Comics You Should Own – ‘Arrowsmith’

Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today we have Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco’s interesting alternate-history story. This was originally published on 21 March 2005. As always, you can click on the images to see them better, and watch out for SPOILERS! Enjoy!

Arrowsmith by Kurt Busiek (writer), Carlos Pacheco (penciler), Jesús Merino (inker), Alex Sinclair (colorist), Richard Starkings, Rob Steen, Albert Deschesne, and Comicraft (letterers).

DC/Wildstorm/Cliffhanger, 6 issues (#1-6, cover dated September 2003 – May 2004).

This is (so far) the most recent of the comics you should own, but that doesn’t diminish its worthiness. It’s a wonderful comic book, the kind of comic that all creators should strive to do, in that it tells a self-contained story that doesn’t rely on years of continuity (there’s a time and a place for that) and it explores other uses of the comics medium besides superhero stories. Comics are a fabulous medium for fantasy tales, a fact that some creators have appreciated more than others (Busiek is one; his other contributions to the genre include A Wizard’s Tale and now, Conan), and it would be nice to see an audience grow for this kind of book, since anyone can appreciate this story, not just hard-core comics fans.

The story is straight forward enough: World War I fought in an alternate universe where magic is real and useful in a war. The participants are the same, despite being referred to by the countries that exist in Busiek and Pacheco’s world: Albion (England) fights alongside Gallia (France), Lotharingia (Brussels/Holland) and Muscovy (Russia) against Prussia (Germany), Tyrolia-Hungary (Austria-Hungary) and the Ottoman Empire (the, well, Ottoman Empire), while the United States of Columbia (wonder who that could be?) stands on the sideline. In issue number 1, a troll refers to the “Peace of Charlemagne,” which apparently set the boundaries of Europe for something like 1000 years (Lotharingia is named, presumably, after Lothar I, Holy Roman Emperor from 840-855 and Charlemagne’s grandson – Carolingian history rules!). Into this mess comes a young “American,” Fletcher Arrowsmith (groan at the pun if you must; I did), who volunteers for the Overseas Aero Corps, an elite unit that uses the flying power of dragons to fight dogfights in the skies over Europe.

This is all stunningly rendered by Pacheco, whose art has matured leaps and bounds from his early (decent) work on the X-titles. From the fiery Prussian troll that attacks the Gallican lines in the first few pages to the destruction of a Prussian town by giant green-flaming salamanders, the magical stuff in Arrowsmith is unbelievable. Pacheco also excels at the quiet moments, drawing wonderful human emotions in Fletcher, Grace, Rocky the troll, and all the other characters. This book is worth is for the art alone.

Busiek hits all the standard “war story” notes, and it’s in this where the book is weakest. When Saving Private Ryan came out, one reviewer mentioned how difficult it is to do war movies, since there’s an inherent beauty in destruction (this is even more evident in The Thin Red Line – what a beautiful movie that was). Well, in a world where magical beings abound, it’s even more difficult for Busiek to write an anti-war book, which is part of his point. In issue 5, when the OAC drops the salamanders on a Prussian town in a scene probably evoking the Dresden firebombing in WWII, it’s a beautifully drawn tableau (blame Pacheco). When the rag-tag survivors fight off the Prussian assault in issue 6, it’s majestic and stirring, even though people are dying. It’s the nature of the beast, and despite Busiek’s attempts to show that “war is hell,” we’re too amazed by the magical creatures and wonder at how he integrates them into a gritty narrative to be too disturbed by his anti-war sentiments.

Despite this, it’s a good story. What makes this an interesting book rather than just a nice-looking one with a decent story is the way Busiek uses the fantastic as a metaphor. The crucial scene in the book actually comes in issue 1, when Fletcher talks to his father about the war and his desire to volunteer. His father says it’s not his war, so why should he have any part in it? He says:

“And this flyin’ nonsense – even more foolishness. What’s it make that a man could eat, or use, or sell? Nothin’, that’s what. ‘S a reason why magic don’t work around cold iron – it’s unnatural. Nothin’ sensible men should put their trust in.”

Fletcher tells him that some men are using magic to fertilize fields, cure sicknesses, and other things, and Martin Arrowsmith explodes in anger and says:

“They’re just puttin’ good men outta work with these ‘miracle methods.’ They’ll see, when it backfires on ’em … This new commercial wizardry may be all th’ rage in the big cities – but it won’t catch on here.”

Martin never shows up again, but he provides the book with its dramatic tension, one that Busiek explores subtly throughout the whole work. World War I, obviously, is a moment in time when the “modern world” was created – the era of the gentleman-soldier was over, small armies and “noble” fighting were gone, and the age of the meat-grinder army was at hand. What Busiek is doing with the magical angle is highlighting the tension between the old generation and the new – Martin doesn’t like all this new-fangled magic stuff (even though it’s been around, apparently, a long time) and doesn’t think it will catch on. Fletcher, meanwhile, with the endless optimism of youth, throws himself into the magical world with abandon. It’s only after he has experienced it first-hand does he start to question his decision. However, he, like the rest of the world, can never go back – Pandora’s Box is open. At the end of the book, Fletcher realizes, like the people on the Manhattan Project, that some things might be better left unexplored.

Busiek has always been a bit of a nostalgic writer – he wrote the JLA/Avengers crossover, for crying out loud! – and here, his nostalgic yearnings are channeled quite well. He never thumps us with a “things were better in the past” vibe, allowing instead his characters to discover that progress doesn’t always mean “better.” Fletcher never wants to return to his home, despite the horrors of war that he experiences. Fletcher, unlike Busiek occasionally, understands that we cannot go home, and he must force his way through to a better future instead of striving for a bucolic past. Magic (and war) has remade the world, and Fletcher needs to make the new world a good one.

Busiek varies a little as a writer – some of his stuff is okay (Avengers, some stories of Astro City) and some of his stuff is excellent (Marvels, the rest of Astro City). In Arrowsmith, he creates a world that allows him to play to his strengths – a “common-man” view of great events, a large cast, each with a well-defined personality, and a sense of wonder about the world. Arrowsmith succeeds because it takes a standard Busiek weakness – nostalgia for a lost innocence – and subverts that to tell a fable about growing up. It’s a grand adventure story, and it works as one, especially when paired with Pacheco’s fabulous art. But it is elevated by the subtext, which makes it a mature reflection on war, innocence, and the future.

[Re-reading this, I’m a bit disappointed in myself – I could have written A LOT more about it, but I just didn’t. I was also a bit hard on Busiek, which is weird, because even when I wrote this, I thought he was a terrific writer, and he hasn’t fallen off in the intervening years. I mentioned that he was writing Conan at the time, and of course that’s not the case anymore, but his work on that book is superb. Busiek is a hell of a nice guy, too, so I’m not sure why I wasn’t more effusive about him. Anyway, the trade of Arrowsmith seems to be out of print, but I linked to it down below, as it appears you can still find it cheap. I imagine the single issues aren’t too hard to find, either. This was supposed to be the first in a series of Arrowsmith stories, but it never happened, and it’s a bit sad to think we could have had more of it. But this is a fine comic even if we never got more, so go find it somewhere!]

12 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Just read this quite recently, like just before Christmas. Totally agreed that this is a must-read comic – it’s so well-executed, both in terms of story and art.
    However, I would disagree a bit with the you of 15 years ago on one point: despite the beauty of the art, I think this is still an effective anti-war book that doesn’t make its subject matter pretty in any way. Maybe it’s just that – given where I’ve lived since the early 1990s – I have a different perspective, but as I was reading that crucial scene you mentioned, with the salamanders, it gave me this horrible feeling at the pit of my gut as a wartime atrocity plays out.
    I would in fact argue that the absolutely gorgeously rendered art by Pacheco, Merino and Sinclair (the vibrant colors are *very* important here) really bring the anti-war message home more effectively.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Edo: That’s an interesting point. I recently saw the quote again (with regard to 1917), and the dude said Orson Welles said it, which he might have, but who knows. I wonder if it’s meant for people who haven’t experienced war directly, but only through fiction, and so they only see the “prettiness” of it – despite knowing in their heads that it’s awful, they can’t get past either the art or the way the director shoots the movie or the way the author describes the camaraderie of the foxhole. Beats me. I think there are a lot of good anti-war things that don’t glorify war, and I still think it’s harder to convey in this book because of the fantasy trappings. However, unlike you and where you live, I’ve never seen real war up close, so perhaps that’s it. It’s an interesting topic. I can’t even imagine living someplace like the Balkans, where any peace seems tenuous, unfortunately.

      1. Edo Bosnar

        Just so we’re clear, I’ve never directly experienced war, either – i.e., I was never a member of any military and/or involved in combat operations. I did, however, spend a lot of time working as a fixer with news crews and/or as an interpreter for aid workers and so forth, so I’ve been to quite a few places that were pretty heavily hit or entirely annihilated by wartime ops, sometimes only a few days after the fact. And also talked to a lot of both military and civilian survivors of such ordeals, including those who had been interned in the notorious camps in Bosnia.
        That was more than enough, though, to cure me of any notions of seeing beauty in war, including artistic representations thereof.

        1. Greg Burgas

          Edo: Fair enough, but just living in a place that has been recently ravaged by war is probably enough, as you note, because of your close proximity to it. I mean, the Balkans might as well post signs around the perimeter reading “Invade us – it’s fine!” So that’s just such a different mindset than someone living in the States, for instance, which hasn’t been invaded since … I don’t know, the Mexican War, maybe, or the War of 1812. You’ve “seen” at least some aspects of war up close, which most American civilians have not.

          How many old people do you know who long for the golden age of Marshal Tito?

  2. Louis Bright-Raven

    This was coming out at the time that Kurt Busiek suffered mercury poisoning and I think by the time he (mostly) recovered from that, A – the interest in the series had waned, and B – the Cliffhanger Imprint was shut down in 2004 when DC bought Wildstorm, so they would have had to shop the series all over again. So IIRC, Kurt changed it over to a prose novel series with illustrations by Pacheco, but is still shopping THAT version around.

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