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The Harlem Hellfighters Paperback – April 1, 2014

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Exclusive: Essay by Max Brooks (adapted from the author’s note within The Harlem Hellfighters)

I first learned of the Harlem Hellfighters from an Anglo-Rhodesian named Michael Furmanovsky when I was 11. Michael was working for my parents while getting his MFA in history from UCLA. He taught me about the British Empire, the Falklands War, Hiroshima, the Holocaust, and a host of other topics not covered in my fifth-grade western civilization class. Of all his after-school lessons, the one that left the deepest impression was the story of a unit of American soldiers who weren’t allowed to fight for their country because of the color of their skin. To a white, privileged kid growing up on the west side of L.A. in the 1980s, that kind of prejudice was just inconceivable. When I confessed that I didn’t know about them, he assured me that I wasn’t alone.

Ten years later I was an exchange student at the University of the Virgin Islands. The experience brought me back into the orbit of the Hellfighters when, while walking through an old cemetery, I noticed some graves from 1918. I wondered if they might be casualties of the Great War, maybe even members of the 369th. I decided to ask my professor of Virgin Islands history. He was an African-American from the mainland, and to call him passionate would be a laughable understatement. With his beard and spectacles and flaring dashiki, he would rail against the historical crimes committed by white men of Europe and North America. Most heinous was the erasure of black accomplishments by white historians. Colonization, he would tell us, begins with the mind, and the best (or worst) way to colonize a people is to bury their past. “There were no black soldiers in World War I.” That was his dismissive answer to my question about the graves from 1918. When I started to argue, even bringing up the name “Harlem Hellfighters,” he assured me that I must have been confused with the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. I was shocked. Here was a scholar, a crusader, a thoughtful, driven man who’d made it his life’s mission to trumpet the glory of Africa and her diaspora, and HE didn’t know about the Harlem Hellfighters. I wish I could say that I decided then and there to write their story, but that would have to wait for nearly another decade.

In the late 1990s, I was living back in L.A., just out of graduate school and trying to make a living as a writer. My decision to tackle the story of the Hellfighters came after watching two TNT made-for-TV movies about the Tuskegee Airmen and the Buffalo soldiers. I thought TNT might be interested in a story about World War I’s black heroes, especially after A&E’s successful Lost Battalion movie. I started collecting books about the subject (the most influential was and still is From Harlem to the Rhine by Arthur Little), and a year and several dozen drafts later, I pitched my screenplay to the TNT Network. They passed. So did everyone else.

Things changed when I sent my script to actor/director LeVar Burton. “There are actually more than a couple Harlem Hellfighters scripts floating around Hollywood,” he told me during our meeting, “but yours comes closest to the truth.” He agreed that the subject matter would be difficult to sell to studios, but that by no means should that deter me. “I don’t have the power right now to make this movie,” he said, “but I’m not going to give up, and you shouldn’t either.” Thank you, Mr. Burton.

Five years and what seemed like a lifetime later, an unexpected opportunity opened up in the world of comic books. In 2006, I began collaborating with Avatar Press on a graphic companion to my first book, The Zombie Survival Guide. I learned very quickly how different comic book writing was from prose, but how similar it could be to movie scripts. I also realized that comics presented a forum for telling very visual stories without the cumbersome budget of movies or television. It seemed the ideal medium for telling the story of the Harlem Hellfighters. It’s now been close to six years since I began working with William Christensen of Avatar Press and the amazingly talented artist Caanan White. And now it’s time to share this heroic regiment’s story of courage, honor, and heart with you. I hope that you are as captivated by it as I have been.

From Booklist

Brooks (World War Z, 2006) makes a U-turn from zombies with this fictionalized account of the famous all-black 369th Infantry. The opening scene of a trench bomb sets the stage for the whole book: endless, grimacing faces and buckets of gore, mostly in the form of exploded bodies splattering across the page. This intro also betrays the book’s chief concern: simply telling the story of WWI combat, albeit from an unusual point of view. As a result, the plot is fuzzy and the characters suitably enjoyable placeholders. We follow our diverse bunch from enlistment to training to the hell of France, where they fight through inhumane conditions with the utmost valor, and for what? Prejudice and humiliation at every turn. “They would rather see white Germans,” says one soldier, “instead of black Americans march in triumph up Fifth Avenue.” White’s appropriately cluttered art has the horrific shock value of EC Comics classics like Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, and the whole thing comes off as resolutely Tarantinoesque. The movie version should be along any second now. --Daniel Kraus

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books; First Edition edition (April 1, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307464970
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307464972
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.6 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (126 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #30,556 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

The New York Times bestselling author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, Max Brooks has been called "the Studs Terkel of zombie journalism."
He lives in New York City but is ready to move to a more remote and defensible location at a moment's notice.
Max Brooks's The Zombie Survival Guide formed the core of the world's civilian survival manuals during the Zombie War. Mr. Brooks subsequently spent years traveling to every part of the globe in order to conduct the face-to-face interviews that have been incorporated into World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Higgins on April 3, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is an exceptionally well-done book that details the story of the 369th infantry regiment's involvement in the First World War. The truly shameful aspects of Jim Crow America and the dignity of these men who still fought for it are the focuses of this graphic history. This is a book that should be, but due to Common Core Social Studies blather that destroys any emphasis on cultural literacy won't be, a part of every Modern American History class. Students interested in learning more about the First World War through graphic novels should look to Pat Mills' Charley's War (Vol. 1): 2 June - 1 August 1916 or Jacques Tardi's It Was the War of the Trenches.

(For those interested in a specific Military History focus, the book does a good job with the First World War in general but probably needs a supplementary text on the nitty-gritty of French-loaned equipment of and battles fought within by the 369th to fill that need. (This seems like an ideal title for the Osprey Elite series but sadly such a Harlem Hellfighters volume does not exist.)
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Anne-Marie G VINE VOICE on April 25, 2014
Format: Paperback
I read an article about this in Entertainment Weekly and had just finished reading another book about World War 1 (Sergeant Stubby) which had whetted my appetite to find out more.

Canaan White's illustrations are FANTASTIC. Each character is clearly identifiable, the inked black and white pages are both moving and able to capture movement. Some of the best art I've personally encountered in a graphic novel in quite some time.

As to the narrative itself, Edge is the main character (he is fictional, but named after someone Brooks knew in real life). Edge like many soldiers before him is eager to get to the front lines and prove himself in battle. However, he and the rest of his battalion learn that this isn't that kind of war. Through Edge's eyes and experience Brooks takes his readers on a tour of both World War 1 trench warfare but also the experiences specific to the Harlem Hellfighters ( a name given to them by the German troops, they had others too).

Like many groups that continue to face adversity their most triumphant moments in history are often swept under the carpet of general knowledge. Brooks learned of this group of soldier via an enthusiastic college student that worked for his parents when he was younger. He carried this story with him through his whole childhood and and education and into adult hood. He tried at first to get it made into a film (and we can see where that is going to happen now, no doubt) and was told there would be no public interest in such a venture.

Edge himself is a fairly straightforward character, since he is mostly serving as a POV for the audience. There are other characters that he encounters in his story that have more flare to them. They are both fictional as well as non-fictional.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By J. Hundley VINE VOICE on May 7, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Like a lot of people, I am really looking forward to a day when we can stop referring to important parts of American history as "Black" history and simply recognize that it is all "American" history. And while I'm not holding my breath, I hope that day is soon so that a book as wonderful as The Harlem Hellfighters will be read by a wide and all-inclusive audience. The book is wonderful fictionalization of an important event and people that is generally relegated to an afterthought or footnote. In that sense alone, this is an important work.

That being said, and out of the way, it is also a terrific work of historical fiction where the words and pictures work together to create a seamless and moving whole.

I have never previously read any of Brooks' work, though it has been recommended to my from time to time, but if this is any indication, I will likely be reading more in the future. This story is well-paced, involving - wrenching in many places - and his main characters live and breathe and never fall into stock ciphers or cardboard cutouts.

Which is also a reflection of the art here. The action sequences are suitably chaotic without ever becoming confusing, and the quieter moments are illuminating, as well. The details are telling and apt (a well-placed wink plays an important part in a character's development, for example) and the grim mood never becomes morose or bathetic.

I am very glad that I read a review of this (in a different forum) that pointed me to this worthy book. I hope that this review, as well as the other fine and more detailed reviews here, pique others to pick this up and be transported into an important chapter of American history. Highly recommended.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Denis Vukosav TOP 100 REVIEWER on April 3, 2014
Format: Paperback
‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ written by Max Brooks and illustrated by Caanan White is an entertaining new book by author who marked the horror genre with his two excellent zombie books that in a different ad more intelligent way dealt with this topic.

The Harlem Hellfighters is the name the Germans gave to the 369th infantry back in the World War I and in this book Brooks is telling story about their fictional adventures that started from the boot camp to the bloody combat confrontations that have marked this worldwide conflict.

Except for the fantastic display of battles that are drawn excellent, this topic is particularly interesting because is this conflict for the first time it was possible for American commanders to be black.

The illustrations are made in black and white technique which is a good choice given book theme.

Overall, a great fictionalized account of an African American infantry unit during WWI that was made by author who once again proved that knows how to make a great story.
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