Telling War Stories
Review: Victory At Point 209/Ngarimu: Te Tohu Toa illustrated by Andrew Burdan (Huia Publishers, 2012)
Reviewed by Mark P. Williams
Victory At Point 209/Ngarimu: Te Tohu Toa is the story of how Second Lieutenant Te Moana-nuia-Kiwa Ngarimu of 28 Māori Battalion won the VC during World War Two.
War comics, like historical fiction in general, can either help establish, or create, “truths” of identity or help question them critically–sometimes both–and we tend to imbibe such stories younger than we think, through word of mouth and overheard conversation.
War narratives of contemporary history, perhaps more than other historical forms, demand a strong ethical approach to representation because, whether they are objective realist or more naturalist, they are inevitably emotionally charged.
With that in mind I think Victory At Point 209 as a Maori-orientated historical story set in WW2, is taking an important stance; it uses simple, short phrases in both English and Te Reo editions while using imagery that is both technically specific and allows access to the subjective perceptions of its characters. I think it is an important balance as it draws attention to the emotional palette of the graphic narrative as a mode. The narrative of Victory At Point 209 is a relatively straightforward adventure told using a combination of simple language and very detailed predominantly realist illustration aimed at younger comic book readers. In the height of the battle, these illustrations become starker in their use of deep black and red.
The war comics I remember clearest from when I was young all had a clear sense of how visual and language styles went together. My granddad Williams used to have a collection of war comics that he’d bought second-hand for me and my older cousin; they were a real mixed bag of the straightforwardly heroic and the more problematic and complex, and ranged too from the Somme to narratives of the French Resistance during WW2. A few stood out particularly strongly for their mixture of imagery and layout with strong content–Pat Mills’ Charlie’s War from Battle (1970s) and the earlier V for Vengeance from Wizard (1959-onwards).
In presenting a specifically Maori narrative against the backdrop of Field Marshall Montgomery’s North Africa campaign against Rommel, Victory At Point 209 adds new perspectives on known Eurocentric history, the story of the ‘Cowboys’ of C Company at Tebaga Gap in the Matamata Hills in March 1943. This catches my interest as much for personal as generic reasons; my other granddad served in North Africa during WW2 (my Mum still recollects how he used to tell her stories about checking for scorpions in his boots and of waking up in the night to find them crawling over his body).
The artwork takes a highly detailed approach to representation, maintaining very precise images of kit and location and using large panels to fit them in. For those with a budding interest in the history of the WW2, many pages have precise diagrams of troop movements and patterns of attack along with maps showing enemy positions and the relief of the terrain. The images use a limited colour palette of greyscale accentuated by reds to highlight emotional stress. This style is particularly striking at the points where Ngarimu takes on two German machine-gun nests, but its most significant usage is probably the splash page showing the “‘Cowboys’ of C Company’ emerging through smoke as giant Maori ancestral warriors stride above them against ruddy, brooding clouds:
…the 28 Battalion advances…
…as if the men were literally the “brown war hounds of Uetuhiao, of Te Umuariki, of Tamahae, of Makahuri, of Wakarara, of Tainawaka, of Konohi and, of Tuterangikatipu! (9-10) .
The illustration style seems to borrow from a wide variety of historical war comics such as Wizard and Battle–V for Vengeance used a similar palette–and uses grainy, smoky effects to both symbolise memory and demonstrate the confusion of battle. Victory At Point 209 is also available in Te Reo as Ngarimu Te Tohu Toa, revealing another function of the minimalist approach to language and its emphasis on visual detail. When the visuals describe the events, language is used to explore subjective, interior history, highlighting cultural differences through both dialogue and the onomatopoeia of explosions and machine-gun noises. (Similarly, to retain authenticity, the Germans speak only German in both versions).
Although this is a simply told story it does introduce the reminder of human cost integral to war narratives, sketching in the ambiguity of heroism. At ’23.00 hours’, between battles, Ngarimu and Bill Ruru rest in the calm before the German counter-attack. Ngarimu’s question “Where would you like to be now?” is greeted with an internal “Anywhere but here”–admitting the subjective stresses of the situation into the lives of the characters. Then Ngarimu’s narrative shifts away into a flashback to 1940 in Palmerston North where his mother proudly says that he will surely win the Victoria cross and he responds: “I’d rather come back a live coward than a dead hero”. The battle which follows makes his mother right and him a war hero, but at the cost of his life; the rest of the company fight on, shouting out his name as they push the Germans back.
I find this is an interesting example of a graphic novel for young people with an obvious pedagogical project; out of academic interest in the politics of representation I am intrigued to see what other narratives emerge from this publisher. On a more personal level, Victory At Point 209/Ngarimu: Te Tohu Toa is an adventure narrative I would have loved to read alongside Charlie’s War and V for Vengeance when I was young, and I think both my granddads would have liked to read it with me.
Mark P. Williams