“Women in comics are the deviation, the invading body, the cancer. We are the cure, the norm, the natural order. All you are is a pair of halfway decent tits, a c*** and a loud mouth. But see, it doesn’t matter how loud you get. It doesn’t matter how many of your lezbo tumblr and twitter fangirl friends agree with you and reinforce your views. You can be all ‘I’m not going to be silent about misogyny so f*** you!’ all you want. In the end all you are is a pathetic little girl trying to effect change and failing to make a dent. You might as well try to drain the ocean of fish. That’s the kind of battle you face with people like me. We won’t quit. We won’t stop attacking. We won’t give up. Ever.”
-Anonymous message sent to Janelle Asselin, Early 2014
To begin this essay, let’s first explore what exactly we are referring to when we talk about war stories. To start with, what is a war? One might answer with a conflict between two foreign powers. But that has issues of it’s own because that would leave out conflicts like the American Civil War. So then, why not redefine it as a conflict between two organized military powers? Well, that leaves out conflicts involving non-military combatants within the conflict such as the French Revolution. Heck, what about wars where one of the two sides is pacifistic? I could go on about the issues of trying to create a catch all definition of a concept as large as war. So, for the purpose of this paper, let us define war as a physical conflict between two populations with ideological differences.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let us look at what is typically referred to as a war story. When one hears those two words, one tends to think of stories like The Red Badge of Courage, The Things They Carried, and other stories that focus “…mostly on cultural reactions to specific wars, accepting a causal relationship that privileges the historical event over its representation” (Rowe, 813).
However, there are some issues with that line of thinking. For starters, it’s viewpoint on what a war tends to view its primary characters as those who fight within the war. This limits the amount of stories that can be told in a war narrative because it limits the cast to solely the soldiers within the war. And while yes, there are interesting stories to be told from that viewpoint; it still ignores other viewpoints of a war. What about those who only hear about the war through whispers, never fully being able to grasp the true horror of it all. Or how about those who are outside of the battlefield, but still impact the lives of thousands. Heck, what about those who are stuck in the crossfire, unable to fight, unable to escape.
In addition, typical war stories also tend to take a definition of war that is in conflict with the definition above. Their definition of war tends to be based on the era in which the story is told/read due to it being “…cultural reactions to specific wars…”and these “…recognized “wars”… are conventional means of “periodizing” literary, as well as much social and political, history…” (Rowe, 813). As such, it can lead to conflicts not being declared wars (despite clearly being wars) for political reasons (at one point, Vietnam wasn’t considered a war (Rowe, 813)) and some being to small to be considered wars.
As such, I think it would be best to expand the term “War Story” to include both the narratives of those who were non-combatants, include wars that are not necessarily considered wars by the current culture, and explore the society in which the war takes place. To do this, I will explore the texts of Passing by Nella Larsen and Maus by Art Speigelman as well as additional articles related to these texts.
First, let us look at a novel that one would not typically view as a war novel: Passing. The most obvious question to ask when concerning applying the concept of war stories to this narrative is how is this a war story? The short answer to that question is: it isn’t. The longer answer is that it isn’t in the sense of the typical war narrative, but it does fit within our given definition. For Passing is a story about the prelude to war. Specifically, a war that has been brewing since 1865 and finally exploded in 1954. I am, of course, talking about the American Civil Rights Movement.
To start with, the basic plot of Passing is about two women, both of whom are black but can pass off as white due to the lightness of their skin color. One of whom, Clare, decides to fully pass over into the white community, while the other, Irene, decides to remain a black woman. The novel itself explores many ideas such as race relations, gender, and a (probably unintentional) lesbian subtext. But for the purposes of this essay, we shall explore the race aspect of the novel, seeing as that is what the war is about.
As such, we will need to know what the ideology that this conflict is being fought over. To do that, we must understand the societal structures of racism. “Racism “involves the subordination of people of color by white people” (Rothenberg 6). Marked by discrimination and prejudice, racism entails also the exercise of power (conscious and unconscious, intentional and unintentional) by which white people maintain positions of privilege over persons of color (Rothenberg 7)” (Reineke, 74). Essentially, the game is rigged in favor of white people.
Naturally, those in the positions of power would like to keep their power by any means. As such, the Anglos tell themselves that they are superior to the Africans (this power structure (in this context) having begun around the time of American slavery) by either a God given right, the burden of being a white person, and/or flimsy science involving bumps on the person’s skull. They taught themselves that these Africans were not human in the sense that they were, and thus were allowed to treat them like cattle.
At least, until 1865 with the end of the Civil War, which lead to slavery being outlawed in the United States. However, those who grew up within the time of the slavery still had the idea that those African “Americans” were still lesser people. And said white people were in positions of power that allowed them to create laws such as the Jim Crow Laws which ruled that segregation was legal so long as it was separate but equal. Naturally, this was not the case. Black schools received used and out of date books, blacks were made to stand on the bus when a white person needed a seat, and blacks were generally mistreated by those in power, forming Klans and gangs to find, beat, and kill black people.
It is in this world that our novel takes place in. Though, for the most part, not as violent, the novel paints this world as nonetheless terrible. For example, Clare’s husband repeatedly refers to her as Nig, short for “nigger” because “…she’s getting darker and darker. I tell her if she don’t look out, she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger” (Larsen, 39).
In addition to this, the novel explores this world via one of its major themes: the meaning of one’s skin color. Throughout the novel, characters pass themselves off as other races in order to reap the benefits of that racial status, such as being allowed into banned locations or being looked at as a human being. Some characters, like Irene, only do it for short periods of time and are still fearful of being found out (Larsen, 16). Others, like Clare, pass completely over as white. So much so that “Only when Bellew follows Clare into Harlem and spies her standing among her black friends, can Bellew see her as black” (Reineke, 88). In fact, it is only after the cat’s out of the bag, that there is any physical racial violence within the narrative (although it could be argued that it is sexual violence, depending on who you think did the deed) as Bellew, Clare’s husband, angrily enters the Redfield residence and screams “So you’re a nigger, a damned nigger” before she is pushed out of a window to her death (Larsen, 111). Bellew reacts with horror (“Nig! My God! Nig!” (Larsen, 111)) but he still doesn’t understand the racial implications of what he has done. For even after finding out that Clare was a black woman, even though his horror over her death is real, he still doesn’t understand that the words he uses to describe her are terrible.
But the war hasn’t begun yet. This story is about a powder keg, a world just waiting to explode. There are people in the society of the novel trying to get equal rights for black people without having a war (Larsen, 69; 119), but war grew ever more inevitable. Soon, something will happen. Not something huge, but big enough. Perhaps it’ll be someone dying. Perhaps it’ll be a court case about segregation. Perhaps it’ll be something as small as a woman not wanting to leave her seat. Whatever the final straw was, the war came. It was a violent war, with many factions. Some groups still tried to keep the peace like the NAACP. Others saw the futility of doing it the peaceful way and went for the violent solution like the Black nationalists. But they fought a common foe. A foe who wanted all of them dead because they were “inferior beasts” who should know their place or be exterminated like the vermin they were. And it was a war fought all across the nation: from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to the churches of Memphis, to the dark streets of Ferguson. Some say that the war ended in 1968. But if one were to look at the world, it’s plain to see that the war marches onwards. It’s appetite, infinite.
Now that we’ve gotten the novel with the least obvious route, let’s look at a novel with a more obvious connection to war: Maus, “…the story of a cartoonist named Art Spiegelman and his father, Vladek Spiegelman, a Holocaust survivor…” (Chute, 456) who relates his experiance to his son, what’s interesting about the first book of Maus is that it explores the war in much the same way as Passing with one notable exception: the war is slowly beginning.
If one were to read the book without the context of the subject matter, then one would not be able to identify it’s nature with the Holocaust based on the first 30 some odd pages. It would just be seen as a love story between two mice with obstacles from old lovers to depression, but then we the Swastika for the first time. But what’s interesting is that we don’t see the full symbol, it’s partially obscured by the wind (Spiegelman, 34). When we get to a sequence about the eradication of the Jews in Germany, the icon is still partially obscured (Spiegelman, 35). This can perhaps be understood via this exchange between two Jewish passengers: “-Let’s hope those Nazi gangsters get thrown out of power! –Just pray they don’t start a war” (Spiegelman, 35). This is a viewpoint of war shared by typically expounded upon by those looking at a war from an outside perspective soon to experience the same treatment, typically for dramatic irony, which essentially says “My god that’s terrible, but at least it’s not happening here”.
As such, when the war on the verminous Jews does reach our protagonist and those he loves, they naturally try to make the best of the situation. At first, they try, without much choice, to live within the society as Jews. But the innate hatred of the Jews of this war becomes more and more deadly; they are forced to hide/attempt to flee. They try to hide with those they knew before the war, but they slam the door on the Spiegelmans because they are afraid (Spiegelman, 138). Then they pay others to hide them which works for a while (Spiegelman, 141-144).
But Vladek knows this isn’t going to work forever and as such tries to get his remaining family smuggled out of the country. As he travels to meet with some Polish smugglers, he (metaphorically via literal imagery) wears a mask to cover his identity, for “This mask is hiding their real Jewish identity, which would only make them die” (Ravelo, 16), in order to pass as Polish. But he is nearly caught by children who recognize him for a Jew. Fortunately he is able to trick their parents by not running (Spiegelman, 151).
But, as with many Jews, Vladek is caught. The smugglers betrayed them. Earlier, when the Swastika was still obscured by being too small or blocked by other things, Vladek was able to pass as a escaped Polish POW and convince a train conductor to help him get back home (Spiegelman, 66). But too late does Vladek realize that this is not a war of Nazis and the world, but of anti-Semitism. And the Swastika is seen, unblocked, as Vladek and his wife, Anja, are forced into the largest of all the meat grinders of this war: Auschwitz (Spiegelman, 158).
Which nicely brings us to the second book of Maus, aptly called “And Here My Troubles Began” (Spiegelman, 167). “Between May 16, 1944 and May 24, 1944 over 100,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in Auschwitz” (Spiegelman, 201). In Auschwitz, you are no longer a person, but a number (Spiegelman, 186). You work until you die, be it of starvation, for they’ll barely feed you (Spiegelman, 209), cold, for they’ll barely clothe you (Spiegelman, 189), or the cruelty of man (Spiegelman, 195). And they’ll even make you build your own death, that is, if you don’t die in the process (Spiegelman, 229-232). And the worst part of all is that there are no good guys in any of the war’s meat grinder; everyone’s out for themselves, and maybe a few others (Spiegelman, 216).
So as we close our look at these two war stories, a question pops into mind: what are these two wars about? Well, yes. There is, in both tales, a single through line that connects both wars together. An idea that will be debated for all time: what is normal? Both the Nazis and the citizens of New York as portrayed in these tales thought that they themselves were the normal ones and not this other. This invading force, this cancer, and the only cure for them is hatred and violence. And this is accepted because to be normal is to be good; to be an other, to not know your place, to reject the “natural order” is to not be human. And if one is not human, then any number of terrible things can be done to them. Even our protagonists aren’t immune to this, as Vladek reacts to a black hitchhiker via hostility, racism, and thinking that “…all blacks steal” (Spiegelman, 258-260). And as I look at the progress of this war continue in Afghanistan, Ferguson, and the streets of London, I see that there is an obvious answer that everyone is ignoring. Because it’s too frightening and, despite the cruelty and hatred it spews, the state of the world as it is… is far more comforting. Inna final analysis, the fact is “Nobody’s normal” (Spiegelman, 174).
Actually, it’s about ethics in games journalism.
Chute, Hillary. “Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative.” PMLA 123.2 (2008): 452–65.
Larsen, Nella. Passing. 1929. New York: Penguin, 2002.
Ravelo, Livia Carolina. "Semiotic Analysis of Art Spigelman's Maus: A War Comic with an Open Ending." Argentinian Journal of Applied Linguistics 1.2 (2013): 8-22. Print.
Reineke, Martha. "Mimetic Violence and Nella Larsen's Passing: Toward a Critical Consciousness of Racism." Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 5.1 (1998): 74-97. Print.
Rowe, John Carlos. “US Novels and US Wars.” The Cambridge History of the American Novel. Ed. Leonard Cassuto, Clare Virginia Eby, and Benjamin Reiss. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. 813-31.
Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus. New York: Pantheon, 2011.