“The Good War” is a comic collaboration between cartoonist Mike Dawson and MSNBC anchor and author Chris Hayes, examining how WWII nostalgia played a part in post-9/11 pop culture and political messaging. Published on The Nib, “The Good War” adapts Chris Hayes’ piece “The Good War on Terror,” published by In These Times in 2006 (The Nib notes that numbers have been updated).
Let’s talk about structure. The Nib has been publishing comics created for mobile/screen reading. “The Good War” seems especially optimized for this, despite its length.
Rosie Knight: This was a comic that I really enjoyed reading, not just because I think the concept and content are well thought out and important but also because it was a really well laid out strip. I’m always interested in comics that change the reading experience or adapt it for certain formats, and this was a great read on my phone, and later when I re-read it on my computer. The lettering was particularly effective for me, as it was the thread that held the comic together, whilst not taking away from the imagery and other story focused text, newspapers, etc.
I think long form strips like this can often be overwritten and lose their way, but Dawson and Hayes, use of repetition and iconography make it a striking read, as well as one which fully engages with the medium it’s created for. A lot of the critiques of this seemed to be that it was “an illustrated tweet thread,” which in the case of form and structure brings up a lot of really interesting questions for me. Who deems what is and isn’t a comic? Why shouldn’t a comic be inspired by a tweet thread? What are these seemingly arbitrary rules that decide if something is illustrated words of a “proper” comic? Format-wise, “The Good War” seems to be very similar to many lauded indie autobio comics, and I wonder what it was about its conception that rubbed so many people up the wrong way.
How do we feel about static imagery versus an expected left-to-right action flow?
Kat Overland: Personally I found the repetition to be very effective and an interesting way of interacting directly with a completely different medium, film.
CP Hoffman: While the vertical, rather than horizontal, flow was different from what we usually see, it still felt a lot like a lot of other non-fiction comics I’ve read, especially works focused on history and philosophy. The repeated use of a talking head or of a key image to explain a complex concept is not radically different, but Dawson does a good job here of adapting it to the web format. I really liked, for instance, how there were a few places where the word balloon preceded the image, relaying the idea before you saw who said it.
Alenka Figa: The moment that explained the repetitive use of images–such as the film poster–occurred for me when Hayes comments, “The best place to look for answers is not in the days after the attacks, but in the years before.” This text is set around a cropped version of the Saving Private Ryan poster, and the following panels place it in context of other movie posters from the era. I was in middle or elementary school when 9/11 happened (I think sixth grade?) and growing up among the rhetoric of the era while I was still a child meant that I was bombarded with imagery that I didn’t necessarily understand. The flow of the comic really captured that experience and drew me in. I’ll admit that sometimes I get bored reading longform comics, and this is a pretty long comic, but this one had me completely hooked, because it captured that sensation of being surrounded and overwhelmed by pro-war media.
Laura Stump: The vertical scrolling made the comic incredibly easy to follow on a mobile device. I didn’t feel as though I lost anything by reading it on my phone instead of on my laptop, which isn’t always the case. It reached out and grabbed me without interruption.
Véronique Emma Houxbois: The vertical scrolling is not really a new thing; it’s a format that apps like Stela has explored as a means of capitalizing on presentation for mobile devices. I think I first encountered that idea in Jen and Tyler Bartel’s Chaos Arena: Crystal Fighters for that platform. Hell, Ron Wimberly’s “Lighten Up,” also for The Nib, was almost identical in layout and presentation, the only significant difference being that it was in a rigid two panel, vertically read strip rather than the singularity of the downward trajectory of “The Good War” emphasized by the thick black bar running the length of it. I always like experimentation with form, and we should embrace any innovations like this that can lead to a bigger audience and platform for journalistic comics, in the case of the Hayes/Dawson piece. But the vertical scrolling in “The Good War” is also a reflection of the story itself, that traces a literal descent into the Iraq War.
AF: Yes! I get a bit miffed when people talk about vertical scroll as if it’s not something cartoonists have been toying with as soon as comics began to be posted on the internet. I may have written an entire article about it. The Nib does toy with format a bit perhaps because they’re exploring what works best for them as a publisher; when they had to shut down, they were able to put all their work into a book, and vertical scroll style comics can be difficult to publish in physical books. They’ve also been producing an animated series, so they’re clearly interested in pushing past the limits of what they’ve done in the past. I’d be curious to know how much say creators get in formatting. Are they told to consider optimizing their work for phones, or do The Nib’s editors handle the restructuring? They do sometimes re-order panels to fit into the newsletter previews.
Let’s get into the meat of it, what Chris Hayes’ thesis is: ’90s nostalgia for the Great War Heroes played a role in our current military glorification, and helped bolster the nationalistic tone of politics post 9/11.
KO: I think, one, it’s very clear in this comic that Hayes is not saying one thing caused the other, but is instead creating a cultural critique of popular narratives that only served to reinforce the hawkish political climate. The inclusion of Vietnam-era anti-war sentiment in the comic serves to contrast the ’90s with the wave of anti-war films that focused on the personal costs of war, rather than the noble heroism of sacrifice. The ugliness of both the war and the repercussions of the Vietnam war didn’t completely wash away pro-military attitude, but they did break up a united front–more perspectives were offered.
CPH: Definitely, Kat. And the end of the Cold War was the huge turning point in the way the broader culture viewed war. With the decline of the Soviet Union, there was no longer a major military threat to the United States, so the potential costs of military action–which had included the destruction of the entire human race–seemed to disappear, and instead we had a sort of soft jingoism that played up war as inherently virtuous, and the soldier as the great man who would save us. Even in a movie like The Rock, where the villains are themselves in the military, they are still portrayed as virtuous men who were pushed too far by a corrupt government that didn’t care about them.
KO: I also think the focus on WWII films in particular is useful when looking at how we view war, because World War II is sort of the archetype for what we envision as “war,” when it’s often far removed from modern-day warfare. There are still trenches, sure, but I don’t think there was any cultural consensus on what Gulf War I was like visually or conceptually, for example. Certainly even now it’s easy to think of our overseas conflicts as somehow not the same thing, exactly, because “war” is something else, no draft, etc. Bush could ride that pride in our good works in a noble war, WWII, and conservatives could map that onto a conflict that was completely different in scope (as noted at the beginning of the comic).
Jumping onto your point, CP, I think it’s really interesting to see how authorities can flip from villain to hero in larger media trends. Think of noir, where cops were always corrupt and the enemy, to now. I think the American cultural desire to trust authority rolls into how we need to have a “reason” for a military man to “go bad,” you know?
CPH: There was definitely a stream of cultural thought in the ’80s that the levers of power had fallen under the sway of effete liberals who were incapable of making the bold choices necessary to return America to greatness. I see a lot of the WWII nostalgia and Greatest Generation talk of the ’90s as an outgrowth of that, a conscious conservative effort to discredit liberalism by hearkening back to the last period where the country felt fairly unified nationalism.
AF: Yes, this comic has that exploration of the effete liberal, in this case, the intellectual soldier in Saving Private Ryan with Sarah Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts. As part of their journey through Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, interviewing the experiences of Iraqi refugees displaced the Iraq War, Glidden and her journalist friends bring along Dan O’Brien, a liberal who shocked his friends by enlisting post 9/11. Dan is this tall, gangly, unintimidating kid who maybe bought into that “soldiers are great heroes will save us” mentality, but struggles to face clear evidence that that heroism wasn’t real. Glidden’s depiction of him as such–his big ears and sweet face–really play with the same concept Hayes reads into Saving Private Ryan. Sarah Stuteville also eventually wrote a piece about Dan for the Seattle Times that is well worth a read, especially alongside this comic. It really complicates the image of the “true soldier” that Hayes claims Saving Private Ryan creates.
LS: I think the other thing that influenced the response to 9/11 was the fact that, since WWII, we haven’t had a conflict or war that deeply, directly affected everyone. Korea and Vietnam directly affected the military personnel who fought, the refugees from the conflict, and the children born of soldiers abroad. But WWII had a direct affect on everyone: Victory gardens, rationing of materials such as silk and rubber, fathers and sons alike going and not coming home, women entering the workforce often for the first time because they had to. Not feeling the impact of war directly makes it easy to forget that it isn’t glamorous and glorious, but rather painful and dirty and morally gray. It’s easy to sell a war to people who have forgotten what it’s like and who get to ignore its direct effects.
VEH: I am ludicrously excited about Hayes’ thesis here, because it dovetails with the arc that I’ve been trying to trace of the overt militarization of superhero comics that was ramping up pre 9/11 through paramilitary Wildstorm comics that hit a crescendo with Warren Ellis and Mark Millar’s Authority runs, the latter of which was essentially the genesis of The Ultimates. The cult of the soldier is what you really see developing in that late 90s – early 00s period, the stuff that What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way was pointing the finger at. Then 9/11 happens and whoosh, it subsumes everything.
Another point that really stood out to me was when he says, “It is always Munich 1938,” which is a thesis of its own that Masha Gessen elucidated in her essay The Reichstag Fire Next Time, which observes, as I assume Hayes was alluding to, that the state of emergency that George W. Bush invoked on 9/11 has been renewed every September since then.
I also think that Noah Berlatsky’s exploration of the Trouffaut quote “every film about war ends up being pro-war” in the context of Dunkirk is well worth considering in parallel with what Hayes and Dawson have to say about Saving Private Ryan.
Why is a comic a good vehicle for this? (What is a comic anyway)?
CPH: Hayes’ essay is strong on its own, so it’s a work that doesn’t necessarily need to be adapted to comic form. And yet… it’s an essay immersed in discussion of a visual medium (film), so the translation into another visual medium (comics) enhances it by providing mental cues for the things he’s discussing. For instance, by showing scenes of Upham from Saving Private Ryan, Dawson vividly illustrates Hayes’ point about how the character was portrayed as an intellectual who “cannot be trusted” in a way that Hayes’ essay could not on its own.
AF: The comic also reaches a different audience. I hadn’t encountered Hayes’ essay prior to this, but I honestly don’t feel compelled to seek it out because the comic had such a strong effect on me. As CP said, using visuals to discuss a visual medium increases the impact of Hayes’ message. I didn’t casually contemplate the nature of war media in the 2000s from an emotionally distanced perspective; I re-lived it.
LS: Converting the essay to a visual format made it more approachable, in my opinion. People who read slowly or who have trouble focusing on extended texts, people who perhaps don’t have an extensive grasp of English – those are people for whom more visual media can be more engaging or understandable. You can convey a lot of nuance in an image quickly and easily, too, compared to the number of words you need to set the same scene.
VEH: I think, that on a certain level Joe Sacco’s whole career kind of provides the answer to that. But, like on a more considered level, the whole illustrated tweet thread argument is so reductive and ignorant of craft. There’s nothing wrong with doing something like that, you could say my own journal comic about DSOH was essentially “an illustrated tweet thread,” but I don’t think that captures what “The Good War” actually is on any level whatsoever.
Rachel Maddow, who is conveniently also an MSNBC host, in the foreword to Greg Rucka and JH Williams III’s Batwoman: Elegy, talked about how she’s used Queen and Country to discuss policy with members of the Senate Intelligence community. Comics are a powerful medium for journalistic purposes because you have the full plasticity of illustration at your disposal to simplify complex issues and situations for a broad audience, but in a more explicitly narrative way it allows a cartoonist to humanize political issues that are frequently abstracted to deny the subjects their full humanity.
Joe Sacco’s Palestine is one of the most vivid examples of this, he put actual human faces and stories on the occupation and intifadas that were, and still are, being ignored in the mainstream.
With “The Good War” in specific, it has to be foregrounded that at least a third of what Hayes and Dawson are undertaking with it is film criticism. Dawson redrawing segments of Saving Private Ryan and juxtaposing them with images of contemporary soldiers is using comics to bridge the gap between Hayes’ prose and the subject of his analysis. It’s a very similar kind of work to ZEAL’s stock and trade, exploiting comics as a mutant medium to expand the scope of critical writing about video games.
But to me, people actively challenging this as a comic as if montages extrapolating on the content of captions are somehow disqualifying is about as ludicrous as asking why a Ken Burns documentary isn’t just done as a podcast.
AF: What gets me about this illustrated tweet nonsense is that comics creators can and do use twitter and other social media to serialize comics and play with form. Michael Deforge serializes Leaving Richard’s Valley on Twitter and Instagram and has done so with other comics. Several cartoonists used Inktober to serialize comics on twitter; Niv Sekar and Mel Gillman both did so to great effect. I enjoy this kind of experimentation because it allows creators to use the transitions build into something like tweet replies or Instagram’s relatively new swipe feature to play with comic transitions. This is a thing… that artists do… to make comics… on the internet.
Which panels or pieces of the comic did you find most effective?
KO: That juxtaposition between Bush saying ‘during four years of war no one questioned our cause’ and the earlier panels where it’s clear that WWII is being cleaned up, depoliticized, and sanitized was particularly powerful for me because of what isn’t mentioned there — how we now have a president who campaigned on ‘America First,’ wholly divorced from the history of the term being used to protest getting involved in WWII to begin with. This myth of the wholly righteous war sticks with us, fertilized by films and rhetoric. Growing up in the 90s/00s it was wild to see that rhetorical disconnect.
To loop this back to comics, though, I think it’s very indicative that there are creators who don’t believe that Captain America punching Nazis in his debut was a political statement, because of course America fought Nazis. It’s just nationalism — the idea that America ever wavered on entering the war has been erased. It’s certainly not a part of the films that make up current cultural understanding of WWII.
CPH: There’s this idea that things are only political if they engage with current political debates. But that couldn’t be further from the truth! All of our assumptions—past, present, and future—about what society should look like, who makes decisions, who is worthy of being recognized as fully human, etc., are inherently political.
KO: Right, sanitizing these rough edges from America’s involvement in WWII….in the 90s/00s…is a political move.
CPH: I’d even go so far as to say that the idea that a comic based on an essay is somehow less worthy than one created from scratch is itself political, since it ties into judgments about the relative value of labor.
LS: I would agree with that, CPH. People act as though the heavy lifting is done in the creation of the initial work. However, taking something that was created for and works well in one format and adapting it to convey the same meaning (or possibly an improved or expanded-upon one) takes a great deal of time, effort, and skill. How often do movie adaptations of films fall flat? Yet here we have people wilfully ignoring all of that.
VEH: For me it’s the panels that juxtapose imagery from Saving Private Ryan with contemporary soldiers. That’s an area where Dawson is engaging in a discourse discrete from Hayes’ prose. That juxtaposition reminds us that movies about past wars exist in the political context in which they’re made, not in the context in which the wars were actually fought. It’s basically the same as recognizing that dystopian fiction is written about present concerns. The most explicit and intentional example of this is how M*A*S*H used the Korean War as a vehicle to satirize the Vietnam War. It’s a fundamental reality of all historical war films, but the point is that Dawson’s contributions actively work to broaden the scope and range of interpretation of the ideas that Hayes takes up beyond just embellishing his prose.