REVIEW: The Stretcher Bearers (2022)

A Graphic Novel by Reid Beaman and Ryan Beaman

I’ve been on a huge World War I kick lately, as part of a summer project I gave myself to avoid going stir crazy from Covid-19 boredom, I read a ton of history books and went to a ton of museums. Living near Kansas City, I visited the National World War I Museum no less than three times and read a bunch of books, listened to podcasts and more. Leave it to The US Naval Institute Press / Dead Reckoning to keep my summer obsession going by releasing The Stretcher Bearers, a graphic novel by Reid Beaman and Ryan Beaman. When you have a war in which most armies were referred to as “Lions led by Donkeys”, it’s great to highlight some of the more unsung heroes of the battle. Stretcher bearers were some of the most vulnerable troops on the battlefield, with one report from 1917 stating: “Stretcher-bearers suffered very heavy casualties, one unit having 42 casualties out of 48. All units have emphasized the excellent work of their Battalion Stretcher-Bearers.” This is one such story.

“Maxwell Fox didn’t know what he would witness in France. America had only been in the Great War since April 2, 1917. Nothing could have prepared him for the horrors that awaited him and the rest of the men of the 4th Infantry “Ivy” Division. As the Meuse-Argonne Offensive raged on, Maxwell became assigned to a unit of stretcher bearers, men who were tasked with running into harm’s way to rescue their fallen brethren from the clutches of death. This wouldn’t be an easy job, but with Graham, Frank, and Ralph by his side, Maxwell had to rely on his team and hope to survive. A dark and honest look at the bond of brotherhood during war, The Stretcher Bearers tells the unforgettable tale of a young soldier trying to save the lives of wounded soldiers and keep the men he’d formed a bond with alive. But in the “war to end all wars,” no one was safe. ”

Some of the things that these 4th infantry boys witnessed were truly rough, and this book is full of every unspeakable horror of war one can think of. One scene in particular involving a crashed barrage balloon got to me a bit. It rivals some of the horrors seen in films like Saving Private Ryan and Tae Guk Gi for being a sandbag to the gut if you stop and think of some of the horrendous things soldiers have to deal with. The flaming wreckage of the balloon crashes nearby nearly wiping them out. The first thing a soldier named Ralph tries to do is heroically save the man inside, it’s his job as a medic. Sadly, by the time he gets there, the occupant has been rendered into a charred mass scarring Ralph for life. With pieces of burnt flesh wiped off on his fingers, he bursts into tears and has to be comforted by his brothers in the trenches. Scenes like this make this book, and show how rough WWI was.

This comic is illustrated with a subdued monochrome blue color palette. It’s art is somewhat similar to another Dead Reckoning book, Four Fisted Tales-Animals In Combat, which I also enjoyed a lot. With war comics, this sort of art style can symbolize sadness, which is pretty fitting for a war as needlessly bloody as “The Great War”. The style reminds me of older comics, like some of the gritty pulp comics that were eventually replaced with endless superhero books. I absolutely LOVE stuff like this for the simple reason that it’s different. I think it’s why I have fallen in love with books from the USNI so much, because books like this are largely ignored in favor of superhero books even today. I’m not sure if any other comic publisher specializes in war comics, but Dead Reckoning is the best I’ve found for the genre.

It was interesting to see the almost familial relationships that built up during the war in this book. The chief protagonist, a young man named Matthew Fox, was only 16 years of age when he ran away and enlisted in the army. As a result, his direct command basically becomes his surrogate father in many ways, making some of the more intense scenes that much more powerful. While most men had a horrible time in the war, Fox was able to finally belong to something, to feel like he mattered and have people count on him. War changed him for the better.

As with the above mentioned gruesome scenes, not everyone was so lucky. The book touches of things such as shellshock and PTSD early on in the war, and thankfully by 1917 this sort of afflictions were actually being treated rather than punished. In the early years of the war, some armies treated such ailments as “cowardice” and punished soldiers for it. whether it be executions performed by French commanders, or the practice of “decimation” (aka killing a random selection of clerks after a loss to prove a point) performed by the Italian army, it was not a great time to be a soldier.

I absolutely loved this book for many reasons. As many of my readers know, I’m not a fan of the overdone part of war history where everyone hyper-focuses on one battle (Gettysburg, D-Day etc) and every historian churns out constant books on that one thing. I came across The Stretcher Bearers right when I was looking for information on atypical WWI war experiences, and you can’t get much more “off the beaten path” than a group of field medics in the infancy of the position. The story finds an amazing balance of showing the war as an inhuman meatgrinder with no regard for any of the human pawns doing all of the fighting, and showing that glimmers of hope can come through the chaos in the most mysterious of ways. I wasn’t expecting such an emotional script by The Beamans, but they achieved the sort of impactful roller-coaster few comics pull off. Great work as always being highlighted by Dead Reckoning, and I can’t wait to see what the authors have in store next time.

If you would like a copy of this book, click HERE

NOTE: I received a preliminary, and likely unedited copy of this book from Netgalley for the purposes of providing an honest, unbiased review of the material. Thank you to all involved.

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