Comics and war have always gone hand-in-hand, whether used for the purpose of peace or propaganda. The roots of comics in America are based firmly in wartime stories, and while today’s comics tend to reach for more political agendas rather than tales of combat, “Nanjing: The Burning City” takes us back in time for a piece of history during WW II that many people know very little about.
Known for his semi-autobiographical comic “Tails”, artist and writer Ethan Young has put his skills towards this powerful piece of historical fiction. “Nanjing: The Burning City” is based on the real-life Nanjing Massacre of 1937, which happened early during WW II. As part of the Second Sino-Japanese war, Japanese troops captured Nanjing (at the time, the capital of the Republic of China) and murdered around 40K to 300K Chinese civilians, along with widespread acts of rape and wanton destruction. The exact number of deaths is inconclusive, since many Japanese military records after the country surrendered in 1945.
Young’s graphic novel follows the Captain, one of the remnants of the Chinese military that tried to fight off the Japanese invasion, along with one of his officers, Lu. As the story progresses, we meet the Colonel, a member of the Japanese army who has led the Japanese into Nanjing and offers a completely different viewpoint of what is happening. Both men have their orders to follow and will do what it takes to survive, as well as keep their pride intact. They represent their nations and what it means to be a warrior to the end, all the while quoting and discussing Confucian quotes that seem to go completely against their belligerent actions.
Young’s writing is full of personality, and no one comes off sounding like some schlocky hero or villain. The characters have real voices, whether they are an old man pleading for his life, or a Japanese soldier excited to bully civilians. Each person is unique, and not a trope for a cliched war film character. While there are many familiar types of characters, their dialogue and actions are personal to the situation, drawing you deeper into the intense story.
Likewise, Young’s brushwork is outstanding and shows a serious maturation from his previous work. Young is a budding talent that will only get better as time goes on, but he already has a great understanding of the art form. The book is black and white, with an occasional shade of grey, but only one value of it and used for a sense of tone sparingly. The cinematic layouts add to the strength of Young’s storytelling ability, making for a highly dramatic experience all the way through. There is an indescribable sense of urgency in the line quality in each panel, the kind of energy that keeps you invested in what you are looking at and adds to the sense of uncertainty that all of these characters face in this adversity.
“Nanjing: The Burning City” is a comic about war, but it is more a story about senseless violence than the glorification of combat. There is no winner in Nanjing, everyone has lost something, whether it be a life or a piece of their humanity. The Nanjing Massacre is a wartime atrocity and is a grim reminder of what these events can bring to those who are merely considered “casualties of war.” There is not much gunplay in this comic, but a focus on the destruction and senseless loss of life with lingering shots of burning buildings and recently deceased bodies, civilian and soldier.
You can order “Nanjing: The Burning City” on Amazon.com for around $20. If you are a fan of history, this graphic novel will be a fine addition to your collection. For comic readers, this is an important book for both Chinese history and the outcome of war that is not remembered fondly in textbooks. “Nanjing: The Burning City” is a tough read and not an easy book to get through because of the emotions carried in it, but it is an essential read and I look forward to seeing what Ethan Young will create next.