Four-Fisted Tales: Animals in Combat | Review
Four-Fisted Tales: Animals in Combat
by Ben Towle
Dead Reckoning, $24.95
Dead Reckoning is an imprint of the Naval Institute Press dedicated to graphic novels and focused on military history and biography. That’s specialized, but this latest release has the potential to greatly expand their readership. Who can resist stories of brave animals?
Four-Fisted Tales: Animals in Combat contains short pieces about various creatures who’ve fought in wars. The title is a little odd, as few animals can make fists, but it’s a reference to Two-Fisted Tales. That war comic anthology from the 1950s was edited by the famous Harvey Kurtzman.
Here, read about a dog who accompanied Union troops during the Confederate War, the only one ever traded in a prisoner of war exchange. Another manages to bring carrier pigeons across the lines in World War I. That story illustrates the nature of sacrifice, as a solder gives his life for the dog. The pigeons later get their own chapter, with gorgeous full-page panels illustrating in glorious detail a variety of historical military scenes.
Some pieces cover types more than specific pets. A brief overview shows ships’ cats, while another speculates on the Navy training dolphins for various tasks. (A favorite, as the astounding events are surprisingly believable.) The catalog of the variety of animals that have been used as mascots — from elephants to tigers to penguins — could have been much longer, as each only gets one image. The same approach covers a variety of warhorses.
The seagull story, involving submarines in WWII, demonstrates the creativity of people who understand and repurpose animal instincts. The chapter on mine-detecting rats dives into the continuing tragedy of the Vietnam War. The piece on a Polish division with a full-grown brown bear as a mascot manages to be both funny and scary. Learning about the use of slugs educates the reader on the devastation of mustard gas.
Towle does beautiful work in a monochrome olive that suggests combat in more ways than one. Beyond the typical association of the color with the army, the muted tones provide shadow and depth in keeping with the risk of death involved in battle. He draws both animals and people extraordinarily well, capturing their movement and motivations.
Although mascots or creatures are easy to anthropomorphize, the emphasis here is on their animal nature. They aren’t characters, for the most part. The stories instead are about sacrifice and determination. It’s an effective introduction to a great variety of military battles over history. Focusing on animals nicely avoids the question of winners, losers, and whether the battle was right or needed.
Johanna Draper Carlson has been reviewing comics for over 20 years. She manages ComicsWorthReading.com, the longest-running independent review site online that covers all genres of comic books, graphic novels, and manga. She has an MA in popular culture, studying online fandom, and was previously, among many other things, webmaster for DC Comics. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
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