British war comic Charley’s War was, sadly. once a rare thing in comics – a powerful and emotive, if fictional account of real warfare. When the strip was first published in Battle, it was one of the first major comic strips published in English to rightly expose the many horrors or real war, in comparison with the sanitised version delivered by many a war comic on both sides of the Atlantic.
Today, things have changed. There are now many graphic novels and comics that have brought home the dangers of warfare, featuring many different arenas of conflict, including World War One.
Now, another great title – Harlem Hellfighters, written by World War Z author Max Brooks and drawn by Canaan White, has joined the ranks, and it has already got plenty of coverage in major news media coverage – and last month, Will Smith and Sony Pictures optioned the movie rights the graphic novel.
Harlem Hellfighters is the the riveting story of the highly decorated, barrier-breaking, historic American black regiment. In 1919, the 369th infantry regiment marched home triumphantly from World War I. They had spent more time in combat than any other American unit, never losing a foot of ground to the enemy, or a man to capture, and winning countless decorations. Though they returned as heroes, this African American unit faced tremendous discrimination, even from their own government. The Harlem Hellfighters, as the Germans called them, fought courageously on — and off — the battlefield to make Europe, and America, safe for democracy.
In Harlem Hellfighters, bestselling author Max Brooks and acclaimed illustrator Caanan White bring this history to life. From the enlistment lines in Harlem to the training camp at Spartanburg, South Carolina, to the trenches in France, they tell the heroic story of the 369th in an action-packed and powerful tale of honor and heart.
Max Brooks is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide, and The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks.
Although only recently released, it’s clear the graphic novel has struck a chord with many, from news media critics and celebrities to academics. “The Harlem Hellfighters brings to life a long forgotten piece of American history,” enthused director Spike Lee. “Bravo, Max Brooks, bravo.”
“The Harlem Hellfighters is perhaps the first graphic novel taking as its theme a major episode in African American History, the heroic performance of black men in combat during World War I,” notes Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University. “Brilliantly dramatized by Max Brooks… and stunningly illustrated by Canaan White, one of our foremost African-American comic book illustrators, the novel tells the gripping story of the often overlooked black men who served their country in combat against enemy forces during ‘the Great War.’
“The Harlem Hellfighters served in combat longer than any other American unit, losing neither men nor ground, even as they fought entrenched racism within the U.S. military. Brooks and White tell a thrilling saga of noble perseverance, individual valor and sacrifice and collective triumph, showing how combat abroad in war contributed to the larger quest for civil rights at home. Informed by judicious historical research and vividly illustrated storytelling, this book itself is an historical “first,” and is a major contribution to our understanding of Black History.”
In an interview, Brooks told the War is Boring site he first learned about the the 396th at age 11, from a UCLA student who worked for his parents, and who was studying Marcus Garvey and the civil rights struggle. The story left a huge impact on the young Brooks.
“It never left me,” Brooks said. “The idea that our country could be so inhumane to the people who fought for it.”
The project started life as a screenplay, but a World War I film, especially one with a mostly black cast, did not scream “box office hit” to studios.
Like Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun, the research Brooks and White put into the project was extensive. Brooks spent 16 years researching the story. Between them, they painstakingly researched the battle conditions, uniforms and equipment – right down to the buttons on the soldiers’ jackets.
And, just like Charleyu Bourne “These guys weren’t professional soldiers,” Brooks notes. “They all had lives back home they were giving up. Especially some members of the officer class were very successful [before the war].”
“The French called them the ‘Men of Bronze’ out of respect, and the Germans called them the ‘Harlem Hellfighters’ out of fear,” Max Brooks says.
As the web site Code Switch notes, the syncopated stylings of their regimental band, led by James Reese Europe, introduced French listeners to American jazz. As soldiers, the Harlem Hellfighters left their mark in the trenches of France.