How Pacheco and Busiek’s ‘Arrowsmith’ Keeps a Familiar Story Fresh [Fantasy Week]
We all know the story: a young soldier marches proudly off to war, his or her (usually his) uniform pressed and tidy, chest puffed out, only to learn that war is Hell. It’s one of the first narrative deconstructions we encounter growing up in Western culture, so much so that it in some ways becomes the new narrative.
But any story can be kept fresh with the right elements, and by knowing how those elements are going to interact with the narrative. Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco’s Arrowsmith is a fine example of this genre, set in a world full of magic and fantasy where the equivalent of the first World War is underway, grinding many an inexperienced soldier-mage like Fletcher Arrowsmith under its wheels.
With Jesus Merino on inks, Alex Sinclair on colors, lettering by Richard Starkings, Rob Steen, Wes Abbott and Albert Deschesne, and design by John Roshell, Arrowsmith conjures an image of a world where the unfamiliar and fantastical meets the sadly all-too-mundane.
It opens with a cadre of magicians in Paris attempting to mass-produce slapped-together spells and talismans for the troops in the field. None of the weapons work right; none of the shields are effective. But the war isn’t taking a day off, so the question isn’t, “will it work right,” but, “will it work right now.” And the answer is what the whole plot turns on.
Not enough can be said about the art team, who wors together perfectly; Pacheco’s designs and storytelling are brought out beautifully by Merino’s fine inks and Sinclair’s vivid colors, giving us a world where the theme may be universal but there’s still much to discover. Pacheco and Busiek have collaborated since this story was published, most notably in an oft-overlooked run on the Superman books, and their collaboration is magic.
An ocean away is the United States of Columbia, and in Columbia is a young man named Fletcher Arrowsmith, who is signing up for the overseas air corps to fight in Europe and learn commercial wizardry in order to learn how to fly. Anyone who has read a recounting of warfare knows how easily they can lapse into technical details, and here, they have been replaced with magical details; Arrowsmith flies due to sympathetic magic with his dragonette, and the dragon scales in his boots.
It’s details like that --- details like how country names have changed, about all the different fantasy peoples coming in at Ellis Island as refugees --- that keep Arrowsmith fresh through the familiar narrative of a young soldier being stripped of his illusions. We know --- via history, and via all the war films and novels and comics we’ve seen and read --- how the first World War turned out, and how war narratives about the brutality of warfare go.
We know the details of war about our world; what we don’t know are the details of this world. We don’t know how vampires work in this world, or what its take on magic is, or whether the Blood Emperor is a propaganda instrument or something real. By giving us just enough detail as time goes on about this magical alternate history, we are drawn into the world and lent a new perspective on an old war.
There’s propaganda about the unholy Prussians that literally calls them unholy; Fletcher is fated to witness (and more than witness) weapons of magical destruction that echo the horrors of chemical and biological warfare. At the end, there is a sense that a turning of the age has happened, that new ways are being left behind for new ones --- echoing both a familiar fantasy trope as well as the realities of the first World War, and how much of 20th century history it shaped.
There’s golems and dragons and vampires, which are fun to draw and fun to look at. There’s swordfights in the sky alongside the brutal reality of trench warfare. Arrowsmith knows it’s a comic, and a highly visual one; it knows that the details of its lore, and the strength of its visuals set it apart from both other fantasy yarns and more down-to-Earth war comics. It coaches its narrative with metaphor --- something that, with Astro City, Kurt Busiek has shown he knows a thing or two about.
Arrowsmith was published by Wildstorm, and is long out of print, but it should still be available in some comic shops. It’s worth tracking down. You may be familiar with the first World War, but not with this world’s take --- and earnestly, as shopworn a narrative as “war is monstrous” is, it’s one we should never forget.