"War? It's like this."
Alan's War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope is an engaging and unusual war memoir. It is the story about a military experience that caused a boy to become a man -- a long and sometimes surreal process.
But there are no dramatic combat scenes or brutal battles, instead there ismuch celebration of humanity (and the military) at its mundane best. Alan Cope grew up to be a fine man and a splendid raconteur.
Late in Alan's life, a random encounter with French cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert led to a five-year friendship and collaboration, ultimately resulting in this terrific graphic novel. Originally published as three volumes in France, the new English translation is a single volume -- and one of the best books I have read all year.
Alan Cope died in 1999, but Emmanuel Guibert has spent 13 years creating this book, working from taped conversations and Guibert's vacations to places that Alan lived in the USA, France, Germany, Great Britain and Italy. The art and the text work together seamlessly, telling the story in a wonderfully integrated way.
Alan Ingram Cope grew up in southern California. He remembers being a kid on a bike, delivering newspapers that headlined the attack on Pearl Harbor. Two years later, he turned eighteen and was drafted.
Sent to Fort Knox for basic training (the first vehicle he learned to drive was a tank), Alan received further training and became a radio operations and cryptology instructor. During this time, he developed close friendships with fellow soldiers and a life-long appreciation for music. A falling out with his family left him committed to look on his war experience as an adventure rather than an unfortunate necessity. Alan's impressively positive outlook shines throughout the book.
He arrived in France on February 19, 1945 -- his twentieth birthday. After a tantalizing glimpse of Paris (just the name of the city, painted on a wall outside of a stalled train), his unit was shipped to Normandy -- where they idled for two months because their weapons were accidentally lost. Alan's war involved a lot of time spent sneaking away to connect with friends, and he made friends not only with fellow soldiers but also individuals and families in the countries he was stationed in.
After the war, Alan stayed in Europe and spent most of his adult life working for the American military. Following a religious calling, he briefly returned to attend college in California, but left in 1948. Disillusioned with religious faith and with America, he never returned to the U.S.
Emmanuel Guibert was so taken with Alan's descriptive skills and storytelling that he has vacationed to places described in the book -- his renderings of the California redwoods are awesome, you can imagine walking through his Bavarian villages and French towns. Guibert uses an interesting combination of textured India ink washes and fine, clean lines. A fascinating sample of part of Guibert's technique, involving "painting" with water can be viewed on this video, posted on American publisher First Second's web site.
Alan Cope's story is wonderful in both its minutiae and outlook. There is a lot that is absurd about Alan's military experience: tales of misbehavior and incompetence and brutishness, but also stories of gentleness and humor and enduring friendships. Guibert's commitment to preserving his friend's oral history may result in a second work, about Alan Cope's California childhood. Tentatively title "Alan's Youth".
Alan's shining resilience and inherent decency, together with Guibert's spectacular art, give this book a lot of power.