Graphic Novel Review – A Sailor’s Story

Adam reads as many comics as he can afford. Sometimes he reads graphic novels. This is a review of one of them.

Dover Publications very kindly sent us a copy of the upcoming reprinted collection of Sam Glanzman’s A Sailor’s Story, due to be released on April 15th this year. Glanzman is renowned for his war comics, and this year his two graphic novel stories originally published by Marvel are being re-released for a new generation of readers to discover and enjoy.

Before his comics career, back when he turned eighteen, Glanzman enlisted in the US Navy in 1942 following the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II. A Sailor’s Story is an autobiographical story written and drawn by Glanzman, detailing his life aboard the destroyer class vessel USS Stevens, as it took part in operations against Japan in the Pacific Theatre from 1942 until the Japanese surrender in 1945. Throughout the two stories, A Sailor’s Story and the sequel A Sailor’s Story: Winds, Dreams and Dragons, he uses the comics medium to portray a very human side to the conflict, the rigmarole of the daily life of a sailor in the army, the boredom and the struggle to find somewhere decent to sleep.

Glanzman manages to make the realities of war jump clear out of the pages, showing the tedium without being tedious, the monotony without being monotonous, and ultimately, the horror without being horrifying. I read the final pages, all in black and white, with my heart pounding. Despite the Stevens not being at Okinawa in 1945, he skilfully describes the nightmare of the conflict at which the Japanese forces used the ‘kamikaze’ tactic to its fullest extent. Using more than 7000 planes over the course of the battle, the Japanese airforce conducted suicide strikes by diving their planes into the decks of the American boats, damaging and sinking numerous ships and killing thousands of men. But despite this, Glanzman uses the term ‘dragons’ to describe them, almost with a reverence, and talks about the pilots as “misguided, perhaps, but nevertheless equally brave” as the men who lost their lives on his side. This really struck me, whether it was his reaction at the time or has evolved through reflection over the decades since. While the book is focused on the US Navy and this particular man’s experiences in it, there is no tendency to demonise the enemy they faced, rather it treats them as the human beings that they were.

Time is taken to sketch out and thoroughly describe the workings of a destroyer, it’s weapons and crew duties in an almost Herman Melville fashion, informing without distracting, and without patronising or hand-holding. Sam and his crew mates are all very real young men in a conflict they may not understand, and some don’t handle it all that well. The art detail is beautiful throughout, with the flames of battle and Pacific vistas leaping from the page. Several pages start with a travel log detailing the operations the Stevens took part in that month, highlighting the more standard and monotonous tasks without devoting pages of art to it.

In addition to the two stories, the collection also includes the previously unpublished Even Dead Birds Have Wings, as Glanzman reminisces while staring out to sea, which is similarly stunning to look at. Tributes and praise from various industry veterans such as Stan Lee and Joe Kubert are also printed, showing the respect Glanzman has earned among his peers, and the foreword from Max Brooks, the introduction from Larry Hama and afterword by Chuck Dixon just underline this. It’s certainly very interesting to read where some of these names got their inspiration from too.

I’m not going to give this collection a final score. This is a timeless book that I found fascinating, and although it is a deeply detailed historical book, there should be something for everyone to enjoy. It may not be about flying heroes punching each other through buildings, or sorcerers battling fantastical monsters, but it is an honest and very real portrayal of a hugely important piece of history. This telling is unique in its format, as an account from someone who was actually there coming through in stark writing and gorgeous art.

A Sailor’s Story is being released in this great new collection from Dover Publications on Wednesday 15th of April. Make sure you check it out, it is well worth your time.



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