Mr. Vertigo Reviews 30: The Harlem Hellfighters; Silver

harlem-hellfighters coverThe Harlem Hellfighters
Written by Max Brooks
Illustrated by Caanan White
Broadway Books

The African American 369th Infantry Regiment was a part of World War I history that has been almost forgotten. Brooks and White bring their story vividly to life, from the enlistment lines in Harlem, to training camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and finally to the trenches in France where they fought with great distinction. While it is a fictionalized account it is strongly rooted in historical fact.

The book opens with a dramatic aerial battlefield view from a bomb’s-eye perspective. When the bomb landed in the trenches I found myself grateful that the art was in black and white rather than color. White does not flinch from portraying all of the ugliness of war, and the gore might have been overwhelming in full color. This was a war with rats and snipers while in the trenches; machine guns and poison gas during the sporadic forays onto the battlefield; and a bomb called the “Jack Johnson” that could liquidate a man.

But before the regiment could get to the front they had to survive basic training and a long sea trip. 1917 was not a good year to be a black man in South Carolina. To further complicate matters, there had been a race riot in Texas where another all black regiment was stationed, so the soldiers were under orders not to fight back, no matter how much they were provoked. Just when the situation was starting to look intolerable the regiment got their deployment orders to France.

Once there, the disappointed soldiers found themselves on stevedore duty. But the brutal death toll finally overcame all prejudices. The regiment was called to the front, becoming some of the first Americans, black or white, to fight in the Great War.  In the end they spent more days in combat than any American unit; never lost a trench to the enemy, or a man to capture; and became one of the most decorated units in the entire American Expeditionary Force. On February 17, 1919 they finally got the parade they had been denied when they departed for France, as New Yorkers lined 5th Avenue to welcome them home.

The back matter in the book emphasizes the historical background of the story. The characters based on real people are identified, including musician James Reese Europe, pilot Eugene Jaques Bullard (who was a veteran of both World Wars), and Henry Johnson, the first American to receive the French Cross of War. A Bibliography, Filmography, and Discography guide readers to more historical information.

“I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.”

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SilverSilver
Written & illustrated by Stephan Franck
Dark Planet Comics

Stephan Franck is a very charming guy. He lured me over to his table at HeroesCon like a veteran carnival barker with a persuasive elevator pitch for his project. Why, yes, that does sound like the sort of book I like.. and before I knew it I was handing over $12.99 (he was nice enough to draw a sketch inside the book, too). Fortunately he’s also a very good storyteller, so it was money well spent.

Silver is set in the pulp era of the 1930s and  features a witty thief and con man named James Finnigan, a criminal with a special fondness for silver. The first of the three issues collected here centers around an elaborate heist. The fact that it is a charity auction of silver pieces from the private collection of Jonathan and Mina Harker is the first clue that there may be elements beyond a stock crime noir. Finnigan’s con succeeds, but he barely makes it out of the mansion with the loot. Purely by accident the haul includes an old journal and an antique silver ingot.

Finnigan thinks the journal is fiction at first, but then he takes a closer look at the ingot. His crew was planning to retire after this job, but he lost the key to the safe deposit box that held all of their stock ownership papers while escaping from the heist. The journal offers an alternative to recoup their losses: a huge stash of silver. He goes to visit Van Helsing’s granddaughter, a woman named Sledge. He finds a warrior armed with a katana (for chopping off vampire’s heads). Even after seeing her in action he has trouble accepting the existence of vampires.

But he gets her to join his new crew, which also includes an actor (to play the lead role in the con) and a forger. They catch a boat headed for Romania, the location of Count Dracula’s castle, where the treasure awaits, “in a castle full of vampires” (as Sledge puts it). They have one other wild card, a kid named Tao who can sometimes see the future.

It’s quite a setup, marrying Bram Stoker’s universe with crime noir. The genre summary on the back cover sums it up well: Pulp Adventure Supernatural. Franck’s black and white art is dynamic, and well suited to the story. I can hardly wait to see what happens next. The print collection will be listed in the September issue of Previews. But it can be downloaded right now on Comixology for $5.99. There are lots of sample pages on the Dark Planet Comics website.

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About marksullivan5

Librarian, Jazz musician, comic book fan
This entry was posted in graphic novels, indie comics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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