Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, 2012
176 pp., illus., $24.95 paperback
Comics were once the domain of superheroes and villains, but graphic novels have recently elbowed their way into the field of Canadian history. With Chester Brown’s Louis Riel widely praised for capturing the complex history of Riel, the 1884–85 Métis uprising, and Sir John A. Macdonald’s government’s response, graphic novels offer new ways to understand the past.
In Canada at War, writer Paul Keery and illustrator Michael Wyatt have undertaken the challenging task of capturing Canada’s Second World War experience in vivid text and sharp illustrations. With close to 1.1 million Canadians in uniform from 1939 to 1945, the Dominion’s forces fought on land, at sea, and in the air around the globe. While the book’s focus is on combat, Keery explores in a limited manner William Lyon Mackenzie King’s wartime policies, as well as war production and the postwar veterans’ experience. It is ambitious to convey this story in limited text and images. For the most part, Canada at War succeeds, although it is not without its faults.
In evaluating the book’s strengths at communicating Canada’s wartime experience, it is necessary to address both the history and the images. The story is told in a chronological-thematic unfolding, with the Canadian service arms (for example, navy, air force, and army), as well as major battles and campaigns, anchoring the narrative.
The accompanying text, usually in blocks of two or three sentences per frame, is descriptive, active, and pitched at a level suitable for middle school students. The graphics and images are very strong. Attention has been paid to the depiction of his-torically accurate weapons, equipment, and kit, and in some cases photographs are rendered into drawings. There is a conscious desire for authenticity.
While scholars and writers often have more than four hundred pages to cover a single campaign or battle, this book has fewer than two hundred pages of text and images in which to depict the entire war. With limited space, the book at times tries to cover too much and therefore, in places, says little of substance.
All authors face agonizing choices of what to include and what to leave out, but in this book too many stories, engagements, and formations are included, so that the narrative is often clipped as it moves from event to event. Moreover, because of this desire to include multiple stories, the vignettes and sections tend to be weak on providing historical context and in exploring the consequences surrounding battles or events, while privileging the content.
For example, Dieppe has only a single box to sum up the strategic context for the raid, about twenty frames for the battle (as well as several more in an interesting section on Reverend John Foote), but then only two final boxes devoted to the raid’s consequences. The section on Transport Command suffers from the above-mentioned desire to be inclusive and provides little of substance. However, when the chapters are allowed to breathe, they are often very good, and the section devoted to the bombing campaign is very powerful, capturing many of the nuances of strategy, tactics, technology, and the human experience in combat.
This will be an ideal book for young Canadians, as it combines readable history with poignant images that neither shy away from the brutality of battle nor engage in gratuitous violence. It is also a strong primer for those who think they know about the war — the combination of text and images can evoke new meanings and allows the better visualization of, and perhaps empathy for, the enormous challenges, struggles, and sacrifice of Canadians during the Second World War.
This review appeared in the February-March 2013 issue of Canada's History magazine.
— Tim Cook (Read bio)
Tim Cook is the author of seven books of Canadian history, including The Necessary War: Volume One, Canadians Fighting the Second World War 1939–43.