Comics You Should Own flashback - <i>Arrowsmith</i>

Another old post I wrote back in March 2005. I was a lot less long-winded back then, wasn't I? (Oh, and very minor SPOILERS appear in this post.)

Arrowsmith by Kurt Busiek (writer), Carlos Pacheco (penciller), Jesús Merino (inker), Alex Sinclair (colorist), and Richard Starkings and Comicraft (letterers).

DC/Wildstorm/Cliffhanger, 6 issues (#1-6), cover dated September 2003-May 2004.

Arrowsmith is a wonderful comic book, the kind of comic that all creators should strive to do, as it explores other uses of the comics medium besides superhero stories. Comics are a fabulous medium for fantasy tales, a fact that some creators have appreciated more than others, and it would be nice to see an audience grow for this kind of book, since anyone can appreciate this story, not just hard-core comics fans. Comics used to be more diverse, and recently they're going back to that, thanks partly to titles like this, and it's good to see. It's a long haul, obviously, as books like this don't sell nearly as well as traditional superhero stuff, but as long as creators are willing to take chances with stuff like this, we'll eventually get fantasy books like Conan, also written by Busiek (for a while), which sells well enough to continue.

The story in Arrowsmith is straightforward enough: World War I is being fought in an alternate universe where magic is real and useful in a war. The opposing sides are the same, despite being referred to by the countries that exist in Busiek and Pacheco's world: Albion (England), Gallia (France), Lotharingia (Brussels/Holland) and Muscovy (Russia) fight against Prussia (Germany), Tyrolia-Hungary (Austria-Hungary) and the Ottoman Empire (the, well, Ottoman Empire), while the United States of Columbia (wonder who that could be?) stands on the sideline. In issue #1, a troll refers to the "Peace of Charlemagne," which apparently set the boundaries of Europe for something like 1000 years (Lotharingia is named, presumably, after Lothar I, Holy Roman Emperor from 840-855 and Charlemagne's grandson - Carolingian history rules!). Into this mess comes a young "American," Fletcher Arrowsmith (groan at the pun if you must; I did), who volunteers for the Overseas Aero Corps, an elite unit that uses the flying power of dragons to fight dogfights in the skies over Europe.

This is all stunningly rendered by Pacheco, whose art has matured leaps and bounds from his early (decent) work on the X-titles. From the fiery Prussian troll that attacks the Gallican lines in the first few pages to the destruction of a Prussian town by giant green-flaming salamanders, the magical stuff in Arrowsmith is unbelievable. Pacheco also excels at the quiet moments, drawing wonderful human emotions in Fletcher, Grace, Rocky the troll, and all the other characters. This book is worth is for the art alone.

Busiek hits all the standard "war story" notes, and it's in this where the book is weakest. When Saving Private Ryan came out, one reviewer mentioned how difficult it is to do war movies, since there's an inherent beauty in destruction (this is even more evident in The Thin Red Line, which is hauntingly beautiful even as it shows people being killed). Well, in a world where magical beings abound, it's even more difficult for Busiek to write an anti-war book, which is part of his point. In issue #5, when the OAC drops the salamanders on a Prussian town in a scene probably evoking the Dresden firebombing in WWII, it's a beautifully drawn tableau. When the rag-tag survivors fight off the Prussian assault in issue #6, it's majestic and stirring, even though people are dying. It's the nature of the beast, and despite Busiek's attempts to show that "war is hell," we're too amazed by the magical creatures and wonder at how he integrates them into a gritty narrative to be too disturbed by his anti-war sentiments.

Despite this weakness, it's a good story (it would have to be, as it's a Comic You Should Own). What makes this an interesting book rather than just a nice-looking one with a decent story is the way Busiek uses the fantastic as a metaphor. The crucial scene in the book actually comes in issue #1, when Fletcher talks to his father about the war and his desire to volunteer. His father, Martin, says it's not his war, so why should he have any part in it?

And this flyin' nonsense - even more foolishness. What's it make that a man could eat, or use, or sell? Nothin', that's what. 'S a reason why magic don't work around cold iron - it's unnatural. Nothin' sensible men should put their trust in.

Fletcher tells him that some men are using magic to fertilize fields, cure sicknesses, and other things, and Martin Arrowsmith explodes in anger:

They're just puttin' good men outta work with these "miracle methods." They'll see, when it backfires on 'em ... This new commercial wizardry may be all th' rage in the big cities - but it won't catch on here.

Martin never shows up again, but he provides the book with its dramatic tension, one that Busiek explores subtly throughout the whole work. World War I, obviously, is a moment in time when the "modern world" was created - the era of the gentleman-soldier was over, small armies and "noble" fighting were gone, and the age of the meat-grinder army was at hand. What Busiek is doing with the magical angle is highlighting the tension between the old generation and the new - Martin doesn't like all this new-fangled magic stuff (even though it's been around, apparently, for centuries) and doesn't think it will catch on. Fletcher, meanwhile, with the endless optimism of youth, throws himself into the magical world with abandon. It's only after he has experienced it first-hand does he start to question his decision. However, he, like the rest of the world, can never go back - Pandora's Box is open. At the end of the book, Fletcher realizes, like the people on the Manhattan Project, that some things might be better left unexplored.

Busiek has always been a bit of a nostalgic writer - he wrote the JLA/Avengers crossover, for crying out loud! - and here, his affection for the past is channeled quite well. He never thumps us with a "things were better in the past" vibe, allowing instead his characters to discover that progress doesn't always mean "better." Fletcher never wants to return to his home, despite the horrors of war that he experiences. Fletcher understands that we cannot go home, and he must force his way through to a better future instead of striving for a bucolic past. Magic (and war) has remade the world, and Fletcher needs to make the new world a good one.

Busiek varies a little as a writer - some of his stuff his just decent and some of his stuff is excellent, but he usually has something interesting to say. In Arrowsmith, he creates a world that allows him to play to his strengths - a "common-man" view of great events, a large cast, each with a well-defined personality, and a sense of wonder about the world. Arrowsmith succeeds because it takes a standard Busiek weakness - nostalgia for a lost innocence - and subverts that to tell a fable about growing up. It's a grand adventure story, and it works as one, especially when paired with Pacheco's fabulous art. But it is elevated by the subtext, which makes it a mature reflection on war, innocence, and the future.

Arrowsmith is available in trade, and I believe it contains the short story from the Astro City/Arrowsmith flip book (which hadn't come out when I first wrote this, so it's not included). The most frustrating thing about the comic is that Busiek had more stories planned, but they haven't panned out yet. I don't know if Pacheco is just too busy or if Busiek himself is too busy, but I'd love to see more series about this world. I guess it just wasn't financially viable, which pretty much stinks. Oh well. This story stands very well on its own.

If you're wondering about an archive link, here it is! Enjoy!

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