Max Brooks' 'The Harlem Hellfighters': War on two fronts

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"The Harlem Hellfighters," written by Max Brooks and illustrated by Caanan White (Broadway Books, April 2014) Photo Credit: Broadway Books

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THE HARLEM HELLFIGHTERS, by Max Brooks, illustrated by Caanan White. Broadway Books, 257 pp., $16.95.

There is a tale told, perhaps most often by Mel Brooks himself, that the comedy legend entertained the troops during World War II. Oh, not our troops. The Nazis. The man who later wrote that funny would-be flop "Springtime for Hitler" serenaded distant German troops between defusing land mines in Europe. The Nazis may have trumpeted propaganda through loudspeakers, but Brooks countered by blaring, "Toot, Toot, Tootsie! Goodbye." Even in the hell of war, young Melvin (nee Kaminsky) Brooks -- that farce of nature -- knew how to mine the moment for entertainment.

Fortunately for us, the great writer-performer's gift for spinning wartime narrative is genetic. Son Max Brooks is proving a master of the form. Brooks the Younger broke into comics with his best-selling "Zombie Survival Guide," helping to usher in the current wave of fascination with the flesh-eating undead. And he rode the crest of that trend when his "World War Z" became a Brad Pitt blockbuster. Now Brooks' new graphic novel, "The Harlem Hellfighters," shines a literary klieg light on a woefully overlooked chapter of World War I.

The 369th Infantry Regiment was an all-minority (African-American and African-Puerto Rican) unit that proved crucial in the trench warfare of 1918. The 369th -- dubbed the Harlem Hellfighters by its foes -- was in combat longer than any other U.S. unit. Yet, while backing President Woodrow Wilson's battle cry of making the world "safe for democracy," the 369th fought racism every step of the way -- not only in the European theater, but also while training in the American South.

Brooks tells their riveting tale by creating some fictional members of the unit and depicting actual heroes, including Lt. James Reese Europe, the bandleader who helped introduce Europe to jazz. The winning effect is that no matter how far specific characters venture into narrative invention, the novel marches in time with the history books.

What gives "Hellfighters" its most poignant traction is not how foreign mortar fire wounds the flesh, but rather how the homefront racism does. Soldiers are beaten by countrymen in South Carolina, against the larger backdrop of lynchings. And once overseas, the 369th is restricted from fighting alongside white American soldiers. The great irony is that while Gen. John J. Pershing seeks to deny the 369th any battlefield glory, a Hellfighter becomes the first American awarded France's Croix de Guerre.

Bolstering Brooks' storytelling muscle is the high-contrast black-and-white art of gifted Caanan White, whose graphic grit evokes Joe Kubert and "Sgt. Rock." The illustrator zooms in on the brawn, sweat and tears of trench warfare. His sinewy tension and egalitarian bleeding remind that flesh, no matter the tint, is all too mortal. White's grid work is forever shifting, as his overlapping panels shuffle like snapshots fallen from a scrapbook, and his full "splash" pages are so visually engaging that the greedy reader wishes he'd provided yet more of them.

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"The Harlem Hellfighters" is a powerful comic that may do more than any previous work to illuminate the heroism of the 369th. And now that Sony and Will Smith have optioned the film rights, perhaps an entire nation will come to salute its sacrifice.

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