Review: The Stretcher Bearers by Reid Beaman (Dead Reckoning, 2022)

I discovered this graphic novel a few weeks after listening to Dr Emily Mayhew’s talk about stretcher bearers on the Western Front.

This serendipity convinced me to read it, and I was not disappointed. Author and illustrator Reid Beaman’s first book is an artistically strong effort with a focus on soldiers in a non-combat role that is often overlooked in twenty-first century conceptions of the war.

The monochrome panels immediately invite comparisons to Jacques Tardi’s C’était la guerre des tranchées. However, there are few other similarities. Much of Tardi’s art is suggestive/impressionist, while no detail is too minor for Beaman as we accompany protagonist Maxwell Fox and the US Army 4th Infantry “Ivy” Division into the hell of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

The book seems somewhat conflicted as to its purpose. Is it to tell the story of Maxwell, who happens to be a stretcher bearer, or to tell the stories of stretcher bearers through an avatar called Maxwell? On the one hand, the dialogue and other text tend towards the didactic and hence often sound stilted. Much of it feels intended to educate the reader and thus falls short of representing a natural exchange between characters. The propensity to italicise words also gives the impression of an attempt to highlight key terms, textbook-style; they aren’t necessarily the words that would have been naturally emphasised in speech.

On the other hand, the pages spent on Maxwell’s personal issues — and the ending in particular — mean that the book can be read as a personal odyssey rather than a pedagogical work. Either way, I wish that it been 25–30% longer. More space would have allowed Beaman to “show, not tell” as well as to delve deeper into Maxwell’s past and emotional state; neither could be satisfactorily explored within the page limits of the current volume.

Those quibbles aside, Beaman has clearly made a close artistic study of his subject matter. His depictions of facial wounds, for example, reminded me of the photos of the broken faces in Friedrich Ernst’s anti-war photography collection Krieg dem Kriege.

War wounds are a gruesome highlight of this book. Perhaps one should expect as much given that its main subject is stretcher bearers, after all. Beaman spares us nothing. At one point, a severed hand flies through the air and lands in front of Maxwell as he transports a wounded man to a casualty clearing station. The young soldier pauses and vomits at the sight.

In addition to the multitudes of physical wounds, we see the tragic consequences of shell shock/PTSD on one of Maxwell’s teammates. Maxwell himself also falls into a period of depression, or “melancholy,” after he is wounded. However, this episode is glossed over and plays no major role in the story.

Beaman’s depiction of the noise of battle is exceptional. By using huge bulky lettering for onomatopoeic words that extend through multiple panels, he gives the noise of war a physicality that readers cannot ignore.

What soldiers in their letters home called a “hellish concert” and “evil music” loses, at Beaman’s hands, all vestiges of romance and becomes instead an earsplitting cacophony. I sometimes found myself cringing at the mere visual representations of this noise, so unrelenting and overwhelming did they seem.

Read more: What did World War I Sound Like?

Given these uncompromising depictions of war and wounded throughout the book, I felt that The Stretcher Bearers ended on an overly glib and optimistic note. By December 1918, everyone has died with the exception of the underage, orphaned protagonist, who returns to the United States and is adopted by the widow of his commanding officer. My disbelief refused to remain suspended at that last, but I’m also fairly sure that my reaction here is due to cultural differences, so other readers may find this conclusion quite acceptable.

Other artistic highlights include the austere depictions of rain, bullet trajectories as laser-like lines, and the violence and dynamism of explosions. Beaman also regularly positions the reader as a participant in the action, thereby creating a surprisingly intimate experience of the war in a way that film — ostensibly a more realistic medium — does not.

Would I…

…recommend this book? Absolutely!

…read another book by this author? Yes. I’d be very keen on a sequel that explores more of Maxwell’s personal history and emotional life after the war.

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