Max Brooks and Caanan White’s The Harlem Hellfighters tells a fictionalized story on the 369th Infantry Regiment during World War I. The 369th was an African American regiment, and the Germans dubbed them the Harlem Hellfighters. Brooks and White’s graphic novel highlights the discrimination against African American soldiers both and home and abroad, and it highlights their heroism during the war. For this post, I do not want to focus on the historical aspects of The Harlem Hellfighters; rather, I want to look at a few of the pages and the ways that Brooks and White deftly incorporate them into the story, building tension throughout.
Mark is the narrator of The Harlem Hellfighters, and while the story takes place during the war, there are periodic flashbacks throughout. These flashbacks work to bring together the oppression that Mark and the other Hellfighters fought against and the ways that that same oppression affected them even as they served the United States during the war. The first such instance occurs when Mark heads to the recruitment office.
Waiting in line at the office, Mark talks about his reasons for enlisting. Over the course of four panels, we move back and forth from 1915 to the present narrative. In the first panel, we see a white audience laughing hysterically as Mark narrates, “But I wasn’t there for [Woodrow] Wilson’s great crusade.” The next panel shows Mark’s face, turned to the side, as he stands in front of the recruiter’s door. He explains, “I had my own reasons for wearing the uniform.”
In the third panel, White depicts a Black audience as they watch the same performance. Unlike the white audience, they gaze forward not with glee but with anger and sadness. Mark narrates, “Reasons that went back to the spring of 1915.” The final panels shows a closeup of Mark’s face as perspiration drips down his forehead as he concludes, “When I’d worn a very different uniform.” We do not get, at this point, what uniform Mark wore or what the audience members gaze upon. However, Mark’s reference to 1915 places the scene in a movie theater as the patrons watch D.W. Griffin’s Birth of A Nation and as Mark works as an usher.
This scene of the Black and White audience watching Griffin’s racist film replay periodically throughout the narrative, and each time, Mark provides more information. After being arrested for punching a white soldier, the past and the present collide as Mark sits in the jail cell. Colonel William Hayward comes to talk with Mark, telling him he’s lucky to be alive. Mark doesn’t want to hear it and replies that he is “staying away from the White man’s war” as he lists the myriad of racist incidents that him and his fellow soldiers have endured over the course of the war.
Hayward counters Mark by reminding him of the government’s Secret Bulletin Concerning Black American Troops, specifically quoting, “The vices of the Negro are a constant menace to the American who has to repress them sternly.” Hayward points out to Mark that fear keeps the government from supporting Black troops because “[t]hey would rather lose the war than see us help with it,” as Hayward says. In this panel, White only shows two glasses clinking together with a fire in the background, an image of power without a face, an image of power manipulating the world.
Hayward continues his speech, and when he is done, Marks simply tells him, “Nice sermon, but church is over.” With this, Hayward leaves and Mark lies on his bed in the cell alone. In every panel with Mark in the cell, the shadow of the cell bars overlap the scene, and these bars become connected to the theater in 1915. It is here, at this moment, when get a clear story of what happened in the theater. The panels, again, shift back and forth in time.
When Mark begins the flashback, White presents us with a page of five panels: two at the top, a large middle panel, and two at the bottom. In the top right, we see the white audience laughing. In the bottom left, we see the Black audience staring at the screen with sadness and anger. The final panel looks at Mark in the cell from above. The majority is black with a rectangle showing Mark on the bed with the shadows of the bars over him. This image recurs throughout the sequence.
The next page, again, moves from the theater to the cell. The first shows the white audience enjoying themselves as Mark says that his job was to show people to their seats “and wish them a pleasant evening.” Next, we see the aerial shot of the cell again, this time with he cell becoming more enveloped in black. Following this, we see Mark, with his usher’s uniform on, standing in the aisle and staring at the us as he looks at the screen. Next, we see a smaller image of the cell, and the page ends with us looking at Mark from behind as he stares at the title screen for Birth of a Nation.
The next page is a collage of scenes from Birth of a Nation, a collage of violence and stereotypes, a collage of degradation. The panels of Mark in the cell, juxtaposed against the theater, drive home the way that media and popular culture psychologically affect audiences. Hayward points out the effects of such images on Blacks when he tells Mark that those in power are scared “because some of them know what we’re capable of, even if some of us don’t.” Marks knows what he is capable of, and he enlists to show it. However, the cumulative effects of racial violence and media such as Griffin’s film hinders him.
The sequence ends with two more pages. On the first of these two pages, White has three panels. In the first, Mark turns from the screen and looks out to the audience, specifically looking up towards the balcony where the Black patrons sit. Behind him, on the screen, we see a victim of the Klan’s violence, a dead man with a sign that read “KKK” hanging around his neck. The next panel follows Mark’s gaze and depicts the balcony, and the final panel zooms in on two patrons: a man and a woman. They both stare back at Mark with anger and determination.
The final page contains six panels, moving back and forth between the theater and the jail cell. In each panel in the theater, we get interactions between the audience and Mark. He reacts to what he sees on the screen, and it affects him psychologically. Each of these panels is paired, on the right, with panels of the jail cell. As the page progresses, the aerial view of the jail cell becomes smaller and smaller till it looks just like a dot on the last panel surrounding by the borders that swallow it whole. This movement towards being swallowed, again, highlights the psychological power of media and the ways that it imprisons ones mind.
Mark knows that he wants to fight such representations, and again, that is why he enlists. However, others do not necessarily realize the effects that these types of media have on the psyche. Frantz Fanon talks about this with children in Algeria watching Tarzan and identifying with the white colonial image, not realizing that they were the characters who Tarzan oppressed. James Baldwin does the same when he talks about cheering for Gary Cooper as he battled Native Americans but realizing that he was not Gary Cooper; instead, he was the Native Americans. The swallowed jail cell is like the mind; it becomes so caught up in the spectacle that it does not realize it is being caged.
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