The importance of the subject matter speaks for itself. Here’s a list of my favorite comics about war, both nonfiction and fiction. Good art, good storytelling, serious topic, all worth your time. (Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links.)
Any book on this list I loved at the time I read it, whether I had a chance to write a review or not. Obviously a re-read years later might reveal a problematic aspect I didn’t pick up on back then. Please let me know via my contact form if you find something yikes in a book I recommend.
Nonfiction & Memoir
The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks, with art by Caanan White, inks by Keith Williams, and lettering by Kurt Hathaway (Amazon / Goodreads)
“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.) Brooks’s writing and White’s art here don’t flinch from some of the terrible experiences these men had, both at war and at home, but they also bring us the men’s personal stories and victories.
Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna (Amazon / Goodreads)
“Year of the Rabbit tells the true story of one family’s desperate struggle to survive the murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized power in the capital city of Phnom Penh. Immediately after declaring victory in the war, they set about evacuating the country’s major cities with the brutal ruthlessness and disregard for humanity that characterized the regime ultimately responsible for the deaths of one million citizens.
Cartoonist Tian Veasna was born just three days after the Khmer Rouge takeover, as his family set forth on the chaotic mass exodus from Phnom Penh. Year of the Rabbit is based on firsthand accounts, all told from the perspective of his parents and other close relatives. Stripped of any money or material possessions, Veasna’s family found themselves exiled to the barren countryside along with thousands of others, where food was scarce and brutal violence a constant threat.
Year of the Rabbit shows the reality of life in the work camps, where Veasna’s family bartered for goods, where children were instructed to spy on their parents, and where reading was proof positive of being a class traitor. Constantly on the edge of annihilation, they realized there was only one choice—they had to escape Cambodia and become refugees. Veasna has created a harrowing, deeply personal account of one of the twentieth century’s greatest tragedies.”
Fax from Sarajevo by Joe Kubert, with colors by Studio SAF (Amazon / Goodreads)
I almost didn’t read this 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 be recommending this comic. I lost track of how many times I started to cry while reading it, and I mean that in a complimentary way.
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.
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman (Amazon / Goodreads)
When I was refreshing this post, I thought “surely everyone has read Maus by now, maybe I can drop it.” I saw a review on Goodreads a few days later by someone who had just read it for the first time. So clearly there is still an untapped audience! And it’s an important one in so many ways. Maus is 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. 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.
It’s been published in two books, and also in the complete collection linked above.
Invisible Wounds by Jess Ruliffson (Amazon / Goodreads)
“Cartoonist Jess Ruliffson spent five years traveling across the country interviewing veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, from kitchen tables in Georgia and libraries in New York City to dive bars in Mississippi and back porches in Vermont. What she finds is that the real experience of soldiers at war is a far cry from depictions in popular media like Zero Dark Thirty or American Sniper. In these illustrated interviews, Ruliffson shares the stories of men, women, and non-binary ex-soldiers who struggle to reconcile their wartime experiences with their postwar lives. Identity lies at the heart of these stories, as they grapple with their gender, their race, and the brutality they’ve witnessed and caused. In this compassionate, probing book, Ruliffson reveals how America’s endless entanglement in wars have affected the psyches of the people who wage them.”
Fiction & Satire
The White Donkey by Maximilian Uriarte (Amazon / Goodreads)
Most of my adjectives for this book start with H: haunting, harrowing, heartbreaking. It’s an emotionally raw story about a young man who joins the Marines for probably not-so-great reasons, isn’t particularly well-suited to it, and ends up badly broken by his traumatic experiences. Uriarte is a cartoonist and former Marine whose webcomic Terminal Lance became popular with Corps members and vets. Here he does a pivot from cartoon humor strips to a serious graphic novel, and it’s clear he has talent for both kinds of work. It’s not a universal story about military experience, because everyone in the military has their own story, but it is an important one.
Motor Girl by Terry Moore (Amazon / Goodreads)
Sam is a vet who lives and works in a junkyard after a combat injury ended her military career. Her companion is a gorilla named Mike. When a UFO crash lands near the junkyard, it attracts the attention of Nefarious Capitalists who attempt to oust Sam and Mike from their home so they can install an anti-UFO weapon. Sam isn’t ready to move on, though, in a lot of ways. It starts as a somewhat goofy UFO story, but Moore signals gently early on that all is not what it appears. A story about what happens to people in and after war, told with humor (where appropriate) and plenty of compassion. The ending isn’t sad, but yeah, might make you a little misty.
Motor Girl was collected in two paperbacks, but also a hardcover omnibus collecting the entire series.
Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang, with colors by Lark Pien (Amazon / Goodreads)
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 by one of comics’ most talented and thoughtful creators.
Boxers and Saints are two different interconnected volumes, though they’ve also been published in a box set.
Sara By Garth Ennis, art by Steve Epting, colors by Elizabeth Breitweiser, and lettering by Rob Steen (Amazon / Goodreads)
I enjoyed this both for the personalities and the tension – and of course, since it’s Steve Epting, the art is beautiful.
“Nazi Occupied Russia, 1942. Fight Hard. Shoot Straight. Don’t let them take you alive. A team of female Russian snipers beat back the Nazi invaders on the WW2 Eastern Front.”
The series Peter Panzerfaust co-created by writer Kurtis Wiebe and artist Tyler Jenkins, colors by Alex Sollazzo, and letters by Ed Brisson (Amazon / Goodreads)
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, 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.
Peter Panzerfaust is complete in five paperback volumes, and I think there’s also a reprinting in ombnibus or large hardcovers.
The series Guerillas by Brahm Revel (Amazon / Goodreads)
“Private John Francis Clayton is on his first tour of duty in Vietnam, facing death at every turn in the middle of a war he doesn’t understand. Clayton is just trying to stay alive when he encounters an elite platoon of…. simian soldiers ? This squad of chain-smoking chimps is the most dangerous fighting force in the jungle… but whose side are they on?”
The edition linked above is the 744 page omnibus. If that seems as unwieldy to you as it does to me, the series was previously published in four paperbacks.
I enjoyed this series, but a word of caution: This is a series focused on mostly white American soldiers in Vietnam, and that means a lot of on-page deaths of Vietnamese people who remain anonymous. The legitimacy of the war is challenged, but the visuals and focus might legitimately be Not Okay for some readers and that is so valid.
Iron: Or, the War After by S.M. Vidaurri (Amazon / Goodreads)
Gripping examination of the costs of war, starting with the theft of secret information by a resistance fighter. The ramifications of that theft spill out and touch many lives, even those who aren’t on a “side,” if the sides here even mean anything given how destructive their war is – and given that Vidaurri is much more interested in the effects of the war than in the particulars of how it started and supposedly ended, but continues to hurt people even still. It’s tense at times, appropriately sorrowful, and the art is a perfect match with its minimalism and muted colors. I think watercolor, with maybe some pencil too?
Six-Gun Gorilla by Simon Spurrier, art by Jeff Stokely, colors by André May, and lettering by Steve Wands (Amazon / Goodreads)
In the 22nd century, humans who want to die can volunteer for a war zone on a colonized planet, where their deaths can be broadcast as reality TV. This time, it doesn’t go according to plan. The divorced ex-librarian known as Blue-3425 doesn’t die when he’s supposed to. He ends up with a watch that’s more than it seems, and folks on both sides of the conflict want to take it. And then there’s the talking gorilla. It’s about truth being manipulated in the service of profit. It’s about the power of story. The art is just the right level of weird for the characters and the plot. The colors are extremely rich and well thought-out, changing as the tale shifts between the colony and Earth. Spurrier is one of my favorite writers, and this book is one of the reasons why.
And that’s the list!