Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #215 by Drew Barth
I’ve written in the past about how comics can help to illuminate some more obscure moments (to a western audience’s understanding) in history. Much of the time, these accounts can help to draw readers in with compelling visuals that create immediate connections to the people being talked about or help to immerse their audience in the moment. And that’s what these graphic novels should be doing: illuminating and immersing. And that’s exactly what Andrea Ferraris’ graphic novel, The Battle of Churubusco, does so well as he shows us a soldier’s view of one of the more devastating battles of the Mexican-American War.
Ferraris begins this story in media res, after the titular battle, with characters we’ll come to know well, all culminating in finding the body of the story’s focus. Gaetano Rizzo, a Sicilian immigrant, based on a real soldier, has troubling dreams. He’s seeing a wolf with peculiar eyes and is being chased by voices he can’t understand or recognize. The captain of his small band is intrigued by his dreams, believing they may be able to lead them in the direction of the San Patricio Battalion—a group of deserters made up of immigrants from the US army who joined Mexico’s side in the Mexican-American War—which has eluded him for some time. Rizzo, however, is one of those immigrant soldiers, one promised citizenship and land so long as he fights in this war. After his group raids and kills a home filled with a farmer, his dogs, a child, and a few Mexican soldiers, Rizzo’s conscience can no longer take the violence he has to be accomplice to.
The rendering of this story is where much of its impact comes from. Ferraris utilizes a distinct charcoal style that continually straddles the line between impressionistic and stylized realism. His landscapes, particularly in the story’s opening, take on this vast, sweeping feeling even while much of the page is covered in a dark charcoal haze. But that haze mainly hangs over the aftermath of violence—either the titular battle or Rizzo’s own scuffle with another soldier. And their faces, one almost obscured with his charcoal stubble, provides an essential contrast to the world surrounding them. And this is only broken with the stark white clarity we see as the story moves forward and into the San Patricio’s hidden plateau. Ferraris’ eye continually points us toward the feeling of the moment more than anything.
There’s only so much history that can fit into a single volume and it’s comics like The Battle of Churubusco that help to fill in some gaps. While Rizzo is only based on a soldier in this battle, his story is not unique as the San Patricio Battalion was made up of Irish, Italian, German, Spanish, and Polish immigrants who realized the US’s war was only an exercise in cruelty. But it was that cruelty that would eventually lead to their demise as the battle ended bloodily and the war ended under a year later.
Drew Barth (Episode 331, 485, & 510) resides in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida.