In fiction as in literature, the accounts of the Second World War are generally clear. The Allies are good, the Axis are bad, and there is sometimes a certain complexity in the action of the soldiers. On the other hand, the Vietnam War is nuanced with shades of gray, caught in a morally more complex situation. Sarah, a first-wave comic book graphic novel from TKO Presents, goes against the notion of a morally simple war story. The series is written by Garth Ennis, with art by Steve Epting and is completed by colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser and letterer Rob Steen.
Sarah follows a group of eight female Soviet snipers caught in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with a German assassin during the winter siege of Leningrad. The comic’s titular protagonist, Sara, is by far the best sniper in the regiment, but also the most reserved. This top status puts Sara in the crosshairs of an enemy German sniper who ties up the Soviets, and the rest of the book is Sara’s attempt to kill the enemy before he can kill her.
The first thing that elevates this graphic novel from traditional World War II history is the writer’s choice to focus on the Soviets rather than the Western Allies. The easy choice of portraying a hero in the context of war is to make him British or American to show how democracy and freedom are the primary drivers of ‘good’. Ennis reverses this not only by choosing the Soviets, who at the time were still committed to a communist regime that placed the state above the individual, but by forcing the reader to sympathize with a sniper, the one of the most detached and active killers in a war. .
It is easier for an audience to justify a soldier’s act of killing in the heat of battle, where chaos reigns, but to sympathize with a sniper, one who kills with a clear objective in mind, is an entirely different task. This choice of premise already brings a layer of moral unease to the book that moves away from the cookie-cutter tropes of World War II and into a world of messy morals.
The book is told from Sara’s perspective, using narration to provide exposition and context for why women fight in war, and Sara’s particular mindset makes her an outsider. While the rest of the regiment views their fights as the best way to help the homeland, Sara is disillusioned with the idea and has turned into a killing machine because her family was eradicated by the Germans.
Ennis posits that snipers are akin to Templars, striving for a higher power, while Sara found individualism by becoming a blood knight, only concerned with dead Germans. The use of thought bubbles for most of the text and the emphasis on Sara’s individualistic streak reveal a connection between the heroes an audience wants to follow and the reality that they might not like what they do. finally see.
If the foundation of the subversion is Ennis’ tight handwriting, but dichromatic handwriting, then it’s Epting’s art with Breitweiser’s colors that elevate the book to an even higher level. The book is masterfully drawn, with a clear focus on the beauty of the natural world, contrasting the sheer carnage the soldiers inflict on each other.
Breitweiser uses the predominantly white background of the Russian winter to contrast the bright colors of rosy cheeks and warm, flowing blood. Color is on display in the book, also countering the idea that a World War II story should be set in a dull and dreary world. The use of color is a flagship for the idea of subversion, associating beautiful bright colors with a morally gray world.
Battles are rendered as quick, shiny splatters of blood and never seem to stretch out. In a world of snipers, speed is an effective tool that Epting uses to the book’s advantage. Reaching an objective and defeating the enemy is clinical, a sequence of unique crosshairs and gunfire. However, Epting isn’t just limited to quieter fights. In the book’s third chapter, the Soviets are attacked by the Germans in a snowy glade, and Epting gets a chance to express what a more traditional war picture looks like.
Blocking elements, blasting tanks, and roaring Gatling guns prove the artist hasn’t lost touch with the highly kinetic action sequences of a standard comic book. Sara states in a narration that all battles have a rhythm, and Epting can masterfully exemplify the different types. Sometimes a battle is little more than rapid bursts of gunfire, with fighters trying to outwit each other, while others are expanses of rushes and primal attacks.