wood and Riccardo Burchielli, colors by Jeromy Cox, and letters by Jared K. Fletcher.
Brian Wood’s long-running series DMZ is kind of scary for how plausible it seems. Dissatisfaction with the federal government has led to small militia groups taking up arms. Moving across the country and banding together as they go, they become an army, and the U.S. is now at war with itself. DMZ takes place in what remains of New York City. A rebellion within the United States has torn it apart and (however geographically implausible) Manhattan is the dividing line. Rookie news photographer Matty Roth is stuck there after an attack on his crew.
The depiction of life in the DMZ is frighteningly plausible, with food and medical care in short supply. Central Park has been destroyed for firewood. The media and its distortions are as much a part of the war as the physical violence. The whole thing gives me bad dreams, but it’s so good, I’m going to read to the end of the series.
However be aware that Brian Wood has been accused of sexual harassment. Comics creator Tess Fowler, who spoke out, specifically did NOT ask for a boycott of his work, but different people have different levels of comfort separating the art from the artist.
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman.
I’m sure that everyone has read Maus by now. If I’m wrong, you have some catching up to do. It’s almost singlehandedly responsible for showing the world that the cartoon format was capable of handling the most serious subjects. In this case, World War II, and the lasting damage to the mental health of Jewish families who went through its horrors. The Nazis are drawn as cats, and their victims as mice… which makes the story no less agonizing.
Spiegelman created a classic. Anyone who won’t be triggered by it should read it, both for the high quality of the story, and because we can’t afford to forget what happened in World War II. (In many ways, not just the Holocaust.) Maus is definitely one of those comics that would enrich school history curricula. I’ll definitely be making sure my kiddo reads it once he’s old enough.
Peter Panzerfaust, co-created by writer Kurtis Wiebe and artist Tyler Jenkins. Colors by Alex Sollazzo and letters by Ed Brisson.
Peter Panzerfaust is a World War II book chronicling the exploits of Peter Pan, the Lost Boys, and the Darling children. Yep, you read that right. The charismatic Peter leads a resistance cell in occupied France. The Lost Boys are orphaned French teenagers who fall in with him and become his soldiers. The Darling children survive a plane crash that kills their parents. And there’s a fanatical SS officer bent on hunting Peter down, you may recognize him once he shows up.
I was suspicious of this before I read it because the concept seemed somewhat silly. The execution, though, is amazing. Peter’s personality seems otherworldly in the context of the war, as it should, but he’s a natural leader and dedicated to the cause. His nemesis Hook is chilling, reinvented here as an SS officer. The story is told as a series of interviews with the surviving Lost Boys, now elderly, which gives it an extra note of nostalgia and sadness.
The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century by Frank Miller, with art by Dave Gibbons. Color by Robin Smith, Angus McKie, and Alan Craddock.
Frank Miller is not a good person. In recent years he’s shown himself to be a racist xenophobe, and that can’t have come out of nowhere. So how the hell did he write this book? It’s a science fiction epic focused on a female African-American soldier from the projects who basically saves the whole damn world. It portrays the evils of fascism, segregation, and poverty – as well as the brutality of war, how stupid it really is, and who pays the price.
The storytelling isn’t consistently strong, but once you’re through the first and strongest part, you’re rooting for Martha so much that you want more stories about her. Like a couple of Amazon reviewers mentioned, there’s so much raw material here for a movie… hint hint, Hollywood or indie filmmakers!
Punisher MAX Volume 10: Valley Forge, Valley Forge by Garth Ennis, with art by Goran Parlov. Colors by Lee Loughridge, letters by Cory Petit.
This one’s going to need a little explanation for the non-Marvel-comics readers. Bear with me. The Punisher is a Marvel Comics anti-hero / villain (depending on how he’s being written). His name is Frank Castle. Castle lost his wife and two young children when they were shot by mobsters, and he became The Punisher in reaction to that. His mission is to kill criminals. Not stop them and put them in jail like Spider-Man or Captain America do. Execute them.
Garth Ennis wrote many, many issues of the series Punisher MAX. MAX is Marvel’s R-rated line, in which writers can use more adult content and profanity. Near the end of Ennis’s time writing Punisher MAX, he wrote the Valley Forge, Valley Forge storyline which asked the question “How did Frank Castle become a sociopath?” Part of Castle’s backstory is his long service in Vietnam, and this storyline goes back to that part of his history looking for answers. The result is savage and depressing. And it gives us a pretty compelling case that Frank Castle did not become The Punisher when his family was killed by the mob. He became that person in Vietnam. The Punisher was waiting in Frank Castle when he arrived home from his second tour.
Even if you do not know anything about The Punisher (or Marvel comics), you know enough from reading this summary to read this book. Valley Forge, Valley Forge is a striking example of a writer using a traditional comics character to discuss far greater themes and history. It’s like being kicked in the chest repeatedly, but it’s amazing. C-Man and I both think it should be studied in literature classes.
The Red Star by Christian Gossett, co-written by Bradley Kayl. 3D Art by A.D. Coulter, colors and composites by Snakebite, and 3D models by Jon Moberly, and letters by Richard Starkings and Saida Temofonte.
The most amazing comic that might never be finished and one of the most epic, sweeping comics I have ever read. It’s said to be interwoven with the video game of the same name, which I have never seen, but the comics series stands alone just fine. It’s set in an alternate science fiction and magical universe, where the Soviet Union, a.k.a. the United Republics of The Red Star, has magic, and they’re still losing in Afghanistan.
The central characters are Maya Antares, one of the United Republics Warcasters (sorcerors), and her husband Marcus Antares, a United Republics Captain. That’s Maya above. The terrible feeling of being part of something larger than you, that you cannot stop, that’s only going to end in tragedy… that’s their world. And as the series goes on, they find out more about how the war came to be. Then they have to make choices.
There’s a short story within the Red Star series called Run Makita Run, and it deserves special mention here. It centers around a teenage girl who fights in the rebellion against the United Republics, and finds a letter that’s the key to changing everything. Makita is amazing! I love how The Red Star doesn’t just include one strong female character and stop there. Maya and Makita aren’t even the only ones.
The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks, with art by Canaan White, inks by Keith Williams, and letters by Kurt Hathaway.
The Harlem Hellfighters was the nickname for the the 369th infantry regiment in World War I, which was all African-American. They were reviled by many whites in their own military, undersupplied, often humiliated by their own superiors, and spent more time in combat then any other U.S. unit. However they fought tremendously well and were highly decorated.
This book discusses not just the specific experience and history of the men in this unit, but the war itself. It’s not like bombs, gas, or even the lice that tormented them discriminate between soldiers based on their skin color. Canaan White’s drawing here don’t flinch from some of the horrors. But what they go through also brings us closer to these heroic warriors as Brooks tells us their individual stories.
Get Your War On by David Rees.
Get Your War On is not a comic that shows war happening, but it is a comic about war. Specifically, the “War on Terror” that commenced after 9/11 and has been screwing up the world more ever since. David Rees posted it as a webcomic starting in October 2001 and captured a particular kind of reaction that some Americans had to the war, which can be summarized as “What the hell?! This is really fucked up and I’m very confused!”
Clearly that was not the experience of all Americans, but this is a snapshot of a specific cultural reaction to the “war” and a serious critique and satire of it. And it’s really freakin’ funny. Like his earlier book My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable, it’s basically made of clip art and profanity.
Captain America: The New Deal by John Ney Rieber, with art by John Cassaday, colors by Dave Stewart, and letters by Richard Starkings and Wes Abbott.
I was skeptical that anyone could write a superhero comic book that related to 9/11 without being horribly disrespectful or xenophobic. I’d already read Marvel’s attempt to parallel their fictional superhero Civil War with a lot of real wars, and was fairly disgusted by that. But Rieber and Cassaday are all class. Rieber includes a note at the end about working to create “a world where hate can find no room to grow,” and Cassaday dedicates the book to his fellow New Yorkers. All proceeds from selling the original art from issue #1 were donated to the families of NYC firefighters who died on 9/11. And the story itself? It’s the Cap who tells us who we SHOULD be, even when he knows we don’t live up to it.
That’s probably the best time to tell us, when we’re not living up to our ideals. The storyline is not perfect. I’m not sure if anyone but me likes it. I’ve seen scathing reviews of it from conservatives who think it paints Cap as a traitor, and others who think the storytelling is a mess. But I think it does a good job showing how complicated terrorism is. Are terrorists wrong to commit such horrible acts? Absolutely. Has the U.S. stomped all over people worldwide for years, and continues to do so? Absolutely. And Cap struggles with this. It’s messy and real and his heart is broken. I love it for that.
Fax from Sarajevo by Joe Kubert, with colors by Studio SAF.
I lost track of how many times I started to cry while reading this book. I almost didn’t read it because the art style didn’t immediately grab me. But I thought “Skye, this is important, you need to make it at least halfway through.” So I did, and by then I had no doubts that I’d recommend this comic.
During the siege of Sarajevo in 1992-93, Ervin Rustemagic and his family were trapped in the city. Rustemagic had access (sometimes) to a fax machine, which he used to update his friends on their situation and beg for help in saving his family’s lives. Kubert was one of those friends, and later he used Rustemagic’s faxes and recollections as the basis for this graphic novel. It’s harrowing and heartbreaking. The ethnic and religious genocide, the murder of civilians (especially children), and the seemingly complete disregard for Sarajevans by nations outside of the war… and their officials on the ground, who give Rustemagic five different answers to any question. The back of the book says it’s a story “ultimately, of unflagging hope” but honestly, it’s a story of increasing despair and a lucky happy ending. Many weren’t so lucky. Left me thinking about why we can’t stop this kind of atrocity, with all our supposed wisdom. Brutal reminder not to take what I have for granted.
And that’s the list of our favorite graphic novels and comics about war! If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments – and thanks for sharing on social media or with friends!