Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Four-Fisted Tales: Animals in Combat’

“Limbs point upwards, there are no birds singing”

Ben Towle usually makes good comics, so I was intrigued by this, which is about various animals who have been employed by armies throughout modern history (Towle does a bit of ancient history, but generally these are modern stories). Dead Reckoning published this, and I’m going to write about it!

It’s kind of tough to really review this comic, because it’s “simply” a bunch of short, not-even-stories about animals doing things in combat. There’s a framing vignette, in which soldiers in a World War I trench use a jar full of glow-worms to read a message because they don’t want to light a lantern and give away their position to ze Germans. At the end, Towle revisits the trench, and, uh, well, it’s World War I – it can’t end happily! Then we get a bunch of tales – the longest one is 11 pages – about various animals. We get a funny story about Jack, a dog in the Union army (he didn’t seem to do much, just run into battle) who is the only animal ever traded as a prisoner of war. There’s a story about a trial in which a lawyer is trying to get the government to stop using dolphins for various tasks, which the government denies doing. Dolphins are still used for search and recovery missions, because they’re good at it. Satan was a dog in World War I that shuttled messages across the front, surviving a lot of bombardments. We learn about Wojtek, a bear that was “adopted” by a Polish unit in Iran during World War II, and how he helped scare off an enemy patrol. Towle also gives us slightly more “informational” vignettes about ships’ cats, armed forces mascots, how the British Navy used seagulls to spot German U-boats, how rats can find landmines, how the Americans used slugs in World War I (it’s true!), some facts about horses in combat, and some facts about carrier pigeons in combat. You may think that the lack of a dramatic story makes this less interesting, but for someone who loves history like this, it’s a fascinating bunch of “stories” that rarely get told. I mean, occasionally you’ll read about an animal being used here and there in a general history book, but who wouldn’t want to read more about slugs in World War I? I mean, come on. There is an interesting emphasis on the “good guys” using animals – in order, we get Americans using glow-worms, the Union army using a dog, cats on British and American ships, the American government using dolphins, mascots of American units, British commonwealth units, and Norwegian units, a French dog, the British using seagulls, a bear with Poles, Americans using slugs, and pigeons helping Allied forces. Only in some of the more “ancient” snippets – Hannibal using elephants, the horses of Genghis Khan and El Cid, for instance – do we get stuff without an inherent bias toward the “good guys.” I don’t mind, it’s just interesting, because I’m sure the Germans and the Confederates used animals, too. But those animals were probably evil slave-owning Nazis. The facts and short stories are nifty, though, and show how flexible armies have to be when conditions are not optimal.

Towle is a good artist – he’s not flashy, but he knows how to tell a story, and he does a nice job keeping these tales visually interesting. He varies the way he presents things, so we get the Confederate prisoner in a small circular panel in the center of the page hearing about Jack’s exploits laid out in panels around him (and he doesn’t know he’s being traded for a dog yet, so that’s fun), we get panel-less drawings of various cats on ships, we get full-page splashes of pigeons flying above and through battle scenes. He uses really nice thick brush work to go along with his nice thin lines, which makes his work nice and detailed while also giving it a roughness that fits the subject matter. When he draws the jungles of Vietnam, for instance, he switches between a heavier line for the soldiers and a thinner line for the modern-day girls moving through the same space, which makes a nice contrast. His attention to detail is terrific, too, from the beautiful armor of Alexander the Great to the cannons trained on Paris during the Commune. It’s a violent book, because it’s about war, but Towle doesn’t overdo it, stressing instead the commitment of the animals to the humans, not the cause, and the … I guess nobility of their work. So we get a few deaths, but Towle focuses, visually, on the way the animals save lives, even as some people die.

This is an interesting comic that tells us about stuff we probably didn’t know about. I mean, sure, horses have been part of warfare since the beginning of warfare, and we’ve probably heard a thing or two about the dolphins, but the slugs and the kangaroos and the bears in this book make it fascinating. It’s a neat aspect of a depressing part of history – war – and Towle does a nice job with it. So that’s nice.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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