“And when the band plays ‘Hail to the Chief,’ they point the cannon at you”
I find it fascinating that European comic book creators often write stuff about America, not because they can’t or shouldn’t, but because why would they? I mean, good for them, and often, people who aren’t American can write from a viewpoint that those of us who are American can’t, but it still seems odd. I wonder if it feels weird to Europeans when mouth-breathing Yankees write about their countries. Anyway, I mention this because Pegasus Books has released an English translation of Black Cotton Star, a 2018-2019 French comic written by Yves Sente, drawn by Steve Cuzor, and colored by Meephe Versaevel. Actually, looking around, I can’t tell if it was originally published in French or English. No translator is listed, and I can’t find any original art that might show what language it was originally in. But anyway, this is a nice hardcover in English, so let’s have a look!
Black Cotton Star is almost a great book, and it’s still a very good comic. Sente tells a story in two separate time periods of American history, neither of which were particularly good for black people (when have any been, right?). But by focusing on two wars, he’s able to highlight the idiocy of racism even more, and give us an interesting story in the meantime. In 1944, a young woman named Johanna, who lives in North Carolina and whose brother, Lincoln, is serving in the Army, discovers a diary in a chest in her deceased aunt’s house, after learning that her aunt left her the house. The diary is by Angela Brown, a black woman living in Philadelphia in 1776 who worked for Betsy Ross. She overhears George Washington commissioning Ross to make the first American flag, and after her two brothers are killed in a racist attack, she sews a black star on the back of one of the white ones in the flag to honor them and all black people. The flag is captured by Hessians and taken to Germany, and in the present, Johanna and a history professor manage to track it down – they believe it was in Paris when the Nazis came in, and an SS colonel took it. At this point, her brother and two of his friends come back into the story, as they’re desperate to get into the action instead of sitting in England performing menial tasks. They manage to get attached to the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Division – the “Monuments Men” – to follow the troops after D-Day to find the colonel and get the flag back. So they do. Things don’t go terribly well – it is war, after all.
The book is a war comic, so there are some terrific and depressing battle scenes – the Allies’ route through France from Normandy to Paris and beyond was not easy – and because Lincoln, Aaron, and Tom – his friends who join him on the mission – are not only not with a regular unit but also black and finally on a mission that the “regular” Army people don’t respect, they don’t seem to be safe no matter where they are. Their commander, Lieutenant Perryt, is fairly racist himself, so while he needs the men, he certainly doesn’t respect them. Sente makes the racism raw, in both time periods, because it was – this was long before anyone thought it might not be nice to rein in horrible language or actions, so the soldiers are treated with contempt, ignored when they want to fight for their country, and not given any support for their mission. There’s an interesting scene where two white officers speak of how terrifying it would be if black soldiers learned how to fight, because why wouldn’t they immediately agitate at home for their rights? This is an attitude we can glean from racist regimes for the past 200 years or so, as the white overlords knew how bad things were for the black people but were terrified of blacks realizing it themselves. Johanna, who lives in Raleigh, is not exactly insulated from racism, but she doesn’t have an awful life because she doesn’t come into contact with white people all that often. The soldiers know differently. Meanwhile, in the past, things are worse, but sadly not too much more (sad because it shows how little progress was made during the interim), as Angela loses one brother when a white man simply beats him to death, and she loses her other brother when he goes off to avenge the younger brother. Of course nobody holds the white man to account, even if the black kid he killed was “free” – he might be free, but he’s still not anywhere near equal.
Sente, of course, puts his soldiers into dire situations, and they react like good soldiers, not like the subhuman creatures the whites think they are. They’re not heroes, certainly, because they make mistakes and get scared and don’t always act completely rationally, but they’re good soldiers. Because they’re black in an openly racist time, however, they have the deck stacked against them. This is a horribly bleak comic, and while I don’t want to give anything away, let’s just say that even though this is fiction, Sente gives us a reason why we never heard of the black star sewn into an original American flag. It’s not really about that, of course, because it’s about how Lincoln, Aaron, and Tom become soldiers that the U.S. would be proud of if it could look past its stupid racism. They overcome the ridiculous obstacles in their way (they can’t, for instance, watch USO dancers because the girls are white) and they do something that makes them proud of themselves, even if Sente shows the futility of war in many different ways and especially the difficulty of fighting against an ideology. As I noted, this comic is very bleak, so you shouldn’t think Lincoln or Johanna solve racism. Life just doesn’t work that way.
Cuzor’s stunning art does a lot to make the story work. He has beautiful line work, and his hatching is stupendous, working wonderfully with his spot blacks to create amazing shadows. He creates a gorgeous colonial Philadelphia, which makes the racism that’s so prevalent hit harder, and Johanna’s Raleigh is idyllic, again masking the racism that rears its head so readily. When the soldiers get to France, Cuzor really shines, giving us impressive details of the destroyed towns and haunting forests through which they must travel. As it’s winter, Cuzor tends to get rid of a lot of holding lines to show how the snow makes everything fuzzy, and he uses more blacks to show the darkness encroaching on the soldiers as they travel deeper into danger. He draws people who look like people, meaning they’re not perfect, so we see how life has dealt with them in different ways. The colors are superb, too – the early army scenes are generally green or mustard, contrasting to the lighter browns of summer in Raleigh. When the soldiers go into France and the winter closes in, the blues come in and chill the drawings so that we feel the war closing in on the soldiers even as Cuzor draws things more claustrophobically. The artwork on the book is beautiful, and it makes reading the book feel more visceral.
Sente does a nice job with the plot, but the detour to colonial Philadelphia takes a bit too much away from Johanna, for instance, and it makes the book a bit disjointed. Each section works pretty well, but they don’t fit together perfectly. It keeps the book from being great, but it’s still a very worthwhile read. Just a reminder: it’s quite bleak, if you’re not in the mood for that!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆