The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks

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The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks (Graphic Novel)

272 pages, Broadway Books (April 1, 2014)

Despite being a “white, privileged kid growing up on the west side of L.A “ Max Brooks, through a series of chance encounters, nurtured a lifelong fascination with the forgotten history of the Harlem Hellfighters. The 369th Infantry Regiment, made up of African Americans, which spent 191 days in front line trenches of WWI, longer than any other American unit, suffering 1,500 casualties, the most of any American unit. Beginning in the 90’s he wrote a script and pushed for a movie to be made about them, for a time with the support of LeVar Burton, but it was not to be.

After Brooks realized the possibilities of graphic novels through the success of his WWZ and Zombie Survival Guide, he thought the medium would be a perfect way to tell the story of the Harlem Hellfighters. He recruited Illustrator Caanan White and together they put his movie to paper.

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The story of the Hellfighters, as I’ve always heard it, has been the story of James Reese Europe leading the regimental band around Europe, primarily in the months after the war ended, and introducing the new sound of America, Jazz, to the French and British. That is only a small part of the story.

Europe features heavily as the Hellfighters are followed from recruitment to triumphal parade on their return. But several other characters are given equal space, and in certain cases, composite characters are used. The main focus of the story is the bravery and accomplishments of the regiment as fighters in battle. Surprisingly little ink is given to the band.

As an enjoyable way to learn some history in an afternoon, it serves its purpose well. I have a fascination with World War I on the large scale, but little patience for “Battle Books.” The graphic novel format has the ability to convey the horror of those battles, and the real people in them, without strings of dates. This is an important story, and through efforts like this one more will hear it.

Related: James Reese Europe: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace

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