Reading Art Spigelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale was the first time that I realized how much power could be conveyed through comics. I was in middle-school, a comic book fiend, wrapped up in my Dad’s comic collection; he’d picked them up as a kid in the 70s, and started again around while I was in fourth or fifth grade. I lived with stories of heroes, but they were all of the “super” variety: Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America…those were types of heroes I was used to seeing in ink and paint. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale not only made me learn about the Holocaust, it made me feel it in ways I hadn’t before. Such is the power of fusing pictures with words.
Though many of us in the US have talked about and discussed the Holocaust, other atrocities receive far less discussion. After securing victory in Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese continued to plow through China, committing countless acts of murder, destruction, and rape. On December 13, 1937, the Japanese began a six-week invasion of Nanking, China that took as many as 300,000 lives. This event is frequently referred to as the “Nanjing Massacre,” though it also is known by another name: The Rape of Nanjing. Like Maus brings a tangible feeling and pain to the memory of the Holocaust, so does Ethan Young’s Nanjing: The Burning City. Published by Dark Horse Comics, it follows two Chinese soldiers trying to escape the incoming Japanese forces and dealing with the atrocities of war, the decisions that must be made for survival, and what value there is to honor.
After Shanghai was overrun by the Japanese, the Nationalist leader of China ordered all of the official military troops out of nearby Nanjing, leaving untrained auxiliary forces behind. Those forces were ordered to stay in the town and prevent the Japanese from taking over, but by this time word had spread about the acts that were taking place in the wake of the Japanese invasion. Many auxiliary soldiers abandoned Nanjing altogether, while others fled for a neutral zone deemed safe for civilians. Young’s graphic novel begins as the unnamed “Captain” searches for a safe way him and Lu, a relatively green soldier, to escape. Lu believes they should head for the safety zone in hopes he’ll eventually be rejoined with his family. The Captain, on the other hand, believes they should take a harder, longer journey to the river; he feels if they go to the safety zone, the Japanese will simply round up anyone believed to be a soldier and kill them. Lu is young, idealistic, but the Captain deals with the harsh realities of war, forcing them to make tough choices in the name of their own survival.
Lu’s ideals are those of the intellectual; he uses Confucian proverbs to prescribe solutions for the life-or-death decisions they’re forced to make. The Captain, on the other hand, abandons others in the name of his own survival. This is war after all, not a mental exercise, and it’s his actions that keep the duo from discovery or death in a number of situations. The emotional wall that Captain places between himself and the others in Nanjing allows the two of them to carry on, but as what cost? As the novel carries on, the cost of that survival grows and grows, conveying the feeling that there’s no “right” answer, simply decisions and the consequences. Nobody is pure, nobody is sacred, and all lives teeter on a knife’s-edge between safety and destruction. Young’s story telling is short, doesn’t fatten on exposition , unnecessary narration or false buildup; the story and art carry all the tension necessary.
In many respects, The Burning City feels like reading a graphic novel of Saving Private Ryan or another dramatic Hollywood war movie, with all the good and bad that entails. Young’s art evokes emotion and passion similar to expensive movie set design; the entire story is in black-and-white, with usage of shading and texture used to provide crisp detail. There’s a constant sense of fear, of hopelessness, of dread in every panel, reinforced by a feeling of physical instability; panels feel shaky, in motion, with the rumbling of war machines outside ever-present. Every Chinese person seems to have a story, a history, a motivation, which makes it all the more gut-wrenching when those lives are destroyed. That said, there’s no real time spent dwelling over the dead because there isn’t time: the mental exercises we go through to evaluate who should live and who should die are luxuries that aren’t afforded to those in a warzone.
It’s a painful fact in The Burning City: you have to look out for yourself in order to stand any chance of surviving, and this means that sometimes people make mistakes. Sometimes the innocent end up dead, and not by the hands of the enemy. Seeing the ways that Lu and Captain deal (or don’t deal) with the casualties of war lends a particularly frank light on the human experience, one for the better. That said, Young’s story doesn’t always show depth to the human experience, and that particularly carries for any characters who aren’t Chinese.
Where the Chinese each have depth, nuance, personality to their characters, the few characters featured from outside China feel flat, underdeveloped, and seemingly by design. The Japanese are painted with a fairly large, broad brush: invaders. Rapists. Thieves. Murderers. Crude foreigners speaking a strange language. En masse they are the quintessential villain with no regard for the lives of others. But perhaps this is because there’s no opportunity for the Chinese to see anything different; Nanjing is a city filled with the screams of the raped and dying, and the one Japanese soldier Young shows as trying to stop his group from raping a young girl becomes a victim of violence himself at the hands of the Chinese; again, there’s no time for lengthy conversations out on the battlefield. The Burning City isn’t meant to be a documentary, isn’t meant to tell an even tale about both sides; it’s very much a story delivered from the perspective of the Chinese, including the anger and sadness still felt today.
The one place where the emotion and energy of the book falls flat for me is in its ending. The Captain is found by a Japanese officer and captured after trying to help a Chinese family enter the Safety Zone. He is then brought to the Safety Zone for questioning himself, with the Colonel speaking Chinese, and show a certain mercifulness throughout his portrayal. Young writes in the afterward notes the Colonel is supposed to be “equal parts authoritative, handsome, and intimidating…a Japanese version of Idris Elba.”
With the Colonel, the Hollywood influence seems to come in yet again, but this time in a way that we’ve all grown accustomed to: the Colonel tries to win the Captain over to the side of the Japanese, while the proud, loyal, Captain defends the honor of his people – and his own – to the last breath. It’s a scene seen time and time again, and considering how unique and intense the rest of the book felt, I just didn’t get the feeling from the ending that I’d hoped.
Even with the ending feeling like its been done before, the rest of the novel certainly does not. Nanjing: The Burning City is relevant in an world where we see that radicalism of any kind results in a lack of respect for human life. As a post-9/11 America, we’ve sent troops and drones and bombs around the world, attacking both our enemies and nearby civilians alike in the name of fighting radicalism. Perhaps The Burning City shows the results of radicalism of every kind: fear, an inability to learn from or understand others, and inevitable tragic consequences on all sides.