Review time! with ‘A Letter to Jo’

“It’s crazy how it all turned out; we needed so much more”

From the fine folk at Top Shelf we get A Letter to Jo, which is written by Joseph Sieracki, drawn by Kelly Williams, and lettered by Taylor Esposito. Sieracki based it on a letter his grandfather wrote to his grandmother at the end of World War II, telling her about his experiences in France. It’s an interesting blend of the letter and fiction, so let’s dive right in!

In many ways, this is a standard World War II story, in that a callow youth gets shipped off to war, leaving a sweetheart behind whom he promises to marry when he returns. Their parents don’t approve (the young people are from different ethnic groups, so of course the parents don’t approve!), but they don’t care, because they’re in love. The soldier writes letters back to his sweetheart, and both of them come to understand the horrors of war. He lives it, of course, and he befriends people who die, he kills people who may or may not deserve it, he sees the depths of human depravity, and she reads censored letters and probably doesn’t get what’s happening to him until the final one, which is uncensored, and realizes how horrific it’s been for him. He gets wounded but lives, returns to Cleveland, they get married and live (relatively) happily ever after. We get it. We’ve seen it all before.

Of course, this is a bit different than the usual, mainly because it’s not completely fictional and because the little things don’t always work out the way we expect. Early on, Leonard Sieracki is given charge of his unit’s machine gun. In most war fiction, he would use it and realize what a monster he’s become because he enjoys it so much. Sieracki doesn’t do that, though – his grandfather loves the gun and loves using it, but it doesn’t carry over into his “regular” life, it seems. He’s a monster when he needs to be, but it doesn’t overwhelm him. It’s an interesting way to show the dehumanizing effects of war without there being a huge emotional moment. Leonard knows he has a job to do, and he does it. He enjoys it maybe a little too much, but it doesn’t follow him home. Unlike war fiction in which the soldier has a major realization about what they’ve become and then they change, this is a bit more effective, because it’s clear that we can universalize Leonard a little and admit that in the fog of war, we all might enjoy shooting a big gun, especially when you don’t see what the bullets hit all that often. Sieracki and Williams make it just sexual enough, too, that it becomes even more disturbing. It’s still subtle, though, which is why it’s so powerful.

We also get some of the racism that was prevalent in the armed forces of the time. This is purely fictional, as Leonard never mentions his fellow soldiers by name and doesn’t go into details about them, but Sieracki invents a Puerto Rican soldier for his grandfather to befriend and shows how he was treated by the “whiter” members of the unit. It’s interesting, because Leonard himself is Polish, and his parents were the immigrants, and back then, even he would have been subject to discrimination (I’ve heard a little about this from my own Lithuanian/Polish father about his parents and what they had to go through). It certainly wasn’t close to as bad for white Poles as it was for Puerto Ricans or blacks, but Leonard still forms a bond with Federico, and we see some of the uglier aspects of how the U.S. treats its citizens.

It’s a complex story, mainly because Leonard doesn’t seem completely adversely affected by the war. He sees a lot of horror, gets wounded pretty badly, and kills a lot of people, but he also made friends, learned about places outside of his “comfort zone,” and helped defeat a terrible enemy. In most war fiction, the … I don’t know, positive? aspects of war are de-emphasized, but Leonard’s letter and Sieracki’s writing don’t do that, and it’s clear that Leonard’s war was more complicated than we might think. Sieracki doesn’t get into what’s going on with Jo all that much, but he does show how the separation and the anxiety are weighing on her. It’s not often in World War I and II fiction that we check in at all with the people soldiers leave behind, so it’s nice to get that aspect of the story, as well.

Williams is a pretty good artist, and he does solid work here. Like a lot of war stories, there’s almost no enemy presence – the Germans are barely seen, and usually it’s as corpses after the battle, but Williams still does good work with the battle scenes, mainly because he makes the panels claustrophobic, either by making them actually smaller or by cluttering them with trees or other natural impediments, so that Leonard and his unit often looked trapped as the bullets whine around them. Perhaps the biggest horror I can think of about war is the suddenness of death, and Williams does a good job with that – not only with the violence, but the way the soldiers shift so easily from heightened alert mode to relaxed mode and back again. He gives them a loose camaraderie when the violence abates, and it’s impressive because we can’t believe how these people could be so relaxed so soon after the battle, but he makes it work because of the way he draws them – despite the relaxation, their faces remain slightly haunted, and we know that their relaxation is partly due to desperation. As the war goes on, Williams does a good job slowly turning the men into gaunt shadows of themselves, and that’s one of the more disturbing parts of the book. These are not healthy people, and nobody seems to notice or care. It’s no wonder they snap – it’s not just the fear of sudden death, but the lack of nutrition and sleep, too.

I do have to admit to being a bit selfish, because Sieracki gives us a hint of a comic that I would want to read possibly more than this one. In the introduction, he writes about his grandfather and how the members of his family saw him. It sounds fascinating, and I would love to read a comic where we see his grandfather through each family member’s eyes. Sieracki’s father apparently had a terrible relationship with his grandfather, while others, naturally, had good ones. In a moment of impressive truth, Sieracki admits that he can’t verify the contents of the letter Leonard sent to Jo, and while we don’t have any reason to think he’s lying, it makes the book a bit more interesting if we have that doubt in his mind. But that would lead into my mythical graphic novel, because we can’t ever know the breadth of a person if we rely on just our view of said person. Jo believes one thing about Leonard, and while she gets hints about other aspects of his personality, Leonard was one of those old-school dudes who didn’t like to discuss the war, so we have to understand his war experience through the letter. That’s part of what makes the book so interesting – Leonard is holding back, Sieracki is inventing for him, and there’s a lot of subtle things going on that make us think far more about what war means, what it means to the people who fight in it, and what it does to them afterward. It’s a very thoughtful comic, and that’s always a good thing. You can check it out at the link below, if you’re so inclined!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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