Graphic Novel Review – The Red Badge of Courage (Puffin Graphics)
After being pleasantly surprised by the quality of the manga adaptation of The Scarlet Letter that I found at my local library, I decided to compare and contrast it to another graphic novel adaptation of a classic story often found in public school curriculum. This version of The Red Badge of Courage was drawn and rewritten for the paneled page by Wayne Vansant. The Red Badge of Courage was originally written by Stephen Crane (coincidentally, I had to read it in the same class where I was assigned The Scarlet Letter).
A budding adult named Henry volunteers for the war effort during the American Civil War (1861-1865), on the side of the Union. The story is completely fictionalized, so the story’s regiments and battles are not documented historically, and the year is undefined. Henry interacts with a scant few soldiers in his camp before engaging in his battle. While he stands strong against the enemies of the Confederacy in his first skirmish, once a second wave comes over the hills he makes a run for it and loses his gun in the process. He witnesses a number of horrors in the forest, but they are nothing compared to his guilty conscience; he feels emasculated and weak because he fled. Once he hears that his company actually won their battle, he rejoins the wounded, and feels jealous that he doesn’t share their injuries. He hears one of the men refer to his own bleeding wound as a “red badge of courage”, and is determined to received one of his own as he prepares for his next battle.
The book was sketched with a pencil, inked, and finally, shading and implied color were added using grey markers over the ink linework. The book is printed in black and white, but given how old my copy was, and probably everyone else’s, because this is a dated Puffin release, it seemed more like it was printed in black and tan.
If only it came with this upgrade.
The illustrations are fairly straight forward. It can be difficult to distinguish the characters from one another because of how generic the art style is. In addition to appearing fairly plain, the artwork doesn’t have an excruciating amount of detail either, which leaves more to be desired. The one positive that this quality has is that the setting and characters are fairly mundane to begin with. The entire story takes place in regular looking deciduous forests and open plains. The characters are all soldiers, so some uniformity is to be expected. To be perfectly honest, I had a hard time reading the original prose of The Red Badge of Courage because of how little was explained about the surroundings. It seemed like each location was just another forest or a plain, without much to distinguish one from the other. It didn’t make for an interesting read, but I’m sure that soldiers in action would have felt a similar blase attitude to the amount of generic locations they had to travel through to get from place to place.
Themes (Spoilers in second paragraph)
The core themes of the original novel and this book are one reason why I didn’t get much into either. The story seeks to shine a light on how honor culture is used in the military in order to get the soldiers to do things that they wouldn’t have done if they had more impetus to be self-interested. One of the more interesting aspects is how it depicts basically every soldier in the beginning of the story as having gigantic misgivings about going to battle to die. Most contemplate what conditions would cause them to flee, and a good number of them do. Given how jingoistic and prideful a lot of war stories can be in their depictions of brave warriors conquering their enemies, this more realistic take is welcome.
What remains up to interpretation is whether or not you see Henry’s obsession with fighting to prove himself as a positive thing or not. Henry isn’t motivated to fight again by a practical sense of self-defense, or even a strong sense of duty to his country. Instead, he guilts himself into it by comparing himself to braver soldiers, wishing he were like them. In what is likely the most unique plot development in the book, Henry does receive a head-wound from a fellow soldier when lost and delirious in the woods. When he returns to his camp, his company greets him as if he had fought in the battle, was wounded, and never fled. This indicates that quite a lot of living up to one might call “hegemonic masculinity” can be easily feigned by lying about accomplishments and conquests, which calls into question how valid it is in the first place.
The original version of The Red Badge of Courage left me cold, and the graphic novel version of the story didn’t leave me feeling much warmer. The positive part of the graphic novel was that I could always tell what was going on. During my original read of the prose, due to how ambiguous the locations and events were, I sometimes had a hard time piecing together what exactly was happening. Another interesting add on to the graphic novel was a rather detailed series of behind-the-scenes sketches that Wayne Vansant provided. He includes some content from a deleted sequence, some of the concept sketches, and a step-by-step process for how he illustrated the entire book. Since the subject matter and style of this graphic novel weren’t terribly intriguing to me, I’m going to have set it at a “Moderately Suggested” rating. Nothing awful happens and it keeps a consistent tone and quality throughout. Just a shame that I don’t find any of it particularly compelling.