On -isms: Nanjing Review

By | Thursday, September 17, 2015 Leave a Comment
Nanjing: The Burning City by Ethan Young came out from Dark Horse recently. The story is set in late 1937, during the Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese Army had just captured the city of Nanjing and many Chinese military officials fled without actually ordering a retreat, leaving many troops to fend for themselves. Nanjing tells the story of two of the troops who are trying to work their way out of the city to safety.

I've been familiar with Young's work for several years now. He's been running Tails as a webcomic for about four years, and he's been more recently drawing an independent pamphlet comic called Piggy. Both have been good, enjoyable, fairly light-hearted stories, so his shift in tone with Nanjing is notable. This is very much a war story, and while Young avoids avoids showing any gore, he doesn't shy away from the atrocities of a large conflict. Not only are several characters shot and killed, but the protagonists at one point stumble across a group of Japanese soldiers who're in the midst of raping some Chinese civilians. There is nothing here that even starts to suggest there's any glory in war.

Despite not being known for darker works, Young shows off his skills exceptionally well here. He turns in some excellent storytelling here, much more subtle and nuanced than what he did for Tails. The illustrations are somewhat more detailed in Nanjing and Young uses that to great effect, substituting slight facial expressions and changes in posture for dialogue. It shows a much greater confidence in his own abilities, and returns a more thoughtful and engaging story. Further, Young seems to have stepped up his inking abilities quite a bit as well; there is lots of beautiful linework throughout. The brushwork on some of the scenery in particular was wonderfully executed.

One thing I found fascinating about the story overall was how it directly confronts the racism that was at play during that conflict. Here in the United States, we frequently lump all Eastern countries into a single checkbox, but Young's tale shows more than a few Japanese soldiers actively degrading the Chinese as a whole. Interestingly, though, while the Japanese soldiers are clearly the primary antagonists throughout the book, and it makes sense to portray them more negatively, Young doesn't exactly make his Chinese heroes out to be above racial prejudices either.

It's not uncommon for a country to paint their enemies with a broad brush of racism. It's a deliberate attempt to dehumanize them, so individual soldiers can justify killing them. If the enemy is something less than human, after all, shooting them isn't much different than killing a cow to make some hamburgers. The enemy is only just a walking meat sack, not a human being with their own hopes, fears and dreams. And while Young shows the Japanese soldiers with a less empathy than his protagonists, he also shows that everyone is susceptible to their own biases.

Young's story could well have been placed in any war setting. I don't doubt similar events transpired in Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, or any of a hundred other wars. Placing it during the Sino-Japanese War, though, does highlight an almost entirely neglected (in the U.S.) piece of modern history and, while Nanjing is not intended even as a primer on the subject, it's more than engaging enough to encourage readers to find out more.

Nanjing: The Burning City is available now in hardcover for $24.99 from Dark Horse, and is well worth every penny! I highly recommend picking this up!
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