When it comes to World War II and comics, I tend to only trust two names depending on what kind of storytelling I want. If it’s zany and of the science-fiction variety, I’ll find myself leaning towards Mike Mignola. More historically accurate, and I swoon at anything with Garth Ennis’ name attached (when friends ask for recommendations for WWII comics I’ll always point them in the direction of Battlefields). In general, people tend to get bored of the WWII comics because the formula that gets overplayed the most is fighting the Nazis. Yes, they’re evil. Yes, they’re sinister. Yes, every story imaginable has been told about them already. But what if the story focuses on a German fighter pilot who isn’t a fan of Adolf & Co.? Suddenly you’ve piqued my interest.
It’s true; there were Germans during WWII that weren’t fans of the Nazis, and kept their lips zipped from fear of being persecuted and labeled traitors. We have no problem blanketing an entire people during that time as ‘Nazis’ in film and television, because we need stereotypical bad guys, and who needs pesky ‘facts’ anyway? The History Channel proves that facts are no longer needed when programs like Ancient Aliens are constantly airing. It’s not my intent to make this review seem like a history lesson, but several of these themes are touched upon in The Grand Duke by Yann & Romain Hugault, so I figured I might as well give a little example of what makes this WWII comic different from the others.
Debuting in November of last year, The Grand Duke follows two fighter pilots during World War II. There’s Olberleutnant Wulf, German fighter pilot extraordinaire and secretly a Naziphobe, and Lilya, known as the “Red Witch” for being the most deadly Night Witch in Russia’s bomber squad. Now I was first aware of the Night Witches from Ennis’ famous Battlefields story arc, and haven’t seen them in any other medium ever since. It was refreshing to see more of the Night Witches in comics, because they truly are some of the most unsung female badasses in history. Slowly but surely their squad is whittled away to only a few remaining pilots, and Lilya and company are transferred to the men’s division with better planes. She finally gets more time in the skies, but at what cost?
Both Wulf and Lilya aren’t motivated by politics in this war, but rather sense of duty. It sucks, but they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do to survive. While both pilots have their respected lovers back at the base camps, it’s Lilya who has a stronger relationship with her fellow Russian pilot than Wulf does with a female officer. Wulf’s determined to survive and return to his young daughter at home, and it doesn’t help that his fellow pilots are aware of his anti-Nazi views (he deliberately paints over the swastika on his plane’s tail), and constantly threaten to send some soldiers to visit her if he doesn’t change his tune about Hitler.
Eventually Lilya and Wulf meet, both in the air and on the ground, and suddenly bits of “Romeo & Juliet” are sprinkled into the subplot. They’ve both witnessed firsthand the horrors of war and barbaric behaviors of men, but their views on how one must conduct themself during war is what slowly brings them together, and at one point a mutual respect for one another.
Now there are some spectacular aerial dogfights throughout this graphic novel, and that’s because Romain Hugault has illustrated reference books on aviation, and has been trained as a pilot since he was 17 (his father was even a colonel in the French Air Force). The dude knows what classic fighter planes look like, and not once did I ever suspect of him doing Google Image searches. Every plane, while a killing machine, is beautifully illustrated and unique throughout. Every character is easily recognizable, which is a very good thing seeing how their heads are covered by pilot headgear half the time anyway. Hugault took his time with this book, and his intoxicatingly brilliant art shows for it page after page.
Just when you think every WWII story imaginable has been done, a gem like The Grand Duke falls out of the sky and explodes in your heart. The story is amazing, the art is fantastic, and the Archaia stamp on the spine is the indicator that it’s going to be a good read. I have a good feeling we’ll be seeing both Yann and Hugault’s names on the Eisner Nominees list this year when it comes to this must-read graphic novel.