So many anthropomorphic animal comics! You can't escape them!
Archaia brings us the new graphic novel by S. M. Vidaurri, Iron: Or the War After, which will cost you $24.95 retail and probably less if you poke around on the Internet. It's pretty neat, so perhaps it's worth your coin.
This comic is a fascinating meditation on war and how it destroys people in ways that aren't all that obvious. It begins after a war has ended, but members of the resistance are still trying to fight the ruling regime.
Vidaurri doesn't get into the political situation too much, because it's not important - all we need to know is that there's still a resistance, and they're still fighting even though the war is ostensibly over. The inciting event of the book is a theft - a rabbit named James Hardin steals a document that is vitally important to the regime, and the resistance is going to use it to blow up a train and a railway bridge. The theft sets in motion a chain of events that affects the lives of several characters, on both sides of the divide. Vidaurri is quite deft at connecting various threads and making sure that he never judges the characters - they each have their own motivations and ideals, and they don't fit into any preconceived notions we might have.
Hardin dies early on, so his children, James Jr. and Patricia, are orphaned (their mother died long ago). Hardin's plan requires a steady agent, but when he dies, his place can only be taken by Giles, a drunken old goat who isn't quite as committed to the cause as Hardin was. James, meanwhile, wants to follow in his father's footsteps even though his father wanted to keep him safe. So he cajoles Patricia into sneaking onto the train that Giles is planning to blow up, which doesn't make Giles or another rebel happy. After the train explodes (I don't think that's spoiling things, because it's pretty clear that it will drive the rest of the book, so it has to happen), Engel, a tiger who works for the regime, tries to get to the bottom of it all. He doesn't know that Hardin is dead, but he's willing to torture kids - both James Jr. and Patricia - to get information out of them. Meanwhile, Engel's boss allows him some leeway in trying to figure out what happened, but the question becomes whether Engels will push it too far and embarrass the regime. If that happens ... well, look out.
What makes the book so fascinating is that Vidaurri follows things to their logical conclusion but still has some surprises for us. Early on, Engel is angry at Pavel, a crow who was on guard when Hardin stole the document, because he (Engel) thinks that Pavel allowed Hardin to escape. But Pavel points out that just because he's not in a rage all the time, like Engel, it doesn't mean he let Hardin escape. Vidaurri never gives us a clear answer to whether Pavel was working for the rebels or not.
Hardin is a hero, but he dies somewhat pathetically, and even that comes back to haunt someone. Giles wonders if his actions mean as much as Hardin's if he doesn't believe in the cause as much as Hardin did. When the kids end up in an orphanage, Patricia befriends Konstantin, the son of a soldier of the regime, who's an outcast among the other kids (who are all children of so-called traitors). But he explains that his father was dragged away by the regime, which accused him of working with the rebels. So what's the demarcation? Are only people who openly declared for the revolution good? Does it matter that Konstantin's father was as much a victim as anyone?
Vidaurri also ponders what it means to be devoted to a cause. Is it noble to be inflexible, or foolish? We see examples of both kinds of "patriots" - those who remain inflexible and those who shift according to the circumstances, and Vidaurri wisely doesn't come down on the side of either, as he shows the consequences for both kinds of people. He creates an intriguing post-war atmosphere in which people don't want to fight but they don't quite trust each other, and ideals are something that can be quite dangerous. If one doesn't profess his or her devotion to whichever cause, are they less or more trustworthy? When Engel interrogates young James, we see the many kinds of patriots - Engel is completely devoted to the regime, to the point where he's willing to torture a child to get what he needs, while Pavel isn't willing to go that far. James Jr. seems like he's willing to sell out to save his sister, and isn't that a good thing? But is it a good thing if he loses her respect? As you can see, there are a lot of questions in this comic, but that's not a bad thing. Vidaurri brings them up and lets the characters answer them for us, and it's quite well done. That's always a smart move.
His art is minimalistic and beautiful - the book is painted, and as it takes place in the winter, Vidaurri gives us a lot of sparse nature scenes, as the characters move through a snowy and vacant landscape. It highlights the differences and distance between them, even those who used to be close - Hardin and Charlotte, another rebel, seem to be closer than friends, but the mission always comes first, and Vidaurri wisely leaves their relationship ambiguous.
The book seems to take place in the past - the clothing and automobiles appear to be from the early 20th century (although the book obviously takes place in its own world), which adds to the feeling of isolation, as everyone is very formal and proper, keeping their thoughts guarded. The book is darkly painted with blues, whites, grays, and blacks, but it's easy to read - the colors are just another aid in creating this feeling of loneliness. The biggest problem with the artwork is that Vidaurri isn't very good with facial expressions - yes, the characters are animals, but that doesn't mean they can't emote - which means that some of the key emotional moments are conveyed with only words and the expressions and the body language of the characters aren't quite as good. The best character in terms of the way Vidaurri uses expressions and body language is Engel, who is the angriest. His rage, it seems, lends itself to big gestures, so that's not surprising. But the artwork is haunting and eerie, and it helps very much with the mood Vidaurri creates in the book.
Iron: Or the War After is Recommended, at least by this humble reviewer, and it's another one of those Archaia books that brings something interesting to the table. Vidaurri has given readers a lot to think about with this book - there are questions of patriotism, treachery, loyalty, sacrifice, and courage, and what those all mean. It's a beautiful book (physically, that is - Archaia's comics are always nicely presented) and a very good read. It's winter - the perfect time to read a story set in a bleak, snowy landscape!