By Warren Ellis & Raulo Caceres
Avatar Press – paperback, $6.99
Outside of autobiography, you don’t see a lot of nonfiction in American comics. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics trilogy, comics journalism like Joe Sacco’s, and Will Eisner’s comics essay, The Plot, are the main examples that come to mind. Warren Ellis’ Crécy, from his Apparat line, is a wonderful addition to the list and highlights how unfortunate it is that comics aren’t used for nonfiction more often.
Crécy uses the comics form to its full advantage, with maps and diagrams fitting in seamlessly with comics’ usual mix of words and pictures. It’s really an education/narrative hybrid, depicting the Battle of Crécy, but providing an entertaining guide in the form of William of Stonham, who speaks directly to the reader, explaining who everyone is and how everything works. The effect is immediately compelling and works much better than it does in documentaries on, say, PBS. While on television the conceit of historical figures turning from the action to describe events to the viewer evokes too many associations with things like reality TV and becomes cheesy, it works perfectly well on the page, where there’s no implied camera.
A lot of the interest comes from Ellis’ choice to give William a contemporary voice, even as he explains why his life and times are so different from our own. In addition to creating a personalizing focus on a large event, the character of William carries the reader through the battle by being very funny, with a modern take on the attitudes of the period, including the effectiveness of various weapons, the mutual hatred of the English and French, and the omnipresence of the word “cunt.”
Crécy’s other main asset is Raulo Caceres’ (link is NSFW) evocative art, which is among the best I’ve ever seen in an Avatar book. He draws the period believably, not only doing very detailed work on the settings, equipment and uniforms, but also adding to the documentary realism by adding tears and holes to those uniforms and putting a layer of sweat over everyone. The men look appropriately haggard and the rain throughout the first two thirds of the book seems pretty miserable.
I was a bit worried coming in that Ellis would play parallels with the current war in Iraq a bit too heavy-handedly. The back cover describes the English army as, “highly trained but under equipped,” invading over, “a perceived threat to home security,” and conducting “shock and awe raids,” etc. Fortunately, this seems to have mostly been a marketing ploy and the book itself is considerably less ham-fisted, genuinely focusing on history rather than contemporary allegory. The period described is one that I know little about and, while Crécy hardly made me an expert, I feel that I have some greater appreciation for it. Ellis’ real theme is how the Battle of Crécy created modern warfare and it’s a fascinating argument expertly realized.